Sunday, July 25, 2004

American Prospect Online - Have Faith

Whatever happened to civil religion, the faith of Ike who believed that "this country doesn't make any sense unless it's founded on some deeply held religious faith--and I don' t care what it is."

Most Americans, including those who say they wouldn't vote for an atheist, still practice and profess this innocuous folk religion. All the religion they want in their president is formal affiliation with some respectable denomination, visible cultic practice and the assurance that his deeply held religious faith has made him both principled and nice.

Kerry doesn't have to quote Scripture, pepper his conversation with folksy allusions to "the good Lord," or give testimony. All he has to do is say that his faith (and they don't care what it is) has gotten him through tough times and given him strength to make hard decisions, and follow up by pulling out the rosary he carried with him in Vietnam.

The religious dilemma is of the cultured despisers' own making. They imagine that only religion virulent enough to scare off liberal voters would impress the masses.

Stupid White Men

NDOL: The White Male Problem by William A. Galston

Is Joe Sixpack a distinctively American phenomenon? This isn't a rhetorical question: I'm curious.

Lads are universal: young, lower-class males engage in soccer violence, gang warfare or jihad, until they get killed off or grow up and get tired. But Joe Sixpack is grown up--married with children and socially conservative, a working stiff and good provider, he still honors the Lad cult, detests intellectuals, latte-drinking liberals and wimps, and is convinced that get-toughism will cure all social ills.

Lower class women, even those who misspend their youth boozing with the lads and participating in wet tee-shirt contests, grow up. The whining smarm in women's magazines is on a continuum with the most elevated New Age self-help literature. Almost all adult women participate, however ineptly or incompletely, in elite culture even if they are behind the curve, consuming vegitarian health foods after elite women have moved on to Atkins. They are aspirants. Lower class men are adversaries.

It may be because, at least since the Victorian period, women have had the job of doing culture. Clarence storms into the house, after a day of ruthless capitalism at the office, upsetting the palms Vinnie has rented for her afternoon musicale. Lower class women are usually more educated than their male counterparts: Tony Soprano never went to college but Carmella is a Montclair State drop-out. Lower class women can pass, or at the very least, be accepted. Carmella knows how to pick a good, safe suit when the occasion demands it. At the Cuzimanno's barbeque, even with her accent, she gets on reasonably well with the wives. Tony in the meantime gets patronized and treated as a specimen by the men.

Women are less firmly rooted in class and culture: they take on the status of husbands, sons, and patrons. Shylock's daughter is the Jew's daughter, never the Jewess, and the taint vanishes instantly when she is baptized and married. Poor relations and ladies' companions take on the class of their patrons. Even without the benefit of affiliation, good looks and a safe suit are all a woman needs for a reasonable facsimile of class. No one is checking credentials

For men, credentials--the family and schools, the job and professional resume--are vital. Safe suits are to no avail. No amount of latte-drinking, liberal rhetoric or ecological concern will will make a blue-collar worker acceptable in polite society--if anything, it will only make him more interesting specimen. They can't join us so they do what they can to beat us by turning the scale of values upside down, extoling the goodness of stupidity, ignorance, crudity and brutality--in much the way that good liberals who secretly believe that there is no hope for brown and black people proclaim the virtues of their native cultures. (Of course I, as the mama of The Enlightenment Project, would like to see everyone, regardless of sex, race or class origin, become enlightened and assimilated--something most people nowadays don't think is possible or even desirable)

The only scrap of prestige lower class white males have comes from being white and being male. Any political program that promotes women's rights or racial equality is inimical to their interests. It is a zero sum game that Democrats cannot win unless they abandon support for programs aimed at providing equal opportunity for women and minorities.

