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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Culture and society

People who’ve read my second book, Public Access, know that I haven’t always liked Terry Teachout’s work (one of the essays in Public Access deals briefly with an essay Teachout wrote in 1993 for the New Criterion, titled—I hope not by Teachout—“Another Sun Person Heard From”).  But over the years, I’ve come to respect him—not that he should care about this—for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, because he is a member of what I fear is a dying breed: conservatives who care deeply about the arts.  There are still a couple hundred of them in the country, clustered mainly around places like the New Criterion and the Hudson Review, and lord knows they don’t usually have anything good to say about people like me.  But when you stop and realize that most of their ideological brethren these days have embarked on jihads against PBS because a cartoon bunny visited Vermont, or are trying to remove all books written by or about gays and lesbians from state libraries—well, I guess I’m just a softie, but it makes me want to extend the Endangered Species Act to cover intelligent, literate conservatives.  Seriously.  Look what passes for right-wing “cultural criticism” these days: Michael Medved on Million Dollar Baby and John Podhoretz on Star Wars III.  The Neo-Zhdanovites.  Actually, compared to these folks, poor old much-maligned Andrei Zhdanov was a model of discernment and restraint.

Terry Teachout, however (and this is the other reason), is quite often surprising.  I do not mean this as faint praise: on the contrary, it’s the salient difference between a real critic and a hack.  You don’t have to read hacks, whether they’re Podhoretz on the low end or Hilton Kramer on the high, because you already know what they’re going to say the minute you see their byline.  So, at one point during my convalescence, when I came across Teachout’s essay, “Culture in the Age of Blogging,” I read it eagerly—partly because I didn’t know what it was going to say, and partly because Teachout’s blog is usually full of good stuff.  (And here’s another thing that distinguishes him from the rest of the people on his side of the aisle: when he writes, “Laura and I do not write about politics on About Last Night, both because our views are not identical and because (as I noted on the blog last year) we believe that ‘it’s important that there be at least one politics-free space in the blogosphere where people who love art can read about it—and nothing else,’” he really means it.  As opposed, say, to the legions of conservative culture warriors who, when they say “art should not be tendentious,” actually mean “we need more tendentious artists producing the kind of tendentiousness we like.”)

And sure enough, it’s a fair and substantive piece, marred by only a few moments of residual hackery that Teachout really would be better off without in the future.  For instance, he sticks close to the party line in seeing Stanford’s 1988 curriculum revision as a “watershed moment” in the American Kulturkampf:

A watershed moment came in 1988, when a group of minority students and faculty members at Stanford University marched in protest against that school’s introductory course in Western culture. Led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then at the height of his influence as an advocate-without-portfolio for progressive causes, they chanted: “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go!” While the battle cry was apparently chosen for its euphony (and because the course in question was called “Western Culture”), it also offered a simplified but nonetheless telling clue to the ultimate purpose of those academics who repudiated the universal significance of Western civilization.

Ahem.  I am now going to make a declaration: this represents the very last time that a conservative cultural critic will be allowed to peddle this account of what happened at Stanford in 1988.  All of you who were going to repeat this story yet again, or merely cite Teachout’s account, will have 48 hours to back away from your keyboards, beginning at midnight tonight.  For although I have tired of the good Reverend Jackson in recent years, I continue to believe that people should be praised or blamed only for things they actually do.  And Jackson did not lead this chant.  Bill Bennett and Dinesh D’Souza said he did, but one is a compulsive gambler and first-class hypocrite, and the other is a pathological liar.  Not being a pathological liar himself, Bennett did retract his claim almost immediately, saying, “I suppose the students were chanting, and perhaps the Reverend Jackson was not chanting.” But Bennett declined to note that Jackson actually rebuked the students for the chant, insisting, when he spoke at the rally, “the issue is not that we don’t want Western culture.  We’re from the West.” And Stanford’s Black Student Union seconded the motion, saying “we would like to remind Mr. Bennett that we, too, are a part of Western culture.” (See John K. Wilson, The Myth of Political Correctness, p. 67.)

And may I add, as Stanford professors Herbert Lindenberger and Mary Louise Pratt have long since pointed out, that the “Western Civ” course at Stanford had been in place for only eight years when the students asked for it to be revised?  (See Herbert Lindenberger, “On the Sacrality of Reading Lists:  The Western Culture Debate at Stanford University,” The History in Literature:  On Value, Genre, Institutions, pp. 148-62; Mary Louise Pratt, “Humanities for the Future: Reflections on the Western Culture Debate at Stanford.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89.1 (1990), pp. 7-25.) Holy Boethius, Batman, it wasn’t like a bunch of minorities showed up one day to destroy everything it took you cultured people millennia to build.  You all really need to save your outrage for something more consequential, like perhaps a local production of The Vagina Monologues.

