Monday, March 28, 2011

Popular Culture and Cormac McCarthy

Below are comments I will be using at the Midwest Political Science Meetings this year summarizing my paper on McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Enjoy.

Comments on No Country for Old Men
Peter Schultz
March 2011
MPSA Meetings, Chicago IL

What might be the meaning of Cormac McCarthy’s title, No Country for Old Men? My suggestion is that it means that conventional politics, which rests on conventional wisdom, is quite useless, even blinding.

The novel opens with a massacre in the desert in the Southwest, a massacre that has occurred over a drug deal gone bad. Several people and even a couple of dogs have been killed, the drug money is missing, and an innocent party, Llewellyn Moss, comes upon the scene, finds “the last man standing” and takes the money, a million dollars or so. Eventually, of course, Moss is tracked down by Anton Chigurh, who is after the drug money and killed, along with several others who have become involved in the aftermath of this massacre. Chigurh disappears at the end of the novel, apparently making his getaway after killing Moss’ wife “on principle.”

Now, it may be asked, in a situation like this, that is, in a situation where clearly there is a drug war going on, how much sense does it make to declare “a war on drugs?” Such a declaration, such a policy, is presented as something “new,” as a policy that illustrates that the government is willing to pull out all the stops when it comes to dealing with the abuse of illegal substances. Hence, by declaring “a war on drugs,” we like to think that we will be able to reassert control. But as there already is a drug war being waged, how much sense can this make?

In fact, as there already is a “drug war” going on, the evidence of which is in the desert and all around us, for the government or for us to think that declaring “a war on drugs” is something useful is quite illogical, even nonsensical or delusional. By declaring a war on drugs, while there is a drug war already going on, the government and we are merely participating in the existing situation and, thus, such a policy holds out little promise for changing that situation. As George Carlin noticed a long time ago, it makes little sense to threaten drug dealers with the death penalty when they are already killing each other over their drug trade! Obviously, the threat of death will not deter these drug dealers from engaging in their particular form of commerce as they already face that threat and still continue their commercial activities. Just as obviously, declaring a war on drugs when people are already engaged in a drug war will have little or no impact on the behavior of those people.

Let me put my suggestion above as to the meaning of the title of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men a bit differently. We employ what might be called “deadly paradigms” to understand and to make our way in the world we live in. One of these paradigms tells us that our situation should be understood as series of “problems,” such as the drug problem, the abortion problem, or the terrorism problem. And beyond this, we also think about these problems in ways that are, for want of a better term, comfortable. For example, in one exchange in the novel, Sheriff Bell, whose ruminations comprise a good portion of the book, is talking with another sheriff. The other sheriff says that our situation is quite bad because there are people that “sell that shit to schoolkids.” Sheriff Bell responds that our situation is “worse than that.” The other sheriff asks, “How’s that?” And Bell responds, “Schoolkids buy it.”

Conventional thinking and conventional politics focuses on those selling drugs because we think we understand drug dealers – they are engaged in this business because they want to make money. [It is amazing how powerful we take the desire to make money to be, even using it and the lack of the opportunity to make money to explain those we call “suicide bombers.”] And so we then think we know what to do – up the “cost of doing business” by threatening them with severe punishments, perhaps even death.

But children buying and using drugs, or otherwise law-abiding, even successful people, doing drugs is a different matter and a much more difficult phenomenon for us to explain. We don’t really know what this means or why this happens. And this leads to other “explanations” that are no more useful than the “business model” explanation for the drug crisis, viz., analyses that there is something is called “the drug culture” which can be used to explain such drug use. It is comforting for us to think that the existence of such a “culture” explains drug use – even though much of the evidence suggests there is no such phenomenon as “a drug culture” – if for no other reason than we don’t have to think about what the phenomenon of children buying and using drugs means for what might be called “American” or “Modern/Western” culture. “Ah yes,” we like to think. “It is this foreign culture, this drug culture that has infected our culture and spread the virus of drug use far and wide.” Comforting thoughts and arguments these.

