My latest column for The Week is up. It’s about the Marquette brouhaha that Rod Dreher, among others, has been blogging about. In it, I bravely blame the mob of on-line harassers for everything that’s wrong in the world.
Absent the mob, the initial recording by the student would likely have been of interest only to the philosophy department’s faculty. “My teacher wouldn’t let me make a valid argument” is hardly a page-one news story. Absent the mob, the professor’s blog post would similarly have raised few hackles; it would have been no worse a breach of etiquette than saying the same things out loud in the faculty lounge.
That mob is what transformed this situation from a routine and largely uninteresting ivory tower spat into a dark precedent for academic freedom. Which is what this is. It has become all too difficult to draw clear contours around the new implicit restrictions on academic speech, which would appear to put professors in the distinctly odd position of being less free to criticize one another in print than civilians not crowned with the blessing of tenure.
And, ironically, the original complaint of the student — that he wasn’t allowed to discuss a particular topic because the teacher feared he would offend other students — is likely in part a consequence of the toxic debate environment the online mob has helped create. It is probably not an accident that demands for “safe spaces” and ever-expanding definitions of harassment are features of the same landscape as 4chan and Reddit.
Check it out there.
Assuming Prime Minister Netanyahu actually winds up speaking to Congress at all, he’s made it clear that he will be speaking “as a representative of the entire Jewish people.” This has already prompted a campaign by Jewish opponents (including liberal Zionists) to declare in response: no, Mr. Prime Minister, you don’t. But does Bibi have a point?
From my perspective, yes, and no.
Yes, in the sense that Israel, by its own lights and for its entire history, represents the satisfaction of the legitimate national aspirations of the Jewish people. Even if you, as a Jew, deny the existence of such national aspirations; even if you, as a person of Jewish descent, deny affiliation with anything called “the Jewish people,” inasmuch as such a people exists (whether or not you affiliate with it) and inasmuch as that people has any legitimate national aspirations (whether or not you ascribe to them), Israel has declared itself to be their satisfaction, and a wide array of national governments around the world have concurred.
So what Netanyahu is saying has some logic to it. He’s the head of the Israeli government. The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Hence, he is a representative of the entire Jewish people. Saying “you don’t represent me” sounds an awful lot like the “not in my name” crowd from the Bush years, but you don’t get to disown a government that you don’t like and take it back when you like it better. It’s either yours or it isn’t.
First, “representative” is a very specific word. Israel may undertake, on its own initiative and for its own reasons, the defense of the interests of Jews outside of Israel. Indeed, by its own ideological lights, it is obliged to do so. But that doesn’t mean Israel is in any meaningful sense representing those interests. Those interests are presumably already represented by the governments where those individuals reside – indeed, they must be, unless we are to understand Jews in the diaspora as merely temporarily resident aliens.
To make an analogy, Vladimir Putin may see himself as the secular champion of Orthodox Christians everywhere. The Russian electorate may decide to endorse this ambition, and endorse a foreign policy of intervening to defend Serbs and Bulgarians and Greeks and so forth against their enemies. Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks might even be pleased to have Vladimir Putin in their corner. But Vladimir Putin would not, thereby, become the representative of Serbs and Bulgarians and Greeks. And it would be very weird for, say, Angela Merkel to consult with Vladimir Putin as if he were – rather than talking to the leaders of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia directly.
Second, Benjamin Netanyahu is not the head of the Israeli state. He’s the head of the Israeli government. If someone from Israel were to posture as the “representative” of the Jewish people around the world, logically that would be the head of state, which in Israel is the President.
Israel’s Presidency is a fairly weak office, but that’s not actually the problem with this formulation. The problem is that the Presidency, elected by the Knesset and generally parceled out to a well-regarded over-the-hill politician, is not an office with a lot of symbolic heft. If you really want someone to be a the living symbol of an organic nation, someone members of that nation can look to and love even if they are not citizens, then what you are looking for is a monarch.
Third, Bibi is not coming to Congress to say: I, as the representative and defender of Jews worldwide say: you must protect your Jewish citizens better, or you’ll have to deal with me. That’s an argument that, perhaps, he could make in France. On the contrary: he is coming to Congress to say: I, Prime Minister of Israel, say that the negotiations with Iran must be scuttled, lest their nuclear program develop into an existential threat to Israel. And because I am the representative of Jews worldwide, you can be assured that America’s Jewish citizens back me up.
That’s not “representation.” That’s a demand for fealty. To which the response, “no, Mr. Prime Minster, you don’t represent me” is singularly appropriate in a way that it would absolutely not be coming from Bibi’s fellow citizens.
I understand where Damon Linker is coming from in his latest column on President Obama’s predilection for playing professor-in-chief, but I think it behooves him to consider the possibility that the President is not confused about his role, but is consciously trying to do something different with it – possibly something foolish, but possibly not. It’s hard to know without examining what that “something” is.
But let me start with a cranky quibble. Linker says:
What Obama’s comments demonstrate is that he lacks a sufficient appreciation of the crucial difference between politics and morality.
Broadly speaking, morality is universalistic in scope and implication, whereas politics is about how a particular group of people governs itself. Morality is cosmopolitan; politics is tribal. Morality applies to all people equally. Politics operates according to a narrower logic — a logic of laws, customs, habits, and mores that bind together one community at a specific time and place. Morality dissolves boundaries. Politics is about how thisgroup of people lives here, as distinct from those groups over there.
That’s certainly one way of understanding morality – but far from the only one. Etymologically, “morality” comes from a Latin root that relates to manners – and manners are indisputably a historically- and culturally-rooted matter, and not at all universalistic. Aristotle, and modern-day Aristoteleans, would surely agree that it’s specious to talk about ethics and morality as something independent of a community’s self-understanding. Historically, in the United States, “morals” legislation has been overwhelmingly particularistic in orientation, either referring explicitly to (Protestant) Christian conceptions of morality or more generally to “community standards” that turn out to be rooted in same.
What Linker appears to have in mind is Kantian conceptions of morality. I know he’s read his Hegel, so I know he knows how this conception can be attacked – but more to the point, he knows that even within the liberal tradition there are other ways of coming at the problem.