As for “the universal significance of Western civilization”: don’t go there.  Don’t.  Please.  Do you know what happens when you claim “universal” significance for the West—or the East, or the Antarctic?  It gives universalism a bad name, that’s what.  And universalism actually doesn’t deserve the bad rap it’s gotten on the cultural left in the past few decades—but false universalism, that is, merely “significant” or “potentially transcultural” stuff passing itself off as universal, that deserves all the grief it’s gotten and more.  If you want to defend introductory courses in Western civilization, then, just do what I do: say, as I did in my review of David Denby’s Great Books, that “people who hope to think seriously about their place in that world have a positive obligation to verse themselves in the history of human thought and achievement, and that at this time, in this country, Plato-to-the-present courses in ‘Western thought’ are as good a place as any (and better than most) to start.” That’s really all you need.  Keep the appeals to universalism for when you really need them—say, when it comes to talking about universal human rights.

Which brings me to the core of Teachout’s essay, which is that the core no longer exists, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the Internets: “One thing of which I am sure,” he writes in his penultimate paragraph, “is that the common culture of my youth is gone for good.” Again, it’s surprising that a cultural conservative who says such things nevertheless embraces blogging, even as he identifies blogs as “indicative of a sea change in American culture.” And what sea change was that?  Oh, come on, you know:

the common culture of widely shared values and knowledge that once helped to unite Americans of all creeds, colors, and classes no longer exists. In its place, we now have a “balkanized” group of subcultures whose members pursue their separate, unshared interests in an unprecedented variety of ways.

All right, then, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first.  Teachout is only five years older than I am, having been born in 1956.  Was there a common culture of widely shared values and knowledge in the United States at any point between 1956 and 1976, if we accord Teachout a “youth” of twenty years? Actually, yes there was, but it lasted for only for one week during 1967.  In the words of Langdon Winner, “the closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. . . .  At the time I happened to be driving across country on Interstate 80.  In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi.  It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.  For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”

Other than that, folks, American culture in the early 1960s was plural and incoherent, being part of that irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West and all.  Some people cared about exciting recent developments in the New York art world, some people cared about the Yankees, some people cared about those four young men from Liverpool, some people were reading Saul Bellow, and some people were concentrating on the important shit, like Gilligan’s Island.  And before that?  Before that, things were fragmented.  Don’t take it from me—take it from Henry Adams.  He’ll give you an earful on the subject, mainly with respect to how it’s been all downhill since the twelfth century.

So, then, I like Teachout’s praise of blogging, I like most of his own blogging, and I even like the conclusion to his essay:

At the same time, however, I still feel the need for a common space in which Americans can come together to talk about the things that matter to us all. And so my hope is that the blogosphere, for all its fissiparous tendencies, will evolve over time into just such a space. No doubt there will always be shouting in the blogosphere, but it need not all be past each other. When the history of blogging is written a half-century from now, its chroniclers may yet record that the highest achievement of the Internet, a seemingly impersonal piece of postmodern technology, turned out to be its unprecedented ability to bring creatures of flesh and blood closer together.

But if we’re going to talk about things that matter, we have to get a few things straight about this here “common culture” fetish.  One: there was no common American culture in our youth, except for that week in 1967.  Two: whenever you hear someone talking about that common culture, even though it didn’t exist, you’re probably safe in assuming that they’re playing a curious kind of three-card-monte game with the word “culture.” They start off using the word to mean something like “works of art, literature, music, etc.” and before you know it, they’re really talking about “ethnicity.” Teachout admits as much in his second footnote, citing Norman Podhoretz’s 1972 denunciation of “ethnic enthusiasts,” and in his penultimate paragraph, where he echoes the point, blaming the loss of our common culture on “the rise of ethnic ‘identity politics.’” There are two very different senses of “culture” at work here, and basically, the right-wing alarm bells go off the minute those ethnic people (with their “culture” in sense number two) stop caring about the works of art, literature, music, etc. (that “culture” in sense number one) that “we” allegedly cared about at some point in the past—or maybe our parents did, or our professors did, just before Jesse Jackson and the ethnic hordes showed up.  (In earlier decades, you’ll recall, the folks who were screwing up the common culture were known—to quote T. S. Eliot’s notorious essay on the subject—as “freethinking Jews.” Rootless, cosmopolitan, and yet indelibly distinct, they messed with common cultures simply by showing up.)