McCarthy makes this point again in an exchange between Sheriff Bell and a reporter who, in interviewing Bell, asks him why he has let the drug problem get out of control. Sheriff Bell, probably a bit miffed by this accusation disguised as a “question,” responds that it is impossible to have dope without “dopers.” And then he suggests to the reporter that even she might know some “dopers.” Conventional thinking has it that controlling drug use is a matter of law enforcement, that if the lawful authorities do their job, then drug use can be and will be controlled. Or, to use another example, if only we, that is, those who have not been seduced by “the drug culture,” can counteract that “culture” through education or simply by talking with our children about drugs, the “anti-drug” as current advertisements have it, then we can control drug use and abuse. It would seem, however, that Sheriff Bell has a different understanding of our situation.

In another one of his ruminations, Sheriff Bell says that once when he and his wife were attending a conference, he was seated next to a woman who “kept talkin about the right wing this and the right wing that. I ain’t even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin something bad about em….She kept on and on. Finally told me, said: I don’t like the way the country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam…the way I see the country is headed…I don’t have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.”

Now, notice should be taken that for Sheriff Bell, the “right wing” is not the issue. For Sheriff Bell, the “right wing” is irrelevant to whatever is happening, which is to say that whatever is happening in the country has little to do with conventional politics or the battles between the “right wing” and the “left wing.” Nor, it would follow, will the right wing or the left wing be able to change whatever is happening in the country should either prevail in these battles. Whatever is happening in the country transcends conventional politics and renders such politics, e.g., our “war on drugs,” irrelevant. It is not accidental that the conversation ended. Rather, it reflects the irrelevancy of our political discourse as it is constructed by the right wing and the left wing.

But if our conventional discourse is irrelevant than it is only sensible to turn to alternatives for enlightenment, which brings us to what is called “popular culture.” Of course, the label “popular culture” is meant to characterize this phenomenon in a way that sets most people to thinking “lightweight culture” or that popular culture is to culture what “near beer” is to beer. That is, it is not the “real thing.” But insofar as our conventional discourse, e.g., the discourse conducted by the right wing and the left wing, does not and cannot illuminate our situation, then it makes sense not only to consult “popular culture” but even to wonder whether we might find in that phenomenon guideposts that are lacking elsewhere.

For the past few years, I have been teaching Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American to my classes. And it has struck me more than once that while this novel was published in 1954, long before we Americans took over what we now call the Vietnam War from the French, Greene “saw” how the United States would become involved in Vietnam and “saw” the outcome as well. Of course, there might have been conventional analyses that drew the same conclusions, but it is more than a little interesting that Greene’s novel was so prescient. Surely, this has something to do with the phenomenon we call “popular culture” and how it approaches the world we live in, in contrast to more conventional, more “professional,” more expert analyses. For reasons I cannot yet elaborate, works of popular culture allow us to see things that our expertise or our partisanship blinds us to. It would be worthwhile to consider this phenomenon further.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Culture Wars and Politics

Thoughts on the “Culture Wars”
P. Schultz

I think I have finally figured out the business about the alleged “culture war” in the United States. And I think it has something to do with what I am choosing to call our peculiar kind of politics, the politics of greatness.

As I have argued previously, the politics of greatness has its roots in the Progressive movement which began in the late 1800s and early 1900s and came to fruition as it were in the administration of FDR with his promise of a New Deal, the “Old Deal” being the Constitution as it was originally conceived, at least in FDR’s mind and other Progressives. We still embrace a progressive politics and a progressive political order even though there is a vigorous and seemingly intense argument going on within this order between those who claim the label of “conservative” and those called “liberals.”

Now by this version of politics, the political arena should be an arena in which “the great ones” compete for “great power” in order to undertake “great projects.” These “great projects” are those that are meant to permeate society, that is, to change society comprehensively or deeply. As Woodrow Wilson said during his presidency, “Our task [is] no mere task of politics.” By this he meant that “our task” was one that goes far beyond the merely political, encompassing the social or, as we might say today, the “cultural.” Hence, the political conflict between “the great ones” is actually, at bottom, cultural conflict, conflict over, allegedly, what kind of society we will or should be. Or to put this differently, the political conflict between the great ones is over competing “visions,” which are of course one of the staples of the Progressive understanding of “leadership.”

