Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Wolfe on Schmittian Conservatism and American Liberalism

Via A&L Daily, I ran across this article by Alan Wolfe on how the writings of Carl Schmitt, the notorious fascist (or at least quasi-fascist) philosopher of "the political," can provide insight into the mindset of contemporary conservatives. There are some interesting tidbits in the essay (I knew, for example, that Schmitt has attracted the attention of the anti-liberal left over the last few decades--Tracy B. Strong's introductory essay to this edition of The Concept of the Political is a good guide to the Schmittian revival--but Wolfe places it in a helpful Foucauldian context), but much of it is simply facile. Basically, Wolfe takes up Schmitt's claim that politics can never truly be "liberal" in order to explain why conservatives generally get so nasty, and moreover, generally win political fights:

"Schmitt had an explanation for why conservative talk-show hosts like Bill O'Reilly fight for their ideas with much more aggressive self-certainty than, say, a hopeless liberal like Alan Wolfe....Liberals believe in the possibility of neutral rules that can mediate between conflicting positions, but to Schmitt there is no such neutrality, since any rule -- even an ostensibly fair one -- merely represents the victory of one political faction over another....Liberals insist that there exists something called society independent of the state, but Schmitt believed that pluralism is an illusion because no real state would ever allow other forces, like the family or the church, to contest its power. Liberals, in a word, are uncomfortable around power, and, because they are, they criticize politics more than they engage in it....[I]f Schmitt is right, conservatives win nearly all of their political battles with liberals because they are the only force in America that is truly political. From the 2000 presidential election to Congressional redistricting in Texas to the methods used to pass Medicare reform, conservatives like Tom DeLay and Karl Rove have indeed triumphed because they have left the impression that nothing will stop them. Liberals cannot do that."

I'm neither a Schmittian nor a conservative (at least not in the partisan sense that Wolfe uses the term), but I think this is more than a little tendentious. Why it sounds that way comes through later in the article, when he's talking about American liberalism:

"John Locke, not Thomas Hobbes, was the reigning social-contract theorist of the American experience. Our tradition owes more to Montesquieu than to Machiavelli....Liberal to its very core, the United States has never been as attracted to the realpolitik tradition in political thought as the Germans....To the degree that conservatives bring to this country something like Schmitt's friend-enemy distinction, they stand against not only liberals but America's historic liberal heritage. That may help them in the short run; conservative slash-and-burn rhetoric and no-holds-barred partisanship are so unusual in our moderately consensual political system that they have recently gotten far out of the sheer element of surprise, leaving the news media without a vocabulary for describing their ruthlessness and liberals without a strategy for stopping their designs. But the same extremist approach to politics could also harm them if a traditional American concern with checks and balances and limits on political power comes back into fashion."

Wolfe may be right, but if so, it isn't because this essay presents any real coherent engagement with Schmitt. Think about it: is Wolfe saying that Schmitt is wrong? If so, then the Schmittian explanation for why conservatives have been successful is flawed; while there might be something to the idea that contemporary conservative partisanship is relatively new under the sun (though I doubt it; if anything, it's a throwback to the elections of the pre-Progressive era), it can't be a matter of the GOP having realized and exploited the inner failings of the liberal ideology. Then again, is Wolfe saying that Schmitt may be right about the nature of the political realm? If so, then the conservative factions he condemns may not be in violation of American liberalism, but merely have shown up its weaknesses. Wolfe should not simply assume that America's "liberal character" can so obviously provide a counter-example to Schmittian analysis; after all, Schmitt could point to "liberal" America's crushing of this continent's indigenous population, its enslavement of African slaves, its wars with Mexico and Spain, the bloody contests on the frontier and the even bloodier struggles between labor and business well into the 20th century, to support his thesis: that is, Schmitt could claim that America's liberal "constitutional faith," with all its checks and balances and concerns with civil society, seemed triumphant only because it wasn't, actually, all that plural or all that liberal. In fact, one could employ Schmittian analysis to explain the rise of the contemporary right by showing how it was a reaction to the apotheosis of the "liberal consensus" following WWII and, especially, the civil rights movement--the moment when, Schmitt might say, all enemies seemed vanquished, and new ones were needed.

