politics is to want something

torsdag, juni 30, 2005

new blog

My friend Matt May has a new blog. It's a political blog with an emphasis on media and textual analysis (Matt's a student of rhetoric). Perhaps a bit more rambunctious and radical than yours truly, but hey, it's all about the dialog. Imagine hoverbike with Marx audioclips. Check it out:

Socialism for Gunslingers

cadres of conformity

When, exactly, did believing everything your parents believe, supporting the government no matter what and longing for a return to the old days become hip and rebellious? One of the most amazing feats of rhetorical skill in recent history has been conservatism’s ability to cast itself as an anti-elitist rebel. We’ve got patrician, spoiled, old-money New Englander George W. Bush painting himself as a downhome Texas rancher. There’s Ann Coulter, the icon-shattering hip young thing calling for Christianization of the Middle East and the repeal of female suffrage. And who can forget the Animal House frat boys on Fox who look like they could out beer-bong all your friends while palling around with the high-tech video-game warriors supporting our freedom in Iraq.

Young conservatives are up to the same tricks. A recent article in the Nation details the dynamics at a recent national convention of the College Republicans. In the contest for President, a barnburning, libertarianish Berkeley undergrad faced off against a values-agenda Georgian. The Berkeley activist made a name for himself by plastering the doors of offensive Professors with red stars and photocopies of the McCarthy-era California statute that made it illegal for instructors to display communist sympathies. Way to stick it to the man, yo! The entire thing reads like an account of a fraternity party slammed together with a Christian youth meeting.

On our campus, student activists display a similar swagger of rebellious conservatism. The chairman of Students for Academic Freedom wrote a caustic criticism of Gender Studies in our student paper. It was a masterpiece. He invoked the new “fairness” doctrine and appealed to a topsy-turvy idea that attacking feminism with ancient, sexist assumptions was, in fact, an assault on tired old ideas. What a delicious cocktail. Here’s a sample:

Now I’ll readily admit that the word “rape” kind of turns me on, but that’s only because it rhymes with “ape.” It requires a remarkable ignorance of history, art and biology to believe that rape is a social construct rather than a pathological failure to control natural urges. Rape has existed in every culture everywhere.

This new right-wing rebelliousness comes in two distinct flavors. While Southern and Midwestern cultural conservatives pose as defenders of the underdog against liberal intellectual elites, the coastal conservative plays to the crowd by rejecting the religious restrictions of their allies. They have made conservatism safe for the hedonistic college bro. Being a right winger at Berkeley or UCSB means that you can drink and fuck all you want, you can smoke pot and watch pornography and listen to rap, AND you can throw garbage at anyone who dares to suggest that you have any responsibility for the suffering or disadvantage of women, people of color, Iraqis or immigrants. You get to be supremely comfortable and arrogant at the same time. You can parrot all the comforting stories your parents told you about why you deserve everything you have, and you get to do so while being rebellious, cool and pleasure-seeking. Frickin’ sweet.

Its enough to make me miss the hippies. Well, almost.

see! they even make us wear blue!

Nearly every Professor, Associate or Teaching Assistant in the social sciences and humanities has experienced it. From spontaneous winging about stating opinions too openly, to planned campaigns of harassment, the well-financed campus Right has a new tactic in the effort to paint the world conservative. Just as Fox News ensconces their uniquely partisan hack-fest in the language of “balance” and “fairness”, a new form of student activism has targeted scientific inquiry and civil liberties in the name of “academic freedom”. The basic idea is this- there is a profound liberal or leftist bias in Academia, and so student activists should raise their voices and demand that “both sides” of issues be discussed in class, and where necessary, should turn to legislatures for laws requiring conservative viewpoints expressed whenever progressive ones are. Where legal remedies are not possible, students monitor instructors, post anonymous testimonials of bias on the web, and, in some cases, poster offices and even homes with attacks and slander. This is an organized movement with rightist foundations donors at its core. Its coming to a University near you.

The vanguard of this whiny new conservatism is Students for Academic Freedom, the brainchild of embittered former New Left hanger-on David Horowitz. SAF’s website contains a litany of complaints about so-called radical professors, as well as action kits and training manuals for students who are sick, sick, sick of hearing things they don’t like. It encourages students to demand equal time for conservative thought, to humiliate or shame professors for being forthright about their opinions, and to frame all of their demands as an honest appeal to fairness. This veil obscures the fact that this movement is nothing more than an attempt by conservatives, unsatisfied with dominance in government, church and the media to once again dominate higher education. If Fox is an indicator of what fair and balanced is in the cynical mind of a conservative revolutionary, imagine what our universities will look like.