This view helps to explain the intensity of the rhetoric that currently characterizes our politics and the disjunction between the people, that is, ordinary people, and our elites. With regard to the intensity of the rhetoric that is currently in vogue, it is justified if our political conflicts are really conflicts over what kind of culture we are going to have in this nation. The conflict is so basic, is over the most basic kind of issues – e.g., “socialism” versus “capitalism,” as some would have it – that harsh rhetoric and even personal attacks are to be expected and are justified.

What is made to appear as a culture war domestically is taken to be a “clash of civilizations” with regard to foreign policy. And here, especially, it could be said that “our task [is] no mere task of politics.” And, again, as the conflict is seen as over the most basic and the most important issues, it is to be expected that atrocities will be committed. In fact, it would not be too much to say that the atrocities that occur are not accidental or “one-off” events, events that result from the actions of “loose cannons” or those who “just snap.” These atrocities are, rather, reflections of the overall policy.

Now, one thing this means is that calls for moderation in the rhetoric that characterizes our domestic politics or in our actions in foreign realms will not be sufficient to control our behavior. Such calls will fail because the rhetoric and actions that even we can see as undesirable are part and parcel, as it were, of our embrace of what I choose to call “a politics of greatness,” that is, a politics that sees political actors as “the great ones” competing for power to do great things, even the greatest things. And the question should be asked: What might such an alternative politics look like?

Well, as I see it, there are at least two aspects to an alternative politics. First, such a politics would need to be incremental. That is, such a politics might be labeled “piecemeal politics,” in that it would not seek to deal with, to eradicate what is called “the drug culture” but would seek to deal with the abuse of illegal substances in piecemeal fashion, incrementally. Under such an approach, it would make no sense to create what we now call “a drug czar” nor would it make sense to create agencies dedicated to eradication of the use of illegal substances. Rather, drug use and abuse would be entrusted to such organizations as police departments, that is, agencies and departments that have multiple responsibilities and that do not have tightly focused “missions” as does the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Administration.

A second aspect of an alternative politics would be its accommodationist character. That is, it would deal with “problems” or “issues” as we deal with, say, potholes. No one ever declares war on potholes and no one ever would because we know that the potholes will always be with us. The best we can do is to fill them in, even while knowing that this is not a “solution.” So, for example, when dealing with homelessness and the homeless, we would not try, as both liberals and conservatives do today, to conquer homelessness, to “eradicate” the homeless by providing homes for them. Rather, we would help the homeless, that is, we would seek to help them be homeless successfully. This would involve, among other things, actually asking the homeless what they need and then trying to meet these needs. We would rely less on experts and more on the homeless themselves in designing policies for the homeless. But, again, we would not create an agency devoted to “solving the problem of homelessness” by making it and them disappear. Nor would we engage in “calls to action” to try to “understand” the homeless in order to get “them off the streets and into homes.”

Of course, such an accommodationist stance provides little room or opportunity for the kind of inspirational rhetoric we have become so use to today. There would be no calls for action to eradicate the use of illegal substances, no calls to action to wage a “war on poverty” or a “war on crime” or a “war on terror.” There would be less talk of the alleged “culture of poverty” or the “drug culture,” as such talk would serve little or no purpose in dealing with these phenomena in an incremental and/or accommodationist manner. But we just might arrive at more humane and even more workable approaches to these phenomena than we employ now. We would not “solve” our “problems” but we would manage our affairs and be better off.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Some "random" thoughts about American politics

Thoughts on How We Think About Politics
Peter Schultz
March 19, 2011

In reading a book by a colleague about what he calls the conservative foundations of liberalism, in which he argues, not uniquely or originally, that modern liberalism cannot sustain itself without the help of “forces” or “phenomena” that are “pre-modern,” he argues that the foreign policy pursued by the Bush administration – and perhaps other administrations as well – was saved or redeemed by “prudence.” That is, that foreign policy was not ideological even though it was too simplistic to be successful.

