Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Christopher and Mark

As a food writer, I felt compelled to go to the film, "Julie and Julia." I was not crazy about it, but it did give me a certain idea, which was to do what Julie did, only with a masterpiece of political theory, The True and Only Heaven, by Christopher Lasch. There are some interesting parallels. This is the last book Lasch published in his lifetime, and one of few that was written as a whole book rather than a collection of articles. At the time he published it, he was almost the age that I am now (58 vs. 60). It is a really long and difficult book that I have started and dropped a lot of times, so doing it in a year would be a the kind of project Julie did. Like Mastering the Art of French Cooking, this book took the author quite a long time -- most of the Reagan and Bush I years -- to finish it. In addition, it is a very challenging book, apt to make both leftists and rightists uncomfortable. Lasch was a man of the left who tended to cross lines in the culture wars and honor the family values of paleo-conservatives. Thus while Mastering the Art... is a very influential book whose time has come and gone; True and Only Heaven is a very respected book whose time of influence has yet to arrive.

Since this is my first entry, let me start with the introduction. It states some of the main themes of the book, in particular a critique of progress. Lasch states that he began his thinking questioning why theorists of the both the left and right were so unwilling to accept limits on economic expansion or other kinds of progress, indeed the limits of the human lifespan itself, in the face of a century in which progress had lead to such disastrous results. The first chapter is about the failure of right and left, but let us not get ahead of ourselves.

Perhaps the most astonishing statement in the introduction is that Lasch has set his compass toward "petty bourgeois morality." The much-derided views of the lower-middle-class, in the opinion of a man who had spent a lot of his life with Marx and Freud (Lasch's continuing use of Freud, whose reputation today is perhaps even lower than that of petty-bourgeois morality, is a subject of real fascination for me.) provides a historical thread to his examinations -- and Lasch was first and always a historian -- and situates a consciousness of civic responsibility that is neither elitist nor fully egalitarian, skeptical of progressive optimism, yet hopeful of moral improvement.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Six months into Obama

His study of Lincoln and Roosevelt and Clinton is impeccable, leaving the Republicans in disarray. And because no progress (Professor Lasch frowns from above upon the word) is possible without compromise and unity, he has rebuilt civil society to some extent.

But of course our policy in South Asia has not really changed, and continues to drain our resources without much to be optimistic about. Obama has dealt intelligently with events in Iran that might slowly bring that strategic country back toward its natural alliance with the US. But:

1. The Obama administration has had little effect on the most dangerous aspect of the economic crisis, which is foreclosures.
2. Green initiatives are distant.
3. Healthcare reform is developing quite slowly, and the president has already promised to begin dismantling Medicaid, which is the present system for the poor and disabled.
4. Stimulus funds have no federal guidance as they did under FDR.
5. The financial sector continues to manage its own recovery.
6. Rising petroleum prices threaten recovery.
7. State revenues in freefall are leading to cutbacks that will further cripple the overall economy.
8. World cooperation on economic matters is not very good -- the president does not control this, but can influence it.
9. Key jobs in the administration remain unfilled, delaying progress.
10. The president has deferred several campaign promises, including the overdue elimination of "Don't ask; don't tell," a policy which had already been overtaken by reality the day it was announced.

I could probably think of more, but sometimes the first things that come into the mind are a good index of one's real feelings. President Obama inherited a difficult hand of cards, but thus far has, in my opinion, played too defensively. He risks the possibility that some smart Republican, perhaps Newt Gingrich, will begin capturing the debate on taxation, education, immigration, healthcare, or financial regulation.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Obama remakes the center

I may be less on the political horizons than I imagined. As the US and the world seem to be moving into a serious economic depression, I don't welcome this breakdown of the existing system and consensus as much as I thought I would. It may be simply age, but I find myself arguing to conservative friends why the various bailouts of giant financial institutions are necessary for the ordinary person to have a chance, where I would once have looked to grassroots action and building new institutions, and let the old ones fall of their own weight.

Thus President-elect Obama's clear intention of organizing a government of national unity rather than something novel and 21st Century seems to lots of people to be, in fact, something novel and 21st Century rather than a revival of the New Deal with all of its contradictions except racial segregation.

Is the swing back from the Bush administration so much relief, desite many of the same people and security policies to which Bush shifted in the last year or so? Is the sense of national emergency so unifying that a little social peace with not so much social justice now feels right?
I know that when I wasearly in my 20s, I would have welcomed a depression as a cleansing, because I wrote an article on that theme for a weekly when I was 24. Now I am nearly 60, and I am not so eager to see 10-15-20% unemployment, not so comfortable among angry people in the street, more concerned about who takes care of the disabled and elderly -- roles I am taking on in a large sandwich generation.

I can remember the slogan "Part of the way with LBJ." And I can remember regretting it when President Johnson expanded the war in Vietnam and kept trying to kill me and my friends. But now I fell like "Most of the Way with BHO." So it will be interesting to see where his compromises begin to feel like too much left on the table, and when I start heading out for the horizons again.

Et tu?

Friday, June 27, 2008

The candidates converge as usual

I haven't posted on this blog for a long time, and remembering that I had been fairly prophetic on the Romney candidacy a year ago, my excuse was that if I actually get one right, I shouldn't lose the momentum by opening my big mouse again right away.

