Saturday, March 05, 2011

I Write An Email To An Academic Hack (UPDATE)

A Facebook friend had linked to this Huffington Post piece and, since the link was provided, I checked out the survey report that was the source for the article. I was surprised, and somewhat dismayed, to discover the survey in question said none of the things the author, Phil Zuckerman, claimed it said. Furthermore, the description of various Christian believers, the thumbnail sketch of the history of conflict between more traditional, conservative Christians, and their various liberal opponents, was caricatured to the point of unrecognizability, with some pretty glaring errors of historical fact tossed in just to make it interesting.

Indiscretion being the better part of valor, I decided to send this doofus, who teaches sociology at someplace called Pitzer College, an email. Ahem:
Dear Sir,

I was led to your Huffington Post article, "Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus", and was amazed and saddened to discover, after reading the linked article from the Pew Research Center, that your description of the survey results, the provocative headline, and even some of the alleged history related in the article are quite wrong, misleading, and play upon stereotypes rather than fact. When reading the Pew Center article discussion its research on the Tea Party and religion, a couple points jumped out at me. First, it states unequivocally that "[t]he analysis shows that most people who agree with the religious right also support the Tea Party. But support for the Tea Party is not synonymous with support for the religious right." To support this assertion, the authors write the following in reference to the results of the survey: "An August 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that nearly half of Tea Party supporters (46%) had not heard of or did not have an opinion about “the conservative Christian movement sometimes known as the religious right”; 42% said they agree with the conservative Christian movement and roughly one-in-ten (11%) said they disagree.3 More generally, the August poll found greater familiarity with and support for the Tea Party movement (86% of registered voters had heard at least a little about it at the time and 27% expressed agreement with it) than for the conservative Christian movement (64% had heard of it and 16% expressed support for it)."

Your description of Jesus teaching "socialism" is the kind of lazy, thoughtless nonsense one would expect from someone who doesn't carefully study the subject in question, rather than a professor at a university.

Finally, the historical survey regarding the relationship between conservative evangelicals (did you know there are liberal evangelicals?) and various liberal mainline Christian churches, after jumping forward to the post-WWII era, makes the glaring mistake of moving "the Social Gospel" a generation forward, long after it had petered out as a source of inspiration. Furthermore, the criticism that anti-communism joined up with (non-existent) criticism of (non-existent) Social Gospelers in the 1950's misses a huge factual point; the most important American Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, was influenced strongly by the Social Gospel movement, although he took several steps to one side during the early part of his career. After the Second World War he, along with Arthur Schlesinger created Americans for Democratic Action, a left-leaning but also anti-communist organization of intellectuals and activists. Niebuhr spent much of the time after WWII actively criticizing some European theologian, most prominently Karl Barth, for their softness toward communism. To claim that it was only conservative evangelicals who were anti-communist is negated by actual historical fact.

The entire piece was so typical of someone who doesn't understand the complexity of American religious life (fundamentalists are not always evangelicals; evangelicals certainly are not all fundamentalists), the actual history of the various movements involved, and doesn't even take the time to read through the details of a survey before writing about it. Such is the state of American intellectual life today that this kind of thing is acceptable.

Thank you for your time,

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford
One can be critical of conservative evangelicals. One can be critical of all sorts of things. The thing I really dislike is when people who are supposed to be educated present information to people that is so wrong it wouldn't pass muster in an undergraduate research class.

UPDATE: So I was checking out some other stuff Phil Zuckerman has written that are available on-line. This piece in particular struck me as interesting, not least because the interpretation of the data showing a rise in non-belief across the board, including in the United States which had been impervious to the secularization of western Europe, is interesting. All the same, I came across the following paragraph that leaped out at me with blinking red-and-white neon screaming "BULLSHIT!!":
Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.
These same countries also share a certain historical background - official religions that support the ruling status quo that was, until the early- to mid-20th century, hostile to the needs of large parts of the population. Religious support for the fascist tyrannies across central Europe certainly didn't help. Already by the end of the First World War there was a strong popular reaction against established religious beliefs in various European countries, for the quite sound reason that they supported the slaughter across the continent.

That many western European countries simultaneously display a large disbelief in traditional religious faith and exercise various social policies most folks identify as "liberal" at the very least does not represent anything other than statistical correlation; the two happen to occur at the same time in various societies. One is not related to the other beyond, perhaps, being the results of various historical forces the authors do not come close to addressing.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Real Elitism

The third and, I think, final little installment of what is, really, a kind of overview of what I do and why. Here, we address a wide-ranging topic. I know you're just breathless with anticipation.

