Monday, December 22, 2008

Humanist Pseudo-Church

Humanist Parents Seek Communion Outside Church -

Dozens of parents came together on a recent Saturday to participate in a seminar on humanist parenting and to meet others interested in organizing a kind of nonreligious congregation, complete with regular family activities and ceremonies for births and deaths...People often ask, "How do you expect to raise your children to be good people without religion?" said Dale McGowan, the seminar leader and author of "Parenting Beyond Belief." He suggested the retort might be something like, "How do you expect to raise your children to be moral people without allowing them to think for themselves?" He advocates exposing children to many religious traditions without imposing any. At the seminar, Andrea Proctor was thrilled to meet another mother who would like to start a group of parents and children meeting weekly or biweekly. "We just put a huge pool in our back yard," Tony Proctor said. "We might have to start humanist barbecue pool parties."

So, why don't they just go to church and just not believe it? What's the problem?

These made-up semi-religions never thrive. I suppose part of the story is the fact that they're intentionally contrived. Secular people see that churches have products on offer that meet important secular needs--social involvement, rites of passage and social control (aka "values")--form social organizations, concoct rites of passage, and establish programs to train their children.

But I don't think that's the whole story. The cult of Serapis was concocted but within a generation devotees, and others, were convinced that it was of high antiquity. Mormonism was completely made up but immediately dug in and Mormons are now a virtual ethnic group.

When religion is alive you don't get humanist pseudo-churches. Where religion as a social institution is alive everyone knows the myths, participates in the cult and talks the talk, regardless of what they believe. Some are enthusiasts and some are skeptics but most are indifferent and take the cult as part of the fabric of social life. What did the Greco-Roman pagans believe by the first centuries AD? Lots of different things, but even Epicureans and skeptics participated in the traditional public cults. They didn't establish metaphysically detoxified cults with secular barbecues in place of sacrifices to the gods.

Humanist pseudo-churches only arise when religion collapses--when the language and myths are no longer current, when the cult dies out and religion is privatized as a matter of conviction--a package of beliefs and moral commitments. Then secularists sort through the wreckage to salvage the bits they think are worthwhile and refurbish them.

But by then there isn't much market for these spare parts or the pseudo-churches constructed out of them because by then a variety of secular institutions that satisfy needs for social contact, rites of passage, holidays and customs, and social control are well established. Kids are socialized in pre-schools and play groups, and in all manner of organized activities in which middle class parents enroll their children. There are innumerable secular social activities, civic organizations and opportunities for volunteer work for adults and a secular liturgical year that includes Super Bowl Sunday, Fourth of July, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Christmas has been thoroughly detoxified: Santa, Rudolph, snowmen and candy canes have driven out shepherds, angels and Baby Jesus. Maybe most importantly, religious belief and behavior is no longer required or expected: people no longer feel that they ought to be dressing up and going somewhere on Sunday mornings.

Who are the minority who seek out secular churches and Sunday schools? I suspect they're people in transition, people who come from religious families or live in subcultures that haven't yet become thoroughly secularized--people who feel they should be dressing up and going somewhere on Sunday mornings, and who feel defensive about their lack of religious convictions. The article notes:

A recent study found that many Americans associate atheists with negative traits, including criminal behavior and rampant materialism.

How many Americans? Which Americans? Not Americans I know. In my world the very word "atheist" sounds peculiar because atheism is the default, something hardly worth mentioning. Theism is anomalous. No one I know feels he ought to be dressing up and going somewhere, other than brunch, on Sunday mornings and no one has any interest in secular pseudo-churches. Church-going is just not done. The Americans I know associate religious believers with of negative traits, including ignorance, bigotry, prudery and political conservatism.

So, in my world, I'm on the defensive. Coming out at work I was immediately branded as a member of the "Forces of Reaction"--in precisely those terms. But certainly the New Atheists protest too much.

A room full of concertedly nonreligious people has its idiosyncrasies. At the seminar, someone sneezed, and there was a long silence -- no one said "Bless you" or even "Salud" or "Santé." For sale were T-shirts saying "98% Chimpanzee" or showing a tadpole with the words "Meet Your Ancestor." There were also children's games from Charlie's Playhouse, a Darwinian toy company, illustrating the process of evolution.

Jesus, do they also censor swearing? "Meet Your Ancestor"? Why not "2 + 2 = 4" or, better, "Pi = 3.1416..." since, as I understand it, some cranks once tried without success to get the Biblical figure, 3.0, accepted as the value of Pi? I went to an ordinary public school and watched TV. I saw innumerable films at school and educational TV shows as a child showing Life emerging from the primordial soup as lightening struck the primitive oceans and lungfish crawling out onto the land.

This is what everyone got as part of elementary education and popular culture and was never intended to Make A Statement in the way that the T-shirts and Darwin-toys are. If there were fundamentalists around I suppose they compartmentalized it--the Garden of Eden and Noah's Ark, life emerging from the primordial soup and lungfish. It simply wasn't an issue.

So, by the time humanist pseudo-churches emerge from the ruins of ordinary religion, there are few takers. This secular faux-religion is parasitical on real religion, emerges when religion is dying out and then dies with it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wither Feminism?

We are a group of professionals from various disciplines who study women's place in the economy. We are collecting signatures to a letter to President-Elect Obama concerning jobs for women at the following site. Please go there to sign and forward it to people who would like to join in the effort.

A while ago I was invited by a colleague to be on a panel discussing "Feminist BS." I did my research and, armed with the latest data on discrimination, sex segregation in the labor force, and male-female wage gaps, sallied forth to enter the fray.

The venue, as I discovered, was a small theater with black walls and various avantgarde accoutrements. The panel consisted of me and another female academic, an extremely tribal gay guy and the drama critic of the local PBS radio station who was dressed in a witchy/ethnic outfit I suspect she ordered from the Pyramid Collection. The topic, it turned out, was whether feminism as a theatrical style was out-dated. My data fell flat and I felt like a fool.

I never realized that feminism was a "theatrical style" in the first place. I thought it was all about sex segregation in the labor force, male-female wage gaps and, more generally, eliminating gender-based constraints, restrictions and expectations that limit the choices of both men and women. I thought it was about removing unnecessary restrictions and providing more real options for everyone.

Feminism as a theatrical style is certainly bs and so, I believe is feminism as the ethic of care, the exultation of the Eternally Feminism, and Goddess worship, feminism as the Battle of the Sexes and feminism as the Solidarity of the Oppressed. Feminism is about jobs, wages and opportunities.

That is what this petition is about. Please sign at Here is the text:

To President-Elect Obama:

We applaud your intention to establish a sizeable and productive program that will help to stimulate the economy, and that will provide improved infrastructure for the country. However, we are concerned that, unless specific steps are taken, your program will provide jobs almost exclusively for men. Women are 46 percent of the labor force. Their unemployment rate is rising with that of men. Moreover, many millions of women are raising children without a husband or partner, and unemployment for them will mean great deprivation, and possible homelessness, for them and their children.

We suggest three lines of action that will insure that women get a fair
share of the benefits from your program:

1. Revive and enforce the Labor Department regulations that require government contractors to institute affirmative action plans that provide a share of the jobs for women and minorities. Closely monitor the contractors for compliance.

2. In connection with the infrastructure projects, institute apprenticeships, and insure that at least one third of the positions go to women.

3. Add projects in health, child care, education, social service that will both provide jobs to women, and also provide needed services to them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's Official: Mainline Protestantism is Dead

The Associated Press: Obama defends choice of pastor for invocation

The selection of Pastor Rick Warren brought objections from gay rights advocates, who strongly supported Obama during the election campaign. The advocates are angry over Warren's backing of a California ballot initiative banning gay marriage. That measure was approved by voters last month. But Obama told reporters in Chicago that America needs to "come together," even when there's disagreement on social issues. "That dialogue is part of what my campaign is all about," he said.

Who is supposed to be "coming together" here? Presumably the secular urban-coastal elite and the megachurch trailer trash. This pick establishes non-denominational fundamentalism as our semi-official state church. The assumption is that for Americans who are religious at all, this is the industry standard. Mainline churches are marginal and their members are invisible--to few to count for political purposes.

Granted, there are many times more of these "evangelicals," non-denominational or otherwise, in the US than Episcopalians, who now represent fewer than 1% of the population. But it isn't size that matters. It's inclusiveness--the difference between a gathered church or sect, where participation assumes commitment, and a civic religion.

Civic religions are public institutions like libraries, schools and parks. There is no expectation that people who use the facilities will buy in. You can visit a church as a tourist or go to cathedral Evensong as a concert-goer, and that is perfectly ok. No one expects you to progress to membership.