Right now Democrats seem keen to appeal to lower class white males. There is no way that they can do that short of sending the message that they will bring back the days when white men had a lock on well-paid blue collar jobs because they were white and were paid more than women simply because they were men. That is what they want. If this is so than maybe the best strategy for Democrats is simply to write them off and frankly direct their efforts toward women, members of minority groups and white men who have more going for them than being white and being male.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Movie Money

Some time ago I was discussing funding for professional travel with a friend. My travel money is fine; his is flat out lavish. He explained that in his college fraternity this was called "movie money." When potential members were being interviewed, the really obnoxious brothers were given money to go to the movies--or anywhere off the premises.

When I went to Von's this morning to buy cat food there were two beggars at the door: one at a card table, soliciting for a bogus charity, with a crudely lettered sign leaning against a coffee can; another just begging. I would happily pay movie money to get them out of sight.

I think I'd pay $5 per supermarket trip to avoid having these guys hanging around the entrance. I'd probably pay $1 a pop to avoid beggars at freeway exits. I don't think I'm atypical: people are prepared to pay movie money to keep beggars and other offensive nuisances out of sight, even if there are differences in how much. They pay a hefty premium to live where the streets are free of prostitutes walking their beat, lower class youths hanging around, piles of rotting trash, boarded up buildings and burnt out cars.

Bush dropped the rhetoric of "compassionate conservativism" soon after his selection and no one missed it because no one, liberal or conservative, is seriously motivated by compassion. An occasional human interest story may make sentimentalists sniffle and pictures of starving children will squeeze out a few bucks, but no one is willing to make serious outlays, particularly in the form of taxes, to improve the lot of people who are badly off.

Maybe Democrats should appeal to Americans' baser instincts. My fellow Americans: your taxes go for movie money to get these people cleaned up or, failing that, out of sight.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004 - Bush: Re-election will ensure U.S. safety

Safety from what?

Even counting 9/11 Americans are statistically less likely to be hit in a terrorist attack than they are to be struck by lightening. No one is buying lightening rods or obsessing about thunder storms.

Walmart is the country's largest employer, with over a million workers getting on the average a little over $8 an hour and no benefits. Americans have a much better chance of working at Walmart than of being bombed, and an even better chance of not working at all. One in five surveyed say that there is a good chance that some member of their household will be unemployed within the year.

But Americans aren't worried: they load up on consumer debt and take second mortgages on their homes--the only retirement plan most have--to pay off their credit cards. Americans are surely the least risk-averse people on earth: they can't count on either children to support them in old age or on state sponsored social safety nets. But they tremble at the remote possibility of crime and terrorism, and fall for candidates who promise more cops, more jails and more military while cutting away the last scraps of social safety nets left over from the New Deal and the Great Society.

Let's get real Democrats and run campaign ads that address the issues:

Show a TV ad--the Wheel of Fortune. Show the prizes--from the shiny, new SUV to the complete Ginzu knife set, valued at $29.95. Now spin the wheel. Here's your prize, a room in a residence hotel where you can spend your Golden Years living on cat food. Or Seven-Eleven. Buy your lottery ticket at the counter and scratch off the silver stuff to see your prize. You have won...UNEMPLOYMENT! Relax and enjoy it--you have x weeks of pin money benefits and then you're on your own. Don't get sick now because your benefits went with your job.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Girlie Men

Politics News Article |

Good move, Arnold: we're forked. If we let that remark about Democrats being "girlie men" ride we tacitly agree to the received wisdom that Democrats are wimps. If we object then we get pinned as "humorless feminists" or "politically correct liberals." We can't win, can we?

When did "conservative" become cool? Years ago conservative was precisely what no self-respecting kid wanted to be: conservative meant cautious and cowardly--it was what old ladies like my mother and grandmother, who wore sensible oxfords, voted Republican and spent their time worrying about crime and disease were. They even got their oxfords at Coward Shoes in Hackensack, which I thought was shameful.

Arnold explained that he meant that Democrats were wimpy for being intimidated by unions and other "special interests." There is another switch. Special interests used to be small groups of plutocrats who promoted agendas that were contrary to the general interests of the common people. Democrats boldly defended unions which represented the workers' interests.