Now, in thinking about what I did not agree with in regard to this argument, I made a “discovery” which seems worthwhile. According to my colleague, and of course many others, the atrocities that have been committed by Americans in pursuit of its foreign policy are what might be called “accidental.” That is, they are not indicative of American values and are, usually, the result of “one-off” events, such as My Lai or Abu Ghraib. As my colleague says of people like William Kristol and Dick Cheney, they are “decent human beings,” unlike those whom we consider to be and who consider themselves to be our enemies. Even the war in Vietnam, by this reasoning, becomes a “noble” adventure.

I have been rereading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American as I am once again teaching it this semester. Greene saw in the context of Vietnam in the early 1950s what may be called two kinds of imperialism, the old imperialism that aimed at exploitation, and the new imperialism that aimed at salvation, e.g., “saving” Vietnam, both from the Communists and from its backward or undeveloped self. Greene’s English protagonist, Thomas Fowler, says at one point while debating the American protagonist, Alden Pyle, that he would prefer the imperialism of exploitation because, unlike the new imperialism, the exploiters did not have “good consciences.” Hence, they did less damage in the end than those who came to “save” a particular country.

Now I think this may be expressed best with an aphorism that became well known during the Vietnam war, viz., that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” This can be applied to the whole country because we were not only saving Vietnam from the Communists but also intended to save it from itself, that is, to modernize it, to develop it, which of course requires destroying the “old Vietnam.” Reflections of this mindset are visible in our extensive bombing campaigns in both North and South Vietnam and in what was called the “strategic hamlet” program under which thousands and thousands of Vietnamese were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated where they would be safe and away from the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. In many cases, the old hamlets, that is, the homes of the Vietnamese were destroyed quite literally.

What this means is that it was our overall policy in Vietnam that was the atrocity or was atrocious. It was such because given our intention to “save” Vietnam we had to destroy it, one way or another. And this means that the other, more visible atrocities, those events that even we the American people had to admit were atrocities, were not accidents at all. Rather, they merely reflect the character of the overall policy itself.

This also means that my colleague’s recommendation or endorsement of an
“activist, interventionist foreign policy” moderated by prudence is quite fanciful insofar as such a policy requires that we commit atrocities because the policy itself is an atrocity. We disguise this from ourselves in numerous ways, one of them being using euphemisms like an “activist, interventionist foreign policy,” rather than calling it what it is, viz., imperialism. Further, it seems to me that perhaps any “activist” politics, as we understand this term, leads to the commission of atrocities because such a politics is, itself, an atrocity.

Could this be what Machiavelli was teaching us? That is, Machiavelli wrote, in essence, something like the following: “Hey, I want the things that most human beings want, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I want a political order that will guarantee some security, some liberty, and some prosperity. But I know what you have to do in order to get these things and these requirements are quite severe, including even inhuman cruelty [as practiced by Hannibal and others]. I wish it were different but it isn’t. The good only comes out of the bad as justice only comes out of injustice. All great political orders are founded in crime.” [Think of American slavery here, as well as the “displacement” of the Native Americans.]

Could this also be the meaning of saying, favored by many conservatives that “there is no such thing as a free lunch?” I think it might be. Could it also be that this was recognized by such men as Plato and Aristotle, as well as such men as Augustine and Aquinas, and led them to try to deflect human beings away from what might be called “a politics of action?” Plato tried to deflect men toward contemplation or philosophy, while Aristotle tried to deflect men toward the pursuit of happiness, a pursuit that would end beyond the political arena in living a life of leisure. And both men endorsed a kind of political order, the polis, which would be limited, if only by its very size, with regard to the kinds of actions it could undertake. Or so it might seem.