The same criticism can be leveled at Linker’s account of politics: this is one way of understanding the realm of politics, but hardly the only one. For Aristotle, politics was distinguished from ethics inasmuch as the former treated questions of collective organization, the latter questions of individual good (said good being only truly discoverable within the context of a collective). The two realms, though, were inextricably related; politics wasn’t just a matter of tribalism, but of discovering truths about the best way to organize groups of human beings in harmony with their natures. And the Greeks eagerly exported this conception across the empire Alexander conquered. In modern terms, virtually all politics have appealed to and advanced some conception of the good. The American Revolution was a political movement, but it was dedicated to a bunch of propositions that went beyond “we don’t like paying taxes so we’re going to stop now.”
I’m aware that Linker is, himself, dedicated to certain propositions about the distinction between these spheres. I merely ask that he recognize that his is a distinctive program with both political and moral implications, as opposed to something everyone agrees on and for which the President of the United States merely “lacks appreciation.”
So: Linker thinks politics should be tribal, while morality should be Kantian. And he’s upset that the President, in his remarks . . . did what exactly?
If the president truly believes that ISIS poses a dire threat to the United States — one requiring a military response that puts the lives of American soldiers at risk, costs billions of dollars, and leads to the death of hundreds or thousands of people on the other side of the conflict — then it makes no sense at all for him simultaneously to encourage Americans to adopt a stance of moral ambiguity toward that threat.
Does Obama want us to kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths of ISIS? Or does he want us to reflect dispassionately on the myriad ways that they’re really not that different from the grandfather of my friend from Mississippi?
I’ll say it again: as an intellectual exercise, Obama’s remarks weren’t wrong. Christianity has been invoked to justify a wide range of moral atrocities down through the millennia, and the Crusades, Inquisition, and Jim Crow are all excellent examples. I would welcome and praise an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates making that exact point.
But Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t the president of the United States, and Barack Obama isn’t a writer for The Atlantic.
A wise president understands that his role is categorically different from that of a journalist, a scholar, a moralist, or a theologian. It’s not a president’s job to gaze down dispassionately on the nation, rendering moral judgments from the Beyond. His job is to defend our side. Yes, with intelligence and humility. But the time for intelligence and humility is in crafting our policies, not in talking about them after the fact.
As I say, I get completely where Linker is coming from. He wants the President to make a practical, not a moral, case for engagement in a war against ISIS, and to leave it at that. Here’s a threat, here’s how we’re going to address the threat, and our boys have the threat well in hand. All in a day’s work.
But let’s consider a variety of possible reasons why the President might have taken the rhetorical tack he took beyond what I acknowledge is a personal preference for the lectern.
First of all, he may genuinely be concerned not only about ISIS but about the possibility of inflaming American moralistic nationalism by engaging with ISIS. The President may feel that, properly aroused, our country might very quickly get behind a far more robust effort to “kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths” and might not, in fact, be so particular about who else gets killed in the process. The reaction to his prayer breakfast speech, and the disposition of the opposition party on these matters, suggest that such fears are not entirely specious. And so, he wants to let us know, this is not a great crusade against evil. It’s more like a police action against a particularly monstrous group of criminals. He may want us to understand ISIS as more the heirs to the Manson family than to Saladin.
Second, he may be concerned about diplomacy. The best – likely the only – effective response to ISIS must be one rooted in the Sunni world. Perhaps America can help, but we can’t lead except from behind. And so, he repeatedly returns to formulations of the conflict calculated not to offend the sensibilities of allies in the region who we need to occupy the front lines. Part of that ritual formulation is to say: this is not a conflict between tribes; it’s a conflict between good and evil within another tribe; and we’re taking the side of good not because we are the good tribe but because taking the side of good is good.
Third, he may be thinking not as President of the United States but as Leader of the Free World. Linker may decry the fact – plenty of writers here at TAC decry it daily – but the United States occupies a quasi-imperial position in the world system. We’re the global hegemon, the hyper power, the indispensable nation. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, a crown we should covet to keep or a poisoned chalice we should try to put down, it’s still a fact. And it’s obvious that the President views his role as managing that position as effectively as possible. From the perspective of that position, the Muslim world is not a foreign tribe but a difficult and restive province far from the imperial center.
Or, you know, maybe he was thinking that this was a prayer breakfast, a singularly appropriate place, one would think, to speak from a position “beyond” tribal politics. Of course, if politics and morality are to be treated as strictly separate realms, then a prayer breakfast is a singularly inappropriate place for a President to speak at all. Maybe Linker’s problem isn’t the President’s failure to conform to the “bully pulpit” expectations Americans have, but to those expectations in the first place. But those expectations have a long lineage.
President Obama’s warnings about the danger of self-righteousness owe an obvious debt to Niebuhr, but they also trace back to President Lincoln’s warnings about Northern self-righteousness in the cause of anti-slavery. Lincoln was acutely aware that the South’s cause was self-interested, but that awareness led him not to condemnation but to compassion, because he understood that it implied that the anti-slavery North, if it had the climate and history of the South, would likely have adopted the same stance. Right was still right, and wrong was still wrong, but judgment belonged to someone more exalted than the President. Nobody should pat themselves on the back for choosing right; very likely, the choice was less-costly for them than for somebody who chose wrong. Our proper stance is charity for all, malice toward none.
Perhaps that puts a finger on the real problem. Lincoln used complex moral language to address a nation wracked by civil war, but ISIS is not us, and perhaps wars are fought more effectively when the people are encouraged to see the enemy as uniquely evil, ourselves as uniquely good. But if so, that’s an argument against American hegemonism, against limited war – and against engaging with ISIS. It’s an argument that a properly “tribal” politics is inconsistent with our quasi-imperial position, and that if we want to avoid carrying the flag of the crusades we had better carry no flag at all so far from our territorial waters. It strikes me as strange to choose to marry a policy argument of that sort to a critique of the President for being insufficiently solicitous of the sentiments of Johnny Jingo.
Or maybe Lincoln was just confused about the distinction between morality and politics.
Readers of this space are familiar with my attachment to The Book of Job. My personal favorite “double feature feature” film pairing was anchored by a discussion of how each film – “The Tree of Life” and “A Serious Man” – related to that masterwork of religious philosophy.
