January 10, 2013
Our Divided Political Heart

Some advice from Jonathan Swift:

He likewise directed, “that every senator in the great council of a nation, after he had delivered his opinion, and argued in the defence of it, should be obliged to give his vote directly contrary; because if that were done, the result would infallibly terminate in the good of the public.”

When parties in a state are violent, he offered a wonderful contrivance to reconcile them.  The method is this: You take a hundred leaders of each party; you dispose them into couples of such whose heads are nearest of a size; then let two nice operators saw off the occiput of each couple at the same time, in such a manner that the brain may be equally divided.  Let the occiputs, thus cut off, be interchanged, applying each to the head of his opposite party-man.  It seems indeed to be a work that requires some exactness, but the professor assured us, “that if it were dexterously performed, the cure would be infallible.”  For he argued thus: “that the two half brains being left to debate the matter between themselves within the space of one skull, would soon come to a good understanding, and produce that moderation, as well as regularity of thinking, so much to be wished for in the heads of those, who imagine they come into the world only to watch and govern its motion: and as to the difference of brains, in quantity or quality, among those who are directors in faction, the doctor assured us, from his own knowledge, that “it was a perfect trifle.”

Gulliver’s Travels, Part III, Chapter VI

3:47pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Zy03KybRpS8u
Filed under: politics humor 
March 6, 2012
That’s the way to write an abstract

Traditional and still-dominant theories of American political development depict the American state as a thoroughly liberal state from its very inception. Karen Orren challenges that account by arguing that a remnant of ancient feudalism was, in fact, embedded in the American governmental system, in the form of the law of master and servant, and persisted until well into the twentieth century. The law of master and servant was, she reveals, incorporated in the U.S. Constitution and administered by the judiciary, cutting off the sphere of workplace relations from democratic politics.

The fully legislative polity that defines the modern liberal state was achieved in America, Orren argues, only through the initiatives of the labor movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and was finally instituted by the New Deal. This book represents a fundamental reinterpretation of constitutional change in the United States and of the role of American organized labor, which is shown to be a creator of liberalism rather than a spoiler of socialism.

—Karen Orren, Belated Feudalism: Labor, the Law, and Liberal Development in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

February 26, 2012
Under the best circumstances, a historian can only metaphorically work his [sic] way into the minds of his subjects. Inevitably he constructs rather than finds patterns of thought, belief, and behavior. Despite the claims of history as literary art, he must avoid the temptation to make those patterns too neat. This caveat applies especially to studies of far right agitators, whose seemingly incongruous avowals of tolerance and related deviations from the paranoid style are usually dismissed as face-saving gestures. Often they do reflect conscious duplicity. Sometimes, however, they highlight the difficulties involved in trying to know our own minds. Freud recognized the human tendency to hold “two separate and contradictory convictions” on a subject, and [William] James similarly saw a “hazy penumbra in us all where lying and delusion meet.”

— Leo Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), xv.

February 10, 2012
On the issue of a permanent headquarters [for the newly-founded American Legion], however, the leadership met its match in Walter Myers of the Indiana delegation, who proposed Indianapolis as the Legion’s permanent headquarters. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. believed any sensible person would want the main Legion office in Washington, where it would make its primary impact as a legislative force. But Myers and his Indianapolis supporters pulled out all the stops. They accused Washington of being a den of “corruption and rottenness.” Setting up Indiana state headquarters in the hotel housing the Legion’s national officers, the delegation bout all the elevator girls a five-pound box of candy “to let off anyone asking for headquarters at our floor” to meet the maximum number of delegates. (One of those so misdirected was Roosevelt himself.) The Indianans also purchased and distributed scores of straw hats with bands urging the delegates to vote for Indianapolis. These tactics did the trick. On the seven-way first ballot, Indianapolis came in second, with 226 votes to 282 for Washington, beating out such enticing offers as a gift of $2.6 million from Kansas City for a Legion building, the promise of never-ending sunshine in Tucson, and the best cigars and tobacco in the nation in Wheeling. On the second ballot, Indianapolis won, 361 to 323. Just as the Founding Fathers of the nation, 130 years earlier, had removed the nation’s capital from Philadelphia to the Potomac to escape the influence of mobs and merchants, the American Legion preferred to convey the voice of the veteran to the government uninfluenced by the wiles of the politicians themselves. One can only speculate whether and to what extent the Legion’s decision has shaped its subsequent development into a body representative of conservative middle Americans. [Yes, one can!]

— William Pencak, For God and Country: The American Legion, 1919-1941. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989, 76.