In the summer of 2009, as the Tea Party began to coalesce around opposition to the proposed health care reform legislation, there was quite a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the liberal world over all those horrible folks showing up at various Town Hall events, speaking out against the bill. I, for one, supported it, and still do. I remember quite distinctly writing that more participation in the political process is always a good thing. Even if done by those with whom I disagree.

What I dislike, with all my heart, is the way far too many conservatives choose to discuss everything from budgetary concerns to the President's political philosophy. It is all well and good to oppose, say, the Affordable Care Act, even for reasons of principle. It is quite another to dub it "Obamacare" and claim the Affordable Care Act is a "government takeover of health care." It is, in fact, the exact opposite, invigorating the health insurance market by regulating certain practices that open the market up, creating a pool of customers three hundred million strong. Costs for consumers, so the theory goes, will decline, and the larger pool of potential customers present opportunities for insurance companies to rake in some serious money. Now, as I say, one can oppose these matters on principle. What one cannot, or at least should not, do is argue from the premise that the Affordable Care Act eliminates private insurance, dictates and limits treatments, and stifles innovation. None of these last three are addressed in any way by the act, and even those opponents who dislike the ACA have never argued it.

Yet, that is the way the entire issue is framed. Zombies are easier to kill than this bunch of lies; at least those you can shoot in the head. No matter how often they are shown to be wrong, counterfactual, nonsense, BS, and hokum, they keep appearing.

Why is that? The answer is as close as the TV remote.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping track of a trend among friends around my age (late thirties to mid-forties). Eight of us (so far) share something in common besides our conservatism: a deep frustration over how our parents have become impossible to take on the subject of politics. Without fail, it turns out that our folks have all been sitting at home watching Fox News Channel all day – especially Glenn Beck’s program.


I flew out for a visit, and observed that their television was on all day long, even if no one was watching it. What channel was playing? Fox. Spending a few days in the company of the channel – especially Glenn Beck — it all became clear to me. If Fox was the window through which I saw the wider world, for hours every day, I’d be perpetually pissed off too.


Unbridled anger at the deserving enemies is a danger to the civil order, and ultimately to ourselves. Remember Thomas More’s warning to the hotheaded William Roper in A Man For All Seasons, when Roper accused More of going easy on a scoundrel who hadn’t (yet) broken the law. Roper charged More with wanting to give the Devil the benefit of the law.

“This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s!” More responded. “And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”

More adds that he would give the Devil the benefit of the law “for my own safety’s sake.” There’s a profound conservative truth in this, a warning that even passion for righteousness can be turned to evil, precisely because it is passion.

The popularity of vigorous rage merchants like Beck and Olbermann are not a sign of our political culture’s vitality, but rather its decadence. We live in a time and place that puts high value on emotion, and that views emotions as self-validating. To feel something is thought by many to be sufficient evidence of its truthfulness, or at least its authenticity. This is a mark of the barbarian. I understand why post-Sixties liberals make the mistake of believing that nonsense. But conservatives?
It isn't just conservatives who find this troubling.
If they weren't so nasty most of the time I'd start to feel sorry for the Tea Party. They are getting taken for such a ride by hucksters, snake oil salesmen and billionaire puppeteers that it's getting sort of pathetic.


I'm sure there are plenty of sincere Tea Partiers out there who are getting fleeced all the time by these types. And while it's tempting to say they deserve it, it still isn't right. They are just trying to exercise their democratic right to organize and they are being manipulated and conned by a bunch of billionaire media moguls and small time hustlers. I guess that's part of the bargain too, but it's distasteful to see it happening anyway.
Were this solely the work of ideological opponents, I suppose I could be accused of the very thing I am complaining about. I am unhappy to say it isn't only conservatives who get taken for a ride by extremely rich folks who sell bullshit on TV.
Rachel Maddow made some flat-out mistakes in her first report on Wisconsin—as people often do.


On February 18, Politifact began to fact-check Maddow’s confusing report. In the process, they spoke to Lang himself; they concluded that Maddow, like several others, had gotten this matter wrong.


Please note: The fact that Maddow seems to have made this mistake isn’t a hanging offense. Nichols made the error first, and several others followed. But other people corrected themselves, and Maddow simply didn’t. Politifact challenged her report on February 18—and all was silent for almost a week. But all hell broke loose last Thursday night, with Maddow saying that she had been “slandered” when Politifact called her a “liar.”

Politifact didn’t call Maddow a liar, of course; it simply said she had made some mistakes. But Rachel Maddow is rarely wrong— if you let Rachel Maddow tell it. Last Thursday, she issued a blistering, 12-minute rant in which she hotly denied all error. Her rant was grossly unfair, and highly deceptive . . .
The closest I come to using an American news source is listening to NPR in my car to and from work. Now, some would consider that the epitome of limousine liberalism; while the news readers tend to stick to bare facts when reciting headlines, and the occasional complex story gets far more full treatment than it might otherwise receive even on a cable network that has 24 hours to fill, when it comes to politics, even NPR succumbs to the notion that facts are irrelevant trivialities when conflict arises.