This movement is an attack on scientific inquiry, an attack on personal freedom and a serious threat to academic integrity. It is part and parcel of a larger strategy of the right. Come out hard claiming bias and unfairness and it allows you to push your reactionary agenda.

The simplistic idea that there are “two sides”, one liberal and one conservative, to any given question or issue is patently ridiculous. In any given political question, there are a multitude of perspectives. In scientific or analytical questions there are generally many sets of hypotheses or schools of thought. Not all of these schools are created equal, some are based in better or worse methods, some are new and exploratory, while others are well-established and widely respected. The job of the instructor is to introduce these ideas to students, and to give them the tools to analyze and critically examine them. But science is not “Crossfire”- there are not liberal and conservative camps which should be given equal screen time.

For example, what is the “other” side on issues of racism or sexual discrimination? If equal time means giving conservatives, no matter how illiterate their views are, a presence in our curriculum, we would be forced to teach students that perhaps racism and sexism don’t exist. The overwhelming evidence in social science is that social inequality is real and palpable. Why should we give weight to the “other side” in this discussion when our discipline is nearly universal in it’s recognition of the existence of these social phenomena? Should rightist politicians and pundits be presented as the “other side”, equated with serious scholars simply because, for political reasons, they disagree with the state of the art? No. No more than geologists should be forced to teach that the earth might be flat or astrophysicists required to give credence to geocentrism. Science should be allowed to grow and change and should be led by scholarly debate and peer-review, not dictates from the state.

Of course, in the battles over elementary school curriculum exactly this argument is being made. The Kansas school board’s decision to give equal time to creationism in science class shows exactly where the commissars of “equal time” are headed.

Secondly, who should decide what views need to be included? The SAF logic would suggest that we present Holocaust deniers’ views when discussing the Second World War. Segregationists and slavery advocates also need their face time. Thought experiments like this are useful, given that these student activists attack the bejesus out of professors who would give Stalinism, or radical Islam their day in Academic court. Try to look at the world through Arab eyes and bam, you’re on a list. This is not about freedom.

Lastly, the idea that Professors should hide their political opinions is both bizarre and dangerous. I, for one, want to know exactly where a professor stands. I want her to be upfront and honest about it, so that I myself can piece together my own thoughts and beliefs. What these student activists want is to be spoon-fed information which will not challenge them, which will simply line up with what they already believe. The overall intellectual laziness of today’s student in today’s degree mill is a crucial factor here. Instead of learning enough to argue with professors with whom they disagree, they want to shut the professor up. And they say that the left is full of wimps.

From reading the internet posts and testimonials from distraught students, it is clear that the animating force here is a discomfort with the specific conclusions of academic scholarship. When economics departments present radical, free-market ideology as scientific fact, the SAFers are nowhere to be seen. However, when an English or Sociology professor makes the case that patriarchy or racism are responsible for white male accomplishment, people go apeshit. It’s not an accident that the SAF is a dominantly white and largely male club.

I’m working on a set of “talking points” for academics who are forced to confront these sorts of attacks. The upshot is that, if handled right, discussions of these issues can be important learning moments for students. It opens up issues of the role of the University and society, the nature of American political discourse (for example, the complete misuse of the term “liberal”) and the nature of scientific inquiry. Let’s have that discussion, but be careful not to encourage this whiny assault on intellectual honesty and liberty.

onsdag, juni 29, 2005

can we still burn the confederate flag?

I was disappointed to hear that my representative in Congress, the revered Ms. Lois Capps, voted in favor of amending the constitution to allow prosecuting American citizens for burning the
U.S. flag. I don’t know why she did it, she’s hugely popular and conservatives in this district aren’t of the sort to get fired up by such a blatant violation of free-speech rights. An aide stated that it was simply “something she feels strongly about.” Go figure.

