Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

Who’s the Kamikaze? Schadenfreude and the American empire

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Back in October 2008, a few colleagues and I were having conversation with Johan Galtung about the 2008 election. Johan was talking about the election and he was rather dismissive of its importance. Many of us were animated in our discussion and we were speculating about what the outcome would be. I remember directing a response to him about how crucial some issue or another would be and why it mattered who won in November. His response to me was, as I have learned, Galtungian. He said if McCain wins, it will only hasten the decline of the American Empire. If I believed that there were real stakes in the election, that only represented my American naivete through my faith in elections. We then had a long discussion about the word empire and how it contrasted with hegemony and which was a better description of global politics. Just for the record, I am a hegemony guy and think that American empire is a mis-specified idea.

Flash to today’s Sunday conversation, in which we see Lamar Alexander taking several shots at Japan through only slightly indirect imagery on This Week. First he compares the health bill to a car that can’t be recalled. Then he comes right out and says that the Democrats are playing a kind of kamikaze politics right now, where they will destroy themselves by pushing through reconciliation. This idea turns out to be relatively well distributed  in the public sphere. I have found it in a few places here and here.

What a great example of how a literary device can be developed and then used opportunistically to take advantage of emerging circumstances.  Now that Toyota is in trouble, it is useful for many to pile on and take shots not only at Toyota itself, but also to invoke the most fearsome image of the Japanese as the enemy they can muster–the kamikaze pilot. No one will soon accuse Alexander of being the Senator from Toyota. By drawing on this kind of opportunistic imagery, Alexander surely scored points. If you can’t profitably paint Obama as Hitler, why not Hirohito?

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Fair and Balanced: The Health Summit and the American Hang-up

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2010 at 7:02 am

I have a confession to make. I love to watch Fox News. Now, I won’t do it through the week, because I am one of those anti-TV people. I like to control the programming of my media, so I use the web. But on Sunday morning, I never miss Fox. I also grab it periodically to see how things are going in Peoria. If you hate Sarah Palin, my advice to you is watch more Fox (if love her, take note that Al Jazeera is now available on a channel near yours).

Fox news is great for its ability to reveal the balance of American society that I rarely encounter, the non-urban and little educated metaphorical middle of the country (also to be found up north). What annoys me most about the channel is its motto “Fair and Balanced” This annoys me because these two ideals are related, but they are only identical if taken abstractly. In our two party system we take them literally and this causes all sorts of problems.

Take the example of the health insurance regulation bill that Obama has proposed. Although the bill is a market heavy bill with little government administration and reminds me most of what Newt Gingrich once wanted, the Republicans despise it and are pushing for even less public control. Fine, that makes sense if you want to go that way. This makes the resulting legislation mono-partisan because the Republicans can march in lockstep. The fact that the bill is not bipartisan, and therefore not balanced between the parties, does not mean that it is not a fair representation of the electorate. Why? Because the Democrats control 59% of the Senate and roughly the same proportion in the House. This means that a fair bill under majority rule would appeal to the median voter, corresponding to representative number 51, and would pass as a Democratic bill. It appears that the public does not like the bill (for reasons that can be discussed elsewhere) and if this is true, they have an opportunity in just over eight months to change the structure of representation. Then a fair bill would appeal to the new 51st spot and so on.

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Tweets and Tattoos: Millennial questions about the young

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2010 at 10:27 am

Yesterday had a lot of buzz about young people and their potential effect on culture. Much of that speculation was driven by a fascinating poll by the Pew Center that continues their mapping of the younger set. This millennial generation includes those people born after 1981, putting them between ages 18 and 29. I am as interested in these young people as is anyone else because I find myself interacting with them quite a lot as an instructor. In fact, I am surrounded by them right now as I write. The energy of youth has no equal and that is a good reason to get into the professor business. I suspect that one of the gravest challenges of aging is becoming fixed in your ways and out of touch. Being around young people helps to forestall that condition. Check out the last show of the old BBC special called Civilization to get a sense of the complexities of educating. Clarke has a great sense of what it means to try to bridge the gap between the ongoing lifeworlds of young people and the legions of those who have passed before. George Mason has the added bonus of being remarkably diverse and this keeps the spirit open to the global condition. This is all to say that I am really hopeful for young people, even if I am worried about the American near future.