January 18, 2012

[C]anonical interpretations [i.e., those which seek to place a writer in the company of other “great” writers or “great books”] are more problematic. While they strive to place Du Bois in a broader context of ideas and certainly can claim the legitimacy of well-established scholarly practice, they depend on a notion of linear tradition that approaches discrete subjects principally as artifacts of the lineage. This approach biases interpretations in two directions: (1) toward idealism, because it reifies and animates ideas, and (2) toward ahistoricism, because it is blind to the importance of changing social context in the constitution of ideas and their meanings. These biases combine to divorce individuals’ thought from their roles as social actors and to obscure the crucial point that the same language can be used in quite different ways and to mean quite different things. Specifically with respect to Du Bois, this canonical orientation—notwithstanding its possible merits for literary studies—produces a procrustean form of account that is both so narrow as to court misrepresentation and too thin to illuminate either the depth and complexity or the ideological entailments of his links to larger patterns of American intellectual life and political debate. This problem appears most clearly on interrogation of the assertion that a trajectory of influences from Emerson and [William] James lies behind Du Bois’s double-consciousness idea […]

Political ideas function pragmatically, as instruments of real-world objectives tied to historically specific debates and struggles. People adduce connections with past ideas rhetorically, to support stances and claims in and for their present. Because it centers on asserting fundamental continuities of meaning, the canonical focus on tracing influences abstracts away from that pragmatic dimension and inevitably diminishes the lived experience of the putatively influenced. It snatches historical subjects out of their contexts of action, disconnects them from their specific purposes and agendas, and severs them from the arenas of debate toward which their stances are tailored. Put more dramatically, the canonical orientation imposes an alien ideological force—either a transhistorical exchange among exemplary thinkers or, worse, the movement of disembodied ideas themselves—between interpreter and subject and between the latter and his or her own world.

This interpretive distortion artificially separates intellectual history from social and political history, rendering opaque the ways in which sedimented beliefs affect and are altered by current political debates and practices. From the elevated vantage point that gives transhistorical sweep, we overlook the complex dialectic through which ideas are formed and deployed—and gain constituencies—in relation to the practical concerns and “collective mentalities” that define discursive communities. In losing sight of intellectual activity’s roots in concrete historical situations, the canonical approach actually obscures rather than clarifies our understanding of the reproduction of political tradition.

In the study of Afro-American thought the impetus to trace out canonical lineages, when seen in this critical light, becomes ironically self-defeating. Shoehorning blacks into a chronology of exemplary thinkers is a subspecies of the vindicationist desire to establish the racial presence vis-à-vis a larger intellectual tradition. Yet that approach misses the deepest and most significant way that blacks figure into American intellectual life—through their participation in the historically specific networks of shared presuppositions and concerns that shape the environing political discourse at any given moment.

— Adolph Reed, Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line, (1997), pp. 99, 106-107

November 2, 2011

This was, perhaps, the most distinguished popular culture England has known. It contained the massive diversity of skills, of the workers in metal, wood, textiles and ceramics, without whose inherited “mysteries” and superb ingenuity with primitive tools the inventions of the Industrial Revolution could scarcely have got further than the drawing-board. From this culture of the craftsman and the self-taught there came scores of inventers, organisers, journalists and political theorists of impressive quality. It is easy enough to say that this culture was backward-looking or conservative. True enough, one direction of the agitations of the artisans and outworkers, continued over fifty years, was to resist being turned into a proletariat. When they knew that this cause was lost, yet they reached out again, in the [Eighteen] Thirties and Forties, and sought to achieve new and only imagined forms of social control. During all this time they were, as a class, repressed and segregated in their own communities. But what the counter-revolution sought to repress grew only more determined in the quasi-legal institutions of the underground. Whenever the pressure of the rulers relaxed, men came from the petty workshops of the weavers’ hamlets and asserted new claims. They were told that they had no rights, but they knew that they were born free. The Yeomanry rode down their meeting, and the right of public meeting was gained. The pamphleteers were gaoled, and from the gaols they edited pamphlets. The trade unionists were imprisoned, and they were attended to prison by processions with bands and union banners.

Segregated in this way, their institutions acquired a peculiar toughness and resilience. Class also acquired a peculiar resonance in English life: everything, from their schools to their shops, their chapels to their amusements, was turned into a battle-ground of class. The marks of this remain, but by the outsider they are not always understood. If we have in our social life little of the tradition of égalité, yet the class-consciousness of the working man [sic] has little in it of deference.