I don't like to see the American flag burning. However, I rarely do, at least in this country. Moving to make it illegal will make it seem like an imparative for certain folks. My prediction, Amendment passes, flags burn like California forests.

the unfinished civil war

Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) and others have often claimed that the key political dynamic in Washington is less about Left and Right and more about a replay of the Civil War. In Jackson’s view, the cynical defenders of “States’ Rights” are lined up against those who argue for a “more perfect union.” I find this to be a helpful frame for looking at contemporary American politics. The Republican “Southern Strategy”- essentially paring off traditionally Democratic voters in white, rural areas by appealing to racialized fears and prejudices still forms the core of the Rove doctrine. Throw misogyny, hatred of lesbians and gay men, as well as the scapegoating of Arabs and Latinos to the mix, and you have a fair construction of the Republican strategy.

The fact is that we never really finished the job in the Civil War. We ended slavery, stopped succession, but too quickly abandoned the process of Reconstruction of Southern society. As a result, Civil Rights activists were forced to demand the remobilization of Federal power, including the armed forces in defense of human rights in the South throughout the 1960’s. And, to this day, rural America remains fertile ground for racist appeals, whether symbolic (save our Confederate flag!) or material (Willie Horton!). In the South itself, there has been some superficial reckoning with the past. Tourist boards and chambers of commerce are desperate to cleanse the region of its lingering association with flag burnings and Klan marches. Thus there are loads of “respectable” politicians and civic leaders who are always out front on symbolic gestures designed to recast the South as hospitable, genteel but newly enlightened. Outside of the old Confederacy, however, particularly in the West, old-fashioned racist politics are fair game.

Witness the happenings in the Senate last week, as a bipartisan coalition proposed a resolution apologizing for that body’s unwillingness to ever pass a law banning lynching. Take a second to process that. From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 people were lynched in the U.S. 72% of them were black. Of the whites lynched, many of them were anti-lynching activists or people accused of aiding black citizens. During that time, though several anti-lynching bills were proposed, the United States Senate failed to pass a single piece of legislation punishing white mobs for murdering black Americans.

Earlier this month, two Senators, one from each party, proposed a resolution which formally apologized on behalf of the Senate for this gross failure to protect the lives and rights of victims of mob murder. The Republican leadership blocked efforts to hold the vote by recorded roll-call, so that individual Senators would not be held accountable for their votes. In response, most of the Senate signed on to the bill as co-sponsors. Sixteen did not.

Because Senators can add their names to a bill after it has been passed, the following list may be slightly inaccurate. It has been somewhat hard to find a fully updated list. With the exception of the good gentlemen from New Hampshire and Oregon, these folks come from heartland and Confederate red states. Making the decision to defy a purely symbolic, non-binding, non-legislative, revenue-neutral clear-cut statement of moral position can mean only one thing. For a considerable number of their constituents, a purely symbolic, non-binding, non-legislative, revenue-neutral clear cut statement against racist murder is unacceptable. For the rest, it is a non-issue. Such is the state of the Party of Lincoln, defenders of the Republic.


onsdag, juni 22, 2005


Fact: A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll indicates that 80% of Republicans are self-described white Christians.

søndag, juni 19, 2005

howard dean vs. the touchy white people

Dear Dr. Dean,

Sorry to hear that they are giving you such a hard time. The Democrats, I mean. It stands to reason that the Republicans would be hurling dung your way, but it must be at least a bit disappointing that your friends and allies are helping the attack dogs of the right do their dirty business. “He’s doing a good job”, they say, “but he says inflammatory things.” “He’s a lose cannon”. “Sticking his foot in his mouth again.” With friends like these, Howard, sheesh. Nancy Pelosi went so far as to say that she wants to “officially” distance herself from your statements, whatever that means. I suppose she’s afraid that those middle-of-the-road voters in San Francisco will be offended by your grossly partisan rhetoric.

Let’s review. You said that many Republican leaders haven’t put in an honest day’s work in their lives. That checks out. Though we have heard repeatedly that rebuilding Iraq is “hard work”, there is not a lot of evidence that G.W. has broken a sweat at any point in his biography. You’ve also said that you don’t like Republicans. This is something I would expect from the chairman of the Democratic Party. It would be far worse for our democracy if you went around talking about how much you liked Republicans.

But you really got their goat when you had the audacity to state that the Republican Party is “basically a white, Christian party.” Woah. They hated that, Howard.