But even soft-core evangelical megachurches like Warren's are quite a different thing. They aren't public facilities citizens use on their own terms. If you go to a service, or "concert," the expectation, even if it is not always met, is that you are a "seeker" soon to become a "fully devoted follower" who will join one of the many cell groups and, if gay, will join a group devoted to changing your sexual orientation.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Imagine No Religion

Group plans to sue city over removal of controversial billboard - San Bernardino County Sun

RANCHO CUCAMONGA - A Wisconsin group advocating the separation of church and state plans to sue the city for playing a role in the demise of a billboard on Archibald Avenue and Foothill Boulevard. A billboard with the message 'Imagine No Religion' by the Freedom From Religion Foundation was taken down by sign company General Outdoor less than a week after it went up. The move came after the city told the sign company it received 90 calls of complaint against the sign. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the organization that bills itself as an association of atheists and agnostics, said a complaint might be filed today.

I don't have to imagine no-religion: I was brought up with it so it's hard for me to understand why the New Atheists and their followers are so keen to promote it. What do they imagine a No-Religion world would look, and feel, like?

I can easily imagine it--a world of unrelieved sterility and vulgarity, where quack therapies and secular sentimentalities occupy the role of religion, shopping malls replace cathedrals, commercial festivals from Super Bowl Sunday to a religiously detoxified Christmas Shopping Season mark the liturgical year and centuries of sacred art that were once accessible to the general public are relegated to museums and concert halls. Why on earth do they want this?

We're more than half way there so you'd think they'd know better. One of my more enterprising neighbors has already put up his Christmas display, featuring illuminated candy canes and reindeer, including Rudolph with his glowing red nose. The centerpiece is a six-foot-tall inflatable snowman. I can't understand why this is preferable to a creche with shepherds and angels. Maybe in a century or two the myths of Santa and his helpers, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph will mellow out and inspire high art. Somehow I rather doubt it.

I suppose I'm being unfair to atheists here. Most have no problems with religious art and support the preservation of church buildings as museums of culture and secular temples to civic virtue--like the Paris Pantheon (above), which operated briefly as the Church of St. Genvieve before it was reconstituted as a patriotic monument and mausoleum.

I had great hopes for France before my first visit to the Continent last winter. I could, after all, conjugate the verbs and had a wonderful time brushing up on my French at our local branch of the Alliance Francaise. And the Pantheon was an interesting piece of architecture--in a frigid, self-conscious, monomaniacal way. After seeing it though I never wanted to go anywhere near France again.

The Pantheon reminded me of my mother, who admired Napoleon, was a great fan of the metric system, and thought it would be a good idea to number the days of the week instead of naming them. She detested what she regarded as impractical, childish nonsense, including holidays, presents, family meals, vacations, ceremonies of any sort and every kind of religion. We were organisms and that was that. This may be true, but I don't see why believing it should make us better off.

In the Pantheon there was a Foucault Pendulum swinging from the dome. There were video machines with educational tape loops in French and English about Foucault's life and work explaining how Foucault, "whose only faith was in Science," had used his Pendulum to demonstrate that the earth rotated on its axis--presumably refuting benighted Christians who thought otherwise. They showed the Pendulum being hung and described how it was attached to beams above the interior dome through a hole made by poking out the eye of God represented on it. Mother, and I suspect the New Atheists, would have loved it.

It's a losing battle, and I realize that. The churchy world I always fantacized, with churches and shrines, where people stopped to light candles and mumble the quick prayer, processions in the streets and a thousand lovely legends, ceremonies and customs current, never really existed. The little bit of that fantasy that we've got is almost gone. I still don't understand why people don't want it, why they think poking out the eye of God in the name of Science contributes to human wellbeing or why they imagine that the frigid sterility of the Pantheon should be a source of joy and liberation.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Family Values

Why churches fear gay marriage | Salon News

While conservative churches are busy trying to whip up another round of culture wars over same-sex marriage, Rodriquez says the real reason for their panic lies elsewhere: the breakdown of the traditional heterosexual family and the shifting role of women in society and the church itself. As the American family fractures and the majority of women choose to live without men, churches are losing their grip on power and scapegoating gays and lesbians for their failures.

Churches have a vested interest in supporting sex roles and the "traditional family." Traditional women are the backbone of the church and historically, in the US especially, people go to church "for the sake of the children."

Working women don't have the time to work for the church or the motivation. In the past, churches provided educated, energetic women with a venue in which they could do jobs in which they could organize, manage, play with significant sums of money and exercise authority--work that was not available to women in the secular world. Now that women get responsible, interesting positions outside the church, they have little reason to make alternative careers in church volunteer work.

Churches serve the interests of traditional women. For men, and working women, church-going is a hassle: after the work week they want to sleep in, lounge around in grotty old clothes and relax. For stay-at-home moms churchgoing is a break in their routine: a chance to dress up, get out of the house, and socialize with other adults. For older women, who have made careers of "doing for" their families, the church affirms the worth of the caring work and gives them opportunities to do more caring work once their husbands and children are no longer around to do for.

Churches not only provide opportunities for "caring work"--they valorize traditional femininity. Playing to their "base," they flatter traditional women who have invested their lives in doing for their families by identifying caring work as the epitome of Christian virtue. But the more they promote traditional femininity, the business of caring, the more they turn off women who are not invested in doing for their husbands, children or others and want no part of caring work or traditional femininity.

Rodriguez has not got it quite right. He suggests that Christianity needs to be feminized:

The desert religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- are male religions. Their perception is that God is a male god and Allah is a male god. If the male is allowed to hold onto the power of God, then I think we are in terrible shape. I think what's coming out of Colorado Springs right now, with people like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, is either the last or continuing gasp of a male hierarchy in religion. That's what's at stake. And women have a determining role to play.

I don't know about Judaism and Islam, but Christianity is already too feminized, and is becoming even more so as non-traditional women, and men, drop out leaving the church to traditional women and and churches cater increasingly to their smarmy sentimentalities and taste for caring work.

Churches have evolved to satisfy the interests of traditional families: they provide activities for traditional women and sell themselves as socializing agencies for the young. When young adults postpone marriage and child-rearing or forgo it altogether church membership declines. When women enter the labor force and, more particularly, when they enter as full-time careerists, churches lose support. Perhaps most importantly, when the traditional family ceases to be the norm and loses prestige, the Church, whose fate is inextricably linked with the traditional family, loses prestige.

Gay marriage is a symbolic blow to the ideal of the traditional family as a cultural norm and that undermines the prestige of the Church. Materially, if fewer individuals form traditional families, churches lose membership and support. They have every reason to be worried.

Raised on the Dick and Jane readers, I yearned for what I thought of as a "real Dick and Jane Family." By the time I got married, at 22, I was desperate. I wanted a suburban house furnished with a husband, three kids, a dog and a cat. I wanted to get into what I thought of as the World of Sunshine, the 1950s sitcom world, where Young Families went on picnics, had family meals, and went to church. I wanted to be a soccer mom.

I got it, and loved every minute of it. During summer vacation, when I would drive my kids around in my van and people thought I was a real soccer mom--a housewife--I was tremendously proud: I had made it, I felt, into the Dick and Jane world.

Everyone I knew thought I was nuts. If there was one thing they wanted to avoid, or at least postpone, it was the suburban family life that I was desperate to get. Most people I knew never got married, and most who got married never had children. They wanted to live in Manhattan or San Francisco, work in publishing, journalism or the arts, live in lofts, go to concerts and to the theater, try out restaurants and engage in various urban entertainments. They regarded life in the 'burbs as boring, declasse and certainly not the thing for people like us.

I could easily understand the resentment of red-state, church-going Nascar Dads and Soccer Moms. They recognized that there was an urban coastal elite who thought the Dick and Jane life they chose to live was ridiculous and were contemptuous of them. And they believed that the progressive policies this elite promoted, including gay marriage, would make it difficult to get or maintain the Dick and Jane life, and squeeze them out. So, in California, they voted for Prop 8, which was represented not as anti-gay but as pro-family.