Well, if I wanted to, I could now revise that piece to a triple feature feature – because one of the more powerful films of the past year is the Oscar-nominated Russian film, “Leviathan,” from director Andrey Zvyagintsev - and guess what? At its heart, this movie is also a meditation on Jobian themes.
The story of the film is simple. A fairly ordinary Russian man, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), denizen of a town on the Barents Sea coast, is facing the loss of his property. Using whatever the Russian equivalent of eminent domain, the corrupt local mayor (Roman Madyanov) plans to summarily kick Kolya off the land he and his family have lived on for decades. Kolya is convinced that the mayor plans to build himself a palace on the land, and is determined to do whatever is necessary to keep what is his. More specifically, he invites his old army buddy, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a Moscow lawyer, to come up and not-so-subtly threaten the mayor with exposure of his many misdeeds if he doesn’t back off – or at least offer a fair market rate of compensation to Kolya for the loss of his valuable beachfront property.
At first, it looks like the plan is going relatively well. The mayor is intimidated by the august names Dmitriy casually drops, and even more intimidated by the dossier he has compiled. Though he rages at his flunkies, his rage feels impotent – he’s clearly seriously considering caving, at least on the point of compensation.
But the local bishop (sounding very like a proponent of the “Orthodox Jihad” that Rod Dreher talked about on his blog) tells him, in so many words, to gird up his loins like a man. God gave you any power or authority you may have. If you are using it for God’s ends, you should not flinch, doubt or hesitate – because it was for these ends that you were entrusted power in the first place. At the same time, Kolya’s camp unravels with startling rapidity. His young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), sleeps with Dmitriy, and is caught in the act by Kolya’s son, her stepson. Kolya beats him up, and before Dmitriy has recovered from these injuries he finds himself threatened by the mayor’s goons. Dmitriy flees back to Moscow, leaving Lilya to her guilt and Kolya to face the mayor’s wrathful vengeance alone. And, if you can believe it, this is only the beginning of Kolya’s troubles.
Why does Lilya cheat on her husband? Her actions are never really explained, but my sense is that we are supposed to see Dmitriy through her eyes as Kolya’s natural superior. He’s younger, better-looking, smarter. He’s also the true savior of the family if the family is to find one – Kolya cannot save them himself. He is a man who, he says, believes in facts, in objective reality – he is not deluded that God is going to engineer an outcome that sentiment might favor. If we are to see the world in that way – which is how Kolya, defying the “righteous” authority of the mayor, implicitly does – is Dmitriy not a more appropriate man to cleave to than Kolya? That’s my sense of what her actions signify. And in the end they leave her utterly lost.
In the depths, facing the loss of everything he ever cared about, and facing yet further loss to come, Kolya turns to a priest, who tells him the story of Job as a parable of obvious relevance to Kolya’s life. “To whom do you pray?” he asks him – this, to the priest is the decisive question. He offers Kolya no answers, but only a choice: whose authority do you accept, as total and absolute? Kolya doesn’t see the point of praying at all if there is no promise of reward – the reward that Job received, at the end of the biblical book. And so he goes to meet his end with no consolation.
The foregoing may make the film sound a bit pat. It isn’t. This is a film rich in life, from the stunning cinematography (by Mikhail Krichman), to the powerful ensemble acting, to the painful cross-currents of these characters lives (particularly the fault line that divides stepmother from stepson), to the humor provided by the ensemble of peripheral characters, particularly a corrupt police officer who leans on Kolya for free repairs of his truck, and Lilya’s mouthy best friend from the local fish packing plant. One can appreciate the film fully without paying any attention to the way in which it uses the philosophical and theological themes that I’m focusing on.
But I’m going to focus on them anyway, because they interest and move me – and because I love the Book of Job too much from them not to.
“Leviathan” presents a fairly bleak reading of the Book of Job, one that emphasizes the absolute and unfathomable scope of God’s power and authority. Faced with such awesome majesty, the only proper attitude is utter submission, with which the reservation of any personal pride or status is incompatible. It is, frankly, a reading that doesn’t sit well with me. But then, I am disinclined to identify divine authority with any temporal, human authority, whether the state, religious authorities, or my own conscience (and I, like any good scholar but also like the devil, can cite scripture to my purpose if I’m so inclined). That, indeed, is precisely part of the point I take from God’s voice from the whirlwind: God’s authority is different from, incommensurate with temporal, human authority. Human authorities you may critique for being unjust, and demand satisfaction of them. Human authority proceeds from and may be bound by and shaped by positive law, because it aims at the satisfaction of human ends, like fairness and justice. But to demand these things of God is to making a category error. You cannot critique a whirlwind.
I don’t see the whirlwind demanding submission – I see it urging Job to raise his eyes, not lower them. When the Book of Job talks of Behemoth and Leviathan, I imagine quasars and black holes, the monsters of physics; I imagine a universe of laws, but laws the depths of which will never be sounded to the bottom. I am, I suppose, more like Dmitriy than not.
But in the context of autocracy, which has deep roots in Russian soil, the priest’s interpretation has perhaps more resonance. What does the voice from the whirlwind sound like to a mind conditioned to understand law as proceeding from authority rather than the other way around? From such a mind’s perspective, the only way to know the law is to know whether authority is righteous, meaning whether it aims at ends that God approves. Which is precisely how the bishop tutors the mayor. And from such a mind’s perspective, the thuggish, abusive, cruel mayor is in fact more humble than poor, suffering, Job-like Kolya.
That, to my mind, is the point of the ending, which reveals that the mayor was indeed, from a certain perspective, aiming to serve God’s ends. Many Western viewers are reading the film as a satiric story of corruption in modern Russia. But perhaps this is not the only way to read it. Indeed, perhaps it is not the way that Russia’s Ministry of Culture originally read it – which would explain why they initially supported the film, facilitated its financing and production, and promoted it internationally, only to turn on it when they saw it described in the Western press as a critique of Putinism. Because, with just a little turn of the head, the film can be read not as an indictment, but instead as a tragedy, the very tragedy that Hobbes identified when he first contemplated the problem of authority: that, once you establish the necessity of authority as your bedrock political principle, you immediately establish the necessity of absolutism, and the impossibility of any formal reservation for the individual against that authority.