Anyway, I don't think Schmitt is a good guide to political thinking, period. Which means, as interesting as Wolfe's essay may be, he doesn't provide a particularly coherent polemical stick to bash one's opponents with either.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Democracy, Temporality, and Legitimacy

The most recent issue of the American Political Science Review (February 2004) includes an essay that I haven't seen any other the many political theory and science bloggers I read regularly mention yet, so I thought I'd discuss it here, since APSR's content isn't available online, and this essay is really one that deserves a wide readership. It's by Harvard professor Dennis F. Thompson, and titled "Election Time: Normative Implications of Temporal Properties of the Electoral Process in the United States." Not a thrilling title, to be sure, but the essay develops a framework for thinking about and linking together some of the most important and necessary political reforms in the U.S. today. Basically, Professor Thompson shows how gerrymandering, recall elections, exit polls, unrestricted campaign donations, absentee ballots and much more all challenge the legitimacy of our democratic process, by way of emphasizing the temporal requirements of democracy. It is important, he argues, that the particular moment of voting--"election time," as he puts it--be respected and cultivated, or else the process itself can be undermined. I've never been much of a "good-government" reformer (though California's recall election annoyed me to no end), but this article alone may make a zealot out of me.

Thompson breaks election time into three "temporal properties: periodicity (the intervals at which citizens vote), simultaneity (the range of time in which citizens vote), and finality (the extent to which the result of their votes is conclusive until the next election)." As he writes: "All three [properties] support popular sovereignty--the capacity of majorities to control government--in different but related ways. Because elections take place periodically, current majorities can overcome the dead hand of past majorities. To the extent that voting takes place simultaneously, elections express the will of a determinate majority rather than the preferences of a series of different majorities. Because elections produce final results, they legitimate the authority of a current majority until the next election....[O]ther democratic values, such as fairness and civic engagement, are also strengthened to the extent that the electoral process realizes these temporal properties." (I recognize that various political thinkers--Rousseau and Burke for example--would have numerous different reasons to question the Lockean social contract which Thompson implicitly endorses here as part of his test of legitimacy, but for the purposes talking about reforms in the American polity, I think we can set those criticisms aside.)

Thompson goes on to list certain "anomalies" which he think violate one or more of these properties, and why properly reforming a system challenged by these particular anomalies requires viewing the problem from within a temporal framework. For example, gerrymandering. It is widely recognized that the politicized drawing and redrawing of congressional districts--most recently associated with Texas Republicans, but of course going much further back than that, into the murky racial redistricting of the 1970s and 80s--has reached a constitutional crisis point. However, most of the basic arguments against the fundamentally undemocratic practice of giving elected representatives the power to define the electorate for voting purposes fail in one way or another. Thompson ticks them off: redistricting should be an objective procedural process, requiring random distribution? But that would undermine the ability of representative government to embody and reflect localized sentiments and preferences. Redistricting should create perfectly competitive districts? But that makes competition an end in itself, and maximizing competition in a democracy assumes that the work of representation is best understood as a utilitarian, market-based phenomenon. Partisan redistricting undermines accountability? But that ignores that fact that "even representatives in safe seats generally act as if their re-election is in doubt and therefore tend to be responsive to their constituents."

The truly conclusive argument against our current gerrymandering regime, Thompson feels, is that "elections are not one-time events....Each election, thought a discrete event, stands in an indefinite series....[Therefore, periodicity] provides the means by which present majorities can escape the dead hand of past majorities." To the extent which present practices of redistricting make the drawing of electoral boundaries an arbitrary, irregular process, going through unpredictable contortions or settling into near-permanency depending on the vicissitudes of party politics, then that periodicity--the reliable and legitimating process by which citizens may feel their views and the changes in such adequately internalized through electoral mechanisms--is lost. Invoking Madison's claim that "we can trust the normal process of representation...provided that the issue under consideration is one in which representatives share a common interest with their constituents," Thompson concludes that "the value of periodicity combined with the Madisonian principle implies that the authority for governing elections in general and redistricting in particular should be located outside the ordinary legislative process." He suggests that independent commissions, which have had long success in streamlining and therefore preserving the periodicity of the democratic process in Australia and Canada, not to mention in several states, shows us an obvious route to reform.