Most had nothing against gays and opposed anti-sodomy laws as invasions of privacy; most supported civil unions. They simply wanted affirmation that the Dick and Jane sitcom life was the good life, that it was the norm, and that it wouldn't be taken away from them. And churches supported Prop 8 de jure because they regarded homosexuality as a sin but de facto because Dick and Jane families were their bread and butter.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A New Deal

Op-Ed Columnist - The Obama Agenda -

Can Barack Obama really usher in a new era of progressive policies? Yes, he can. Right now, many commentators are urging Mr. Obama to think small. Some make the case on political grounds: America, they say, is still a conservative country, and voters will punish Democrats if they move to the left. Others say that the financial and economic crisis leaves no room for action on, say, health care reform. Let’s hope that Mr. Obama has the good sense to ignore this advice...[A] serious progressive agenda — call it a new New Deal — isn’t just economically possible, it’s exactly what the economy needs. The bottom line, then, is that Barack Obama shouldn’t listen to the people trying to scare him into being a do-nothing president. He has the political mandate; he has good economics on his side. You might say that the only thing he has to fear is fear itself.

Truth is, I don't like Obama one bit. I didn't watch his speech on Tuesday because it would have undermined my elation at the Democratic win. What matters to me is the progressive economic agenda that I hope he'll pursue.

Working class conservatives distrust the progressive agenda because they believe it will make them worse off--by slapping them with taxes that drive them to near-destitution and taking away the minimal freedom they enjoy. Liberal pundits and other purveyors of 5-minute ideas repeat the conventional wisdom that the dispute between liberals and conservatives cashes out as a difference between those who regard equality of paramount importance and those who would trade off equality for freedom.

This is false. The whole agenda of progressivism is to increase freedom. Apart from the privileged few, people have their backs to the wall with little room to maneuver. There are few options to better oneself and hard work doesn't pay off. That isn't the way it looks on paper, but it's the way it is on the ground.

I was talking to a (semi-)mature student who'd gotten in on a scholarship after kicking around in the World and taking courses at a local community college. She had the clarity and decency to recognize that she got this chance in part by luck. She knew someone who was working at a $10/hour job and couldn't get out. She defaulted on a student loan and so couldn't go back to school unless she made good on that, but couldn't raise the $400.00 she needed to do that. Long ago, when Bill Clinton abolished "welfare as we have known it" I had another student who was getting through on a patchwork of loans, grants and novennas. She had a baby and was on welfare. But with the end of welfare as we have known it, in her senior year, she got the ultimatum: quit school and get a job or there would be no more benefits of any kind.

These aren't just anecdotal tear-jerkers. The absence of safety-nets makes it too costly to assume risk. Without public services and financial support it's difficult or impossible to get further education or training. The issue is not equality but freedom--the assurance that no one will be trapped like this, that anyone who is willing to work hard can better himself, can avoid getting stuck for life in boring, dead-end work. I got that chance by pure dumb luck, and a ran with it. So, I believe, would most people--it's just that without social safety nets and government intervention most people don't have that chance.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

We won!

We won! We won! All of us won!

At last this 40 year nightmare is over. McCain is making his concession speach. McCain mentions Obama and his audience is boo-ing but McCain hushes them. honorable and a good sport. But making a big deal about the fact the Obama is black. I don't care for that.

I suppose I can understand myself though because today I got my country back.

But to me what's most important is the defeat of a poisonous ideology that's caused untold suffering. Keep the red flag flying!!!

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Great Reductio

Sidney Blumenthal: McCain is on the verge of a defeat that marks the end of the Republican era | Comment is free | The Guardian

Now, certain factors that have dominated US politics for 40 years seem destined to recede to the far corners. In economics, supply-side panaceas and deregulation created the worst crisis since the Great Depression, requiring a conservative Republican administration to part-nationalise banks, something unimaginable under any Democratic administration. In foreign policy, neoconservatism led to the morass in Iraq and Afghanistan while undermining the western alliance. In social policy, the evangelical right battered science, the separation of church and state, and the right to privacy. Finally, the conservative principle of limited government has become a watchword for incompetence, cronyism, corruption, hypocrisy, and contempt for the rule of law.

Pray, brethren, that in 24 hours this nightmare will be over.

Americans put their faith in what Bush senior in an unguarded moment called Voodoo Economics. The Market would work--in the short run before we were all dead. We would go deeper and deeper into debt but grow our way out. We even managed to persuade policy-makers in other countries to follow our lead--at least gingerly. And now we've pulled down the world economy. Reductio.

But it wasn't simply recondite economics that that drove us, and the world, into this pit. It was the American Dream--the vision of the Good Life as one of endless drudgery and unlimited consumption. When a woman at a Republican rally prior to Election 2004 complained that she was working at 3 jobs, Dubya didn't even get it. His response was, "Good for you!" That's the American way: spend all your waking hours during the week working and your weekend shopping until you drop. After that drudgery you're brain-dead and don't have the ability to enjoy anything but buying more and more and more crap.

Of course some people still don't recognize a reductio when they see one. So McCain is still chanting the mantra of "Wealth creation, not wealth redistribution." Pump more money in at the top and it will, eventually, trickle down. When? Cut taxes on businesses and they'll create more jobs--so that more people can spend more of their time in mind-numbing drudgery, and buy more and more stuff to create more rotten service sector jobs where more people can spend even more of their time doing miserable shit work.

Of course it hasn't worked. Unemployment is up, people are losing their houses and can't afford more stuff. But even if, per impossibile, it had this is surely a vision of hell--days of drudgery and constraint, buried alive until the magical moment on Saturday when you go to the mall for a brief ecstasy of consumption.

There was bit on the Animal Channel about a species of frog that spends most of its lifecycle buried alive. They hatch, swim around for a bit as tadpoles and then burrow into the mud where they stay for months until the rains come. Then they dig themselves out, copulate, and die, within the course of a day. That is exactly the American Dream--the work ethic. Spend most of your life buried alive, at work, and then, for a brief moment in the sun, eat, copulate and shop. Of course you don't die right away after that--you just burrow back into the mud for another week of work, buried alive. Arbeit macht frei: "Good for you!"

I suppose it's a vicious circle. Here were people locked into the Wheel--didn't the Buddha have something to say about this? But the only thing that got them out was that the Wheel stopped so that they couldn't consume any more--and some couldn't work any more. Seems like a more interventionist deity trumped the Buddha there.

Let us pray.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

People are Rational (But Misinformed)

A scary Halloween with Sarah Palin | Salon News

Supporters of the Republican candidate for president believe they are looking down the barrel of a gun loaded by Karl Marx, held by Barack Obama. The McCain-Palin fear-mongering tour is exposing -- or exploiting -- unrest and anxiety wherever it goes...84-year-old World War II veteran John H. Gay...was tormented by images of a fantastical Stalinoid world to come. According to Gay, Obama believes the communist "mantra" "from each according to his abilities, and to each according to his needs"; that "if we go the socialist way, you young people will lose all your freedoms -- mentally, physically and religiously." As he envisioned a possible future under Obama, he spoke of scarce hot water and hulking Soviet-era high-rises of the sort that ring Moscow. And he was not alone in his concern that if the Democrats win on Tuesday, it'll only be a matter or time before Americans are getting in bread lines. "I'm afraid of the slippery slope to socialism," said 51-year-old Mike Brecht, whose 21-year-old son is fighting in Mosul, Iraq, and was adopted from Russia when he was 7. Brecht claims that his son, who was 2 when the Berlin Wall fell, still remembers life behind the Iron Curtain. "He can tell you all about his one turnip a day that he ate," said Brecht of his son. "Everybody got the same turnip."

Hello? Is that so hard to understand? This has nothing to do with "values," racism, the Strict Father vs. the Nurturing Parent, or, as one article a while back put it, "cracking the working class code." People are rational. They don't want to live in poverty and misery.

When they've had a good enough look at the forthcoming "socialist" Obama administration, they'll change their politics. Why is this so hard to understand?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Great American Nightmare

TAPPED Archive | The American Prospect:

Steven Calabresi waxes hysterical and ludicrously implausible: "If Mr. Obama wins we could possibly see any or all of the following: a federal constitutional right to welfare; a federal constitutional mandate of affirmative action wherever there are racial disparities, without regard to proof of discriminatory intent; a right for government-financed abortions through the third trimester of pregnancy; the abolition of capital punishment and the mass freeing of criminal defendants; ruinous shareholder suits against corporate officers and directors; and approval of huge punitive damage awards, like those imposed against tobacco companies, against many legitimate businesses such as those selling fattening food."

The kerfuffle over the New Yorker cover featuring Barak Obama in Muslim garb fist-bumping Michelle in an Angela Davis afro petered out long ago. Latte-swillers were afraid that Joe and the hockey moms would catch a glimpse of it at newsstands and take it seriously. They didn't.

I thought that this cover was a very good idea. There are all kinds of inchoate fears swirling around in people's heads that they never scrutinize and can't quite articulate. Bring them to light, display them clearly, and they're embarrassed: "Do I really believe that Michelle Obama is a terrorist packing an assault weapon? That Barak Obama will hang a picture of Osama Bin Laden over the mantle and burn the American flag? Jeez--I'm an ass."