I have this theory. I think that a lot of people in this country are “touchy white people” (TWP’s). This theory might be helpful for understanding why this one freaked them out so much. You see, TWP’s hate it when you remind them that they are white. It makes them uncomfortable. They usually respond by saying that the person who pointed out that they are, indeed, white people are racists for “bringing race into” the conversation. “Why you gotta make it all racial, Howard?” That’s essentially what they are saying to you. They’ve said it to me, too. A lot. Don’t sweat it.

Racism, in the minds of the touchy white folks, is something that bad white people do to people of color. It’s not a set of privileges, it’s not a structural injustice. The only evidence of racism is when someone is rude or mean to someone else because of their skin color. TWP's aren’t rude to people of color, so they are not racists. They are not racists, so their own race or racial privilege are irrelevant. End of story. Now you had to go and be rude to them by bringing up their monolithic control of a party and, by extension, the entire machinery of American society. In the minds of touchy white people, that’s racist, Howard. You see? It makes perfect sense. It's like when you say that hey, it's messed up that there are so many black people in prison and so few black people in the United States Senate. That's rude. It's racist to categorize people like that.

But you were right, man. The Republican party is indeed a white Christian party. This is most evident in the fact that their response to your charge was to literally name every non-white and non-Christian person in their party. The fact that they can do that, well, says it all.

Keep in mind, Howard, that many of the white people in the Democratic party are pretty touchy themselves. So, when they see the TWP's in the Republican party get savaged like that, you know, by making the argument that they are white, they band together. Expect more of the same if you insist on blowing people's minds by calling a spade a spade. Or, in this case, a picket fence a picket fence.

But don’t worry. I got your back.

bad times (are comin’ round again)

For inspiration, a great song from Jon Langford's "insurgent country" band The Waco Brothers:

we all knew things had to get better
if we kept acting rational and sane
now i can see the clouds on the horizon
bad times coming round again

the sun ripens corn across the country
shares are rising on the stock exchange
people making hay while the sun shines
cos bad times are coming round again

bad times coming round
bad times coming round
bad times coming round again

you might need a drink
but you don't need a weather vane
bad times coming round again

black slaves shipped here in their millions
worked and died til freedom was won
now you look around for that freedom
see it slipping down the barrel of a gun
white men in grey suits lose all direction
white men in hood are back again
running in the 96 election
bad times coming round again

bad times coming round
bad times coming round
bad times coming round again
board up your window
it might be a hurrican
bad times coming round again

yuppies come and gentrify your neighbourhood
crusties say they fight it to the end
no one asks the black or the latino
bad times coming round again

on god, politics and progressive prospects

I recently attended the national conference of the Campaign For America’s Future. The CAF does great work, from helping to support local, state and federal candidates through Progressive Majority, to publishing fantastic talking points and in-depth analysis that is useful for beating back the yelping dogs of retreat and surrender. As a counter-weight to those forces within the Democratic establishment who seem to take every electoral defeat as a sign that we should be even less coherent or dynamic than before, the CAF is indispensable. Attending the conference was a much-needed boost after some hard defeats locally.

If there was one central theme of the conference, it was the need to come to terms with the growing power of Evangelical Christianity in politics and public life. While the debate over what this trend means for the left is still developing, there seem to be three major camps forming. They all offer useful insights, but none are wholly satisfying.

The first camp, one that includes the CAF’s Robert Borosage and “Whats The Matter With Kansas” author Thomas Frank, argues that the Democrats’ mistake is in abandoning a progressive, class-based economic populism. In the absence of an economic narrative which speaks to them, white, rural, working-class voters are drawn to the culturally regressive appeals of the Rove strategy. This argument is strongest in pointing out that the sorts of resentments mobilized against Hollywood /Feminist/Homosexual-Agenda liberals often resemble class resentments. Being Christian, straight and conservative is a twisted form of class pride, a pride which is agitated by the arrogance of middle-class coastal liberal culture. Frank observes quite astutely in his book and subsequent articles that the conservative backlash is framed as a revolt against elites. The trick, he argues, is to reframe this backlash against economic elites rather than cultural ones, by redirecting political discussion to a clear contest between economic worldviews.

The second camp wants to see the left find God. One version of this argument posits that progressive values need to be articulated as moral, even spiritual appeals. This is a variation on the Lakoff “revolution” that is so in vogue among liberal activists nowadays. Certainly, this is a helpful corrective to the stiff, statistically pregnant rationalism that grips much progressive political communication. However, this assertion often overlaps with an entirely different strategic posture. There are those who argue that white Evangelicals need to be brought into the Democratic fold by decentralizing or even diluting traditional progressive positions on abortion, gay rights or church-state separation. This, as the saying goes, is an entirely different can of whuppass.