For example, as events in Madison, WI heated up, there has been little to no reporting on whether or not Gov. Walker's insistence on stripping collective bargaining rights from municipal employees will actually create a healthier fiscal climate for the state. Even as he revealed his budget the other day, insisting it closed, over two years, a widening budget gap, he said it was contingent on busting the state workers' union. It seems to me this is an easy enough question to answer - will ending collective bargaining give, in Walker's words, "needed flexibility"? There certainly has been no effort of which I am aware, to answer this question, by NPR or anyone else. Instead this, like all great political discussions, is presented as a simple, two-sided, he-said/she-said affair, where any factual information is far less important, far less interesting, than repeating the talking points of each side with the meaningless "some say" qualifier. Whenever you hear a news reader use those two words, you are listening to a weasel.

In all this, we are experiencing the undermining of our ability to govern ourselves as elite news outlets shun factual content for the far more interesting fight between two sides. Now, I can grant that it is quite possible Gov. Walker, the folks in the Wisconsin State Senate who wrote the bill, and those around the state and country who support it, do so in the sincere belief it is necessary. They might also be motivated by an honestly felt distrust of organized labor in general, and municipal unions in particular. There is nothing wrong with any of this. Stopping there, however, is not giving people the information necessary to understand the stakes involved. The question at the heart of conflict should be addressed.

This isn't done because for too long any attempt to figure out what actually lies at the heart of so many of our political debates is attacked by conservative elites - beginning decades ago with Vice President Spiro Agnew's "nattering nabobs of negativism" speech (thank you, William Safire) - as nothing more than "liberal bias". No matter how often it is demonstrated that such a creature doesn't exist, it, like the mega-zombie lies about the ACA, continues to exist. It is the cockroach of our social life, a bit of social vermin that cannot be destroyed, and may well survive a nuclear war.

I have said it before and I will say it again. I do not care if you oppose Pres. Obama, the policies of the Democratic Party, or anything else. I am glad the rank and file Tea Party supporters are out there, concerned about important matters facing all of us, engaging in discussions on matters of fiscal policy and all the rest. I long ago gave up slandering these folks because, at heart, being a small-"d" democrat, I always prefer more participation to less, more activism to less, more opportunities for all sorts of folks to engage in the hard work of running this huge, wonderful country.

If, however, anyone uses false information to support their position, don't believe for one moment you are above being corrected. If a person receives their information from questionable sources, whether that is FOXNews or AM talk radio hosts or right-wing websites like Renew America, Little Green Footballs, or American Thinker, please know the target of my ire is not you for holding the beliefs you do, but the sources that are taking you for a ride. There are plenty of serious, thoughtful conservative sources of information. The Frum Forum, to which I linked, is one. While National Review Online is a truly pathetic place, the print version is, by and large, still quite good. There's even that mainstay of responsible Establishment conservatism, to which I subscribed for years, U.S. News and World Reports.

It is important for all of us to weigh the sources of our information. Check out anything and everything we read against any available facts. With Google, that is easy enough for the average person. Just because a report chimes with our worldview doesn't make it either true or real. We need to keep checking, getting the information from as many sources as possible. That way, we aren't taken for a ride by those who have agendas that might well not suit us. This is the way I conduct my affairs. It keeps me honest; when I am factually wrong, I admit it. I hate being so, but being human, it is bound to happen no matter how thorough and conscientious I am.

On the other hand, when I call some folks on the carpet about their repeated claim the Pres. Obama is a socialist, I am told that no matter how much I point out that actual socialists aren't too enamored of the guy's policies; that there is nothing in his public life to indicate he is anything more than a moderately liberal (at best) Democratic politician; that the claims concerning his alleged socialism are rooted in falsely reported facts and incorrect understandings of the terms involved; no matter how often this happens, I am told I am the one who is wrong. At this point, it is pretty clear those who do this aren't interested in facts, are not swayed by the way the world is, that words have no meaning. Really, that last is the greatest danger we all face.

When words cease to have any social meaning; when facts become malleable, because the words we use to talk about them are empty of any content, rest assured, we are in serious trouble.