I resent Arnold's suggestion that girliness is synonymous with wimpery: as a feminist my goal is to show that we women are as macho as anyone else. And I wouldn't be caught dead being a conservative any more than I'd wear sensible oxfords.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

The New York Times > Week in Review > Israel's Wall: Building for Calm by Giving Up on Peace

"QALQILYA, West Bank — Inside the 'War Room,' as it is informally called, Israeli soldiers gaze at banks of computer and television screens...An officer shows off the gadgetry: night-vision cameras trained 24 hours a day on a barrier loaded with electronic gizmos that signal the precise location of anyone who touches it, ensuring that Israeli forces reach the area within two to eight minutes to stop the sort of infiltration of Palestinian suicide bombers that brought nearly 100 Israeli deaths in March 2002 alone...

"If Israelis are going to the beach and to clubs again, and if bombings have become rare, it is thanks in large part, they insist, to these ditches and guard towers and coils of barbed wire and miles of wire fencing that separate two peoples, demarcating the gulf between them...

"What often seems to be missing from these Israeli musings is any grasp of the life of the Palestinians on the other side of the barrier. On those war-room screens the most common sight is a Palestinian in a donkey cart trundling along a dirt track. The contrast between the high-tech Israeli cameras that deliver these images and the abject existence of the Palestinians photographed provides an apt summation of the divergence of the societies: a first-world Israel forging ahead as best it can, a third-world Palestinian society going backward.

"To move through the West Bank today is to witness the growth of parallel networks. Israelis drive on highways to settlements spreading like garrisons on hills. Palestinians are increasingly confined to dirt tracks beside these roads...

"[T]he army is building tunnels under the fence, to be used by Palestinians. Israeli officers say this is a generous gesture. They are proud of helping the tunnel people communicate. They point to flourishing orange trees as proof of how 'we let them into their fields.' At one gate, Mutassem Abu Tayem, a 36-year-old Palestinian farmer, waits on a donkey cart to be let onto his land. His view? 'We are living in a prison and are treated like beasts.'"

Why be surprised? We adopted the same policy decades ago when we decided that the Great Society was a failure, and that the urban underclass could never be integrated into civil society but could only be controlled and contained.

Israelis will never be convinced that, after a near miss at peace 10 years ago, any other solution is possible any more than Americans can be convinced that is would be feasible to wind down the system of get-toughism and have another go at creating a civilized social democracy in which everyone has a part. Our new hero is Joe Sixpack, who believes that the only way with kids is the strap and that it was the wimpery of liberal elitists, soft on crime, supporting bums and welfare queens, that got us into this mess in the first place. The politically correct way of putting it is that we can't have the kind of welfare state that exists in ethnically homogeneous European countries. And now we secretely gloat at the problems European countries face absorbing brown and black immigrants: "See, see if you had our problems you wouldn't be doing any better than we did."
Money Buys Happiness, But Not Sex

"Great sex at least once a week is worth $50,000 in happiness, while the emotional lift of a long-lasting marriage is worth $100,000. A divorce will cost you $66,000 of happiness."

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Truth, Beauty and Goodness

I'm listening to a CD of the St. Vladimir's Seminary Choir singing the Orthodox liturgy.

I find it profoundly moving--I'm iirresistably taken by the thickness, the a cappella close harmonies and the words, which are in English. I can't understand what it would be like to be authentically secular--not to be moved by this music, or taken by the picture of glory and transcendence. I can't imagine what it would be like not to be interested, or tempted.

But what it really cashes out to is brutal, illiterate, superstitious Russian peasants living in filth with their chickens and pigs, beating their wives and conducting pograms. For them there was no beauty or hint of transcendence in this--it was nothing more than a way of making the corn grow, getting babies and good luck. God, the angels and saints were just so much machinery to promote human interests in lieu of technology.

I wonder why we should be moved by it any more than we would be moved by smoke stacks, slaughter houses, sweat shops or any of the machinery of production. Yet inexplicably it pierces to the heart and feeds our souls.