What we need here is a new Handmaid's Tale displaying, with great clarity, the content of working class conservative's worst nightmares in the way that the original represented the nightmare vision of secular liberals.

Here it is. Legions of Welfare Queens taking advantage of their constitutionally guaranteed right to welfare living high on the hog. You can see it now: the greater part of urban areas turned into boiling slums where the idle poor spend their days sitting on the stoops drinking, playing craps in the streets and driving around in their Cadillacs at the taxpayers expense while near-destitute white people (yup, white) toil at two or three jobs to support them.

Affirmative action gone wild. Small business owners continually monitored, forced to hire representative numbers of blacks, Hispanics and Muslim terrorists. High tech firms employing illiterate black dudes with gold chains and ornamental gold teeth as software engineers to meet their quota, paying them to explore porno sites on the internet.

Government-financed abortions through the third semester: heavily pregnant Welfare Queens queuing up outside Planned Parenthood, where squalling babies are dumped in the trash out back. The mass freeing of criminal defendents: hoards of dangerous criminals pouring out of the prison gates to rape and pillage.

Corporate officers and directors harrassed continually with frivelous lawsuits. Zorba's Greek Buffet of Chula Vista slapped with a multimillion punitive damages suit for moussaka.

That's it, i'n'it? But show them what they believe and they might have second thoughts. Display it Hieronymous Bosch style--the obese Welfare Queens dipping into buckets of Colonel Sanders as they drive around in their Cadillacs and homocidal psychopaths pouring out of prisons to sack American cities as Grand Ayatolla Obama in his turban and Michelle in her afro cheer them on. Reducio.

But maybe I'm wrong. Most people I know took The Handmaid's Tale seriously. They're convinced that there are hoards of Fundamentalists who enjoy vast political power, who could very well take over and would, if they did, establish exactly the sort of regime it portrayed. And I know quite a few people who believe that all Christians are secretly on board with this agenda or are, at the very least, "enablers."

I detest the working class, but I do think they're smarter than this.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Politics and Modality

Is Anybody Happy? - Op-Ed -

Joe the Plumber! Joe is, of course, the conservative guy from northwestern Ohio who told Obama: “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more” because he planned to buy a business that he hoped would reel in more than $250,000 a year in profits. The proper answer, as Obama should have known, was: “No, it won’t.”...Joe the Plumber, it turns out, is actually named Samuel and is not a licensed plumber. He has a lien on his house for unpaid taxes. While his professional life is still a little hazy, there is not much evidence he’s ever going to become a small business owner. And he would be a beneficiary of the Barack Obama tax plan.

So why is Joe/Sam not a rational self-interested chooser?

It depends on what you mean by "self." Sam, a grunt who works for a local handyman outfit, is interested in the well-being of a possible self, Joe the Plumber--his counterpart at another possible world. Lost in logical space, he imagines that he is Joe, a hard working plumber at that possible world, who is about to buy a business that will bring in $250,000 a year. So Sam supports actual world policies that will benefit Joe who is, in a latitudinarian sense, a "self."

This is no more or less rational than Diana-Worship. During Princess Di's brief, inconsequential life millions of fat, working class housewives adored her. It is hard to understand way they didn't resent her. Here was a woman who had everything anyone could possibly want, including immense wealth and the prospect of being Queen of England but was still whining. But instead, lost in logical space, they empathized with her vapors and her silly romantic notions. They had princess-counterparts at other possible worlds and a "self"-interested concern for their well-being.

Maybe that's one of the differences between economic liberals and conservatives. Conservatives are modal optimists. They imagine themselves at possible worlds where they are better off, where their counterparts are rich plumbers or even richer princesses and, out of modal "self"-interest, support policies that would benefit their privileged counterparts even at their own expense. Liberals, like me, are modal pessimists. We obsess over the plight of our unlucky counterparts and promote policies that would benefit them--usually at our own expense.

I never did like Princess Di or have any lively sense of what my taller, slimmer, richer counterparts are up to at their respective possible worlds. But I have a very vivid sense of my unlucky counterparts' lives and constantly spin out their stories in great detail.

I have never gone through a check-out line without imagining what it would be like to be a supermarket checker, trapped in a 2 x 2 space for 8 hours a day, doing endless, boring, repetitive tasks, with no product to show, no possibility of achievement and no way out. When I order stuff on the phone, I imagine being a "customer service representative" locked into a cubicle in a room full of women in cubicles taking phone orders, thinking about ways out. I could go to beauty school at night or take a course to be a medical records clerk, but how much better would that be? Besides, after a day at this job I'm knackered. I go home and cook, clean up, and then all I'm good for is vegging out in front of the TV. I can also easily imagine myself as a data entry operator, trapped in a cubicle inputting meaningless figures. I'm under constant supervision and every keystroke is monitored. There's no way out. The only other jobs I could get are equally bad.

I imagine myself a working class housewife pushed out of the house by my husband, Joe the plumber. "Get your fat ass down to Walmart and get a job, bitch." What can I do? If I leave this jerk I'll be working at Walmart anyway and be poor to boot. I once had options, when I was too young to appreciate them, but I don't any more. I could have gotten better grades in high school, gone to college and got a more interesting job. But I didn't. So now I'm stuck in a life of soul-sucking, mind-killing drudgery and there's no way out--at least not in this possible world: I can still read romance novels, follow the lives of the rich and famous on TV and imagine being Princess Di.

Whose fantasies are more rational? Harsanyi pumps our intuitious about fairness by asking us to imagine ourselves living everyone's life in turn. This is, now that I think of it, a restricted possible worlds fantasy and one that poses some metaphysical difficulties. We are to imagine a range of possible worlds, one for each member of the current population, which are qualitatively exactly similar to the actual world but where we ourselves are different people. Alternatively, we are to imagine ourselves as modal super-persons, transworld merelogical sums of persons at these possible worlds, and ask how the world should be in qualitative terms to make the modal super-person of which we are world-bound parts better off.

This pumps liberal intuitions very effectively because there are ever so many more miserable lives than good ones.

We could imagine it using that the clock metaphor pop science shows use to help us understand geological time: "At 11:30 pm the dinosaurs emerge; at 5 seconds to midnight we have the Industrial Revolution." Imagine: for 12 hours you are an illiterate peasant farmer working to eat and eating to work; for another hour or so you're a member of a hunting and gathering tribe, trudging endlessly through the jungle looking for edible berries and hoping for a large mammal kill so that you can get a little protein and take a rest; for another 3 or 4 hours you're a beggar, prostitute or hustler in an urban slum; for most of the time left you're scanning groceries, inputting data, flipping burgers or working in a call center; for half a minute you're successively a college professor, a lawyer, a dentist and a plumber with a $250,000 a year business; for a nanosecond you're a movie star, a professional athlete, a best-selling author and Princess Di.

For perhaps 5 or 6 hours you're sick and in pain. For most of the day you're physically exhausted. For all but two or three minutes you're engaged in mind-killing drudgery--trapped, constrained, in an agony of boredom.

Harsanyi got it right: this is the version of the Golden Rule that bites. The problem with political conservatives and other Romantics is not a lack of sympathy but a lack of imagination.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Plastic Obama

Op-Ed Columnist - Thinking About Obama -

We’ve been watching Barack Obama for two years now, and in all that time there hasn’t been a moment in which he has publicly lost his self-control. This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis. And yet there hasn’t been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness...There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious. Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity, and now he’s become a homeostasis machine...Obama, the sojourner, seems to go through various situations without being overly touched by them.

What a thoroughly unpleasant human being--if he is a human being. My mini-theory is that Obama is a hologram projected by After extensive marketing research, the Democratic party has re-branded itself with the logos, color schemes and candidate that Americans will buy.

Even apart from his remarks in camera to big bucks supporters about blue-collar voters "clinging to guns and religion" it isn't hard to see why he's been branded as an "elitist." He instantiates the quintessence of posh, along with the MacMansions to which Americans aspire, the shopping malls which are our agoras and the groomed, uniformed flight attendants ushering us from one immaculate airport to another. This is what we want: a flight-attendant-in-chief, immaculately groomed, without quirks, eccentricities or passions, without aggression or fight, who effortlessly floats to the top without striving.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Joe the Plumber and the American Dream

Plumber From Ohio Is Thrust Into Spotlight -

Mr. McCain...[cited] “Joe the Plumber” [Wurzelbacher] as a symbol of how Mr. Obama’s tax policies would hurt small businesses. Since his initial exchange with Mr. Obama, Mr. Wurzelbacher has become a favorite of anti-Obama bloggers and television commentators. On Neil Cavuto’s program on Fox News, for example, he was asked if Mr. Obama’s response about “spreading the wealth around” satisfied him, and gave an explanation that the McCain campaign was quick to send around to reporters. “His answer actually scared me even more,” Mr. Wurzelbacher said. “He said he wants to distribute wealth. And I mean, I’m not trying to make statements here, but, I mean, that’s kind of a socialist viewpoint. You know, I work for that. You know, it’s my discretion who I want to give my money to; it’s not for the government decide that I make a little too much and so I need to share it with other people. That’s not the American Dream.”