Politically, the young are remarkably liberal and progressive. Depending on your point of view this is great or dire. I will not weigh in on that, but young people are also learning what all people have learned over the years that change is hard and it is not always good when it comes. Optimism, of course, associates change with progress, but change is sometimes just change. This brings me to the point of this post. I wonder if we are becoming a bit too superficial. It is not that I worry about how deep we are inherently, its just that I worry that our openness to new technologies and wider (if virtual) social networks are robbing the young of their ability to articulate their deeper emotions. To get a sense of where this idea comes from, look at the great book by Robert Bellah on cultural problems that arise when people lack a language through which to express their connections to people.

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Of Blocks and Sidewalks: The prehistory of progressivism

In Uncategorized on February 24, 2010 at 9:16 am

This may be a suitable occasion to pick up on a conversation that we are currently having about the philosophical directions that should be followed for public policy. Not only is President Obama about to hold a fascinating health care summit to discuss what plans should be implemented to deal with the insurance gap, but also there have been fascinating riffs from Glenn Beck and John Stewart on political philosophies. Somehow the tragedy/comedy line from the 18th Brumaire comes to mind, but it isn’t really apt, although the Beck/Stewart version is likely to be more influential on public opinion. This got me thinking about how we ought to live and what makes life better for us.

One of the things that troubles me most about living in northern Virginia is the difficulty of enjoying a pedestrian culture. I don’t mean that I wish we are all more common than we currently are, but that we should walk. There is nothing novel in this observation and the various movements associated with Jane Jacobs’ “new urbanism” have made much progress of late. In order to walk though, you have to have sidewalks and it is often nice to have your city designed in such a way that grid-like patterns form blocks that can serve as unofficial social units.

I have thought about these ideas off and on for some time and on hearing the Beck/Stewart discussion, I began to think about how the fact that some places have sidewalks and others do not has something to do with political philosophy. What are these philosophies? I think of them as two simply conceived, but complexly articulated middle range narratives about political life. On the one hand you have classical liberalism and on the other you have progressive institutionalism. The first fits with liberal notions of individual freedom and limited state power, and the second fits with liberal notions of minimal interdependence and the public good.

As I recall my economics classes in high school, what always annoyed me were the materials that depicted cave men trading securities and the like. It always seemed so churlishly anachronistic. And yet, there was a theme there because many of these liberal ideas are quite august. For example have you read Pericles’ funeral oration recently? It sounds pretty contemporary and touches on our classical liberal themes.

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Party like its 1944: What NASCAR and the Winter Olympics have in common

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2010 at 6:40 am

Before I start this post, I should apologize for the title. I have used this kind of hook before for a television spot in which I was speaking about the 2008 election and a lead up into the third debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. Subsequently, I realized that the reference I was making, though it still sounds rather fresh and hip to me is now, is quite dated. Of course, this is a play on the old Prince song from 1982. Now that was only 28 years ago, but if anyone in college is reading this and you are of modal age, your memories of how weird it would be to be facing New Year’s Eve in 1999 may be less salient then it is for the established columnists and would be public intellectuals who commonly use the frame. It may be time for us to retire it. After I read Gail Collins column last week, I promised myself never to us the Prince thing again, so this is my way of mourning the passing of time.

The notion of mourning time and the passage of time may be appropriate for this post, for what does a simple set of results like the following tell you?


I must say that what I see in this list is a yearning for forgotten times, and the winter games serve to aid that grief. Indeed, I was reviewing the nice web feature that the New York Times has on the history of the medals and I referred back to the 1936 games that were held in Garmisch-Pertenkirchen Germany (the last pre-WWII games). The results are, in order, Norway, Sweden, Finland Germany, United States, Austria… It would not to be too surprising to find this list appearing today. True, northern countries like Russia, Canada and Korea have broken in, but the list is quite different from the summer games counts.

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Summit as Setup: If its Sunday it’s party polarization

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2010 at 9:48 am

I’ll just share a few really brief thoughts this morning about progress in Washington. I am working on a few books about American political discourse and my data source of choice these days is the history of the television show Meet the Press. Watching the shows from the series is a fantastic way to learn about the history of political debate in the country. Over time, I have become adept at picking up on choice lines. A few weeks ago when Alan Greenspan came on to speak about the economy, there was a jaw dropper in which he admitted that he was now convinced that because Americans would not allow for cuts in Social Security we would have to raise taxes. To see why this was such a big deal, read Paul Krugman’s column today. I can find no way to overestimate the importance of this Greenspan conversion (which is precisely what I think it is), but that is story for another time.