Our contemptuous, elitist overlords - Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch; the Koch Brothers and Dick Armey; Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann - want us to stay tuned without actually thinking about what we are told. They make money, acquire power, and rob us of our critical faculties. Our democracy is the poorer for it. These are the folks we should worry about. Not the ridiculous idea that Barack Obama is a foreign-born, closet Muslim-jihadist-socialist. Rather, that this idea isn't given to you, but sold to you by folks who are laughing all the way to the bank with your money.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

It Don't Mean A Thing If It Aint' Got That Swing

Before I gave up my membership, The Musical Heritage Society provided the opportunity to purchase a complete edition of Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. A triumph for Goodman, for swing, for race relations in music (it was one of the first opportunities, and at a large, important venue, for black and white musicians to play together), and for the historical detective work necessary to track down lost songs, to put Goodman's recollections included on the recording in context. Even if you aren't a particular fan of jazz, or swing, it is a marvelous recording, although the CD separates out the applause and band changes as separate tracks, which makes the set interesting to listen to on iTunes, as there are little thirty- and forty-five-second bits that are titled "Applause".

Along with a live recording of the Dave Brubeck quartet at that same venue, as well as by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra around the same time, also at Carnegie Hall, I have a nice little set of live jazz at Carnegie Hall that shows this staid institution opening itself to the liveliness of American's signature musical art form. My father, who studied at Carnegie Hall, told me the original auditorium was an acoustic masterpiece; one could stand in center stage and speak and be heard with clarity way up in the cheap seats in the balcony; since microphones didn't exist, this was necessary, but one can get a feeling for the acoustics of this marvelous theater on the Goodman recordings, in particular those previously considered lost but discovered on weathered acetates that have been digitally reconstructed. The Goodman show, in particular, shows the old Carnegie at its best, American swing at the beginning of its national popularity as a powerful musical force, and offers a glimpse of a long-lost moment in our cultural history that should be treasured by all Americans.

Plus, it makes you want to get up and dance.

OK, enough reminiscing about my awesome music library. I'm pushing the button . . .

Lady Evil - Black Sabbath
Baby, Baby Don't Cry - Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Lamplight Symphony - Kansas
Kiss of Death - Vanden Plas
Pope - Prince
S'il Vous Plait (Live) - Miles Davis, Complete Birth of the Cool
Filipino Box Spring Hog - Tom Waits
Remember Me Lover - Porcupine Tree
Map of the World - Marillion
Times of Trouble - Temple of the Dog

This one just missed the cut. One of those 1970's, country-rock one-hit wonders that deserves to be a hit.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Our Ridiculous Intellectuals

This is the second in a series of posts that clarify, for the moment, what I do and why. I realize this is exciting for all of you.

I have to admit that I was quite disturbed by the positive press the movie The Social Network received. While it may well have been excellent film-making, its story, purporting to chronicle the rise of Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, it is rooted in some fundamental untruths regarding our favorite whipping boy. In the movie, Zuckerberg is portrayed as a sexually and socially frustrated young man, incapable of serious, long term attachments, who creates Facebook as a way for fellow losers to share information on hot women. The problem, of course, is that while FB was, indeed, designed for this purpose, at least in a limited way, Zuckerberg himself has been in a healthy, steady, long-term relationship with the same young woman since early in his years at Harvard. The entire premise of the film is rooted not only in a lie, but a far more general perception of people interested in computers and social networks as somehow socially and psychologically malformed. Were I Zukerberg, who was reportedly worried over the impact the film's release would have on the public's perception of him, I would have laughed all the way through.

I read or heard a review of the film when it was released that cast the writer and directors as, in essence, changing some very basic facts concerning Mark Zuckerberg because they are uncomfortable with the reality that he is, by and large, a well adjusted, intelligent, thoughtful young man who also happens to be an extremely wealthy, powerful media presence. In other words, they envy Zuckerberg's success, and figure the best way to bring him down a peg or two is to make him out to be some kind of socially awkward nerd who can't get laid, alienates all those without whom he never could have created Facebook in the first place, and winds up, rich and powerful, yet alone, sending a friend request to the (non-existent) young woman who dumped him years before.

The landscape of our social life is changing rapidly. Over the past five years we have gone from the largely adolescent-dominated MySpace to the far more adult-friendly Facebook and Twitter. Trying to understand these phenomena is difficult enough, considering they are a constantly shifting platform. For those whose interest in them runs more toward their use as a medium of communication and the relationship between social networking and the creation of actual social groups, movements, and other real, as opposed to virtual, social networks, it is difficult to escape the influence of social network skeptic Malcom Gladwell. An article he published last October in The New Yorker has been subject to serious criticism, yet it seems no one can write intelligently about the reality of social networks without moving through Gladwell's article.
The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.
These two snippets from a very long article should be evidence enough that Gladwell's piece is garbage. Yet, it is too often treated with utmost seriousness.
There was a stage set for Remnick and Gladwell. … When they came out, Remnick immediately brought up the Gladwell’s social media article from a few weeks ago, where Gladwell wrote that social media only created weak ties and wasn’t sufficient to push a people to form a social movement. He took a lot of heat in the past few weeks, since social media may have played some role in the uprisings in Egypt. Gladwell was pretty hostile to his critics. He scoffed that his critic was some blogger from Huffington Post. Why should we listen to some pajama-wearing blogger, he asked? Some pajama-wearing blogger who lives in Brooklyn, he added for extra laughs.