There is no free ride. Art is expensive. The money it takes to support symphonies, operas and choirs could provide medicines for people with AIDS, TB and malaria. The inevitable concomitants of romance--religion, emotion, beauty and transcendence--are poverty, superstition and bigotry. If we want the good life--comfort, health, tolerance, and security, and want everyone to have it we have to sacrifice romance. Plato was wrong about the unity of the virtues: truth is dull and the price of beauty is superstition and squalor.

I wish it were otherwise. The best we can hope is that if we're smart enough and efficient enough there will be enough left over after we get everyone fed, clothed, housed and healthy to pay for a few CDs like this and that we can afford to maintain churches as theme parks, without promoting superstition and bigotry.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

A Bird in The Hand? Proverbs Show Differing Cultural Views

I just found this interesting item googling "A bird in the hand"--trying to find whether it was "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" or "a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand." Leaving aside the question of whether we should adopt the presumptive human's perspective or the bird's point of view, there is an interesting ambiguity and both sentences can be read to mean that that it's better to have a sure thing. (1) A bird in the hand has the value of two birds in the bush. (2) A bird in the bush would have twice it's actual value if it were in the hand. Modality rears it's fuzzy head.

The suprise in the article is that Chinese turn out to be much less risk averse than Americans, particularly when it comes to financial transactions. The explanation suggested is that the Chinese, with family networks to cushion them, can afford to take on risk whereas Americans can't. Once the initial shock wears off, it makes perfect sense: if you play without a net you can't afford to take risks.

We've been taught to imagine that the open frontier and the pioneer life, rugged individualism and self-reliance promote courage, but rugged individualists who can't rely on anyone but themselves can't afford to take risks.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004 - Democrats' convention lineup emphasizes 'America's values'

"But even before the Democrats announced their featured speakers, the Republicans accused them of trying to paper over Kerry's liberal voting record.

'It will take an extreme makeover of John Kerry and the Democratic Party's rhetoric to make both presentable to Americans,' said Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke."

But does it have legs? And will it fly?

Keeping Hillary, Nancy Pelosi and the other usual suspects off the platform seems a little like cleaning up the streets, banishing the bums and prostitutes. Or like Dukakis' disasterous ride in the tank, or Dean's resolve to win the hearts and minds of guys in pickup trucks with guns and confederate flags. The idea of Democrats as latte-drinking elitists is so deeply entrinched that flag-waving and talk about traditional values could just dig Democrats further into the whole, making them look like patronizing fakes.

I do hope it works though.

But what are the alternatives? It's almost tempting to imagine Kerry standing up and saying, "Yes, I am a latte-drinking liberal. I went to St. George's and to Yale, I'm stinking rich and my wife is even richer but the policies on the platform I support are good for all Americans and a whole hell of a lot better for most Americans who aren't as rich as me--or my worthy opponent--so what do you care where I came from or what I drink?

Read my lips: I am not a good old boy and I have more respect for American voters than to pretend that I am. I don't spend my spare time playing cowboy. I am not an average American--no candidate for high political office is.

And so what? Americans are smart enough, and decent enough, not to reject a candidate because of his race, religion, accent or appearance. Americans vote for candidates who are honest, competent and committed regardless of what they look like, where they come from or how they spend their spare time--so this country is full of congressmen, mayors, governors and elected officials of every kind: members of every race and ethnic group, men and women, short, tall, fat, thin, people from every part of the country.

So, I'm from back east, I speak French and I ski. So what?

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Off to a bitter start: "The Republicans...are denouncing Edwards' career as a 'greedy' trial lawyer representing plaintiffs injured by the illegal and mistaken practices of doctors, insurance companies, corporations and other businesses. But surely voters have more empathy for a lawyer who has defended ordinary people against indifferent companies than for a White House that has consistently catered to the whims of those companies"

But surely not. Bush, a National Guard drop-out accused McCain, who spent over 5 years as a POW of being "weak on veterans issues" and Kerry as soft on defense. Dubya awed citizens by landing on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit while Bush Senior, a WWII fighter pilot who was shot down over the Pacific, was always perceived as a wimp compared to Reagan, who only played soldiers in the movies.