Third, and most important: to date, not a single conservative thinker has managed to explain why a “common culture” is so important.  When they try, they resort to another three-card-monte game, except that sometimes they’re not even aware they’re playing it; and when they are aware of it, what they do, subtly or unsubtly, is to substitute the ideal of a common society (which is what Teachout is really talking about when he speaks of a “common space in which Americans can come together”) for the notion of a “common culture.” And on this substitution, O my readers, everything depends.  Some conservatives insist that a common culture is the very foundation of a common society, which is why they worry so much about Mexican-American families in Texas hanging Frida Kahlo reprints in their living rooms.  Others insist that a common culture is a salve and a balm for social inequities, and they tend to be perfectly OK with Frida Kahlo reprints in people’s living rooms so long as the artwork keeps people from agitating to raise the minimum wage.  And some conservatives simply don’t see the difference between “culture” and “society” at all.

But you’d think that the recent history of the Middle East—not to mention the Balkans, which always get invoked here, as in Teachout’s reference to “‘balkanized’ groups of subcultures”—would cast doubt on the idea that common cultural foundations have anything to do with fostering social harmony.  The balkanization of the Balkans was not the result of the breakdown of the common culture of southeastern Europe; on the contrary, one might argue that the Balkans would have been a happier place in the 1990s if fewer people in the Balkans had been obsessed by the events of 1389.  Robert Pattison made this elementary point back in 1988, in a critique of E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy:

every Irish person north and south knows the date of the Battle of the Boyne, when Protestant King Billy whipped Catholic King James.  This was the Gettysburg of Irish history, and every Irish person can debate the high and absolute values at stake in that conflict.  We know where that universal knowledge and that universal dialogue have ended.  Similiar observations obtain in the Middle East.  The Arab students are undoubtedly better versed in their culture than their American counterparts are, and many times more adept at arguing the primary values on which their culture rests.  Yet I would not hold up Ireland or the Middle East as models for the education of the young in postindustrial societies.

The key here lies in the final two words: postindustrial societies.  For what really fragmented the “common culture” was modernity itself . . . but that’s matter for another time.  The immediate point is that I can agree with Teachout that we need common social forms, and that the blogosphere might just evolve into such a form: so far, it actually doesn’t have any country clubs or gated communities.  (It is rare to hear conservatives talk about common social forms; more commonly, cough cough, they’re primarily concerned with gutting what remains of the public sector.) But there is no reason to predicate common social forms on the idea of a shared common culture.  And I would say this not only to nostalgic conservatives but to nostalgic leftists as well, the kind who think that modernity and technology have rendered asunder what was once an organic green gemeinschaft.  Back in 1993, in a judicious essay on the life and work of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall noted that talk of a lost common culture could be found on a certain wing of the British left, and he warned against lapsing into the belief that such a culture could serve as the foundation for the idea of a nation.  Hall thus took issue with Williams’ critique of “a merely legal definition of what it is to be British”; in 1983, Williams had written that “to reduce social identity to formal legal definitions at the level of the state is to collude with the alienated superficialities of ‘the nation.’” A decade later, Hall replied, in words that should resonate even more richly today,

If you are a black woman trying to secure rights of citizenship from the local DHS office or an Asian family with British residence running the gauntlet of the immigration authorities at Heathrow, “formal legal definitions” matter profoundly.  They cannot be made conditional on cultural assimilation.

It should not be necessary to look, walk, feel, think, speak exactly like a paid-up member of the buttoned-up, stiff-upper-lipped, fully corsetted “free-born Englishman” culturally to be accorded either the informal courtesy and respect of civilized social intercourse or the rights of entitlement and citizenship. . . .  In the matter of citizenship, of course, there are minimal responsibilities to those others with whom one shares a political community, just as there are “rights.” But, far from collapsing the complex questions of cultural identity and issues of social and political rights, what we need now is greater distance between them.  We need to be able to insist that rights of citizenship and the incommensurabilities of cultural difference are respected and that the one is not made a condition of the other.  (Emphasis in original.)

In other words: common social spaces, and shared norms of citizenship, do not require a common “culture.” Quite the contrary: too much common culture can actually be corrosive of common social spaces.  So, then, may the blogosphere evolve into a common social form, and may a thousand uncommon cultures bloom in it, writing about last night and about the Beatles and about all manner of cultural phenomena.  Except, of course, for the culture that recycles suburban legends about curriculum revision at Stanford.  That one we can do without.

