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?