Anyway, it could be that the political “problem” is in fact what we would call an “activist politics” and the puzzle is to find a way to “deactivate” politics so that human beings do not commit atrocities, and especially not with good consciences. If this is correct, then it may be said that decency is not or will not be enough because even decent men who undertake an activist politics will be led, willy nilly, to commit or endorse or approve atrocities, as we have seen with regard to the war on terror and the practice of torture. And insofar as this is true, then it must be said that those who call themselves and consider themselves “realists,” “hardheaded realists” at that, are actually quite polyannish in that they do not see the political problem clearly, if at all. They endorse, they even embrace a politics of action and think that this embrace can be moderated by that decency which almost all human beings possess. This way of thinking reminds me of an essay by D. H. Lawrence or an essay about D. H. Lawrence in which the author said that the limitations of Benjamin Franklin, i.e., the American founders, were that he, Franklin, thought the deviant tendencies of the human soul could be controlled like home grown gardens could be controlled, with the erection of a white picket fence. Ah , if only it were so easy to control or moderate the political passions of human beings.

More Stuff From Class: The Quiet American

Closing Thoughts on The Quiet American
Peter Schultz
March 21, 2011

I have already talked about the two kinds of imperialism mentioned and portrayed in The Quiet American. The “old” kind is exploitative while the “new” kind is “salvationist.” The former looks to exploit others and what they have while the latter looks to “save” others, e.g., save Vietnam from the Communists but also from itself, its backward self.

As portrayed, both are “bad” but the latter is actually worse than the former because it leads to even greater atrocities than the former. The latter kinds of imperialists have, as Fowler says, “good consciences” and, therefore, their policies, their actions, however horrendous or horrific they might appear, are justified. As Pyle said to Fowler after the carnage he created in the square, which took the lives of babies, old men, and women: “Thomas, you just don’t see the big picture.” Pyle meant that the murders of today were justified because he would save lives tomorrow.

But today I want to finish up with this book by talking about two different kinds of politics, a politics of greatness and a pedestrian or conservative politics. There are connections of course to the two kinds of imperialism mentioned above.

A politics of greatness is the view of politics that the political arena is or should be an arena where “the great ones” compete for power in order to undertake
“great projects.” Now, these “great ones” are those human beings who are most ambitious, those who, in Hamilton’s words in the Federalist, “love fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” These human beings are driven by a love of fame, which seems to be a reflection of a desire for immortality, at least the only kind of immortality that human beings can be certain of. The love of fame is a reflection of a desire to be or become god-like.

Moreover, the political arena should facilitate a “face-to-face” competition among these great ones, meaning a competition that is free of intervening institutions. Some of these intervening institutions would be political parties, interest groups, corporations, and even churches. The great ones should confront one another “face-to-face” and this competition should be “issue oriented.” That is, ultimately this competition should be about competing “visions,” competing views of what the best society should look like.

Hence, the “great projects” which these visionaries promise to undertake are to be far-reaching efforts to change the social, economic, and cultural character of society, changes that would permeate the society even reaching those human beings who comprise that society. As Woodrow Wilson said: “Our task is no mere task of politics.” That is, the kind of change sought goes far, very far, beyond political change. It reaches what we might call today “cultural change,” which helps explain why many today speak of “a culture war” and speak of this “war” as the most important battle being waged today, as it will determine what kind of nation we will be. This helps to explain the intensity of the rhetoric being used today and the intensity, i.e., the personalization, of the battles. Personal attacks are justified because the stakes are so high.

I remind you: this situation is the result of our embrace of a politics of greatness and, hence, the situation cannot be changed by merely calling for more restraint by political actors. It can only be corrected by embracing a different kind of politics. And, again, note should be taken that just as vicious, personal attacks are justified domestically, so too vicious, deadly attacks are justified in our interactions with other nations. Because the stakes are so high, we should strive to prevail “by any means necessary.”

As a result, we are led to commit atrocities, as Pyle was in The Quiet American. Because of his “innocence,” – i.e., his embrace of a politics of greatness as the saving of Vietnam would be a great act – Pyle is led to commit and justify a great atrocity, killing innocent women, babies, and old men.