Posted by Michael on 06/15 at 02:13 PM
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Tuesday, June 14, 2005


First things first, a hearty round of applause and thanks to John McGowan for his terrific guest blogging.  Yes, I know that some of you already thanked him, but I can’t hear you, people.  That “assault on democracy” series last week was worthy of a Koufax nomination, in this humble blog’s humble opinion, and I intend to nominate it myself when nominatin’ time rolls around in December.  I invite you to join me.

In fact, John’s guest blogging was so above-and-beyond (more than one person wrote to me and said, “I was wondering how your blog got smarter, until I realized that someone else was writing it,” and I take those remarks in the best possible way) that I’ve decided to offer him what was once known, in the late-Carson era of the Tonight Show, as a “permanent guest host” slot.  We’re still working out the details, because he’s got his own blog to tend to, and I haven’t quite offered to change the name of this blog, but we’ll come up with something.

Next, a second round of thanks to everyone who’s wished me well over the past month.  I’ve been mending slowly but steadily; I still have a clumpy ridge on my right side and still can’t play hockey, but I have now healed sufficiently to resume playing my bizarre Felix Krull impostor version of golf, in which it is difficult to tell whether I am a competent player just messing around, or a complete hacker who gets lucky on every fifth shot.  Late Sunday afternoon, Jamie and I went out to a course we’ve never seen before, one of those nestled-in-the-rolling-hills things about 25 miles east of us; Nick and I had played nine holes at PSU on Friday, during which we were continually reminded that for whatever infernal reason, the Penn State courses grow their rough to the point at which you can neither see nor get your club on the ball if you miss a fairway by five feet or more.  (Also, I just have a thing about public courses with greens fees higher than $30.  It’s not right, I tell you.) So I went looking for a new course, and despite the fact that this one is long and hilly with plenty of blind shots, fired a 42 on the front nine with two mulligans (uh, justified on account of the fact that I have never played there before) and three hideous three-putts (excused on account of the fact that I have never played there before).  As for the Felix Krull part—and you really should read the novel one of these days (Thomas Mann’s last published work), not least for its description of Krull’s attempt to play tennis—I hit a 295-yard drive (slightly downhill) on the sixth just after skulling a delicate chip into the next county on the fifth.  Oh yeah, and then celebrated the drive by clumsily pushing a wedge way right of the pin and three-putting.

But enough about my golf!  It is now time to blog about someone else’s golf.  Annika is a goddess.  All hail the Sorenstam Era.  May she cap off the LPGA Grand Slam this year by beating Vijay Singh 5 and 4 in a challenge match at Winged Foot.  You go, girl.

My surgery did have one nasty side effect, however, in that it has left me with a tragic inability to shave.  Opinions around here are divided about the result of this surprising development, but Jamie likes it, so it’s staying for a while.

Oh, one more thing about health matters.  I’m still not cleared to lift anything heavier than twenty pounds.  Every so often I insist to Janet that this stricture was meant for mere mortals, and not weight-training, beard-wearing hockey players like me, whereupon Janet suggests that I sit down and STFU.  As a result of my recent experiments in weightliftinglessness, then, I have discovered some surprising things about what does and doesn’t weigh twenty pounds:

Things that are far too dangerous to lift:

Laundry baskets
Lawn mowers
Garbage cans

Things that are surprisingly lighter than twenty pounds:

Golf clubs
Hockey equipment bags
Drum kits
Beer kegs

Just some handy physics facts to keep in mind next time you’re laid up!

Next thing next.  Although we’ve done another little site redesign—as Kurt says, “it’s Easter in June!”—I have to do more blogtending in the “essays” section.  I haven’t yet added the last couple of essays I’ve published in public venues in the past six months, like the review essay on affirmative action in The Nation and the Schiavo piece in the Sunday Boston Globe, and I also haven’t added more recent things that just came out in PMLA (two weeks ago) and the New Keywords book, edited by Tony Bennett, Larry Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris.  For my severe laziness on that front, I apologize to the four or five of you who occasionally check out the “essays” section.  I can’t post the New Keywords items on this site, but I’m happy to say that the publisher (Blackwell) has made available one of my seven essays as a “sample entry” on the website dedicated to the book.  The entry is on “experience”, and for those of you who might be wondering what it was like for me to try to write a 1000-word essay on one of the most important items in the Raymond Williams word-hoard for a project that’s meant to update Williams’ lifelong work, I assure you that it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in this business, and that I screwed it up royally and repeatedly.  But I’m reasonably happy with the end result, or I wouldn’t hyperlink it here, now, would I.