Lastly, there are a range of thinkers and activists who argue that feminism, gay rights, anti-racism and secularism need to be advanced in their own right. We need to take the sexism and homophobia of the religious right head-on, they argue, the way that our party confronted the overt white supremacy of the Southern establishment in the 1960’s. Folks making these arguments are right to point out the fact that many Democratic leaders spoke of appeasing Southern racists until organizing and advocacy forced them to take sides (somewhat) in the struggle for freedom. Let’s make more feminists in the South. Let’s take gay-bashing away from the right by building a majority for equality, not by letting them win.

As I said above, all of these arguments have some merit, but all are unsatisfactory on their own. The fact is that we need to do all three things- offer white rural voters a real bread-and-butter alternative, build and support a progressive religious movement, and continue the work of building a stable pro-choice, egalitarian majority. These three tasks are more interrelated than one would think.

I once said that the antidote to the religious right is the religious left. I still believe this. As has been argued so well, often by veterans of the black freedom struggle, we cannot surrender God or the flag to the right. We cannot allow conservatives to define what is Christian any more than we can allow them to define what is patriotic. To argue that our cause is against Christianity is as inane and counter-productive as wearing the smear of anti-Americanism on our chests as a badge of honor. Progressives must have a say in defining what this country, or its dominant faiths, are about. We can only do this by being unafraid to lift the voices of religious progressives to a vaunted place among our leaders and spokespeople.

However, religious progressives have an important responsibility to force debate and discussion within their communities of faith about women’s rights, dignity and equality for gay people and the necessity of a clear line separating questions of faith from the state. The religious left must lead a crusade, not just for the economic issues we all agree on, but for religious tolerance and a transformed gospel of inclusion. It is disturbing when folks talk about reaching out to Evangelicals while implying that in order to do so we have to throw feminism out the window.

On this same count, economic populists also come up a bit short. I think that Tom Frank is on to something in forcing the left to confront it’s own prejudices and snobbery. More importantly, he’s dead right that the Democrats will never be able to win without reclaiming the mantle of anti-elitist populism. Instead of chasing the corporate dollar and blindly jumping on board with the neoliberal project abroad, the party of Roosevelt should remember that when it confronted concentrated economic power, it was able to sustain a powerful and empowering majority. The triangulating charisma of Clinton’s centrism at best produced a shaky, slim plurality that choked off any possibility of real policy achievements.

But what Frank forgets is that the right can still counter an economic populist message with bigotry, and that bigotry can be a powerful attraction. Certainly, we can’t win without offering an economic alternative and sticking to it, but it’s no guarantee of victory. So long as racism, homophobia and sexism persist, they can always be used to undercut a blinders-on economics-centric left. As labor learned the hard way, we have do the hard work of beating back the latent prejudices that right-wing appeals are built upon. This is, in essence, what the religious right has been doing for decades- sowing the seeds for a playing field that benefits their brand of politics.

This conflict came to the surface at the finale of the CAF conference. After a solid, red-meat speech from Communication Workers president Morton Bahr, the stage was given to Reverend Jim Wallis, a progressive Evangelical who has written extensively on the Democrats’ “god deficit”. Wallis said some important things about “taking back” the churches, about how setting policy priorities is a moral act, and about the hypocricy of invoking the words of an impoverished prophet while concentrating wealth beyond all historical imagination. He was followed by Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. Gandy pointed out that Wallis is anti-choice, that he has called for making the Democratic Party more comfortable for anti-choice candidates, and that he has supported Bush’s “faith-based” feeding trough. Women are at war for their fundamental rights, she said, and now is not the time to go soft on hard-won gains. The room was visibly uncomfortable. The event was supposed to be a pep rally, not a space for differences of opinion on sticky issues. I, for one, was thrilled that Gandy had spoken up. Herself a church-going Presbyterian, she made it clear that embracing religious life and creating a home for religiously inspired activists cannot come at the expense of our core values and goals.

We need the sort of debate that makes people uncomfortable. These are important issues, tough issues. History shows, however, that when difficult issues are handled comfortably, it is almost always at the expense of those who have to struggle to be heard. Let’s not find God and lose hope.