And as long as we’re talking about 2016, I’ve got a peeve to air. It’s become a commonplace that the GOP has huge “bench strength” coming into the 2016 presidential contest, while the Democrats have a much thinner bench. But I wonder how we’re measuring this.
Presidential candidates tend to emerge from other high political office – the Vice Presidency, governors’ mansions, the Senate – or, much more occasionally, from other exalted perches of our national life. The GOP currently controls significantly more governorships than the Democrats do, so that immediately gives them a larger bench. But apart from that, I’m hard-pressed to identify what makes the GOP bench stronger.
Here’s a list – not exhaustive, but extensive – of names frequently bandied about for the GOP line in 2016:
- Jeb Bush – former Governor of Florida, brother and son of 43rd and 41st Presidents, respectively.
- Ben Carson – retired neurosurgeon and media personality.
- Chris Christie – Governor of New Jersey.
- Ted Cruz – Senator from Texas.
- Carly Fiorina – former CEO.
- Mike Huckabee – former Governor of Arkansas and media personality.
- Bobby Jindal – Governor of Louisiana.
- John Kasich – Governor of Ohio.
- Sarah Palin – former Governor of Alaska, former Vice Presidential nominee.
- Rand Paul – Senator from Kentucky.
- Mitt Romney – former Governor of Massachusetts, former Presidential nominee.
- Rick Santorum – former Senator from Pennsylvania.
- Donald Trump – businessman and media personality.
- Mike Pence – Governor of Indiana.
- Rick Perry – former Governor of Texas.
- Marco Rubio – Senator from Florida.
- Scott Walker – Governor of Wisconsin.
It’s a broad field – even George Pataki – former Governor of New York - and Lindsey Graham – Senator from South Carolina – are making noises about running. Clearly, there are a lot of Republicans who see themselves as potential Presidents, and who think this is a year to at least consider going for it.
Now, here’s list of Democrats, with comparable credentials to the GOP list above:
- Joe Biden – Vice President.
- Cory Booker – Senator from New Jersey.
- Jerry Brown – Governor of California.
- Sherrod Brown – Senator from Ohio.
- Andrew Cuomo – Governor of New York.
- Russ Feingold – former Senator from Wisconsin.
- John Hickenlooper – Governor of Colorado.
- Amy Klobuchar – Senator from Minnesota.
- Gary Locke – former Governor of Washington, former ambassador to China.
- Martin O’Malley – former Governor of Maryland.
- Deval Patrick – former Governor of Massachusetts.
- Ed Rendell – former Governor of Pennsylvania.
- Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont.
- Brian Schweitzer – former Governor of Montana.
- Elizabeth Warren – Senator from Massachusetts.
- James Webb – former Senator from Virginia.
This list has some names that look tired to me and some who have a record of accomplishment – but so does the GOP list. It has some currently serving Governors and Senators, and some who served in years past – but so does the GOP list. It has some who won reelection by large margins and some who lost their last bids for office – but so does the GOP list. Like the GOP list, it has current or former Governors and Senators from some of the largest states – New York, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania – as well as from smaller states.
Jim Webb scrambles categories in as fascinating ways as Rand Paul. Russ Feingold, on the merits, seems to me as plausible and interesting a candidate as Mike Huckabee – both are very unlikely to win the nomination, after all, but I can more easily see Russ Feingold making interesting waves on his way to losing than I could Mike Huckabee (at least this time around). I don’t know why current Governor Andrew Cuomo (leaving aside the shadow cast by Sheldon Silver’s recent arrest) is any less plausible or formidable a candidate than former Governor Jeb Bush. And is Jerry Brown really more extreme or absurd a candidate than Rick Perry? Why, exactly?
Of course, the Democratic list is essentially irrelevant, because Hillary Clinton is the overwhelmingly dominant figure in the Democratic field. Anybody who chooses to challenge her is trying to slay a giant – or simply to make a point. That either rules out or diminishes a lot of candidates who might otherwise seem like plausible contenders, from Joe Biden to Brian Schweitzer. There’s nobody on the Democratic side who has remotely the kind of institutional and popular support that Hillary Clinton does. But if she had been felled by a piece of falling masonry in 2013, it’s not clear to me that the Democratic bench would look so terribly weak.
What looks relatively weak is the Democratic agenda – which is pretty normal after going on eight years with its usual mix of accomplishment, compromise and failure.
But it’s not like the GOP is distinguishing itself on that score.
I’ve been thinking more about Scott Walker and his potential staying power. And the more I think about it, the more I think he’s got a real shot at the whole thing. I would certainly not call him the front-runner. He’s got a lot to learn, and a lot to prove before it’s worth talking about him in those terms. But he’s got a really valuable card to play that I can’t quite figure out how his major opponents are going to answer effectively. And that card could make him quite dangerous.
Unlike Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rand Paul or the various also-rans, Scott Walker picked a high-profile battle over a core issue that both the establishment and more insurgent types care about – the status and position of public sector unions. His opponents rose to the challenge, and threw everything they had into the battle to defeat him – to the point of trying to get him recalled before the next scheduled election. The showdown went down in a purple-to-blue state. And Walker won, unequivocally.
Jindal and Perry can point to very conservative things they did as governors – but Louisiana and Texas are very conservative states. Could they do the same in Washington? Ted Cruz can tout his purism – but he’s accomplished literally less than nothing, with his antics having demonstrably backfired in multiple instances. Chris Christie and Jeb Bush can tout their own records – but their opponents can turn around and point to things in those same records that offend the faithful, including not merely compromises but issues that they ran on and advocated forcefully. Rand Paul . . . well, Rand Paul is Rand Paul.
Scott Walker can say to anyone touting their conservative bonafides: “you talk the talk, but I walked the walk.” But he can also credibly say, “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em,” without sounding like a moderate squish – because in one very high profile situation, he held ‘em, and he won.