Last but not least, I spent a great deal of time in late May and early June wondering why it is that none of the blogosphere’s major women writers seem to take extended hiatuses like mine.  Where, I ask, are all the hiatusing women bloggers?  Do they simply have more stamina than us guys?  Has evolution rendered them more adaptable to the arduous craft of blogging?  Or, as I read somewhere in the New York Times recently, is it just that they’re more competitive?

Posted by Michael on 06/14 at 10:41 AM
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Monday, June 13, 2005

Bush Calls for “Disassembling” Gitmo

Washington—Stunning both critics and supporters, President Bush announced today that the detention camp at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay in Cuba would be “disassembled” by the end of the month.  “To disassemble—that means to take apart,” the President added.

The surprise announcement came less than two weeks after the President dismissed Amnesty International’s report of human rights abuses at Guantánamo as “absurd,” and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the account was “reprehensible,” saying, “No force in the world has done more to liberate people that they have never met than the men and women of the United States military.”

President Bush did not elaborate on the reasons for his decision, but White House press secretary Scott McLellan suggested in a briefing that the Bush administration had recently obtained “credible” evidence that “rogue scientists” were surreptitiously conducting stem-cell research at the Guantánamo facility. 

“Apparently a group of independent contractors got the idea that they could exploit and destroy human embryos in an offshore location,” McLellan told the press.  “The President opposes such research, as I’m sure you well know, because he feels that it is destructive of the culture of life he has tried to foster in his term of office.”

An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated that the so-called “rogue scientists” had descended on Guantánamo in stages over the past two years, and had conducted a series of controversial experiments involving the remediation of spinal cord injuries among the camp’s inmates.

“We don’t know how the prisoners sustained those injuries,” the official added, “but we suspect that they were caused by shoddy reporting by Newsweek.  We do know, however, that these scientists were using Guantánamo as a kind of shield under which to carry out questionable practices that would not be tolerated on the U.S. mainland, and clearly the President had to draw the line.”

The response from Christian leaders and Republican lawmakers was immediate and emphatic.  “It is an outrage that human embryos were subjected to this kind of abuse at an American facility,” said the Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family.  Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R–Tenn.) agreed, saying, “There is no excuse for this kind of obscenity.  Every one of those embryos carried the sacred spark of human life, and every American should be ashamed that their human dignity was violated in so systemic and callous a fashion.”

Conservative bloggers quickly joined the chorus, arguing, in the words of University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, that “Amnesty International seems to have flushed its credibility” by not calling attention to the destruction of human embryos, “some of which might well have become the Guantánamo Snowflakes of tomorrow.” Mystery writer Roger L. Simon concurred, noting that “all the time they’ve been getting their panties in a bunch about terrorists undergoing a little sleep deprivation here and there, Amnesty has had nothing to say about the horrific human holocaust occurring on their watch.”

Meanwhile, multiple sources report that at the White House, the dissembling has already begun.

Posted by Michael on 06/13 at 06:08 AM
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Sunday, June 12, 2005

And Now at Last

"And now at last, just as the time bell rings . . .”

Many thaks to Michael and all the readers of this blog for letting me chat with you over the past three weeks.  I have learned a lot from all of you in trying to work through ideas that I have not yet formulated to my (or your) full satisfaction.  Your patience and interest have been much appreciated.  Come visit me over at Public Intelligence and I’ll really try your patience by explaining why “Sultans of Swing” is the best rock song ever.

Posted by John McGowan on 06/12 at 02:40 PM
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Friday, June 10, 2005

The Republican Assault on Democracy, Third (and Last) Part

I will keep it shorter today.  What follows is inspired by Ian Shapiro’s wonderful book, The State of Democratic Theory (Princeton UP, 2003).  He, in turn, derives his idea of “competitive democracy” from Joseph Schumpeter’s 1942 classic Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, a book that was still standard fare for undergrads when I was in college in the early 70s, but which seems to have dropped out of sight in the last fifteen years.

The basic idea is simple: it’s not a democracy unless the “outs” have a reasonable hope of someday becoming the “ins.” Another way to put the same idea: it’s not a democracy (in Iraq or anyplace else) unless you have had at least two peaceful transitions in which an incumbent party loses an election and hands over power to a rival party. 