This is just the first third of the article. Thompson then goes on to show the negative consequences for democratic temporality posed by numerous other "anomalies." Regarding exit polls, Thompson is highly critical, particularly in connection with national elections. By making information available to later voters (for example, those in California) that was not available to earlier voters (those in New Hampshire), exit polls undermine the useful civic presumption that everyone is voting "more or less at the same time," therefore creating an impression (and arguably the fact) of unfairness, with certain voters having been excluded from the projection of a "more coherent popular sovereign." (Think about it this way: the election which Florida voters participated in was, in a very real way, different from the one which California voters participated in, to the extent that the latter voters went to the polls aware that Florida had already descended into chaos.) It is important for the sake of continued civic trust in our democracy, Thompson insists, for citizens to "vote at the same time...[and] make their choices with equal access to relevant information." Obviously, this argument is even more critical of the extended use of absentee balloting and early voting for the sake of convenience; while there are important concerns for fairness that make such exceptions to the rule of simultaneity necessary (providing for invalids or the elderly, overseas or military voters, etc.), it is certainly not something that should be encouraged, especially when the data (as Thompson shows) doesn't show turn-out increasing in any significant way in states which have made extensive use of absentee ballots or online voting. (In my usual populist/communitarian/traditionalist way, I would have liked it if Thompson had made more explicit the challenge which absentee ballots and "e-voting" pose to the civic ritual of casting ballots, and the public sphere that act helps sustain; but others have made the argument well, and it's clearly implied by Thompson regardless.) And then there is Thompson's case for campaign regulation, both financial and otherwise. Leaping over many dead-end arguments about the financing and directing of campaign expenditures and strategies, with the goal of generating more participation and less wearying echo-chamber-type spin and mudslinging, Thompson points out that the rules must be different for electoral and nonelectoral politics, because the former must be characterized by finality, meaning that legitimate elections must "come to a definite conclusion at a foreseeable time...which until the next elections marks an end to the process of deciding who will hold office." Political advocacy may be permanent, but campaign advocacy is not, and should not be. Thompson acknowledges that his argument only provides a "normative basis" for justifying strict regulation of electoral politics, not a criterion for distinguishing which regulations will adequately fulfill that purpose; to a certain degree, any sort of limit or directive imposed on the spending or collection of campaign donations, or the organization of debates, or the conduct of the candidates, is going to be arbitrary. Yet, he concludes, such acts need not be "objectionably arbitrary if they represent a good faith effort to capture...the principled difference between electoral and ordinary politics."

This has been a long post, I know (though not as long as some goo-goo posts I've read); I doubt many who aren't fans of Dennis Thompson will have made it to the end. But I just find it so interesting think about politics through the frame Thompson has provided, by way of the temporal "rhythm" of electoral politics. Time matters; it matters to how we conduct ourselves in the world, and thus matters significantly to what we do, individually and collectively, as citizens of a polity. Thompson's essay thus makes meaningful an aspect of political life I hadn't though much about before, and by so doing has given, in my view at least, a lot of long-proposed and reasonable reforms a new urgency and relevance. So find go call up any political scientist you happen to be acquainted with, and have them fax you a copy of Thompson's article--that, or go buy the latest copy of APSR yourself. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Supporting Families, Sustaining the Nation

Matthew Yglesias, describing me as a "left-traditionalist" (why didn't I think of that? it's perfect!), brings up a subject that he correctly infers I am fairly interested in, and which, as far as I can tell, has practically zero support among his blog's regular readers--the problem of population decline in Western nations. Matt makes the, I think, very reasonable argument that nations--especially relatively successful, democratic and egalitarian ones--concerned with preserving their economy and polity ought to take action to reduce the costs of child-bearing and child-rearing; that is, employing "socialist means" to achieve "conservative ends." He cites this excellent article in the Washington Monthly on the real costs--in terms of social insurance, job growth, tax revenue, and so forth--of allowing a nation's population to actually fall below the replacement rate. I'm glad Matt brought the article to my attention; it's an excellent survey of some economic data that many "lifestyle liberals" would prefer to deny. (Though there's a lot more to the problematic economics of raising children in America today than the article touches on; for instance, it doesn't pay nearly enough attention to consequences of the two-income model of family life having become practically mandatory if one wants to be able to afford a home. See Laura for more details; her suggestions about actively recreating the middle-class "Levittown" communities of the past may seem nostalgic, but actually they fit right into exactly the sort of positive, family-friendly actions which Matt is suggesting we take seriously.)