And sometimes, you win the game when you fold a hand. In his most recent confrontation – an attempt to change the mission of the Wisconsin public university system – Walker folded – partially. The changes to the mission statement (which would have reduced the mission of the university system to “meet[ing] the state’s workforce needs”) have been scrapped. So Latin isn’t dead yet. But the $300 million in funding cuts remain, so Latin’s probably going to have a tough time surviving, ultimately. Backing down on a symbolic issue may in fact take the pressure off the more substantive changes. If so, Walker may have another victory to tout.
I don’t know whether he’s skillful enough to do so, but if he is, he can play this card over and over again against every one of his primary opponents. And I can’t think of a really solid answer any of them can make. (Well, other than his policies are bad ones, but I somehow think that answer won’t go over well in a GOP primary.)
That doesn’t mean Walker wins – you need more than one good card to win. But this card really is a killer.
Apropos of some of the discussion happening on this site about the nature of poverty, and at the risk of sounding horrifically upper-middle-SWPL-whatever, I wanted to relate some thoughts about a recent visit I made to the island of Dominica.
Dominica is a very small country. They have only 70,000 people, and though the country is physically tiny it is not especially dense. (96 people per square kilometer, versus 349 for neighboring Martinique, 300 for Grenada, 258 for Trinidad and Tobago.) It’s not a deeply impoverished country – on a purchasing power parity basis, per capita GDP is up there with Romania and Venezuela, and three times the level of the Philippines. But it is far from wealthy. And in the rural southeast, where we were, people live very simply; in rural areas, every other household is impoverished, according to the UNDP.
It’s hard to get ahead in Dominica. The country is very mountainous – it’s quite young, geologically, and still volcanically active – and its poor system of roads mostly go straight up and down with the gradient of the mountains. It takes a long time to get anywhere, and there are few expanses of flat land suitable for large-scale agriculture. And because it’s a small island, imported goods are relatively expensive – and a lot of different kinds of goods need to be imported. Combined with the limited amount of local capital, what you have is a formula for under-development. It’s just very hard to see what Dominica could produce that would integrate readily into the global supply chain.
Wisely, I suspect, the government is not trying to encourage industrialization, and is trying to move away from agricultural products (mostly bananas) that have a hard time competing with industrial-scale operations elsewhere anyway. It’s focused on eco-tourism and on specialized services a small island could plausibly provide: a cheap medical education (import medical students, export doctors), and the kinds of financial services that cluster around tax havens. All of which seems to be working reasonably well, but none of which is going to provide a rapid rise in living standards in the countryside.
But the thing is: this impoverished countryside looks quite healthy. People walk everywhere; they have no choice but to stay fit. Life expectancy at birth is 76.5 years, comparable to Poland and Uruguay. Food grows everywhere, free for the taking, and fresh water is abundant; the island is quite edenic in that regard. It’s never cold. As one of our guides told us repeatedly, even if you don’t have two nickels to rub together, you’ll never die of hunger or thirst on the island.
Moreover, precisely because the island isn’t suited for massive luxury development, there was less of a sense than in some parts of the Caribbean of a steep power gradient between tourists and locals. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we felt like guests rather than tourists, but the master-servant dynamic that kicks in easily in such situations was far more attenuated than usual.
We tend to think of wealth as luxury – having lots of stuff – and poverty as the lack. But that may not be the best way of thinking about it, at least once we’re talking about people above the subsistence level. Absolute poverty and its ills – starvation, malnutrition, etc. – are still rampant in parts of the world, and even in pockets of the developed world, and deserve serious attention. But once we get above that level, measuring poverty just in terms of income or in terms of goods becomes more problematic. Agatha Christie once wrote that she never thought she would be so rich as to be able to afford a car, nor so poor that she could not afford servants. What constitutes a lot of valuable “stuff” is always relative, both to the standards of the time and to what the Joneses have.
Perhaps a better way of thinking about poverty above subsistence is in terms of the experience of freedom. Someone who is literally imprisoned is living a deeply impoverished life even if they have three squares a day. Someone who cannot afford not to work 16 hours a day is also impoverished – even if they treat as necessities some consumer goods (a cell phone, say) that previous generations would have considered unimaginable luxuries. Ditto for someone whose prospects and opportunities are so narrowly circumscribed that they feel no choice in their future. In the ancient world, someone who could not afford to feed himself might sell himself into slavery; in the 17th and 18th centuries, he might bind himself to indentured servitude. How different are the “choices” many of the world’s poor make today, particularly the ones lucky enough to be integrated into the global supply chain?
How does Dominica fare from that perspective? The barriers to self-improvement are, as noted, quite steep; that’s one reason the island has had a perpetually high emigration rate. If one of our guides touted the fact that it was impossible to starve, another guide – who had lived in America – complained of the island’s provincialism, and missed both the consumer paradise of America and the opportunity America afforded him to make a living doing something he wanted to do (tinkering with cars, as it happened), instead of having to fit into one of the few roles available on the island. Unemployment is very high among Dominica’s poor; there are clearly many who don’t have the choice to do much of anything.
But it is possible merely to live quite freely in Dominica, free of many of the fears that stalk the poor of wealthier countries. That’s not a quality to ignore when we think about poverty.
I’m not discounting the seriousness and importance of absolute levels of poverty. Nor am I dignifying the notion of someone earning $150,000 per year being “house-poor” because they bought a brownstone in Clinton Hill for $2,000,000. The latter is a real thing, but it is not poverty; it’s a conscious (possibly wise, possibly foolish) choice to spend a lot of money on one consumer good-slash-investment, leaving much less for other goods and investments.
All I’m saying is that the frame that defines poverty as having relatively less stuff than most people is, itself, impoverished. And that a richer definition would focus on how we live, and how much choice in how we live, and not just on what we have.
Reihan Salam has written an interestingly revealing essay for Slate about how he came to be conscious of his class identity – and, implicitly, how that shaped his emerging political consciousness. He begins:
I first encountered the upper middle class when I attended a big magnet high school in Manhattan that attracted a decent number of brainy, better-off kids whose parents preferred not to pay private-school tuition. Growing up in an immigrant household, I’d felt largely immune to class distinctions. Before high school, some of the kids I knew were somewhat worse off, and others were somewhat better off than most, but we generally all fell into the same lower-middle- or middle-middle-class milieu. So high school was a revelation. Status distinctions that had been entirely obscure to me came into focus. Everything about you—the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the way you pronounced things—turned out to be a clear marker of where you were from and whether you were worth knowing.