It is crucial to underline that the atrocities that catch our attention, e.g., My Lai or Abu Ghraib, are “accidental,” are not the result of personal failings, and are not abrogation’s of an otherwise “noble” policy. Rather, they are the “logical” results of our embrace of a politics of greatness. And they cannot be avoided without changing the kind of politics we embrace or endorse.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Some fascinating Stuff on Israel and the neo-cons

Excerpts From Beware of Small States by David Hirst

Chapter Eleven “Redrawing the Map of the Middle East, 2001-2006”

“In the summer of 1996, thanks largely to the failure of Operation Grapes of Wrath over which he had presided, Shimon Peres and his Labour Party were defeated in general elections by Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud. Before the new prime minister took office, a group of American neoconservatives, some of them, such as Richard Perle, former and future government officials, took it upon themselves to advise him what to do when he did. In a paper entitled Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, they outlined the means by which Israel – ‘proud, wealthy, solid and strong’ – should make itself the cornerstone of ‘a truly new and peaceful Middle East,’ one in which it would no longer simply ‘contain’ it foes, but ‘transcend’ them. First it should replace ‘land for peace,’ the core principle of the American-sponsored peace process, with ‘peace through strength,’ and secure the Arabs’ ‘unconditional acceptance’ of its rights, especially its ‘territorial’ (that is expansionist) ones. Then, in ‘partnership’ with the US, it should embark on a grandiose scheme of geopolitical engineering for the whole region. It should start by ‘removing Saddam Hussein from power’ and supporting King Hussein of Jordan in his ‘redefining’ of Iraq through the restoration of a fellow Hashemite dynasty there. The ‘natural axis’ – composed of Israel, Turkey, Jordan and ‘central’ Iraq – would join forces in ‘weakening, containing or even rolling back Syria,’ seeking to ‘detach it from the Saudi Peninsula,’ and ‘threatening its territorial integrity’ as a prelude to a ‘redrawing of the map of the Middle East.’ Since Lebanon’s Syrian-controlled Beqa’a Valley had ‘become for terror what the Silicon Valley has become for computers,’ Israel should ‘seize the strategic initiative along its northern borders by engaging Hizbullah, Syria, and Iran, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon.’ It should hit Syrian military targets there, or ‘select’ ones in Syria itself. Syria might also come under assault from ‘Israeli proxy forces’ operating out of Lebanon.

“Clean Break was a seminal document, an early authoritative expression of ideas and prescriptions – extreme, violent, simplistic, and utterly partisan – originally intended for the Israeli leadership but eventually emerging as ‘a kind of US-Israeli neoconservative manifesto.’ At the time, the neoconservatives were out of power. Not since President Reagan, and their enthusiastic backing for Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, had they commanded serious influence from within the corridors of power. Ultimately disappointed by him, whom they considered too moderate, as well as by his two successors, they now constituted a very influential, ambitious, militant pressure group, most denizens of a plethora of interlocking, pro-Israel Washington think tanks, impatiently awaiting the champion through whom they could put such ideas into effect. They found him in President George Bush; they entered his Administration en masse, some of them in positions of great power. But it was only when bin Laden’s nineteen kamikazes steered three of their hijacked aircraft into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon that they truly came into their own; only then that Bush, who, in his electoral campaign, had pledged himself to a ‘humble’ foreign policy imbued with the ‘modesty of strength,’ became a convert to their millenarian vision, and the belligerence that came with it. In their speedy and well-orchestrated reaction to what they saw as the most providential of national emergencies, the neoconservatives succeeded in hijacking the foreign policy of the world’s only superpower; in persuading its leader to endorse a pre-existing plan of action which had little to do with the nature of the emergency itself, with bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but everything to do with their extravagant project for a future Middle East. It was quite as much an Israeli as an American one. The Jerusalem Post described its authors as ‘Arik’s [Sharon] American front,’ and a high American official told the Washington Post that the ‘Likudniks are really in charge now.’ Bush himself was said to be ‘mesmerized’ by Sharon. As for the degree of influence, steadily rising from administration to administration, which the Israeli protégé had now attained over its American patron, this – wrote scholar Anatole Lieven – was no longer ‘a case of the tail wagging the dog,’ but of ‘the tail wagging the unfortunate dog around the room and banging its head against the ceiling.’