Most of the comments to Matt's post suggest that the majority of his regular readers think that any concern about national/cultural/economic/political sustainability, and the relation such has to the family and child-rearing, is borderline racist and in any case profoundly conservative. I won't try to pick a fight with any or all of them; I'll just salute Matt's courage and open-mindedness. And then I'll do him a big favor, and associate his post with this article from First Things. (I'll bet that's the first time Matt and FT have ever been linked together.) But seriously--the author of this essay comes, from a thoroughly conservative perspective, to essentially the same conclusion as Matt: there is a real need, and a reasonable one, for society to act collectively on behalf of easing the social and economic costs of child-rearing in the modern world. Read it--and then, read the author's response to the many government-hating traditionalists who wrote in, angry that FT would print anything so "socialist." Strange bedfellows indeed!

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Update (More on Headscarves)

Discussion of the ban on wearing the hajib in French schools continues in the blogosphere. Peter Northrup has a nice summary and consideration of the arguments which Patrick Weil, a member of the commission which suggested the policy, makes in defense of criticisms of the ban. Weil's basically argues that the ban on headscarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols was a result of the desire to protect female Muslim school students who preferred to go without headscarves from harassment and bullying by those (mostly male) students who believed they should wear them; Peter asks the obvious question: why not punish the bullies, then, as opposed to those Muslim girls who did choose to where the hajib? Jacob T. Levy is even less sympathetic to Weil than Peter. As I've written before, I'm in complete agreement with Peter and Jacob (and Scott Martens too) regarding this ban: it stinks. However, I think I have to side with Mark Kleiman when he criticizes the analogy which Jacob makes use of. Jacob writes:

"The following case seems straightforwardly analogous to me. The governor of a southern state circa 1960 has accepted the integration of the public schools, but refers to interracial dating by students as an assault against the state's values. A commission is convened, and finds that students involved in interracial dating are routinely threatened or beaten by other students. In sadness more than in anger, and in order to protect the victims, it recommends a ban on interracial dating--or at least on ostentatious displays of same, like holding hands in hallways--along with a number of other reforms to promote improved race relations. The governor does the obviously-expected thing, adopts the recommendation for the ban and ignores the rest."

Mark writes that he fails "to see the analogy between banning a behavior that is being repressed by violence [like interracial dating] and banning a behavior that is being enforced by violence [like wearing a headscarf]." For Jacob, the analogy holds because "in both cases, the wrong students [headscarf wearers and interracial daters] are getting coerced, and they're getting coerced under cover of their own protection by a government that openly wanted rid of the targeted behavior for reasons unrelated to the violence."

Generally speaking, I think Mark is correct in thinking that there is a not insignificant difference between banning an activity that is currently being subject to unjust repression and banning an activity which indirectly gives rise to opportunities for repression. The former would be directly giving into violence (you can't walk down that alleyway anymore; muggers lay in wait there); the latter is acknowledging and attempting to pre-emptively redress the conditions of violence (we're no longer allowing cities to build unlighted alleyways, because they become hide-outs for muggers; our apologies to those of you who really valued the thrill of walking down dark alleyways). Obviously, the best of all possible worlds is the world where there are no muggers in any alleyways, and where French schools lack any Muslim students willing to harass those who don't conform. Lacking that world, one can still make a distinction, I think, between decisions that are craven responses to violence and those that are concerned about the environment conducive to such.

Jacob wouldn't care for that answer, I suspect, because he probably would be made uncomfortable by all this "condition" talk. The fundamental matter in his view, very likely, is the simple fact of individual coercion in the name of some authoritatively determined standard. In his hypothetical, couldn't interracial dating fall afoul to "positive" concerns about the "environment" of the school just as easily as to simple complicity with bullying and blackmail? Indeed it could. But that's why I think, analogy or no analogy, it is insufficient to assess proposals like these simply in terms of the rights or choices or freedoms directly or "pre-emptively" lost; you also have to qualitatively assess the "authoritatively determined standard" which lurks behind the proposal. I oppose the headscarf ban not simply because it is a poorly conceived assault on the liberty of many French students, but because the laicized end-state which the French government clearly prefers is a crummy one. That is, not even the reasons "unrelated to the violence," as Jacob put it, stand up to good scrutiny here. So I agree with Jacob, though only partly because of the coercion of liberty involved; I am bothered at least as much, if not more, by the state's failure to conceive a proper fraternity as well.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Back Again

Well, that was a longer break than I intended--and as often seems the case, the break was a mixed blessing: it was wonderful to step away from work and everyday life for a while, but that only makes it much more difficult, disorienting, and disagreeable to return to the daily grind. The jokes people tell about needing a vacation to recover from the vacation have a point. I suppose I'll be lucky if I can get back on top of things and get my act back together by Easter or thereabouts. I wish for a graceful life, and instead it's just a constant pattern of rush and recovery. But I guess that's hardly a unique complaint.