By the time I made it to a selective college, I found myself entirely surrounded by this upper-middle-class tribe. My fellow students and my professors were overwhelmingly drawn from comfortably affluent families hailing from an almost laughably small number of comfortably affluent neighborhoods, mostly in and around big coastal cities. Though virtually all of these polite, well-groomed people were politically liberal, I sensed that their gut political instincts were all about protecting what they had and scratching out the eyeballs of anyone who dared to suggest taking it away from them. I can’t say I liked these people as a group. Yet without really reflecting on it, I felt that it was inevitable that I would live among them, and that’s pretty much exactly what’s happened.
So allow me to unburden myself. I’ve had a lot of time to observe and think about the upper middle class, and though many of the upper-middle-class individuals I’ve come to know are good, decent people, I’ve come to the conclusion that upper-middle-class Americans threaten to destroy everything that is best in our country. And I want them to stop.
Allow me to say, as a member of this same class, that I completely know where Salam is coming from, as well as where he’s arrived at. There’s a reason why SWPL is a thing, and there’s a reason why getting that it’s a thing is yet another SWPL class marker. There is something especially annoying about the smugness of those who mistake status markers for virtue, and who act as if these badges of virtue put them above any interrogation of their class interests. And it’s especially awful when you feel in danger of becoming one of these people.
And I understand where he’s coming from in terms of personal history as well. My high school experience was more like his experience prior to high school: we Bronx Scientists all felt like broadly middle-middle urban kids. (The difference has something to do with the Bronx versus Manhattan, and more to do with the near-decade difference in our ages; New York changed a lot in ten years.) But I had something more akin to Reihan’s shock when I got to college, where I regularly felt like the guy who didn’t own a proper jacket among the swells in their tuxedos.
When I interrogate myself honestly, though, that had very little to do with the actual class backgrounds of my college classmates, and mostly to do with my own psychosocial development. Yes, there were plenty of prep school grads and the like. But my roommates freshman year were from: Columbia, Missouri; Youngstown, Ohio; and Temple, Texas. Not a son of Groton among them; I, the son of a public high school teacher in the Bronx, was the sophisticated urbanite of the bunch. And frankly, they fit in, socially, better than I did. It wasn’t that I didn’t come from the right class; it was that I didn’t have any class – that, frankly, I was an argumentative slob.
It didn’t feel that way at the time, though. And that feeling – the feeling that I had been sized up by my betters and found wanting – was an important undercurrent leading me in a more right-wing direction politically a few years after graduation. Pecuniary interest was obviously important as well – I was working on Wall Street, and though my career had not yet taken off that was all the more reason to want to keep the path of that potential career as smooth as possible. But that kind of self-interest only makes it more important to find “objective” justifications for one’s opinions.
I’m not suggesting that Salam is animated by those kinds of resentments. Frankly, he has always presented to me as remarkably free of resentments. And he is nothing if not socially adept, in his unique, Salam-y way. I can’t even picture him being a slob. I’m just saying that a certain cliche – the bright, socially-inept striver identifying with a right-wing political program so as to stick it to his social “betters” – is a cliche for a reason: because it’s a pretty common. But it’s highly destructive of sensible analysis.
And that’s because any sensible analysis has to start with objective class interests, not the status markers of class.
Indeed, the heart of Salam’s complaint is precisely that the upper middle class have too much influence:
We often hear about the political muscle of the ultrarich. Billionaires like the libertarians Charles and David Koch and Tom Steyer, the California environmentalist who’s been waging a one-man jihad against the Keystone XL pipeline, have become bogeymen for the left and right respectively. The influence of these machers is considerable, no doubt. Yet the upper middle class collectively wields far more influence. These are households with enough money to make modest political contributions, enough time to email their elected officials and to sign petitions, and enough influence to sway their neighbors. Upper-middle-class Americans vote at substantially higher rates than those less well-off, and though their turnout levels aren’t quite as high as those even richer than they are, there are far more upper-middle-class people than there are rich people. One can easily turn the Kochs or the Steyers of the world into a big fat political target. It’s harder to do the same to the lawyers, doctors, and management consultants who populate the tonier precincts of our cities and suburbs.
Salam proceeds to lay out a detailed brief against the mass upper class in policy terms: from their support for unproductive tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction, to restrictive zoning rules that keep housing prices high in urban areas, to cartel-preserving licensure requirements that keep dental assistants from hanging out their own shingles, to a backwards immigration system that lets in nannies but keeps out doctors.
It’s all very Institute for Justice - but it’s also the kind of stuff that Matt Yglesias, liberal scion of the mass upper class, has been writing about for years. In other words, you can contextualize the kind of policy criticism Salam is making within a general libertarian critique (government will always be co-opted by those who already have power; here are examples how upper-middle-class professionals use government to shut the gate on the middle class; we need less government so nobody can rig the game that way). Or you can contextualize it within a general left-wing critique (here are examples of how upper-middle-class liberals act to protect their class interests to the detriment of the poor and middle class; we can’t let a left-wing politics be compromised by the need to keep a large and wealthy class on-side just because it makes the right sounds; we need a class-based politics that doesn’t get hijacked by cultural politics). These are both frameworks for talking about how to reduce the political influence of a favored class, and create an opening for new entrants.
But Salam doesn’t make either argument. Instead, he’s says we need to guilt the upper middle class into being a more civically-responsible gentry:
What can we do to break the stranglehold of the upper middle class? I have no idea. Having spent so much time around upper-middle-class Americans, and having entered their ranks in my own ambivalent way, I’ve come to understand their power. The upper middle class controls the media we consume. They run our big bureaucracies, our universities, and our hospitals. Their voices drown out those of other people at almost every turn. I fear that the only way we can check the tendency of upper-middle-class people to look out for their own interests at the expense of others is to make them feel at least a little guilty about it. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
It reminds me of the way that Charles Murray ended Coming Apart with a similarly exhortatory plea – successful people just shouldn’t shut the gate; instead, they should spend more time in Fishtown because . . . well, because they should.