I'm working right now on a paper for a conference on the American Dream so these issues are much on my mind. American Dreamers assume that the Market is perfectly efficient and so, given that people respond to incentives, will produce the greatest desire-satisfaction for the greatest number. The Fundamental Theorem of the American Dream is that there are trade-offs between equality and opportunity, security and freedom.

It is easy to see how opportunity preludes equality. Some people are just going to be more productive than others because of their native ability and propensity for hard work. If you smack them down with redistributive tax schemes in the interests of promoting equality, they'll have no incentive to produce and we'll all be worse off because there will be less stuff to go around. It is also easy to see why security and freedom are incompatible. People need the stick as well as the carrot. Where there are social safety nets in place, potentially productive individuals won't be driven to extend themselves out of fear and will, as a consequence, be less productive.

The Theorem however is false, which shows that there's either something wrong with derivation or the axioms from which it was derived. The US trails affluent, industrialized nations in both equality and social mobility: American men are less likely to find themselves in different economic segments of the population from their fathers in the US than in social democratic, egalitarian Denmark. As for the fear factor, insecurity discourages risk-taking. Americans, contrary to all expectations, turn out to be more risk-averse than Chinese who, relying on economic safety nets provided by kin and by the state, can afford to extend themselves.

After 15 years of hard work Joe the Plumber was in the process of buying a plumbing business, which he anticipated--rightly or wrongly--would net him more than $250,000 a year. An unseen presence throughout the debate, McCain invoked him in an appeal to the nation of shopkeepers Americans imagined themselves to be. But in fact there are are relatively few small business owners in the US and, of those, very few net $250,000 or more:

According to figures compiled by the Small Business Administration, there are fewer than six million small businesses that actually have payrolls. The rest are so-called nonemployer firms that report income from hobbies or freelance work done by their registered owners, earning as little as $1,000 a year. Of these, according to a calculation by the independent, non-partisan Tax Policy Center, fewer than 700,000 taxpayers would have to pay higher taxes under Mr. Obama’s plan. But even some of these are not small-business owners in the traditional sense; they include lawyers, accountants and investors in real estate, all of them with incomes that put them in the top tax brackets.

The American Dream Joe described is out of reach for most Americans, and may not even be feasible for Joe. The odds are stacked against small business owners and even if his business doesn't fail in the first year, as most small businesses do, it is unlikely that he'll make $250,000 a year out of it.

Most people can't even make a start on Joe's American Dream. I could never even dream of starting a plumbing business because I couldn't be a plumber. I'm a woman: women can't get apprenticeships in plumbing or other blue collar trades. That's just the way it is. Back when I was a kid even being male wasn't enough to open the magic door to plumbing: you had to be Italian. And even then, it wasn't easy if your grandparents came from the wrong part of Italy.

There are a thousand assumptions, customs, practices, informal procedures and unwritten rules that restrict people's options in virtue of sex, race, ethnic origin, family connections or lack thereof, economic status and circumstance. School and scouting are fair meritocracies: if you're smart, hard-working, ambitious and persistent you get your grades, credentials and merit badges. But adult life in the Real World, particularly in the part of it working class Americans inhabit, is nothing like that.

Most grown-ups know that the official rules are a sham. Everyone knows that women have to work harder than men to prove themselves and that there are some jobs women just can't get--as well as jobs men just can't get. Everyone knows that it's not what you know but who you know. Everyone knows that open bidding is usually nothing but window-dressing: construction projects go to relatives and croneys. Everyone knows that hard work, initiative and persistence rarely pay off. A few very lucky people have jobs where achievement and advancement are feasible. Most work at routine jobs where there is simply no way to to show their stuff: you clock in, do what your told or look busy if there's nothing to do, and clock out.

It isn't big government or high taxes that impose constraints, but the customs, practices and unwritten rules operating under the radar that restrict our freedom, limit our options and undermine initiative. Government is the liberator. By legislating and enforcing official rules to achieve fair meritocracy, the state imposes relatively minor restrictions on the few but opens wider opportunities for the many and expands overall freedom.

Monday, October 06, 2008

John McCain: Straight Shooter?

A friend sent this to me. Check it out.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A Herd of Mavericks

Biden Teaches Palin the Meaning of 'Maverick'

When my husband was a starving student he used to get his teeth fixed for free by dental students at his university who needed live subjects for practice. It was always an adventure and, on one occasion, a student slipped and drilled a hole in his cheek.

I wouldn't trust a trainee dentist, much less an amateur, to work on my teeth or go to a maverick dentist with a penchant for unorthodox dental procedures. Neither would most Americans. But, at least until recently, when it comes to politics Americans want amateurs and mavericks. Why?

Because most believe that in areas outside of mechanics and technology, expertise is a sham. Dentistry is a mechanical business, like engineering and computer repair so certainly we want people with training, skills and credentials to do these jobs. But everything else, most particularly politics, is just a matter of common sense. The pretense of academics in the humanities, journalists, politicians or others who don't monkey with machinery or push symbols to expertise is nothing put a scam. People who set up as "professionals" in these disciplines are just corrupt, overpaid hucksters who band together to feather their nests and to exclude others from jobs that any sensible person could do--and, indeed, do better than they can. The subtleties and complications they talk about are nothing but a smoke screen to obscure the fact that they have no real expertise and their machinations only make them less effective in doing jobs that really take nothing more than common sense and good will.

That, I suspect, is the thinking behind Americans' contempt for "professional politicians" and "Washington Insiders," and their demand for term limits to insure that politicians never become professional. It's also the source of Americans' sympathy for conspiracy theories, contempt for all components of The Establishment and conviction that there is an enormous amount of vital information that every Establishment organization, from the mainstream media to the medical profession, doesn't want us to know. There is, we believe, the technology to produce light bulbs that will burn forever but the Establishment doesn't want us to know that. MMR vaccine causes autism but the Medical Establishment is hushing that up, just as it hushes up the virtues of herbal cures and alternative medicine. Aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, but that information was suppressed by the Military-Industrial Complex.

Enter the mavericks. A maverick is an outsider, a loner, an independent thinker who rejects Establishment orthodoxies. Americans admire mavericks because we believe that outside of strictly technical areas, expertise is nothing but a sham--a stifling, corrupt, entrenched orthodoxy. And so, fully one third of Americans are political "independents," unaffiliated with any political party. They regard themselves as mavericks and support politicians who claim that they are not politicians, who assure self-styled maverick voters that they will not toe the party line.

In the course of the Vice Presidential debate yesterday, Sarah Palin was at pains to assure voters that both she and John McCain were mavericks. When asked how her policies would differ from McCain's if he were unable to complete his term in office and she were to assume the presidency, she assured the audience that she and McCain disagreed about a variety of issues (without getting specific) because they were both mavericks.

If I were a Republican and believed this I would certainly not want either McCain or Palin in office any more than I would want a maverick dentist drilling my teeth. I would want someone who would faithfully represent my political agenda and had a cadre of technocrats on tap to implement it. But I'm a Democrat, and I want professional Democratic politicians in office to promote my agenda.

Both Palin and Biden, following their bosses, made a fuss about bipartaisanship. I don't want bipartisainship any more than I would want "fair and balanced" coverage of evolution and "intellegent design" in the public schools or equal time for astonomy and astrology. Evolution is good science; "intelligent design" is junk. I don't want equal time for good science and junk science or for science and superstition, and I don't want any compromise in politics or equal time for the Republican junk agenda. Americans' preoccupation with bipartasinship is just another manifestation of the assumption that ideology is balony so that partisanship is no more than corrupt, self-serving factionalism.

But the Rodney King program is bs: we can't, and shouldn't "all get along" because some of us hold view that are correct while others hold views that are incorrect and pernicious. We should no more compromise with Republicans' agenda than oppositon parties should have compromised with Hitler's program, or proposed 3 million Jews to be gassed rather than 6 million.