The most obvious benefit of democracy, viewed this way, is peace.  The most important corollary benefit is that the opposition party plays a key role in keeping the party in power honest.  It is obviously in the opposition party’s interest to keep the public informed about the missteps and misdeeds of the administration party.  In other words, the opposition party is as crucial to ongoing publicity as a free press.  And publicity is a crucial safeguard (not the only one, but a crucial one) against governmental abuse of power. 

Democracy, in short, prevents one party rule.  Now, there’s a paradox here, since each of the rival parties can be expected to do everything it can to become the dominant party and to stay that way.  But, in fact, disaster will follow if any of the parties ever succeeds in getting what it wishes.  Because once you create a minority that is permanently on the outside, that loses the elections every single time, that minority has no incentive to stay inside the system.  They will be tempted to—and then will attempt—to secede.  Civil peace will yield to civil war.

Every democracy needs, in order to stay afloat, swing voters.  In fact, the more swing voters the better.  And, crucially, every democracy will be better off if the voting behavior of individual voters does not map predictably to ethnic, regional, sectarian, or class affiliations.  Take ethnicity, for example.  If 90% of the voters vote along ethnic lines, then there will not be much “give” in the electorate, and a winning ethnic configuration (be it a coalition of several ethnic groups or just one large ethnic group) can expect to repeat its success at the polls again and again.  Ethnic voters on the losing side will begin to feel permanently excluded. (That’s why democracy in Iraq is so iffy--as it is in any country where you can expect ethnically or religiously identified parties.  Unless there is some movement of voters from one party to the other, the lines of opposition will become firmly entrenched, thus lessening the chances of electoral swings and of peaceful hand-overs of power.)

So what’s the problem in 2005?  Basically, American democracy has been so remarkably stable (with the notable exceptions, to be discussed in a moment, of the Civil War and the Civil Rights conflicts) because our political parties have always run toward the center, have always aimed for inclusiveness.  They have—with the large and notable exception of racism—not advanced exclusionary platforms. (Exceptions like the Know-Nothings only suggest how little traction anti-immigrant and/or sectarian parties ever got in national politics.  Even Philip Roth’s counter-factual fantasy in The Plot Against America doesn’t imagine anti-Semitism prevailing very long in the United States. )

But today’s Republican Party is pursuing a policy of playing to its base and of demonizing its opponents as unfit to rule, as dangerous to America.  Yes, I see the irony; I’m doing the same thing apparently.  My only excuse is that I am fulminating not against what the Republics are using power—while they have it—to do, but against how the ways they are striving to get and maintain power endanger our democratic traditions and institutions.  I am running a form/content distinction if you will.  The content of what the Republicans do with power is legitimate so long as they work through the established democratic forms.  My argument is that Republicans tried to de-legitimize the Clinton presidency and keep it from accomplishing anything substantive by working outside the established forms.  They were so sure Clinton was a demon that they were willing to trash democracy in order to render him ineffective. And since gaining office, they have shown an equal willingness to trash democracy in order to make their own power more effective. They are utterly driven by content—and either have no understanding of or utter contempt for form.  Legal and procedural niceties are for sissies seems to sum up their basic, thuggish, approach to governing.

The more important point, however, is that they are hell bent on creating a majority that does not need to and has no desire to reach out to the opposition—either the opposition party or its opponents in the electorate.  And that’s the formula for civil strife.  There are few things worse in this world than sectarian violence.  Do the Republicans really know what fire they are playing with when they encourage sectarian divisiveness? 

And just look at the electoral map of the past two presidential elections.  The South and the West are lined up against the Pacific Coast States and the North.  We haven’t had such a regional divide since 1860.  How long can California and the Northeast be shut out from national power?  A population hardened into set divisions—i.e. a population without a big percentage of swing voters—is in bad shape; a population where those divisions correspond to geographic boundaries is really courting disaster.  The great Achilles heel of American history has been the relation to non-whites—and it has proved so threatening to the nation as a whole because it has made the South electorally monolithic.  If the South and West maintain their current coalition, we have a reversion to the regionalism that culminated in the Civil War.  Certainly, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the South continues to be the fly in the ointment of American democracy.  It has never been as fluid in its awarding of votes in national elections as the other regions and that has been a constant problem.

Am I saying civil war is around the corner in America?  No. Certainly the past six years have shown that no one ever lost a bet overestimating the torpor of the general public.  As the bumper sticker has it, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.” Seems like a lot of people aren’t paying attention. Less cynically, we can say that American life is good enough on a day to day basis that tons of people have a stake in ongoing civil peace. 