What the Americans and the Israelis imagined was a transformation – strategic, political, economic, religious, cultural – of the entire Middle East. In place of tyranny, extremism, social oppression, corruption economic stagnation – basic maladies which, in their view, had thrown up 9/11 and turned the region into a menace both to itself and the world – would come freedom and democracy, human rights, the rule of law, pluralism and market capitalism. Of key importance was the notion that since – or so they argued – democracies tend by nature to be more peace-loving and good-neighborly than despotism, democratization would contribute mightily to that abiding American quest in the region, an Arab-Israeli peace settlement.” [pp. 279-281]

Friday, March 4, 2011

Jefferson and Jackson and American Politics

In my presidency course, we are considering both T. Jefferson and A. Jackson as presidents and as politicians. Now, they were, I argue, "radical" for the rather simple reason that they did not subordinate politics to economics or that they did not let economic concerns trump their political/social concerns. They had two concerns: To preserve a "republican form of government" and to preserve a "republican form of society." Republican government meant to them a responsive government, that is, a government that responds to, without trying to "filter" or "refine" public opinion. In a sense, their understanding distinguishes between "responsive" government and "representative" government because the latter is controlled, by and large, by the "representatives" of the people who view themselves as a filter through which and by means of which the popular will would be "cleansed." For Jefferson, such a preservation required moving the focal point of power within the national government into the Congress and away from the presidency. For Jackson, such a preservation required moving the focal point of power into "national" political parties, parties which controlled the nominations for the presidency among other tasks. Different means but the same goal, the preservation of a republican form of government.

A republican society was for these men meant a relatively equal society, a society in which the largest class was the middle class but, even more importantly, a society in which people aspired to be middle class, even at the expense of aspiring to be upper class. For these men, a middle class "lifestyle", as we would say, is superior to an upper class lifestyle. It is better for human beings to live in the middle than in the upper reaches of society. The reasons for this are not that important here but let me leave it at the thought that middle class people are more aware of the necessity for limits or the desirability for human beings to live within limits, recognizing the foolishness of "dreaming the impossible dream."

To preserve such a society, Jefferson and Jackson thought it necessary to limit, sharply and severely, the power and scope of the national government: "Honey, I shrunk the [national] government." For Jackson, this meant killing the national bank, an act if copied today might lead to the death of the Fed, ala' Ron Paul. But the point here is that to preserve a republican society, it is necessary to limit the pursuit of wealth or to limit the existence of great concentrations of wealth. And this is necessary because both men thought that the production of great wealth requires and results in, willy nilly, great economic and, hence, social disparities. For them, we have a choice: We can have an immensely wealthy society or we can have a republican society. They chose the latter, whereas we today tend to choose the former because we tend to look at political questions as economic questions.

For example, today arguments are aplenty about how it is necessary, economically necessary, to discipline state workers, like teachers, to reduce their pay and, more importantly, to disempower them by limiting their right to unionize and bargain as a union. From the Jefferson/Jackson perspective, such a policy undermines the foundation of a republican society because it undermines the power of segments of the middle class, which almost all teachers are part of. This is done at the same time that those in upper class are "bailed out," at times it would seem almost rewarded despite their responsibility for one of the largest economic fiascoes in American history. Of course, the arguments for the bailout are almost always economic, viz., we had to do it to "save the economy." Similarly, now we have to discipline, say, teachers for the same reasons. Political and social questions are displaced by economic questions or political and social concerns are displaced by economic concerns. This has gone so far that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada wants to end legalized prostitution in his state because, he says, it hurts Nevada economically as businesses won't locate there! Prostitution is economically unsound!

Of course, privatizing government services also impacts, by and large, the middle class more than the upper class but, again, it is all the rage for economic reasons. The same can be said for globalization, an economic boon, we are told, and therefore to be embraced while its social and political implications are, for the most part, ignored.

We could learn some things from Jefferson and Jackson and one thing we could learn is how to think about politics or, rather, how to think about politics without subordinating politics to economics. Will this happen? Given the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties, I must say that the outlook is not favorable.