— E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), 831-2

September 10, 2011
Matters of history and memory have taken on new importance as growing numbers of Latinos throughout the United States argue for their political and economic rights. Visions of history guide progressive movements for change. Although none today can claim to remember the early strikes at New Almadén [a mercury mine in Santa Clara County], those whom I interviewed in Valley homes, on rooftops, in bowling alleys, and in cafés did express considerable frustration about the high-tech robber barons so beloved by most of the local press. Many who shared with me their memories had grown angry that popular accounts of the region’s high-tech growth routinely failed to include any mention of Mexicans or Mexican Americans. Their frustration had been building for years, and local Latinos expressed particular outrage in 1990 when Mayor Tom McEnery proposed a statue commemorating Thomas Fallon, a seldom-remembered “pioneer” credited with raising the first American flag in the Valley during the Mexican War. Local white elites, by contrast, considered Fallon an inspiring symbol for the developing Silicon Valley economy. Corporate executives rallied to support the building of this memorial to the city’s Manifest Destiny, and politicians spoke of San José, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Cupertino, and other municipalities as the new business frontier, places free from the constraints of old-style business models, locales where young men and women would find the always elusive California dream.
This was pure romance, a historical cover-up that hid a much uglier past. Many local Latinos continued to criticize journalists who appeared too sanguine about the Valley’s future, too ready to promote the Valley as a place of entrepreneurial freedom, “the Wild Wild West of private enterprise,” and seemingly too intent to forget the longtime Mexican American presence in the area. Like dominated groups elsewhere in the world, ethnic Mexicans have clung for generations to their own counternarratives that explained their place in local society. In drawing attention to past farm labor and cannery work, some continue to contest official narratives of Silicon Valley’s development. Residents who had been activists in the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s have recently led the charge in urging the city to pay greater care to Latino history. Such efforts have developed hand-in-hand with the movement of greater numbers of Mexican Americans into local government. Investigations of the past, these activists have argued, must be a more democratic enterprise, an effort to understand, for example, the “political subordination” of local Latinos begun “in the nineteenth century and continued in the twentieth.” Many have demanded that the Valley celebrate a more multicultural cast of local heroes. After a coalition of Mexican Americans defeated plans to construct the Fallon monument, they managed to see the completion of two new statues located downtown, a memorial to Ernesto Galarza and a statue of the Aztec serpent god Quetzalcoatl.

— Stephen Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans (2003), 199-200

September 7, 2011
Two main varieties of modernization theory prevailed in American academic life. Based on Robert Redfield’s Mexican community studies and legacies of Robert Park and John Dewey, a “Chicago school” studied transitional phenomena on the path to modernity. Just as Redfield saw the newsy corrido (topical ballad) of Mexican town life as an intermediate cultural form halfway along the “folk-urban continuum” between traditional folk songs and modern mass culture, so Daniel Lerner looked closely at the role played by the individual who moved between village and city, became familiar with newspapers and radio, and thus achieved “an expansive Self, newly equipped with a functioning empathy, [and capable of perceiving] connections between its private dilemmas and public issues.” Modern society was, in Lerner’s Deweyan terms, “participant society.” The transitional emphasis of the Chicago school encouraged attention to the commingling of tradition and modernity, as in Milton Singer’s work on India, When a Great Tradition Modernizes, which saw Hinduism adapting to, not resisting, modern practices. On the other hand, a Harvard school, based on Talcott Parsons’s formal scheme of “pattern variables,” saw sharper disjunctions. The characteristic pattern of modern societies—a tendency to apply the same “universal” standards to all individuals in common circumstances, to assign occupations according to individuals’ achievements rather than fixed traits, to circumscribe authority such as “doctor’s orders” to specific settings, and to carry out tasks such as a medical examination independently of one’s feelings—helped highlight traditional aspects of social life, such as a landlord’s “diffuse” authority over a peasant, which needed change before modernization could begin.

— Howard Brick, Age of Contradictions: American Thought and Culture in the 1960s (2000), 48-9

September 5, 2011
Inasmuch as many new political roles were being created by the needs of this new society, both necessity and opportunities for political careers might more and more be seen reflected in the long lists of candidates and high level of participation. In Hamilton County, Ohio, there was an election of delegates to the constitutional convention of 1802, and for ten openings there were ninety-four candidates—twenty-six of them receiving from 121 to 1,635 votes apiece. The personal canvass, the practice of hawking one’s political appeal from door to door, not generally assumed to have entered American politics until the Jacksonian era, was familiar in the Northwest well before 1824. A cabin-dweller’s effusion in the Illinois Intelligencer of July 1, 1818, describes how hosts of candidates, at the approach of an election, would descend upon him with whisky, trinkets for the children, compliments, and grand promises.

— Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, “A Meaning for Turner’s Frontier: Democracy in the Old Northwest,” in Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier (1968), 130

September 4, 2011
Not only was it unnecessary for citizens to agree on theoretical fundamentals, [Pendleton] Herring continued [in 1940], but their outright indifference to them was a crucial factor in the actual success of popular government. Suggesting the direction many political scientists would later take, he accepted such facts as massive nonvoting, general lack of active political participation, and the apparent fickleness of public opinion—facts earlier scholars had used to argue the incompetence of the average citizen—and erected them into significant supports of the democratic process. Rather than being a drag on democracy, nonvoters, by their very indifference, provided popular government with a pluralism which prevented the whole society from being divided into sharply opposed coalitions. Those who merely voted, but participated in no other way, helped equally to preserve democracy by ensuring that no impassioned commitment would mobilize large numbers in a sustained confrontation. Even much-maligned public opinion, to a large extent because it was changeable and unpredictable, was a crucial force in guaranteeing democracy’s success. “Thus the concept, by referring to the ‘people’ for the ultimate sanction of authority, retains flexibility and even uncertainty as to the focus of authority within our society.” Fickle public opinion meant that “power can never be crystallized in a final determinate human will.” Answering both the theoretical absolutists and the earlier critics of democracy, Herring argued that indifference to fundamental values and political principles was not harmful but beneficial. It allowed American politics to function peacefully and tolerantly, while preserving a maximum degree of freedom. A broad concern with fundamental values would be a serious danger.

— Edward A. Purcell, Jr., The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value (1973), 216

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