Well, this Sunday, the best line came from Congressman Mike Pence, who claimed that the upcoming Obama summit would amount to nothing because the Democrats spell summit S-E-T-U-P.  This is against a backdrop of truly stunning social science findings, in which students of polarization have found that government leaders have become extremely polarized over time, while the people have only slightly moved toward their partisan and ideological camps on the basis on specific issue positions (for an interesting if complicated study see Baldassarri and Gelman). Mike Pence is a great model for the upcoming Republican leadership, silver coiffed, staunchly conservative, and no nonsense in his approach, Pence is the quintessential Hoosier politician. Being a Hoosier myself, I know them when I see them. This extreme cross party distrust is really fascinating and troubling in some ways, but it surely will finally break some of those old rules of comity in the Senate, even if it takes a Republican Senate to do the dirty work.

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Talking ‘bout the g-g-g-g-grasshopper generation: Mourning in America or liberal malaise?

In Domestic Politics on February 21, 2010 at 1:49 pm

It may be appropriate that this year’s super bowl show featured The Who for it half time show. There may be no other pop cultural symbol of the exciting idealism of the generation of the 1960s than this band with the boundless energy represented by songs like “My Generation” and the footage of Pete Townsend’s smashing his guitar in expressive rebellion. It may be one of those ironies of history that the boomer youth riot has opened a space in which Americans can age with dignity and live out their later lives with a kind of vigor that was previously unimaginable. It is another less sanguine irony that the children who were born to the age of affluence may be best remembered for their being the only generation to fully enjoy the fruits of that affluence.

What do I mean? The easiest way to get a sense of this perspective is the read the New York Times with some consistency. Just today, you can find a op-ed from a fairly young man who worked hard and played by the rules and who now has no net worth. You can find pessimistic editorials and sardonic columns. Perhaps the most penetrating piece of pessimism one kind find is Thomas Friedman’s column called The Fat Lady has Sung. Friedman here does what he does best, he uses a simple idea, places in into a larger narrative and beats us over the head with it. The raw material for this column came from a Time magazine article that I had missed that builds on the old Aesop fable of the ant and the grasshopper.

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Cracked Tea Pot: How to tell a tragedy from a terrorist

In Uncategorized on February 19, 2010 at 8:58 pm

It has been edifying to read and watch the various responses to the violent actions that it seems that we can attribute to Joseph Stack. The first thing that fascinates me was that quite a few people on both sides of the political aisle recognized the event for what it was, an outrageous act of terrorism derived from personal traumas and strange combinations of disparate political ideas that somehow relate to the recent wave of Tea Party activism. I say that this is the obvious frame because the target was a tax building, the core theme of the Tea Party revolt is tax aversion, and the method was to use a plane to destroy a building in a way that can only remind us of September 11th 2001. Beyond that, there is much more to say about what motivated the guy and how his motivations may or may not be related to the actions of Tea Party activists. My favorite reaction was the almost Freudian denial from an Austin paper that the act was a personal tragedy and not an act of Tea Party terrorism. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, really!

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Tax Murder: Reflections on the lack of ideological constraint in American public opinion

In Uncategorized on February 18, 2010 at 3:31 pm

It may be unfair to claim this, but I just caught a glimpse of the Yahoo news story about a man who crashed a plane into an IRS building in an attempt to protest tax laws, and I can’t help but see this as our first clear episode of Tea Party terrorism.

Am I being unfair in labeling this? Just to review, the man hated an aspect of the American government and wanted to use violence to attack it. He flew a plane into the symbolic building that housed that hated aspect of the government to make his views clear. This could be Mohammed Atta, but it was instead an American guy.

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Talk, Talk, Talk: Why the filibuster will soon end

In Uncategorized on February 18, 2010 at 7:42 am

For obvious reasons, there has been a lot of recent debate about whether we should end the tradition of unlimited debate in the Senate. One nice op-ed article can be found here. It is well known that the Senate often stalls legislation, acting as a check on what the more volatile house does. There are many reasons that the Senate acts as the saucer for the tea cup mass opinion that the house represents (Funny to think about the tea thing again. As it turns out, I think that the founding fathers drank tea differently in those days because Washington suggested to Jefferson that you pour your tea into the saucer to cool it. This reminds me of the new wine in old bottles line that often gets reversed today).  Read the rest of this entry »