Well, I’m not sure why we should listen to a journalist who doesn’t like to travel north of 14h Street. Look, it was a very entertaining evening. Those guys were funny and witty and shared lots of amusing stories. But they didn’t know anything about revolutions or social media or Egypt. That’s okay. Journalists don’t have know be experts in their field. But they have to acknowledge that they aren’t experts and they really have an obligation to talk to people who spend their lives studying those subjects. … Why should anyone care what Malcolm Gladwell thinks about Egypt and Facebook, when there are people who have travelled to the Mid East, are fluent in Arabic, and spend most of their waking hours learning about this subject.
I should note that the Crooked Timber piece is a meta-critique of the whole notion that Gladwell's piece has any serious merit, and the "debate" in question having any merit as an intellectual exercise.

There are serious inquiries in to the place and role of social media, in particular in light of their important role in the on-going revolutions in the Muslim world. For example, Scott McLemee, writing at Inside Higher Education, notes the following criticism of another social media skeptic, Evgeny Morozov:
Cory Doctorow, the novelist and a co-editor of the website Boingboing, has published an extensive critique of The Net Delusion -- arguing that its broadsides against net activism are misdirected. “Where Morozov describes people who see the internet as a ‘deterministic one-directional force for either global liberation or oppression,’ or ‘refusing to acknowledge that the web can either strengthen rather than undermine authoritarian regimes,’ I see only straw-men, cartoons drawn from CNN headlines, talking head sound bites from the US administrative branch, and quips from press conferences.”
Far more balanced and nuanced that Gladwell's dismissal of pajama-wearing bloggers, McLemee's piece notes that social media had and will continue to have a role in the revolutions in the Middle East, while skeptical of all the claims that they are, indeed, "Twitter (or Facebook) Revolutions." A healthy skepticism of any such claims is always a good thing.

These examples of the back-and-forth concerning the place of social media, how we perceive its architects and users, is an example of what I take to be the very real vapidity of our intellectual life. As the critic cited at Crooked Timber notes, Gladwell is a journalist, and not one particularly knowledgeable about the subject matter in question. Treating his take as a matter of intellectual seriousness is a symptom of a far deeper malaise - the paucity of our intellectual life at our current historical moment. Scott McLemee's piece is a rare bird, indeed; that it has received far less attention and discussion is another symptom of that same decay of our collective critical faculties.

Another example, again, drawn from the same general milieu of discussions in re social networking sites, is this piece from Rob Horning at The New Inquiry.
Facebook makes a market in friendly discourse and skews it so that it, as broker, always comes out ahead. But in other ways, the friend market functions like most others: it depersonalizes exchange and reduces transaction costs, thereby increasing the number of exchanges that occur. Accordingly, the volume of friend communication we consume thanks to Facebook has increased exponentially. But we have next to no ethical obligation with regard to any of it — that’s understood by all parties entering into Facebook’s market. We are obliged only to be rational maximizers, like we are in ordinary markets.

But what has radically changed is the nature of friendship, which once upon a time was something intended specifically as a bulwark against depersonalization, against market logic. With Facebook, the consumerist allure of “more, faster” fuses with a closely related moral cowardice about rejecting people to drive us en masse to the platform, bring the efficiencies of commercialization right into the heart of our social lives. With friendship in play as an alienated revenue stream, we must retreat even further into our private lives to find a haven from commercialization, to preserve the disappearing self. Soon we’ll have to seek refuge in that evocation of the “blissful isolation of intra-uterine life” as Freud called it — the “total narcissism” of sleep, where our gadgets can’t reach us.
Personally, I find the kind of angst-ridden apocalyptic warnings concerning the potential social disruption brought about by the anomie-inducing algorithms of Facebook to be not only overheated and overdetermined; they are the result of a certain kind of social status, a privileged position in which one has the time and means to worry about such things, rather than consider the very real possibility that, far less than the automatons goosestepping to our social-network overlord's every whim, users of social media might actually be aware of the pitfalls and limitations of the media they are using, understanding the contacts and communication of Facebook for what they are.