If this sounds extravagant it may be because progressives don't take their own program seriously. Millions of Americans have been trashed: they've lost their jobs, their health insurance and their homes. The economy is in meltdown and we're mired in an unwinnable war in Iraq that has trashed the country and cost thousands of lives. This isn't a consequence of personal incompetence or of corruption: it is the direct result of a wrong-headed, failed ideology. The Bush administration is the reducio of that ideology and nothing is going to change until Americans get it.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Op-Ed Columnist - How McCain Wins - Op-Ed -

The core case against Obama is pretty simple: he’s too liberal...the only Democrats to win the presidency in the past 40 years — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — distanced themselves from liberal orthodoxy. Obama is, by contrast, a garden-variety liberal. He also has radical associates in his past...Obama quotes from the brochure of Reverend Wright’s church — a passage entitled “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness.” So when Biden goes on about the middle class on Thursday, Palin might ask Biden when Obama flip-flopped on Middleclassness.

That's strange: I thought that the whole point of liberalism, in particular the orthodox garden-variety, was precisely to promote middleclassness by seeing to it that more people could achieve it. I did take a quick look at some sites to get a better idea of what it was that Rev. Wright meant to repudiate under the rubric of "middleclassness." The National Review site, much as I gag to quote it, was actually illuminating:

Vallmer Jordan, a church member who helped draft the precepts, said..."The big question mark was racism"...He acknowledged that the principle on "middleclassness" was a hard sell, even then. "There was a hunk of resistance to that principle," Jordan said. But eventually committee members came to understand its intention: "Any black person who identifies himself as middle-class psychologically withdraws from the group and becomes a proponent of strengthening and sustaining the system," he said. Harris-Lacewell, the Princeton professor, said the "disavowal of the pursuit of middleclassness" is simply an argument against materialism and the pursuit of the American standard of wealth. Many white Christian churches also preach against materialism.

Seems pretty innocuous--indeed, edifying: exactly what one expects to hear in church, and thoroughly uncontroversial. It's in the Bible too. After the Israelites get out of Egypt, Moses tells them never to forget that they were sojourners in Egypt, where they were treated harshly, and so that they should remember to treat resident aliens amongst them well and to maintain solidarity with those who were less well off. That to me is one of the most remarkable passages in the Old Testament because it would have been easier to make quite a different inference in defense of the hazing principle: "You got beat up on. Now you're in power and can beat up on other people. Have fun!"

What's puzzling is why Rev. Wright identified materialism and indifference to plight of those who were less well-off as "middleclassness." But it's not all that puzzling if we remember that Wright was formed during his seminary days in the late '60s. At that time, when Marxism was still a viable ideology, "bourgeois" was bad and the rich brats who shaped the New Left of the period, were contemptuous of middleclassness because they'd never seen the alternative, lowerclassness, close up. They believed that the proletariat was populated by gonzo journalists, folk singers who composed rousing union songs, and working class intellectuals, ready to be organized into "circles" for the study of Marcuse and ripe for Revolution.

This was pure adolescent fantasy, but became institutionalized in the New Left. At puberty, my peers, like most other children, discovered that their parents were imperfect and inferred that they were positively evil. By mid-adolescence they had concluded that it was not only their parents but their parents' friends and all adults like them, middle class adults, who were thoroughly wicked and that the source of all this evil was "middleclassness"--because they hadn't seen the alternative, and because they didn't understand that even though middleclassness was not sufficient for basic human decency, it was necessary.

Beyond that, critics of middleclassness also had an extremely simplistic view of the springs of human action and assumed that it was a universal truth that people would only be motivated to work for the benefit of others if they thought well of them and liked them. So political activists who were committed to promoting social justice refused to recognize that the individuals who they recognized were treated unjustly and whose situation they wanted to improve were hateful, despicable, thoroughly sickening, disgusting human beings who detested them and rejected their most fundamental values. Given this assumption, these good liberals had to practice self-deception and virtuoso-level double-think to avoid recognizing that the alternative to middleclassness, lowerclassness, was a compound of bigotry, violence, ignorance, stupidity, brutality, sexism, and unreflective dogmatism.

I vividly remember one episode: I'm not sure when it happened--it may have been on a slumming expedition in Chicago in which I participated as an undergraduate. I was walking through a white ethnic slum with a group of fellow students who were exuding admiration for the life and color of the neighborhood, and the virtues of the local residents who, they marveled, were "real"--not dull, uptight puritans or hypocrites like their parents, their parents' friends, or middle class people like their parents and parents' friends. A man appeared, dragging a boy by the collar, yelling incomprehensible obscenities at him and beating him over the head. "There you have it," I said, "the proletariat"--but I don't think anyone paid any attention because they didn't dare.

I grew up with this and watched my childhood playmates' fathers treat them this way. The men, in sleeveless undershirts sat in beach chairs on the sidewalk during long summer evenings and expounded their views on politics, family values and a variety of other issues. "All deese kids unnerstand is de strap." And if there was a kid around on which to demonstrate, they would: BAM! "Shut up yer mouth and don't give yer mudder no lip." BAM, BAM, BAM! The women for their part were whining drudges who dragged around in housedresses, watched soap operas, and for light entertainment discussed obstetrical problems. This is the alternative to middleclassness.

I suppose one might wonder why, given that I hate people like this, I would have any interest in improving their lot. Several reasons, I suppose, the most important one being that I don't want people like this to exist. I want them fixed, made middle class, and I believe that that is feasible. I also recognize that it is nothing more than a matter of pure dumb luck that I am not one of them--and that this is grossly unfair. The pretense that they are decent people, that their way of life is worthy, does them no favors: they want out, if not for themselves, for their children--they want middleclassness but don't have the resources or the knowledge to achieve it.

Of course Rev. Wright didn't mean what I mean by "middleclassness" having been schooled in the Black Liberation Theology that was popular during his seminary days. And it is the ambiguity of "middleclassness" that conservatives like Kristol play to their advantage. When Wright preaches against middleclassness he is using the rhetoric that was in fashion 40 years ago to repudiate selfishness and promote solidarity with those who are less well off, re-packaging Moses' agenda. But, when the majority of Americans, who desperately want middleclassness, hear Wright they imagine that he is repudiating everything to which they aspire: a decent standard of living, an orderly, secure life, a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood and a good education for their kids. And people I came up with did repudiate this, though I can't imagine why. What on earth was their problem? What did they imagine the alternative to middleclassness was?

Of course there were features of this life I didn't want--in particular, the obligation to dress up and take care of my appearance but that is peripheral and it wasn't just this that my peers didn't want. I can't understand what the problem was or what it was that they didn't want. But whatever it was, liberals have got to understand, and not only understand, but empathize with the aspirations of most Americans. People want middleclassness because they know what the alternative is and Democrats have got to make it clear that middleclassness is that they will deliver--and stop despising people for wanting it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More Stuff White People Like

Stuff White People Like

I quite often doubt the value of what I do, and have done for most of my adult life: teaching and research in a humanities discipline. I'm lousy at math so I didn't have any choice.

I don't imagine for one minute that what I do is worth anything close to what engineers, doctors or nurses do--but I do think it's worth something. My research advances knowledge, albeit knowledge of a peculiarly useless sort, but much more importantly I believe that in teaching I can do some good. I promote clarity, reflection and abstract thinking, all of which seem to be largely missing from discourse in the public square. And most importantly: I debunk. That seems to me the most important thing philosophy can do.

But now I am just sick at heart because the message I've been getting is that what we're supposed to be doing is teaching what's current and what students want. This is the way in which theologians have been operating for years. Most don't believe in God so they're working in a field which, for them, has no subject matter. So they prefer to call their discipline "religious studies" and spend their time engaging in speculative anthropology, armchair psychology and "critical theory." I've asked friends in theology why they're obsessed with Freud, Marx and Feuerbach who are not only hostile to religious belief but not even intellectually respectable. They tell me it's because Freud, Marx and Feuerbach are "Thinkers" who are influential in "intellectual discourse" and so that they need to "come to terms" with them.

That is to say, Freud-Marx-Feuerbach is Stuff White People Like. It doesn't matter whether they make sense or not. What matters is that the right people, those who contribute to our culture's "intellectual discourse," think that they make sense and, more importantly, talk about them. So, as academics in humanities disciplines, we're supposed to know about them, talk about them and teach our students to talk about them so that they can pass themselves off as intellectuals at the better cocktail parties. I suppose that by the same reasoning we should teach students to talk intelligently about herbal medicine and chiropractic.