What I am saying is that I think we have lost any sense of how our democracy functions—or that it may be much more fragile than we assume.  We are in a period of tremendous consolidation of power into the hands of the few, not only of the very wealthy but also of an almost permanently installed political class.  (The Democrats are as much to blame here as the Republicans; they have been full co-conspirators in establishing uncompetitive legislative districts and in the spiraling campaign costs that so favor incumbents.) We are taking our democracy for granted while engaging in political practices that undermine it.  We are assuming an immunity from civil strife that is hardly guaranteed. 

So where is the hope that I began this set of guest blogs espousing?  The first glimmer is that the people seem both more weary and more wary of the current partisanship than hard-core political types (of which I am obviously one.  I cannot imagine what could ever bring me to vote Republican, which means, as a decidedly non-swing voter, I’m part of the problem, not part of the solution.) Just like the people wouldn’t let the Republicans drive Clinton out of office, so I hope that we can count on them to rein in Republican and sectarian excess.  All of which means that I still rest my faith on a Democratic Party that goes to the country with a unifying message about fostering a prosperity and a freedom in which all can share.  Because, as I also said in that first post, if the people don’t choose to sustain democracy against all that threatens it, democracy will not be sustained. 

Posted by John McGowan on 06/10 at 12:59 PM
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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Republican Assault on Democracy, Part Two

There’s two additional features of liberal democracy that appear threatened currently. I’m going to present the first one today, and the second on Friday, and then my run as a guest on this site comes to an end.  Michael will be back next week.

Because liberalism aims to insure peace and prevent tyranny in pluralistic societies, it often works to establish zones of mutual indifference.  Liberalism strives to place lots of individual actions outside the pale of politics, beyond interference from the state or other powers.  And, culturally, it strives to promote tolerance, where tolerance is, at a minimum, indifference to the choices and actions of others and, at best, a recognition that diversity yields some social benefits.  (A social benefit, as opposed to an individual benefit, is a good that can only be produced as the result of the aggregate of many individual actions, not by any individual acting on his or her own.  And, ideally, social benefits would accrue to all of the individuals who contribute to its creation, although that is hardly always the case.)

Except for what are generally weak claims for the benefits of diversity (weak not in the sense of being unconvincing, but weak in the sense that no very major social benefit is claimed and some costs are acknowledged), the liberal argument for non-political interference, for privacy and individual autonomy, is primarily negative.  Conflict is the result of trying to tell people what to believe and what to do, so we are better off cultivating a talent for resisting our inclinations to insist that others see the world and run their lives the way I do. 

But liberalism also provides a positive response to pluralism.  It guarantees—through freedoms of speech, the press, and association, and through the institutional mechanisms of election, jury trials, and legislative deliberations—the active engagement of citizens with one another. Liberals should, I believe, promote in every way possible the existence of a vibrant, accessible, and uncensored public sphere (or, to use another term for it, civil society).  In short, liberalism proliferates the occasions where citizens of different opinions, backgrounds, creeds etc. mingle with one another, express their views, and argue about specific issues.  And, in some but not all cases, these settings have to move to a decision that is then accepted, even when not very satisfying, by all the parties involved.

The key point here is that democratic procedures of decision-making—which guarantee to all interested parties their chance to say their piece (their chance to sway others by argument) and use the vote and majority rule to adjudicate differences—is a vital liberal expedient for keeping the peace.  That’s because democracy, amazingly enough, has proven an astoundingly effective way to get people to accept peacefully the fact that they have ended up on the losing side of a political debate that was resolved by a vote.  (I will return to this part of the liberal miracle—is it smoke and mirrors? Are the losers dupes?—in Friday’s post.)

Today my focus is on the process, rather than the result.  “Having a say” is so crucial because it both underwrites the legitimacy of the decision-making and it moves the eventual decision toward trade-offs and compromises that many, although hardly all, the participants in the debate can accept as a reasonable response to different desires and beliefs.  Liberalism, we might say, relies to some extent on the desire of all the participants to maintain the social peace.  But even more fundamentally, it expects that the process of deliberation will move participants to an appreciation of the others involved and the desire to come to an eventual decision that satisfies as many of the participants as possible (with the understanding that no one will get everything they want.)

The simplest way to describe how the Republicans have abandoned this liberal ethos comes from a comment I read somewhere (I’m afraid I’ve lost the exact source) that Senators used to judge the merits of a bill by the size of the majority they could get to vote for it.  But the right today thinks that the best bill is one that wins 52 to 48.  Only a very narrow majority proves that you have gotten as much as you could have possibly gotten on that issue. 