At our current historical moment, we no longer have the intellectual tools necessary for understanding the multi-variant phenomena that are impacting our lives. Our universities, homes to our official intellectuals, are really no more than farms where pens hold sociologists and philosophers and physicists and mathematicians who not only do not communicate with one another; they do not communicate to the general public, except in rare instances that usually lead to misunderstanding and more heat than light. The time-honored idea that understanding needs to be done across a variety of disciplines - the roots of liberal arts education - is honored in the names of various colleges, but usually in practice is dismissed as dilettantism of the worst sort.

At heart, we are in need of people who can grasp, in rudimentary outline, a variety of perspectives, and integrate these perspectives in to a far larger picture of our social and political life. Anything less isn't so much understanding as it is the marginalization of real understanding.

The enemy of this kind of real intellectual life is the expert, either self-professed, or generally declared. While there are kinds of expertise that earn the name, they are usually limited to crafts and skills, such as woodworking and welding. A philosopher who spends time and energy researching, say, the nature of scientific discourse is not "an expert", but rather a specialist. Familiar with a particular vocabulary that is limited to the very narrow field under study, any attempt to link this particular vocabulary to our general way of speaking would not only be nearly impossible; the attempt would be understood as watering down the specificity of the vocabulary in question. The worst epithet any academic can have tossed at his or her work is "popularizer".

This paucity of serious intellectual engagement, leaving the field open to pseudo-intellectuals like Gladwell (and marginalizing far better and more serious intellectual engagement like that done by Scott McLemee and others he covers in the linked article) is a central concern of mine. For a generation, our universities, lampooned by ignoramuses on the right as the home of tenured radicals, are in reality farms where the various pens are not just locked but walled shut. Real intellectual life centers on figuring out together the multi-leveled implications of everything from tax policy to social media to the new physics recently much discussed. The lack is serious intellectual heft in our common life is demonstrated most clearly by the success of climate skeptics. While the silliness of the ruminations on social media are less important intellectually, as an example of the defects of our intellectual life, it is the most visible.

We are not in need of experts or specialists. We need to return to an understanding of an intellectual as someone engaged across a multitude of disciplines, attempting to integrate an understanding of our world as it unfolds that treats the public as serious, intelligent, and thoughtful. This blog is my small contribution to this effort.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Just A Guy

This is the first of a multi-part series in which I state my ever-evolving position on what I do, why I do it the way I do, and the merits or lack thereof in the endeavor.

The family was sitting around allowing our collective brain cells to die the other night, watching IndependenceDay. I don't mind watching brain candy like this, although having lived through an era where our elected officials have acted as if the violence others have visited upon us is as mindless as that of the aliens in that movie, I found myself enjoying it far less than I used to. There are far too many Americans who would enthusiastically support the words of the fake President, "Let's nuke the bastards," for me to consider any such invocation "entertaining". During the scene where that "nuking" takes place, I expressed umbrage at the way our military technology was presented. Nuclear-armed cruise missiles are depicted being launched from Stealth bombers, while a military observation vehicle sits close by to check and see if the target - a flying saucer hovering over the remnants of Houston, TX - is destroyed. The film portrays the planes being quite close, the missiles fired at almost point blank range. The vehicle, sitting on an empty stretch of Texas highway is buffeted by the blast wave, as debris flies past, but is otherwise undamaged.

The missiles in question could have been fired quite safely from as far away as either coast. Even had they been fired from, say, the Chicago area or even as close as St. Louis, their travel time would have been minutes only. Firing a nuclear missile from the range depicted would have eliminated the plane quite handily. The observation vehicle may have survived the blast wave traveling faster than the speed of sound; the heat, however, would have, at the very least, cooked those inside.

Don't even get me started on the aerial "dogfights" between the F-16s and the little alien spacecraft.

My older daughter looked at me and asked me, "How do you know all that stuff?" The answer was quite simple. I read about it. It isn't secret. It isn't some weird arcane knowledge available to specialists. Any reasonably intelligent human being who can muddle through some technical jargon can come away with a general grasp of military technology. It just isn't all that hard to figure this stuff out.

A couple weeks back, my wife was expressing her dismay that I seemed to have a grasp of current events that surpassed hers. I told her that was because I was interested in what was going on in the world, and tried to keep up the best I could given limited time and resources. She demurred, insisting I had a greater intellectual grasp of these events than the average person. To which I responded with embarrassed thanks, insisting, however, that I was really no different than the average American confronted by the huge amount of information on all sorts of things that happen each and every day. I am just trying to figure this stuff out, as best as I can. I have said it many times before, and will say it many times again, but I really doubt most of my reflections have any real merit beyond my own sense of gathering my ideas at any particular moment in time.