This isn't what I signed on for.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How White of Them

Intolerant Chic

[D]ismissing something or someone as “so white” has long been a favorite put-down among those who like to view themselves as right-thinking, hierarchy-defying nonconformists—that is, White People. Recall those ads extolling “the new face of wealth,” which contrast male, stone-faced WASP bankers with attractive, far less formally—though far more expensively—clad women, quasi-hipsters, and assorted exotic ethnics. The women and hipsters may be white, but they’re not white—they’re members of the cool-looking pan-ethnic tribe, a tribe defined by economic and social status and by cultural and aesthetic preferences rather than by ethnicity. ...Here and elsewhere, accompanying the book’s mockery of the essentially innocuous solipsism of White People is what Lander, a man of the left, described to me as his exasperation with progressives’ “cultural righteousness” and “intolerance and groupthink”—a set of attitudes that enhances and is enhanced by a profoundly smug and incurious outlook...

[A] good deal of the progressives’ attitudes, preferences, and sense of identity are ingrained in an unlovely disdain for those outside their charmed circle. In Lander’s analysis, much of their self-satisfaction derives from consumption (the slack-sounding “stuff” in the title is deceptively apt)—and much of that consumption is motivated by a desire to differentiate themselves from the benighted. Sushi, for instance, is “everything [White People] want: foreign culture, expensive, healthy, and hated by the ‘uneducated.’” And whatever its goals, the ACLU is beloved by White People, Lander satirically but not wholly unjustifiably asserts, because it protects them “from having to look at things they don’t like. At the top of this list is anything that has to do with Christianity”—an aversion, Lander discerns, rooted not in religious enmity but in taste (Christianity is “a little trashy”), formed largely by class and education. To those of this mind-set, the problem with a great many Americans is that they don’t “care about the right things.” In fact...White People “really do hate a significant portion of the population.”

I hate that significant portion of the population too, but I'm overtly hostile rather than than covertly contemptuous. And I don't dislike them for their food preferences or fat, or because they "cling" to guns and religion: I don't like them because they're boring, unreflective, and incapable of making interesting conversation. However I find White People appalling. They don't care about the right things either. In fact, at bottom, all they really seem to care about is caring as such--about being fastidious and fussy.

They fetishize food. They congratulate themselves on their pickiness which they seem to regard as good taste, as if their preference for fresh veggies, exotic cheeses and whole grains, and their disdain for fatty burgers and fries, were a manifestation of some refined aesthetic sensibility. There can't be an aesthetics of food because, for humans at least, taste and smell aren't sufficiently developed to yield the complexity that distinguishes aesthetic experience from mere sensual pleasure. Dogs may have the equipment to appreciate the aesthetics of smell: they can perceive the complexity of scents and analyze them in the way that we can experience the separate lines in a piece of music and apreciate the complexity and structure. But for us, taste and smell are simple, unanalysable sensations. There's no more sophistication involved in preferring sushi to fries than there is in preferring yellow to blue.

Beyond that, it's hard to understand why likes, and even worse, dislikes should be sources of self-congratulation. I like fish and just had a bang-up champagne brunch with my family at the Southbay Fish and Grill. Well, great. I don't see how liking this reflects favorably or unfavorably on me. I like Haydn string quartets but I don't see why this should reflect favorably or unfavorably on me either. I could once play the violin part for these pieces and that certainly reflected favorably on me: it took hard work and skill. And if I could compose music like that it would reflect very favorably on me indeed. But I fail to see how consumption and enjoyment, much less distaste and disgust, can be understood as virtues.

Maybe at bottom what is most irritating about White People is that they congratulate themselves on what they consume rather than on what they produce. And what exactly is that supposed to show? First, I suppose, consuming the "correct" products shows that you are sufficiently en rapport with the community of elite taste-makers to know what sorts of stuff you're supposed to like. Secondly, it shows that you have the money to buy expensive stuff and the leisure to mess around. You have the money to shop at Whole Foods and the time to crap around cooking from scratch--unlike those fat trashy women who, fagged out after a day's work at Walmart, pick up McDonalds. You have the time, money and leisure to be fastidious, and to indulge yourself.

I don't like working class people but I suppose that when it boils down to it I like White People even less. If you can fix a car, knit a sweater or cut a dovetail joint that's worth something, just as it's worth something if you can write a paper, teach a class or do a proof in logic. Not having a TV is worth nothing. Visiting Machipichu, being massaged, doing yoga and eating arugula are worth nothing.

Even worse, as far as well-being goes, it is bizarre to imagine that fastidiousness makes one better off. Intuitively, the more you like, the better off you are. If you like Haydn quartets and country you're better off than if you just like one or the other. If you don't like McDonalds then, ceteris paribus, you're worse off than if you do. The disdain for "anything that has to do with Christianity" really eats me. Christianity is our cultural honey pot. I'm looking at pictures of St. Mark's, Venice, on my wall. I went there last January and spent 6 hours gaping at the mosaics. How can this be trashy? Christianity was the source of all high art until the Renaissance and much of it ever after. How can these idiots imagine that sushi is somehow better than the Bach B Minor Mass?

Monday, September 15, 2008

It's the Philosophy, Stupid!

EzraKlein Archive | The American Prospect:

The challenges facing our financial system today are more evidence that too many folks in Washington and on Wall Street weren't minding the store...I certainly don't fault Senator McCain for these problems, but I do fault the economic philosophy he subscribes to. It's a philosophy we've had for the last eight years – one that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. It's a philosophy that says even common-sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise, and one that says we should just stick our heads in the sand and ignore economic problems until they spiral into crises. Well now, instead of prosperity trickling down, the pain has trickled up – from the struggles of hardworking Americans on Main Street to the largest firms of Wall Street. This country can't afford another four years of this failed philosophy.

Play it again, Sam, because what Americans don't get is precisely this: that when they cast their ballots, they're voting for a philosophy--not for a plumber.

When I chat about politics, to fellow Democrats as well as Republicans, I'm struck by the extent to which they imagine voting is hiring someone to do a job rather than choosing ideology and policy. They want someone who's honest, experienced, competent and, if possible affable--someone who will pay attention to them and clean up the shit, that is, a plumber.

There's nothing controversial about plumbing--no competing theories of toilet repair or washer replacement and no disagreement about what constitutes a successful job. And when it comes to plumbing, fancy degrees and credentials don't matter: you sure don't want some high-powered hydraulics engineer who can't operate a pipe wrench or is too hoity-toity to clean up the shit. You want a guy who can do the job. And of course, you want a guy who is honest. You don't want a plumber who will claim to discover all sorts of problems that aren't really there and soak you for all you're worth "fixing" them.

Politics is controversial in all the ways that plumbing isn't: it's not only controversial how to achieve various goals--it's disputed what goals are desirable. But Americans, chanting the mantra that both parties are the same, don't seem to get that. And they also don't seem to get the idea that when it comes to running the country vast bodies of theoretical knowledge as well as practical competence and plain, brute intelligence are of vital importance.

So even in economic hard times, even in the teeth of foreclosure, unemployment and the drain of fighting an unpopular war, a substantial minority of Americans will vote Republican because they see their troubles as a consequence of professional incompetence rather than the failure of a philosophy. Bush was a bad plumber, but plumbing is plumbing.

I doubt that a president has all that much to do with running the country. Voters choose their preferred ideology by voting for one of the major political parties. The technocrats, bureaucrats and secretaries who run government formulate and implement policies consistent with that ideology--which is why I'd be perfectly happy to vote for a yellow dog running on the Democratic ticket. Of course, George W. Bush claimed to be The Decider. But I'm skeptical about that since if he really were, things would probably be even worse.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Went Wrong?

I don't think Sarah Palin is qualified to be Vice President of the United States and, given her views on a range of issues, I wouldn't support her for any elected office. But I'd much rather have a beer with her than with any of he other candidates.

Palin is the beneficiary of the left-wing politics that she despises, and of Second Wave feminism which was part of that package. If she had been born 20 years earlier, and gotten her BA in 1967 instead of 1987, she would never have gotten a job as a sportscaster when she graduated. If she had been running for high political office in 1988 instead of 2008, her socially conservative, religious right constituency would have been horrified at the idea of the mother of a 4 month old baby working outside the home in any capacity, much less running for the vice presidency of the United States. And in 1988, she wouldn't have been running because there wouldn't have been an affirmative action pick on the Republican ticket.

Palin is the living symbol of what I took to be the goal of the feminist movement: to fix things so that women could be like guys. That was it. Very simple. To see to it that women had could get guy jobs and hunt moose--if, of course, that is what they wanted to do. The purpose of feminism as I understood it was to eliminate sex roles so that both men and women could do the jobs and live the lives traditionally reserved for men only or for women only--so that no one's options would be constrained by an accident of birth.