More widely, can we doubt that the Republicans have done everything they can—from restricting access to the debate to disempowering any input from participants with whom they do not agree—to destroy the deliberative process and its tendency toward building large majorities?  In Congress alone, the way the Republicans have used conference committees, have allowed lobbyists to write legislation, and have prevented various issues from ever coming to the floor for debate make their desire for one party rule evident.  The spectacle of the President using tax payer money to go out to “the people” to sell his Social Security scheme and then restricting his audiences to those who will be sympathetic to his views would be funny if it weren’t so frightening—and so casually taken for granted.

The larger point, however, is the decline of the commons.  I want to be very careful here—because I hate “decline” arguments.  John Dewey wrote one of his best books, The Public and its Problems, in 1927 to bemoan the sad state of the American public sphere.  So I am definitely talking about a perennial problem in all liberal democracies.  Liberalism is always kicking against the pricks, is always struggling against power’s desire to exclude, to consolidate, to have it all its way.  Establishing and maintaining a vital public sphere is never easy.  But the form the problem currently takes is unique to our time—and worth our understanding.

The first and most obvious feature of the current configuration is that money talks.  We are in a second Gilded Age, with the corruption of our federal government akin to the Grant to McKinley era.  Even more troubling than the seizure of government by business (with its astounding, even awe-inspiring, insatiability—no widow too abject that we can’t screw another mite out of her) is the class segregation in our society as a whole.  We all know about growing income inequality, and a recent spate of stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (on May 15th and following) have made it clear that the chances for upward mobility have diminished precipitously over the past fifty years.  But also consider how, from gated communities to private schools to ludicrously expensive vacation retreats, the rich have separated themselves off from the non-rich in contemporary America.  The Bush strategy of only facing friendly crowds and yes-saying subordinates simply reproduces the lifestyle of the rich. 

The Democratic elite is no better in this regard.  And here’s where I’ll end today. I think the historical bases for these changes reside in American race relations.  To a large extent, the comity between Democrats and Republicans pre-1960 was based on the white gentleman’s club.  A less cynical explanation would also point out that the depression and World War II were the last events in America to be experienced collectively.  Poverty was not a stigma in the 1930s; a belief that sacrifices were generally shared prevailed during World War II.  So the 50s, to a certain extent, relied on a sense that Americans should collectively benefit from the fruits of victory, from the return of economic prosperity.  But we cannot underestimate how much race solidarity contributed to that bonhomie.  Just look at the response when Truman integrated the military in 1948.  Strom Thurmond ran for president; Truman wasn’t even on the ballot in Alabama and Mississippi; and we had the first inkling of the “Southern strategy” that would end Democratic Party rule.

So the short (and so a bit crude) version of what happened to the commons is that blacks were admitted and whites fled.  That’s what destroyed our public schools.  The whites wouldn’t stay and they wouldn’t pay.  They left the schools and then consistently underfunded them.  The same can be said of our downtowns.  Since not all whites could afford to flee, what had previously been racial segregation became segregation by wealth.  The commons became such a disaster that even blacks who could afford to flee did so.  But, of course, it is not as if racial segregation went away entirely.  The separation of white from black housing and the end of legally enforced school-integration schemes means that public schools in the North are more racially segregated now than in 1960.  We just added wealth segregation on top of racial segregation—and pretty much shut down the places in America where different people could not just mingle, but actually interact, actually engage in a process of deliberation, decision-making, and collective action.

It’s a sad story.  To up the ante, as the Republicans have done, with their continual high-pitched identification and denunciation of enemies internal and external is to play with fire.  Civil peace is among the most precious goods in this world.  We have enjoyed it so long in America that we seem to think the fabric of our society is beyond ripping.  Legitimate a fraudulent election; send soldiers from the lowest economic classes off to fight a war based on lies; rewrite the tax code to abet the transfer of wealth upward; allow businesses to rewrite environmental and regulatory safeguards; undermine all the mechanisms that grant workers any leverage against their employers; and dismantle the safety net for those hurt by economic fluctuations and global economic forces.  How long can you tear apart the very bases of commonality without the divisions thus created becoming noxious?  So far, a flag-waving patriotism has served the Republicans as their substitute for a commons that they vehemently hate and have done everything possible to destroy.  There is another way—but only if we understand and enact a liberal commitment to constant engagement with our fellow citizens. 

Posted by John McGowan on 06/08 at 09:54 AM
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