In the meantime, I've got a small backload of things to blog about. And if you were an Invisible Adjunct reader, get over there and wish her a fond farewell before it's too late; her decision to give up blogging has resulted in a torrent of tearful goodbyes, of which mine is just one of many. IA's blog was one of the sanest, funniest, most thoughtful sites around; she will be greatly missed.

Friday, March 12, 2004

A Year of Blogging Enviously

My very first blog post appeared on March 18, 2003 (scroll down to read it here; thanks to the maddening complications of Blogger--which I complain about but which also, I admit, aren't quite enough to impel me to do the work necessary to switch over to something better--my permalinks for March don't work, and indeed, most of the first six months can't be accessed through the archives at all, though occasionally specific posts might be recovered if you have the link saved somewhere). So I'm jumping the gun a little in making this an anniversary post. But I'll be out of town all next week: it's ASU's spring break, and my younger sister is getting married on the 17th in Salt Lake City (indeed, she planned the wedding around our availability), so we're going to spend the next several days out West, visiting old friends in Utah and showing off Alison to relatives. Alison has gotten a lot better over the last few weeks--naps still elude us, but she's sleeping at night now, isn't backed up, and thus is a happier baby. I hope she and we survive the plane ride. Anyway, by the time we return it'll officially be spring, and this blog's one-year anniversary will have officially passed. Since I'm a calendar-conscious kind of guy, I decided this was a good time to take care of old business, and have everything ready for a fresh start for when we get back.

I could go into some detail about how my blog posts have evolved over the last twelve months, but I don't think there's much to say there. If this blog's content has had any real theme at all, it's been one of ideological and philosophical clarification: it's been a place for me to argue, with myself and others, about what I really believe, how those beliefs relate to current events and the history of thought, and whether those beliefs stand up to intellectual scrutiny. In short, I've mostly spent the last twelve months trying to figure out where I stand on this, that, or some other issue. In the beginning I mostly wrote about Iraq and imperialism and what kind "liberal" I am (a moderately nationalist, interventionist one); lately I've been writing more about the family and relationships and what kind of "communitarian" I am (a socially conservative yet egalitarian one). But fundamentally, it's all been about self-understanding, I suppose.

The thing is, such arguments, aiming for self-understanding, don't require a blog. For several months prior to beginning to blog, I'd had a pretty active e-mail discussion group going with a lot of old friends; we'd search the web and send links to each other every day, and argue about this and that. I treasure that list, and still do. Unfortunately, it's sometimes been difficult to maintain both those connections and this blog. So why do I do it? Well, there are lots of reasons....but the one which comes most readily to mind is, I'm sorry to say, envy.

By late 2002 and early 2003 I noticed more and more academics--people who are my peers--blogging. Jacob T. Levy, whose old site I got addicted to. Ditto for John Holbo. And many more: Kieran Healy, Chris Bertram...most of the Crooked Timber crowd, now that I think about it. Of course, many of these people started their blogs months before I'd ever even heard of such a thing, but given that I came to the internet quite late (I'm still not entirely clear on what "Usenet" was), I suppose I should be happy I discovered them at all. But I wasn't happy--or at least, not entirely. I'd love to say that I read their blogs wholly because I was stimulated by their ideas, and wanted to engage them in discussion, and it's true that I did. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that a good deal of my motivation for going back again and again was raw, self-interested anxiousness, something along the lines of: "Look at this! I've heard of that guy! I've read her articles! And now, everyone's reading what they say! I could have said that! Wait, I had that idea once! I studied that for years; you need my input! Dammit, I'm getting left behind!" And so forth. I was jealous, in other words. And not only jealous; some rather ugly Nietzschean ressentiment rumbled around in there as well: "Look at them. They're younger than me. They went to better graduate schools than I did. They have jobs at better universities than me. More people know them. They've got book deals. They're better writers, better scholars, better educated, more disciplined, more knowing, less distracted, wiser, hard-working. I hate them." Well, maybe it didn't get that far; at least I hope not. But perhaps I'm in denial.