A friend of Winston Churchill once remarked with wry amusement that the Great Man was really one of simple tastes. He far preferred the best things in life. I have long identified with that description and sentiment. Now, about Churchill, it referred to his preference for vacations in the south of France, for expensive wine and other drink; for fine foods; for great conversation partners who would enlighten him on various topics (as well as sit through a Churchillian monologue without fidgeting too much).

I take the same approach to how I go about figuring out the world, what's going on, and what I actually think is happening at any given moment. Why read The Weekly World News, or even The Washington Post, when there are abundant resources out there that are far more intelligent, far more clear? For example, when it was clear that events in Egypt were quickly moving toward the kind of political and social ultimatum that could end either in tragedy or triumph, I turned first to Twitter for various sources of information; reading a retweet by Reuters from Al Jazeera English, I made the quick decision, on my own, to do what thousands of Americans did in the ensuing weeks. I started streaming Al Jazeera English reports, reading commentary, sidebars, analysis. Knowing that I did not know much of anything concerning the situation; knowing that American sources like CNN, the Times, and the Post were probably as well-informed as I was, I decided that, being there in the midst of that part of the world, with reporters on the ground who knew the language and the politics, AJE would be a far more reliable source of information. I was rewarded by watching the Egyptian revolution unfold in real time, including that moment when former Pres. Mubarak's resignation was announced, sitting and listening as the roar of the masses in Tahrir Square rose.

Now, I never pretended that sitting and watching these events unfold, learning all I could about the particulars of Egypt's history and politics, meant even vicarious participation. My sympathies were always with the people, as they continue to be in regards to on-going protests in Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, emerging protests in Oman, and the civil war in Libya. Sympathy, however, is not identification. I continue to maintain that I am just observing and learning; I get information from tweeters on the ground in Yemen and Algeria, and from a Libyan ex-pat living in Manchester in the UK who has sources on the ground.

The same is true for the rest of my life. Being a Christian and an American, I'm trying to figure out how to be those things with a certain amount of integrity from people who are far more intelligent, insightful, knowledgeable, and capable of far better expression that I ever will be. Why settle for just anyone when there are the best resources out there, people who are really engaged with living these same questions I have, and at the very least express the questions more clearly than I ever have or will.

As the title of this post suggests, I do not nor have I ever considered myself either special or insightful. As I told my wife a week or so ago, I'm just some guy trying to figure it out as I go, with the single advantage of being able to discern who is a far better resource for help in figuring it out than a whole lot of other folks. At the very least, that makes the search for understanding a lot less cluttered with fluff and nonsense. Life is far too short to waste one's time listening to ninnies.

Governor Weaker

After repeated threats to "clear" the state capitol building in Madison, the chief of police refused to do so. As in all power struggles, there are decisive moments, events that have deeper meaning beyond the immediate impact. For all his bluster and refusal to budge, the chief of police has showed that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker might not have what it takes to win what has become a far more protracted and important conflict over the right of state workers to organize.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan called the bluff of the air traffic controllers, and fired them, lock, stock, and barrel. Regardless of one's feelings about that act, one thing is sure; organized labor understood that Reagan meant business. With a President willing to fire an entire group of federal employees, labor's struggles with management across the country became that much more difficult. The federal government would not be (at best) a neutral arbitrator, a resource to which parties could turn in order to negotiate differences. Businesses wishing to eliminate the threat of organization through mass firings now had a friend at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, and they knew it.

Gov. Walker, on the other hand, is finding it more difficult to find friends. He may have the Koch brothers, but at this point, they are toxic. Republican governors are running from any association with Walker's attempt to strip collective bargaining rights from state employees. The protesters in Madison have stayed despite bad weather, threats of arrest, and bad mouthing from some in the press. They reach out and thank the police, knowing that as organized workers doing a tough job in bad conditions, they stand to win or lose much depending on the outcome of the legislative process and street protests. The police trip over themselves praising the good-natured, well-behaved, and even politeness of the protesters. The police, right up to the chief of the Capitol police in Madison, know who has their backs, and it isn't the Governor or the Republicans in control of the state Senate.

This isn't over, by any means. All the same, despite winning pretty handily - 54% of the vote is substantial in most places - the last dregs of goodwill and political capital Gov. Walker had when he entered office is dripping on to the snows of Madison. Even should the measure pass, Walker will face a hostile press, a hostile state workforce not necessarily willing to implement other laws that pass with his support. He has been exposed, as of this morning, as a paper tiger, so the advantage, and momentum, is clearly with those who oppose the attempt to strangle Wisconsin's public employee's unions. For all intents and purposes, barely two months gone, Gov. Walker's effectiveness as governor is over. The longer this continues, and the more he displays a lack of any ability to control events, the weaker he will become (which, I should add, gives the protesters all the more reason to drag this out).