I was just reading The Right Nation. The depressing conclusion is that we will never have a European style social democracy no matter who is elected in November or years to come. Conservativism, of a peculiarly American kind, is so embedded in the national ethos that Right Nation is here to stay and we had better learn to live with it.

19% of Americans, we're told, believe that they are in the richest 1% of the population and almost as many others believe that they will be at some time in their lives. They will certainly have more empathy for a bogus cowboy from Andover and Yale who caters for "indifferent companies" than a self-made lawyer from North Carolina State who defends "ordinary people" because they do not believe that they are ordinary people. On holiday, they will certainly prefer mock-ups, theme parks, resorts and cruises to European capitals, Cotswold villages and cathedrals. They like mega-malls and prefer mega-churches, with padded theater seats and singers crooning into mikes to boy choir cathedral Evensong. The will trade off architectural interest for multiple bathrooms and high-tech kitchens.

But wait--that's just my rhetoric getting the better of me. If they want to play cowboy and go to Disneyland it's no skin off of my nose. The core issue is whether it is possible to get a reasonable welfare state. The thesis that our history and ethos lock us in to this brutal system is a little too Hegelian--and Hegel's deductions about the course of the Absolute's unfolding in history through the spirit of nations weren't any better than his proof that there could be no more than seven planets.

Maybe there's hope--if Edwards and other Democrats can convince the electorate that the liberal agenda is not about tastes, pretensions and "lifestyle issues" but economic security and opportunity.

Friday, July 09, 2004

The Sin of Wages - The real reason to oppose the minimum wage. By Steven E. Landsburg: "The Earned Icome Tax Credit...accomplishes pretty much the same goals as the minimum wage but without concentrating the burden on a tiny minority. For that matter, the EITC also does a better job of helping the people you'd really want to help, as opposed to, say, middle-class teenagers working summer jobs. It's pretty hard to argue that a minimum-wage increase beats an EITC increase by any criterion.

The minimum wage is nothing but a huge off-the-books tax paid by a small group of people, with all the proceeds paid out as the equivalent of welfare to a different small group of people."

The core doctrine of conservatives is not laissez faire but the conviction that virtually any institution will do better at any job than government. Conservatives recognize that a variety of jobs need to be done: wars have to be fought and children have to be educated. They even understand that access to health care and a minimially decent standard of life is important. But they are convinced that the government, to the extent that it has to be involved in these projects, should outsource

All other things being equal, outsourcing is inefficient. It introduces additional layers of administrators that have to be paid, time-consuming negotiations and an element of uncertaintly that makes it more difficult to plan ahead. Conservatives however seem convinced that the government is so bad at doing anything that even with the additional costs, private contractors will still do better. Private contractors will do better at providing catering services for the military than grunts on KP peeling potatoes and dishing out Spam, charter shools will do better than conventional public schools at educating children, a patchwork of HMOs and private insurance schemes will deliver healthcare more effectively than a single payer system, private charities and "faith-based initiatives" will be more effective in providing social services and firms, compelled to pay workers minimum wage, will go a better job of maintaining a minimally decent standard of living for citizens than givernment programs like a souped up earned income tax credit.

This is the consequentialist argument for conservative policies--and it seems to be questionable on empirical grounds. Charter schools don't do better, according to test scores, the current healthcare scheme is more expensive and less comprehensive than a single payer system would be and minimum wage both imposes extensive burdens on a small group on employers and fails to benefit all and only the needy.

But maybe conservatives are not consequentialists. Maybe the idea is that government programs are inherently wicked and that outsourcing to the private sector is good regardless the consequences.

Thursday, July 08, 2004 - The Democrats' V-Word

Liberals talk about "values" but the public won't buy it because in American "values" doesn't mean moral convictions--it means constraint, promoted through coercion and backed by punitive policies.