So now we have candidates, and we are in the most distressing part of the four-year cycle, when both parties converge around the polled center of every question. At times like these, with both presumptive candidates insisting that there is a military option versus Iran, both in favor of an vague Supreme Court decision on gun control, both ready to declare themselves in favor of child sacrifice, chattel slavery, or the nationalization of small farms if that would get them right with 51% of the voters in Michigan or Ohio -- political thinking is frozen.

The only amusement is watching people run for positions in the new administration. Despite longer nomination campaigns than usual, we now must suffer long stretches of people running for and being tested as vice presidential nominees. This too is being polled, but like all the best polls, these expensive polls are secret and will be leaked only selectively.

Is Hillary Clinton a plus on an Obama ticket? Their present lap is a test of the concept. Will Floridians still like Gov. Christ now that he favors off-shore drilling? If polls say so, McCain will be shown them and Christ has legs as a VP nominee. If anyone as old as me remembers when you went to any beach in Florida and got tar all over yourself -- just from oil tankers dumping ballast -- then Christ is toast, McCain says he never meant that, and Obama starts driving a hybrid Ford Explorer around Florida.

It gets worse. Worse than bowling. They play instruments on television. Say what you will about Robert Mugabe. In no Zimbabwean election since the Lancaster House agreement has he played an instrument on television.


Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Mitt Romney's Odd Turns

Having observed Mitt Romney as governor of Massachusetts for four years, I don't consider his mixture of positions to be one of the novel combinations that signal Political Horizons. Rather I think this former venture capitalist treated the office like a four-year consulting contract. When it became apparent that it wasn't going to be renewed, he stopped work, and spent most of his last year as "governor" outside the state, running for the Republican presidential nomination.

I do think Mitt is smart, a good fundraiser, and a super-salesman, so I try to think about what he thinks he's doing. My view in general that no one really wants the 2008 Repub nomination, so he might well be positioning himself as everyone's second choice on the reasonable theory that the front runners (McCain and Giuliani so far) will falter. I also thought he could construct a kind of narrative out of his business and Olympics background, and the relative success of Massachusetts in recent years, that he was a pragmatic and effective fellow. This would allow him to play events in the Iraq war and national economy either way.

But that isn't what he did, and it's not his strategy. It turns out that Romney's idea was that the religious right controls the Republican nomination, and that he should be everyone's social conservative second-choice. His business credentials provide him the money to knock out the more consistent but unappealing religious conservatives in the race.

Now, I'm notoriously bad at picking elections, that goes with the territory out here at the political horizons. But I think Romney's strategy has several problems:

1. The religious right are not the most stable voting element in the Republican party. Prior to 2000 and 2004 they didn't vote in large numbers, and many are poor, elderly, and minorities who may split off on fiscal policies. Their leaders have already signaled Bush to forget about changing social security, and they show signs of dividing on Iraq and the environment.

2. Despite a lot of pork in the faith-based initiatives department, the second Bush administration has not really delivered major results for social conservatives.

3. Even if Romney can hold reassemble Bush's coalition of business Republicans and social conservatives (Holding onto it won't do with presidential approval ratings in the 30s.) to win the nomination, what does he do in the general election? He can no longer go either way on Iraq, and will be constrained on the economy, which ought to be a strong point for him.

He will (or would) have an opponent, and that will be one of the Democrats, so anything can happen. But from here it looks like Romney is painting himself and his supporters into a very expensive corner.

Monday, March 26, 2007

What is the Y-Axis of American politics?

Everyone but the most dedicated Democrats and Republicans (a lot of people, but probably not a majority of the US) is increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional political spectrum from of Liberal-Moderate-Conservative. As a minor problem, there seem to be anarchists/libertarians on both extremes, suggesting a kind of circle, but anarchists and libertarians do not entirely identify with extreme conservatives nor with socialists or Marxists who are also out on the wings.

However, the real problem is: What is another axis? (And there could be more than one.) The late Christopher Lasch, whose ideas will appear here often, suggested two other axes. He began by suggesting the libertarians and communitarians had common cause with other such across the right-left divide. As a man of the left, Lasch felt a strong sympathy for the communitarian pull of many social conservatives. Later, in his book The True and Only Heaven, Lasch suggested that a believe in infinite progress, on both right and left, was a problem, leaving progressive conservatives (such as many free market enthusiasts), as distressed in power (he was writing during the Reagan administration) as the progressive liberals. Lasch then went through American history seeking a tradition of "Civic Republicanism" which combined a hope (distinguished from progressive "optimism") of human improvement with a stern acceptance of the limitations of progress.

There are even some political activists who cross up the usual labels. The wife of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is an anti-abortion feminist in word and deed. A former mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, is now a conservative Catholic radio commentator with all that implies, but as a politician would describe himself as a "practically a Leninist" on housing policy. I admire both of these principled people for what they have accomplished, and where I disagree with each of them, would consider them the best possible kind of opponent.

Okay, Four More Topics

So as to have practical areas mapped out, I propose four areas of concentration:

- The Politics of Healthcare
- Iraq and Vietnam
- Economic Issues
- Immigration

Obviously, other issues will come up, but I will try to develop some materials on these four where I have done largely private writing and thinking, but some professional work as well. The opinions I express should not be identified with any of my employers, nor with anything I have published or will publish as a journalist in a medium of fact.