Salam’s complaint up front is that upper middle class liberals act like they are distinctly virtuous – they obey the law, pay taxes, raise their kids right, and have all the right political opinions – and that this virtue exempts them, in their own minds, from criticism, allowing them to be as ruthless as they like in protecting their individual interests. But by calling for a more virtuous gentry, Salam isn’t puncturing their pretensions – he’s implicitly endorsing them. Because if they aren’t actually any better than anybody else, then why expect them to be?
The thing is, it’s completely normal for people to pursue their own economic interests. That’s precisely what you’d expect people to do under most circumstances. It’s when people act against interest that requires explanation. So why the fury that the upper middle class, as Salam sees it, acts out of selfish motives? Why say that this behavior threatens to destroy everything great about America? Why make this about the kind of people the upper middle class are? If the problem is that they have too much power, then that’s the problem. And let’s talk about how to tackle that.
Because here’s the thing: there is no virtuous class out there. Contra William F. Buckley, a collection of random names from the Boston phone book would do a terrible job running the country. Take a look at the fate of lottery winners and reality television stars if you want to see what happens when fortune and fame descends on individuals nearly at random. The urban mass upper class has a host of ridiculous pretensions about itself – and more’s the pity for them. (Er, us.) But if you think the pretensions to virtue of other distinct classes that are more generally endorsed by the culture don’t have pernicious political and social effects, well, I’ve got a military-industrial complex to sell you.
My advice to would-be class traitors like Salam is: don’t let your predispositions get in the way of your analysis. Here’s a good example of what I mean from right here in New York. Our Mayor, Bill de Blasio, hails from Park Slope, the capital of mass upper class Brooklyn. (That’s my neighborhood as well.) It would be very easy to assume that, as such, he must be following precisely the playbook that Salam describes: posturing as a liberal but in fact acting to preserve the prerogatives of the mass upper class.
But, at least in terms of housing development, the mayor has done something rather different, and has pursued a very pro-development line. I cannot tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with brownstone owners raging about how this mayor is worse than Bloomberg, how he doesn’t care about preserving the historical character of neighborhoods or about the opinions of the local community – he just wants to build. This is not what Park Slope thought it was buying.
Now, de Blasio is trying to yoke that pro-development stance to an affordable housing plan that perhaps Salam would be skeptical of as being too regulatory in nature – but that’s not my point. My point is that de Blasio is acting against precisely the entrenched class interests that Salam thinks are so problematic – against the people who want to pull up the drawbridge. But his cultural politics line up perfectly with the kinds of liberals Salam knows dominate the mass upper class.
Which matters more? That, it seems to me, is the question.
I’ve got a new column up at The Week:
Economically, allowing Greece to leave the euro and default on its debt might be the best thing for all parties. After a period of disruption, Greece would be able to grow again. The eurozone, meanwhile, would have demonstrated that it can distinguish between risks worth taking (Ireland) and risks not worth taking (Greece), and that it is not as brittle as might have been thought. But even if it is economically sensible — indeed, arguably because it may be economically sensible — a Grexit would have deeper implications for the trajectory and meaning of the European project.
That project was originally intended to be something new, neither a traditional state nor a mere customs union, but a kind of supra-national governance that would supplant nationalism, and end the possibility of intra-European conflict. Entry into the EU would tutor Italians and Portuguese in German thrift, and would cement Western democratic norms in countries like Ukraine and Turkey. It was a mechanism for defining — and expanding — the meaning and boundaries of European civilization.
A Grexit would redefine both the meaning and those boundaries. Countries like Poland are going to be properly leery of adopting the euro once it is clear that handing over control of monetary policy does not come with any implicit fiscal guarantees. Greece’s new government is already providing Moscow with diplomatic support as Europe debates the possibility of further sanctions in response to Russian intervention in Ukraine. They will presumably only adopt a more pro-Russian line in the wake of a Grexit.
If it happens, a Grexit will make it clear that there are not only rules for becoming “European” but also rules you have to abide by to remain a European in good standing — rules over which supplicant states have little influence. Rationally, every state — even those in the heart of Europe — will necessarily recall their primary, national allegiances, knowing that these are all they can count on when the chips are down.
The point is not that a Greek departure from the euro would be catastrophic, or that Brussels (or Berlin) ought to see itself as in some kind of competition with Moscow for the allegiance of peripheral European states. Russia’s willingness to waste blood and money on such a competition probably does it more harm than benefit; that was certainly the lesson Gorbachev took from the Brezhnev years. The point is that a willingness to let Greece leave signals precisely that Brussels — and Berlin — do not see themselves as being in that kind of competition. That the European project is no longer about defining a civilization.
Is that a good thing? I’m not sure – my feelings about the European Union are complex.
On the one hand, I understand and even admire the aims of the European project. European civilization was almost destroyed by national rivalries, so I can understand why Europe’s leaders wanted to find a political arrangement that made war in the heart of Europe seem impossible. I understand why France wanted an arrangement that magnified her potential influence, and I understand why Germany wanted an arrangement that made it possible for her to have influence again. And I also see some ancillary effects of the European project that may be positive. Union has made it more possible for smaller European nationalisms – Catalonia, Scotland – to asset themselves in a less traumatizing manner than would probably be the case without that superstructure.
On the other hand, Europe is kind of obviously ridiculous, with poor democratic accountability, no clear definition of what is properly Brussels’s business and what belongs at the national level, and what in practice amounts to a consensus-based method of governance that makes it impossible to take difficult decisions. In the past, Germany was the strongest advocate of reforming these deficits and moving towards a proper European federalism, but in the wake of the financial crisis that is much less true.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Germany’s attitude toward Europe generally – that if they are going to be on the hook fiscally that there had better be fiscal accountability – but in practice this attitude has been enforced in a punitive manner rather than being the spur to institutional reform. As a consequence, the Euro has become something of a Hobson’s choice for small countries – join and you become a German colony; don’t join and you potentially forfeit a substantial competitive advantage vis a vis your neighbors. That’s not a structure that is going to achieve the goals that the founders of the Union intended.