Everyone knows that envy is an essential ingredient in the academy; indeed, on the publish-or-perish level, one might say that envy is built into the system, a feature inculcated into graduate students in order to get them to adhere to the economy of the place. It's something I've struggled with plenty over the years, especially in connection with my (seemingly never-ending) job search. In all honesty, I really don't think it's ever affected me very deeply, certainly not to the point of driving the life choices I make. But in the blogosphere, I must admit that the contrary is true: I have often been driven at least in part by envy. This blog and a great many of the posts I've written over the last year are significantly (if not, thankfully, entirely) the product of seeing some other blog, or some other post, and frustratingly feeling that it ought to have been said or done by me.

So there you go. Judge me accordingly. I'll be back in a week.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Update (Huntington's Critics and Me)

My moderate defense of the perspective (if not the point) of Samuel Huntington's recent essay on Hispanic immigration and American culture attracted the attention of Matthew Yglesias, who wrote that I was "all wrong." More accurately, Matt thought I'd been conned by Huntington; that what I described as a "wealth of data" supporting Huntington's claim that "this particular wave of immigrants--both legal and illegal--is larger and different from all previous waves" is in fact nothing of the sort. Could be. As I wrote originally, and in a comment on Matt's blog, I'm in no position to evaluate his evidence. My interest in Huntington has nothing to do with his particular conclusions, which--even if they were supported by his data (and I'm willing to grant they may not be)--I think show a rather simplistic understanding of cultural identity and change. But at least Huntington is talking about such things; and while Matt is correct that "neither [David] Brooks nor I denied that it is important for immigrants and their descendents to learn English," neither of them appeared inclined to attribute much weight to the engagement with (cultural) particularity which language acquisition requires. To repeat: Huntington may be, indeed probably is, all washed up when he equates American identity with a simple "Anglo-Protestant" particularity....but in some ways, I'd rather any discussion of some particularity than no discussion at all. And that's what happens when you treat language--as Brooks, at least, appeared to--as just some neutral, interchangeable tool, just something that you pick up (or your kids pick up, or your grandkids) once what is really important--your "values"--inspire you to cross a border.

And speaking of those values, and that particularity, check out the fisking which Scott Martens has launched against Huntington over at Pedantry. Scott knows the data on language acquisition, and plans to tear to pieces Huntington's argument about the "uniqueness" of the current resistance by Hispanic immigrants to assimilation; but his first post is a broad, indignant attack on Huntington's "value-driven nationalism" and the culture in implicitly praises. Scott cuts right to the quick of Huntington's conception of America, writing with dark humor that he should begin by pointing out that "the American dream--hard work gets you a decent life--is almost completely mythical; that Anglo-Protestant values didn't build America nearly as much as the sweat of cheap immigrant labourers (first from Africa, then from Europe and now from Mexico); and that anglophone Protestants have been happily rejecting Anglo-Protestant values for quite a long time now and have been doing so far more vocally and threateningly than Mexicans ever have." He correctly observes that Huntington's conception is built upon a definitional fiat: he comes up with an Anglo-Protestant majority culture by excluding African-American slaves and Native Americans as from his measure of the American public. (Historically justified, perhaps, but nonetheless a stacking of the deck, allowing him to claim that what was, in truth, actively constructed was simply constituted by virtue of majority preference.) And I couldn't agree more with his dismissal of Huntington's Weberian association of American Protestantism with entrepreneurialism and individualism; as Scott puts it "America's religious dissenters--the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the refugee German churches, the Huguenots--were overwhelmingly organised into tightly-knit interdependent communities...the very opposite of self-reliant or individualistic."

Unfortunately, I do think some of Scott's ire gets in the way of his critique. He gets a little snide, wondering if believing "it's only a crime if you get caught" isn't a central American value as well (no, Scott, I suspect that's more "human" than anything else). He says the idea that Americans have long identified with "a duty to build 'heaven on earth'" is nonsensical, and quotes some selfish conservative pseudo-Christian to that effect--but of course, if that was the case (and if people such as the one he quotes really had defined our history), then the tremendous careers, reputation and influence of such "city on a hill"-type moral leaders as John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King would be inexplicable. And there are a few other things I disagree with as well. But all in all, a good fisking, and one that will continue. Check it out.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Preview of a Pundit

An old friend of mine asked if I'd consider posting a short essay written by his son, which he is supposed to submit for publication somewhere as part of a school assignment. I guess blogs count. Anyway, I'm happy to post it here (frankly, it's better than a lot of stuff I've seen posted over at The Corner). Consider it a preview of a future pundit (he's certainly getting an earlier start than I did).

