Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Hard Day's Night

A Hard Day’s Night
P. Schultz
July 11, 2015

            This is an amazingly revealing article, in a liberal magazine of Catholic credentials, although its author seems quite unaware of how revealing it is.

            The article takes as its launch point, Chris Christie’s speech announcing his bid for the presidential nomination in the Republican Party and, particularly, his tribute to “his hard-working parents and grandparents.” This strikes J. Dionne, one of our most prolific pundits, as significant because “work, its rewards and its discontents will be central to our nation's debate going into the 2016 campaign.” And this is confirmed by the fact that “President Obama has laid down a marker for testing how seriously politicians take the obligation to make hard work pay.” As Dionne points out: “Obama is putting forward new rules that would make up to 5 million more American workers eligible for overtime pay.”

            Now, in our current situation there is little doubt that what Obama is recommending is needed and just because companies are dodging overtime by “a scam through which employers designate even relatively low-paid workers as managers to get around the law, which requires an overtime premium after 40 hours per week.” So, in that regard, Obama’s proposal makes sense.

            But what Dionne seems unaware of is that this emphasis on “work,” by which he of course means wage work, is or could be controversial and not as something so uplifting that no one bats an eye when Christie “bestowed praise across gender lines, describing his grandmothers as women ‘who knew how to work and who knew that hard work would deliver something for their children.’” Apparently, work in this sense, has become central in our pantheon of virtues. In fact, from Christie’s words of praise, one could reach the conclusion that work, in and of itself, wage work, constitutes “making it” in the United States.

            Now, this is revealing of how distorted or truncated our political discourse has become in that, once upon a time, the idea of “work” as “making it” was questioned, to say the least. In fact, work in the sense we mean it today, as having “a job” and earning wages, was seen as merely the stepping stone to what was a better condition, viz., independence, a condition where one was not defined by the “work” they did. In fact, work was seen then as a danger to independence, as a way of making people, ordinary people, dependent on those economic forces, called corporations, and subject to their whims. This was not seen as an adequate basis for creating “citizens,” that kind of person thought essential for creating a “republic.” No citizens, no republic. All work, no citizens, just what were essentially peons.

            One way it was thought such a situation could be avoided would be to use technological advances, which were thought to be a good thing, to reduce not the number of jobs available but to reduce the number of hours people would have to work, thereby employing more of the “unemployed” and making it possible for people, ordinary people, to live lives culturally, socially, domestically satisfying and uplifting. [The pedigree of such an idea goes back at least as far as Adam Smith, who understood the deadening effect “labor” would have on those forced to be “employed” in those ways and who recommended ways that these results could be avoided through what we call “labor organizations.”]

            And this is what makes Obama’s proposal for ensuring more overtime is paid so revealing because it suggests that what is needed by ordinary people today is not less work but more work! Yes, of course, pay people for overtime. That is only just. But what would be better, more humane, would be to work toward a society in which ordinary people have to work less in order “to make it,” not more.

            Ah, but as Dionne’s essay illustrates, we are so far from thinking such thoughts that his only concern is to educate the Republicans that, to get people to work more, to define themselves solely by the jobs they do, government interventions will be necessary. So, what we have then is a “debate” in which the “conservatives” argue that people should be made to work more, to take work more seriously, by means of government inaction, while our “liberals” argue that people should be made to work more, to take work more seriously, by means of government action.

            And there you have it: The utter paucity of our political discourse, a discourse that serves to underwrite and even fortify our oligarchy.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Bacevich and the Consent of the Governed

Bacevich and the Consent of the Governed

Well, Andrew Bacevich does his best to “rescue” God for we Americans by arguing that the Court’s decision constitutionalizing gay and lesbian marriage violates God’s will and, I guess, law. "The justices voting in favor of gay marriage don’t care a lick about whether the United States is “under God” or not. On that score, however dubious their reading of the Constitution, they have accurately gauged the signs of the times. The people of “thou shall not” have long since become the people of “whatever,” with obligations deriving from moral tradition subordinated to claims of individual autonomy.  That’s the way we like it.” One could easily question whether a decision in favor of gay and lesbian marriage is a rejection of “moral tradition” and a claim of “individual autonomy,” insofar as it is a short step from “constitutionalizing” same sex marriage to making it a part of our “moral tradition.” How long will it be before “being married while gay/lesbian” becomes the “new norm”  and a moral norm at that?

But, leave that aside, and just focus on how superficially assertive Bacevich is about what he claims to be “God’s will.” So let me get this straight: All the bullshit I was subjected to growing up, by some frustrated nuns and some self-denying priests, about, say, masturbation or premarital sex [I know: that’s redundant or should be!] was all in the service of “God’s law” and the Cold War? Really? I will just let that one pass as it does not deserve much of a response.

And, just like the allegedly “wholesome” if “hypocritical” Cold War years, this denial of God’s will has foreign policy implications. Bacevich: "Cold War-era sexual mores had implications for U.S. foreign policy. Even if honored only in the breach, the prevailing code—sex consigned to monogamous heterosexual relationships sanctified by marriage—imparted legitimacy to the exercise of American power. In measured doses, self-restraint and self-denial offered indicators of collective moral fiber.” [Wow: All that repression and oppression of gays and lesbians was serving to build up “moral fiber.” I would not even try to argue against such an argument.]

Leave aside the connection Bacevich makes between our sexual mores and our foreign policy, does Bacevich wish to seriously contend that the US fought the Cold War in self-restrained and self-denying ways? Really? Overthrowing popularly elected officials, fighting a long war in all of Southeast Asia while killing millions, building a humongous nuclear arsenal, invading countries like Cuba that posed no threat to the US, and building an immense and pervasive national security state, one that led one of our presidents to warn of “the military-industrial complex;” these are examples of a foreign policy guided by restraint and self-denial that came from "professing respect for God’s law, positioning ourselves on his side. It followed that he was on ours. Here was American chosenness affirmed. Certainty that the United States enjoyed divine favor made it possible to excuse a multitude of transgressions committed in the name of defending a conception of freedom ostensibly mindful of God’s own strictures.”

Seems to me that our alleged adherence to God’s law would be better used to argue that our foreign policy in those years was characterized by "claims of [national] autonomy [because] that’s the way we liked it.” And this is probably what is most disappointing about Bacevich’s argument here: He just doesn’t get how this argument and arguments like it in favor of “moral traditions" - like the one some decades ago over “Murphy Brown” and single motherhood or parenthood - feed those who would lead us into war after war so “His truth” can go “marching on,” our eyes having seen "the coming of the Lord.” And don’t forget the Civil War as conducted by the North against the South was a war on annihilation, one of our “traditions” even unto today, a tradition fueled no doubt by our convictions that God is on our side.

Here’s an argument unlike Bacevich’s: What the Court’s decision represents is a dim awareness that attempts to impose a “one size fits all” way of being in the world are suspect, and especially so in a regime that prides itself on the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yes, “individual autonomy,” once called “independence,” is to be embraced, not only sexually but economically, socially, and intellectually as well. Hence, peoples and nations have the right “to institute ... Governments, laying [their] foundations on such principles and organizing [their] powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” NB: Not only their “safety” but their “happiness” as well. It is consent, not God’s will, that legitimizes governments, according to the Declaration of Independence. Bacevich, along with others, would do well to keep this in mind.