My university advertises itself as "values driven." What this means to parents is that we will supervise their children, see to it that they do their work and prevent them from engaging in risky adolescent behavior. We do no such thing, but parents still believe that sending them to a Catholic college will keep them in line, and that is what they mean by "values."

No matter how enthusiastically Democrats wrap themselves in God and the flag and profess their deep moral convictions about promoting economic equity and supplying health care, "values driven" Americans are not going to be impressed because that is not what they mean by "values." What they mean are boot camps to keep people marching single file down the strait and narrow path together with regulations to suppress overt sexuality, off-color language, wildness and unconventional behavior, and enforcement mechanisms to see to it that everyone gets his just deserts.

Americans don't like liberalism because it is--liberal.

Comment Feature Activated on this Blog!

Crooked Timber: Allowing comments on blogs

Hey, y'll, look at this: now you can comment on my posts! Hello? Hello?

Why is there an echo in here?

It was such a dog-bites-man story that I almost skipped right by: Billionaire Bashes Poor Blacks. The only thing that gave this particular story a little piquancy is that the billionaire doing the bashing is black himself. Bill Cosby has been attacking the poor of his race, and especially the youthful poor, for a range of sins, including using bad words, 'stealing poundcake,' 'giggling' and failing to give their children normal names like 'Bill.' 'The lower-economic people,' Cosby announced, 'are not holding up their end in this deal.'

Excuse me, Barbara, but Cosby never suggested dismantling social programs or going back on our side of the deal--he said that lower class blacks weren't holding up their side.

Somewhere around 1967 white liberals got the idea that there was no virtue in accepting blacks who were solid citizens and spoke good English--to expiate the sin of racism we had to applaud "authentic" blacks who faithfully conformed to our stereotypes. I thought we were done with this and had moved on to the current version of the program--no virtue in equal rights and opportunities for women who were "honorary men"--we had to promote the interests of women who couldn't, or wouldn't, cut it by "male" standards.

You can recognize that the failure of lower class blacks, women, or whatever disadvantaged group you please to meet accepted standards is a consequence of discrimination, and that that is something that needs to be fixed. But it's quite another thing to question the standards or to excuse behavior that isn't so much a direct consequence of discrimination or disadvantage as a repudiation of accepted standards.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Republican Jihad

: WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush, seeking to mobilize religious conservatives for his reelection campaign, has asked church-going volunteers to turn over church membership directories, campaign officials said on Thursday.

In a move sharply criticized both by religious leaders and civil libertarians, the Bush-Cheney campaign has issued a guide listing about two-dozen 'duties' and a series of deadlines for organizing support among conservative church congregations.

A copy of the guide obtained by Reuters directs religious volunteers to send church directories to state campaign committees, identify new churches that can be organized by the Bush campaign and talk to clergy about holding voter registration drives.

So that's what religion is all about. I thought it had to do with interesting stuff, like the docrtrine of the Trinity and transubstantiation,

Mainline churches have been hoist by their own petard. Embarassed about metaphysics, they proclaimed that Christianity was really an ethical code, a matter of following Jesus the Great Moral Teacher--theology optional--and now conservative Christians are asking WWJD and "voting their values." We were told that real Christianity was social service and political action in the Secular City with God as our "work partner" but it was the religious right that took up "faith based initiatives" and working politically to promote God, guns and guts. Priests preached that "religion is what Man does with his sinfulness," that church-going was a waste of time better spent working politically for the "justice, freedom and peace" and that every grain of incense was bread from the mouths of the poor--so we gave up religion and stopped going to church.

Now the mainline churches are dead: they function as senior day care centers, providing activities and "community" for the elderly and halfway houses for ex-fundamentalists who can't quite shake the feeling that being secular is not quite nice. The only viable programs they offer are private schools catering for middle-class parents interested in educating their children apart from hoi polloi.

You can't fight the Zeitgheist. There's not much interest in theology and the liturgy has become a pep rally aimed at rousing participants to Moral Action in the World: "Rah, rah, yeah Episcopalians! Get out there and be nice!!!"