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"War- What is it Good For?"
by Christian Edwards van Muijen

Let's see; there's the War of Jenkins's Ear, the French-Indian War, the Revolutionary War, The Civil War, The Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the War on Terror, just to name a few. Any kid in 7th grade can (hopefully) tell you that the US has been through our fair share of war and bloodshed. But through all of this you have to ask yourself 'Why? Why must we seek to destroy those who are standing in our way? Why must children cry from the pain of losing a loved one to an American weapon? What is war good for?'

The line from my Dad's song says that the answer to that question is 'absolutely nothing', but we of course know that that is not true. Without a war, there would be no United States of America. Without war, Hitler would control most of Europe, if not the whole world. The real question is 'Which war is a good war?'

The main way to discover whether a war is 'good' or 'bad' is to set up criteria for a 'just' war. The ones that I feel are most important are: 1. We must be defending our rights, 2. We must be defending the helpless from a known threat, and 3. There must be a force pressing almost equally, that is, the threat must be a real threat. If we are attacked by some new nation who are killing our people, that is a just time to go to war. If some nation is slaughtering people because of their ethnicity, that is a just war.

Even so, us 7th graders can feel the blow from any war, good or bad. Wars have their costs in an average area, like a school. Some students think that they shouldn't think by shutting off their minds and believe whatever ideas are thrown at them. Others are really just trying to hide from the fact that we are at war. Sadly, some students are segregated for their ethnicity when we go to war with their homelands. In fact, one of my good friends thought that it was World War III and we were going to war with India. Because of this, he was unkind to an Indian student in our school until we convinced him that WWIII hadn't occurred yet.

Going to war is not an easy thing to understand for my generation. With the Iraq war drawn to a close, most of us feel a quiet relief: No more violence, no more death, no more pain. The President says that the war was good and just, and we can just trust them. But the President's explanations don't really match up with our criteria. What was the point of going to Iraq? We went in there, looking for Weapons
of Mass Destruction, blew up some Iraqi citizens, and found... nothing. All the war proved was that George W. Bush wants to milk his title of "Commander-in-Chief" for all it's worth. If any of us folks in 7th grade have a problem, most of us can talk it out and find a better solution than going in and nuking anything that moves.

In conclusion, war is a complex and delicate matter. With many different perspectives to look at war through, there is no right way of describing a war. However, there are 'good' and 'bad' wars. I hope that we will have the wisdom to only fight 'good' wars in the future.

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I'd never even heard of the War of Jenkins's Ear before I read this essay, and I'm a college professor. So much for my junior high school education.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Update (The Nanny Debate Continues)

The long, often contentious, but always interesting interblog debate on motherhood, nannies, domestic service, and exploitation--which I weighed in on here, here, and over at Times & Seasons here--has reared its head again, this time with a few interesting twists. Timothy Burke and Belle Waring both post some wonderful, revealing, reflections on domestic service and the exploitation question in non-U.S. contexts. Laura takes Tim's comments and uses them as a springboard to wonder about the relationship between a desire for "privacy" (the main reason Tim is uncomfortable with domestic service) and our discomforting unwillingness to get our own hands dirty. She asks: "Are we losing the ability to take care of ourselves? Are we losing some of the rugged individualism and self-sufficiency that de Tocqueville observed in our country 200 years ago?" Chun the Unavoidable has a pretty emphatic response: "If you're healthy, and someone else is cleaning your house, you need to check yourself." Oh, and Nate Oman gets all lawyerly, as is his right, about the meaning of "exploitation." Anyway, read and comment away.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Great Acting

I'm hardly an expert when it comes to film, but I watch my share of movies, and like most people, I love talking about them. (No, I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ yet; for a variety of reasons, I rarely go out to see films without Melissa, and since she has no interest in seeing the movie--she knows she wouldn't handle the level of violence very well--I don't know when I'll get around to it. Perhaps soon, but perhaps not until it's out on dvd.) I especially like thinking about, and talking about, what makes movies (some of them, at least) work as art--the cinematography, the editing, the dialogue, the staging, and certainly not least the acting. Thus I was delighted to discover this informative little essay by Lee Siegel, in which he takes up the opportunity which the Oscar season provides us to reflect on the art of film acting, and runs with it. Siegel could no doubt say a lot more on this subject, but what he does say was insightful and provocative. He gives us a little bit of history:

"It's time to talk about acting because acting as an art with a history of evolving styles--acting as a highly developed discipline that demands specialized training--almost never gets discussed. When it does you'll find vague references to the Method, the naturalistic style of acting imported from Russia into this country by Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio in the 1940s...But rarely is there mention of the fact that there were two antagonistic versions of the Method: Strasberg's emphasis on how actors should draw from their own experience to inhabit a character; and Stella Adler's insistence that actors must pay closer attention to the play's circumstances than to their own memories and emotions. Nor does anyone bother to observe that David Mamet has devised the only successful alternative to the Method...a style that consists of a high, though subtle, degree of deliberate artifice."

"Deliberate artifice"--that captures Mamet wonderfully. There's also this:

"[W]hat really revolutionized American acting wasn't the Method's naturalism. It was the emphasis Strasberg placed on facial expression....Strasberg believed that the essential instrument of an actor's creative expression was the face, and the result of his doctrine was to send generations of stage actors running to the camera from the stage, thus transforming the static, glamorous close-up of Bette Davis' day--in which the actor's face was motionless and timeless, existing for a moment outside the storyline--to the busy, emotive, and strategically timed close-up of today, in which the face and the camera work together to create thematic meaning and push the story forward. On stage, the hardest thing for an actor to do is to keep the emotion on his or her face after speaking the lines--the camera removes that hardship simply by moving off the face....To the extent that acting does seem more real today, it's because the camera moves so fast off the face that it shaves off any sliver of inauthenticity. When certain actors win the Oscar for best acting, they should thank the Lens and the Viewfinder, not Mom and Dad."

What a sharp observation--and perfectly true, when you think about it. Representing a story on a stage--or indeed, simply being a great story-teller--requires the ability to do more than speak lines and relate scenes; what is necessary is the ability to use those scenes, those words, to channel a whole mise-en-scene, a completely realized emotion, to the audience and hold it there, capturing the viewer in what's being said or done. Film can aid or undermine this kind of capacity in a variety of ways; I'd never thought about it in terms of how numerous takes are stitched together in order to create that captivating moment, but obviously a lot of what our contemporary film actors and actresses do is throw out one thing after another, until finally something sticks. A skill, surely....but is it the craft Siegel has in mind?

This line of thought leads to me wonder about those moments in certain movies when the director and performer put together a scene or two--usually simple ones, but not always--where real acting is on display: where the power or hilarity or wonder of the visual isn't due to the set-up (at least not very much), but really is a product of what the actor or actress is channeling. The result won't necessarily save a bad movie, but it usually infinitely improves what is around it--and for me at least, makes the performer's character utterly compelling. I can't take my eyes off him or her; if I'm watching a video or dvd, I replay scenes over and over; if it's something that comes on tv and I've seen it a hundred times I'll still watch it again, because the peculiar alchemy on the screen never fails to drag me in. For instance:

Kevin Spacey in L.A. Confidential
Holly Hunter in The Piano
Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies
Bill Murray in Rushmore
Michael Caine in Get Carter
Lauren Bacall in To Have and To Have Not
Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai
Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot
Robert Shaw in Jaws
George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove
Orson Welles in A Touch of Evil
Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life
Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca
Jean-Pierre Leaud in 400 Blows

I'm sure I could include many more if I thought about it. A lot of these are justly celebrated performances; others are either mostly forgotten or overshadowed by other moments in the performer's career. Indeed, not all of these films are especially great. But regardless, I could watch any of these movies over and over again, if only to be emotionally worked over by the scenes they include. Great acting, indeed.
Update: I went to bed after posting, and woke up having thought of a couple more to add. I realize that there are numerous classic performances that ought to be on this list just by virtue of critical acclaim: Siegel mentions Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and Paul Newman in The Hustler. But maybe that's one of the mysteries of acting--even when you know it's happening, it doesn't necessarily happen to you. In the case of those two classics, for example, I don't find myself captivated, compelled to watch, as great as they admittedly are. But on the other hand...

Marlon Brando in The Godfather
Paul Newman in Nobody's Fool
Gong Li in Ju Dou
Richard Harris in Unforgiven
John Goodman in Barton Fink
Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married
Robert De Niro in Brazil
Angela Bassett in What's Love Got to Do with It?

Anyway, no doubt I could go on and on...