That's what I thought it was all about. But then strange doctrines started creeping in. First and foremost, there was the idea that feminism was inextricably linked to every other edifying sort of -ism. Gay rights, and the rights of every oppressed or marginalized group was supposed to be intrinsic to feminism. Peace was a feminist issue because, rather than freeing women, and men, from the constraints of sex roles, a significant vocal minority of feminists held that the aim was rather to valorize traditional femininity.

Finally, abortion took center stage as the defining feminist issue. To make matters worse the very rationale for making it the central issue was sexist. The working assumption was that if a woman had a baby then she must inevitably raise it, that women "bonded" with their babies through pregnancy as so that giving them up for adoption was unthinkable. Of course, the idea that a woman could simply dump the baby on its dad never crossed anyone's mind. That's what I'd do if I had a baby I didn't want: first stop out of hospital--dad's place. "Here's your baby. I'll come by from time to time to see how he's coming along, and send you a little money every once and a while if I remember. Bye."

Now Democrats are being skewered on the abortion issue because they will not compromise. And compromising would skewer Palin because most Americans wouldn't want to see the kind of draconian anti-abortion legislation she wants--with no exceptions for rape or incest, whatever the stage of pregnancy. Suppose some miserable 14 year old girl is abused and raped by her father. No morning-after pill for her. And then there there are those sweet, cuddley stem cells. Those atheistic pro-abortionists may trot out that actor who has Parkenson's and scientists may whine, but all human life is sacred (exceptions: capital punishment and war).

Even on the worst case scenario, if Roe v. Wade went down in flames, and a significant number of women did not have access to abortion, parenthood is a matter of choice--as fathers know. Work for most women is not a matter of choice and for the 2/3 of American women who are not college graduates, the labor market is thoroughly sex-segregated and sex discrimination is the norm. Feminist activists, members of the unisex elite, don't seem to notice and the Democratic party taking abortion to be the central feminist issue has not made workplace issues a priority.

Right now the Walmart class action sex discrimination lawsuit, involving over 1.5 million current and former Walmart employees, is chugging its way through the courts. Hundreds of women have told their stories--stories with which most working class women can empathize. Abortion is controversial but it is uncontroversial that women should get equal pay for equal work and, more fundamentally, that they should have equal access to on-the-job training, promotion, and a fair opportunity to get equal work.

Sarah Palin got to be a guy--to shoot moose, work as a sportscaster and, through the Republican Party's one-off affirmative action program, run for the vice presidency of the United States. Most women don't get the chance. If Democrats want to recapture the working class vote it might be helpful to do something for the millions of working class women who are stuck in boring, poorly-paid, deadend, pink-collar jobs.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Raging Rajas of Resentment

Op-Ed Columnist - The Resentment Strategy - Op-Ed -

[T]he Republican Party, now more than ever, is firmly in the hands of the angry right, which has always been much bigger, much more influential and much angrier than its counterpart on the other side. What’s the source of all that anger? Some of it, of course, is driven by cultural and religious conflict: fundamentalist Christians are sincerely dismayed by Roe v. Wade and evolution in the curriculum. What struck me as I watched the convention speeches, however, is how much of the anger on the right is based not on the claim that Democrats have done bad things, but on the perception — generally based on no evidence whatsoever — that Democrats look down their noses at regular people...What the G.O.P. is selling, in other words, is the pure politics of resentment; you’re supposed to vote Republican to stick it to an elite that thinks it’s better than you.

Krugman is always right, and usually entirely right. Here he's dead on about the politics of resentment but has made one minor mistake: there is plenty of evidence that Democrats--not all or most, but a minority of visible Culture-Democrats--do look down their noses at regular people.

Last Sunday morning I picked up one of my kids from a friend's house in an expensive coastal suburb. It was 10 am and the cyclists were out in force on the coast highway, all dressed in spandex cycling gear with matching helmets, most middle-aged but well-preserved. My son remarked (alluding to Stuff White People Like "White People are healthy."

White People, that is Culture-Democrats since Obama and some other people of color qualify while most Caucasians don't, are very healthy and proud of it. They exercise, eat their veggies, and are serious about health, wellness and healing. And they have nothing but contempt the Great Unhealthy, who eat junk food, veg out in front of the TV and get fat. And the Great Unhealthy know it.

They don't resent Culture-Democrats for their intellectual pretensions: they value intelligence, education and expertise as much as anyone else. They resent Culture-Democrats valorization of tastes, habits and hobbies that have little or no intrinsic value--their food fetishes, fastidiousness and other preoccupations that are nothing more than class markers--and their moralistic, self-satisfied complacency. Here are people with the unshakable conviction that they are superior because they drink microbrews instead of Bud--or brew their own.

Until Democrats not only recognize the character of that resentment, as Krugman has, but realize that it is not baseless and address its source, they will not win the white working class.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

God is on our side!

So, with Hurricane Gustav surging toward the Gulf Coast and Mayor Ray "Chocolate City" Nagin calling for an evacuation of New Orleans, Republicans have decided to tamp down the festivities at their convention. What else can they do? Imagine the alternative: a split screen of the hurricane blowing down houses, with people on the rooftops and dogs drowning while Republicans party. And millions of Americans thinking: Katrina, Katrina, Katrina.

My husband thinks that Republicans will get credit for "being responsible." Mebbe. But any credit they get will be outweighed by the loss of momentum they would have gained from a blowout convention with all the stops pulled out. These extravaganzas shouldn't have any effect on voters, but they do. The crowd scenes, color schemes and branding the Democrats displayed in Denver shouldn't influence voters but they did and so will downsizing the Republican convention. So the Republicans are damned if they do and would have been doubly damned if they didn't. Instead of upstaging the Democrats, the Republican convention will be an anti-climax because God has rained on their parade, and instead of following the convention, Americans will be following Hurricane Gustav and thinking: Katrina, Katrina, Katrina.

Republicans timed the announcement of McCain's pick for VP wonderfully, but God's timing was even better. Gustav is due to touch down tomorrow. Let the congregation respond: Katrina, Katrina, Katrina.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin

Unity Deferred - Can You Cross Out ‘Hillary’ and Write ‘Sarah’? -

The Palin nomination complicates the gender question in many ways. [W]hat will happen if the misogyny extends to Ms. Palin? There were hints of that on Friday, with Web sites showing photographs of her bare-shouldered in the days when she was runner-up for Miss Alaska, or as one caption read, “showing off her legs.” “Sarah Palin — Alaska Gov., McCain’s V.P. Pick, Kind of a Babe,” read one Internet headline.

Sarah Palin is not going to impress feminists, not because of her views on abortion, but because McCain's selection of her as his running mate is, ironically, is sexism in it's starkest form. What does a woman have to do to achieve success? Be young, be beautiful, be available, and play second-banana to a powerful male.

That is what being a "sex object" is all about--not being "objectified," not being an object rather than the subject, not being a consumer product. We're all of us consumer products--goods that are "consumed" in the neutral economic sense for our conversation, for the jobs we do or simply as warm bodies, and there's nothing wrong with that. Women are "sex objects" to the extent that women are consumed primarily for characteristics that make them sexually attractive--not because consumers want to have sex with them, but because women are deemed valuable for other purposes to the extent that they are sexually attractive. Receptionists in high-gloss firms aren't hired to have sex with customers: they're hired to serve as posh furnishings in the outer office, to symbolize the firm's prestige. And what makes a woman prestige-producing is sexual attractiveness.

Some Republicans may imagine that that by featuring a woman on the ticket they're upstaging Democrats: Democrats rejected Hillary but Republicans have done better by women, putting a woman on the ticket. But I don't think that that's the message most women will get. The message it sends is rather that the political system, reflecting the perceived will of the American public, is that women are not wanted for the sort of qualifications that are valued in men but only for the characteristics that make them sexually attractive: youth, beauty, availability and willingness to support and serve powerful males. That's hardly a crack in the glass ceiling: it's just the same old story.

McCain has in effect married a second trophy wife. The bipartisan political system has dumped Hillary, after trashing and humiliating her, and taken up with a pretty young chickie. Even Clinton supporters who are still angry at Democrats for dumping Hillary are not going to be grateful to Republicans for taking on Sarah Palin as her replacement.

There's nothing misogynistic about featuring featuring Palin "showing off her legs." There's nothing wrong with valuing women for their appearance any more than there is in valuing women, or men, for anything else: singing voice, sense of humor, athletic ability, scholarship or whatever. What is sexist is taking those qualities that contribute to sexual attractiveness as a necessary condition for valuing women at all and dumping on those who fail to meet that standard.