Where I wind up is that America needs a strong Europe, whether it’s a federal Europe or a Europe of states. We need a strong Europe because a weak Europe will be an American dependency and will encourage us in our worst imperial pretensions, while a strong Europe will be both a more useful ally and a check on those ambitions. But the current arrangements leave Europe institutionally weak, and historically the United States has abetted that weakness by focusing almost exclusively on pushing for a larger Europe rather than a more functional one.
So I’m kind of hoping that Greece forces a reckoning, and that the reckoning doesn’t burn the house down completely.
Anyway, check out the column there.
Forgive me if I see Andrew Sullivan’s departure from blogging as more than just a routine retirement by a pioneer in a new media field. Rather, I see it as an extremely negative omen for that very field.
Andrew Sullivan was not just one of the pioneers in creating the blogging form, and in demonstrating how you create a personal brand on the web. Beyond that, he was one of the first to understand that what he was doing, most fundamentally, was not writing, or even editing, but curating – organizing the vast trackless swamp of the internet into material that his audience would be interested in.
And beyond that, he was pioneering a business model that I believed held the best hope for anybody getting paid for producing “content” in the age of on-line distribution. He asked his audience to pay, to subscribe to what amounts to “the web as I see it.”
I say that that is the best hope for anybody getting paid for producing content based on the following syllogism.
First, there are only three ways to monetize traffic. Either you give everything away for free and sell advertising. Or you get people to pay for specific content. Or you get people to pay for a subscription to a whole suite of content.
The problem with the first is that on-line advertising is massively deleterious to the on-line reading (and watching and listening) experience. And it doesn’t work very well in terms of motivating purchases. And most efforts to mitigate the one or the other are massively corrupting of the creative or journalistic enterprise (as Sullivan was well-aware).
The problem with paying for specific content is that you don’t know whether the content is worth purchasing until after you’ve purchased it, which creates a substantial barrier to purchase. If you’re talking about a feature film for which you can consult Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes or whatever to learn whether it’s likely to suit, that’s one thing. But if you’re talking about a news article, or a web short, or a poem, that’s not an option.
The problem with subscriptions is that, generally, the way they are enforced is by creating a paywall around the content. Nothing gets inside the wall unless it was worth paying for up-front. And once it’s inside the wall, the only way to access it is to be a subscriber. This creates a two-tier world where most people are producing and distributing stuff without compensation, hoping to get them “hosted” by sites that don’t pay them, and eventually to “graduate” to paid work. But the prevalence of so much free work means that there is constant, brutal pressure on compensation for content-creators.
The solution to this dilemma is one that I’ve described – with apologies to “Big Bill” Haywood – as One Big Paywall. In very broad strokes, this would be a scheme whereby content-creators band together to require micro-payments from content aggregators for traffic driven their way, in exchange for not cluttering up access to that content with extraneous advertising and the like. Such a scheme would make it possible for content-creators to put their material out there for general consumption without worrying about either hiding it behind a paywall or getting paid nothing.
Without going into a great deal of detail of my thoughts about how to bootstrap into such a scheme, I’ve long felt that it depended, ultimately, on the success of curators in turning themselves into subscription services. A free curator is always going to pursue a mass audience, and this will skew the kind of content (and advertising) that it features toward the lowest-common denominator. A subscription service has the possibility of pursuing a niche audience – and niches can be quite lucrative. And much of the most interesting content is going to be aimed at some kind of niche.
Andrew Sullivan was my test case, in a way. If he was able to “make it” on a standalone basis, with a subscription model, then it was possible. If it’s possible, other people will do it – not exactly the same way, but with variations. And once it’s clear that it’s a “thing,” one could pursue my idea of One Big Paywall – because there would be moneymaking curators to negotiate with, and with whom the content-creators signing up for such a scheme would have a natural symbiosis.
But we don’t know whether he made it. It’s too soon to know. All we know is that it didn’t go bust immediately, and that there was no way to keep the venture going without Andrew Sullivan consistently and obsessively at the helm.
That’s a very negative fact for the future of that model. There just aren’t very many people like Sullivan in the world, who combine his speed as a writer, his breadth of taste, his skills as an editor, his manic energy, his head for the business side – it’s just a huge conglomeration of valuable traits. And he didn’t institutionalize them the way Steve Jobs or Walt Disney or Harold Ross did in their own various ways. Even though Andrew Sullivan did only a small fraction of the writing or the curating of the Daily Dish, without him blogging full time, apparently, there is no Dish.
I’ve been told that, in order to build a real, monetizable audience on the web, I need to post at least three times a day. Obviously, some of my colleagues here do exactly that. But it’s a completely insane demand. Virtually none of the critics or opinion-writers of yore could have met it – and those that could have would probably have destroyed themselves doing so, to say nothing of destroying their lives. The only reason anyone adheres to such a standard is precisely that there is no reliable way to monetize good work as such.
I probably sound like Leon Wieseltier here, but I could not disagree with him more. I have no interest – none – in preening lamentations for the great age of culture now past and gone. I loathe nostalgia – but I also recognize that culture is shaped by market structure, and that the market structure we have – and which is a consequence of decisions made a long time ago, some consciously but many unconsciously – is exceptionally brutal to anyone trying to make a living writing, making music, shooting movies, while also providing more ready opportunities to “break in” than ever before. I want to retain the latter while mitigating the former. That means changing the market structure, not posing as a solon while manifesting mostly ignorance.
Andrew Sullivan’s retirement is a blow personally, because, while I never met him, he has always been generous in linking to me, both here and at my prior perches. That he has been so generous in spite of the fact that my first on-line interaction with him was acrimonious in the extreme (and unnecessarily personal – on my part) is a testament to his admirable ability to look past the sort of thing that would lead many successful people (particularly in media) to hold a lifelong grudge, simply because what Sullivan cared about most was whether the work was interesting – to him and to the readership he cultivated. But that’s not the main reason his departure is a blow. The main reason is that the torch has not been passed. There is nobody else out there doing what Andrew Sullivan did, nor is there any prospect for someone to do it. There’s nobody else I can think of who I would say: if he or she links to me regularly, then people will read what I write.
Which make me very sad, for any younger versions of myself out there looking to give what they have to give, creatively, and to get something for it, without being fatally consumed by the endeavor.