Were I Scott Walker this Monday morning, I'd be on the phone to the real Koch brothers, wondering if there were any positions open.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

To Whom Do You Listen?

I have been working on this post all morning, took a break to go to church and heard a message from this lady pastor I know that convinced me even more that this was something I need to say. So, thanks, Lisa, for encouraging me with your word today.

America's eyes are turned right now just north of where I'm sitting. Recently elected Gov. Scott Walker, a Tea Party favorite, has decided the best way to balance that state's finances isn't accepting concessions from state workers. Rather, the best way to straighten out that state's fiscal mess is to break the public employees unions. The unions had already accepted the concessions that were initially asked for; after all, they know the state of Wisconsin's finances. Walker, however, refuses to budge on the nonsequitur of destroying union representation for public employees.

This is perhaps the most important moment for American labor in over a generation. Since Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981, the war against organized labor has been on multiple fronts, with unions always seeming to come out the loser.. Current union representation in the private workforce is around 8%. Most workers, particularly in the low-wage service sector, work under the threat of losing their jobs for even mentioning the possibility of organizing their workplaces. New employees are fed tales of union perfidy. Most everyone I know can tell a story, whether they have actually experienced it or not, of union employees doing no actual work, yet getting paid huge wages. These stories, along with the double-edged sword of stories of evil-bad unions taking worker's hard-earned money and the threat of termination for even saying the word "union" have kept much of the biggest fresh-field of labor organization clear of unions.

A week ago, I was still troubled by the thought of expressing any opinion on the events in Wisconsin. My experience in Virginia of outsiders interfering in state matters gave me an allergy to any kind of interference in matters that are confined to particular states. I am convicted and convinced, however, that remaining silent is no longer an option. For far too long we have listened to the voices of those who say that organized labor is the enemy of prosperity. For far too long, we have been fed the lie that the market, freed from the heavy hand of state regulation and the private check of workplace organization is the magic bullet for the general welfare. We have been told the state demands taxes to pay for services for the few; that unions take a piece of our wages to fatten the wallets of union staff, leaving the workers no further ahead than they have been.

These are the same voices, really. They are the voices of those who see economic and political democracy as a threat, not so much to their rights, as to their pocketbooks. Social welfare, whether guaranteed by the state, or fought and won by American workers joined together hammering out contracts with employers, are declared the enemy of prosperity. We are told by these voices that legislation for general betterment, or workplace organization for better working conditions and higher wages, are, of a piece, a threat to the magic bullet of a market freed from restraint. Prosperity comes from on high, running down to all, if only the heavy hand of the state and the antagonistic hand of organized labor would stand to one side.

What has heeding these voices brought us but social misery and the very real threat of physical and social collapse? What have these prophets of the freedom of the rich and powerful ever granted to the public out of their largess? It was public works that brought us everything from state and national parks that are the envy of the world, to local post offices and schools to our interstate highway system. It was union labor that made the steel that union labor made in to automobiles. Later in our history, it was unionized steel factories that fed the unionized auto plants that had been retooled, by organized tool and dye workers, to build the military machine that defeated fascism. It was organized labor, with its generous wages and benefits, that provided the economic demand that fed the post-war boom, providing for an explosion of general wealth and prosperity, the shift from urban to suburban living, and an increase in health and prosperity that spread across the land.

Yet, for nearly forty years now, we have been told that unions bring nothing to those they represent. We are told that the government of the greatest country in the world is the opponent of social prosperity and welfare. We are told, right now at this moment in our national life, that we must settle for less - less money, less service, less hope for the immediate future. We are told that we the workers must sacrifice so that our employers can stay in business, keep making profits.

Again, I ask, what have we gained by listening to these voices? We have a choice to make right now. Do we, as a people, continue to listen to those voices that, having already brought us to the brink of disaster, need to be heard again and that this time, they will be right? Or do we listen to those who reach deep in to our collective life and memory and remind us that we, the people, the workers, have made this country. We have made the steel and the cars and the roads and staffed the shops and stores. We have asked that our country be made better, first by connecting canals and railroads, then later national roads, then finally interstate highways. We have asked that no one work under the constant threat of arbitrary management, in unsafe conditions, for a wage that does not provide even the basic necessities of life.

So, right now, at this moment, we are being asked to choose. To whom do we listen? Do we listen to the advocates of fear, the prophets of failure? Or do we all join together and listen to our own voices demanding that ours be a land of hope, of promise, even prosperity again, a prosperity that recognizes that it is we the people who make the wealth by making the goods and providing the services that keep our country going?

To who will you listen? To those who insist it cannot be done? Or will you listen to your own voice, in chorus with so many others, who insist it will be done?

Virtual Tin Cup

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