Saturday, August 30, 2008

Peak Political Science?

I am in Boston attending the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Each year it seems new attendance records are broken as more and more political scientists descend on the host city to attend panels, present papers and schmooze. This year the Association brags that over 7,000 political scientists have descended upon this spot. Its growth is drawn not only from the thousands of colleges and universities in America, but from scholars around the world.

The fact of ever greater growth means, of course, that there was a time when fewer political scientists attended this particular meeting. I suspect that many political scientists were apt rather to attend their local regional meetings rather than the Annual Conference. As air travel and the travel industry has flourished in the late-twentieth century, the Annual Meeting is just as easy to attend as a trip by car or train to a local gathering place of the State or Regional association. Simultaneously, as travel budgets have begun to be cut back (particularly at State universities, which are perpetually underfunded), political scientists have had to decide where to take their one trip per year. Many have elected to eschew their local conference gathering in favor of the national conference. It is at the national meetings where much networking is done (a large APSA banner in the convention center reads "Networking a World of Scholars") and, in some cases, careers are advanced. Limited slots for panels have made it increasingly difficult for graduate students to have the opportunity to present work at the national conference. In turn, the regional conferences have increasingly become the places where graduate students ply their wares in the hopes of someday getting their break in the big leagues of the APSA.

But I speculate that this year or very soon, we will see the peak attendance at the national meeting. As airfare prices rise, it will simply become unfeasible for academics to travel to far flung cities; at the same time, there will come the realization that the local and regional conferences are far more affordable and accessible. Already, with the shuttering of hundreds of planes and the downsizing of the airlines, it is becoming increasingly difficult to fly out of many smaller airports. Academics, like everyone else, are going to be more apt to stay closer to home.

At the same time, don't be surprised to see a reversal of the growth of the academic industry that defined academia since the post-WW II era. Coming years will see decreases in student enrollments, an inevitability portended by demographics and exacerbated the personal finances of Americans who will be unable to afford college in its present form. With the shrinking economy (and the shrinking of stock markets), endowments will decrease and fewer faculty will be needed or affordable. I think we can expect to see many schools shrinking to their 19th-century form or shuttering altogether. For many families, college will return to being a luxury for the class of citizens who will work as lawyers, doctors, ministers, etc. For most, learning a craft or trade will be a requisite, and apprenticeships will return as a noble form of learning.

In sum, as I wander the cavernous conference center teeming with political scientists from every corner of the nation and the world, all purportedly "advancing knowledge" in a discipline that has yet to predict one significant political occurrence (putting to lie its purported claims to be a "science"), I begin imagining what this conference will look like in a decade's time. Most would assume it will continue to grow as this association, like all of its kind, becomes more interconnected and global. But I'd be willing to bet that in a decade we will be amazed that it was once as large as it was, that the world seemed to be so small, and that most of its denizens so easily assumed the inevitability of a globalized future. They will discuss their amazement with nearby colleagues at local and regional meetings, and we will not be the worse for it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

On Houses and Homelessness

The debate over the Presidency increasingly seems to be narrowing in on who can prove the other candidate to be more wealthy, effete, and out of touch. The Democrats are gleeful over McCain's confusion over how many houses he and his wife own.

The Republicans respond with this execrable piece of garbage, an ad attacking Obama's elitism and implying he can't find the time to care about his relatives. (It also seems that the implicit claim of this ad is that, if you have been a prisoner of war, you should have as many houses as you can get).

What's missed in this mud-sling fest is the fact that they are both out of touch - and necessarily so. Both men - and Hilary, too - come from nowhere. They have no roots. They are loyal to abstractions - McCain to the American Empire, Obama to the citizens of the world. Bill Kauffman said it best, here:

What's wrong with electing competent but rootless people to public office? Because just as one cannot love the "human race" before one loves particular human beings, neither can one love "the world" unless he first achieves a deep understanding of his own little piece of that world. America is not, as the neoconservatives like to say, an idea: it is a place, or rather the sum of a thousand and one little, individuated places, each with its own history and accent and stories. A politician who understands this will act in ways that protect and preserve these real places. A rootless politico will babble on about "the homeland"--a creepily totalitarian phrase that, pre-Bush, was not applied to our country.

People lacking strong identifications with specific places-a block, a village, a city, a state, a region-will transfer their loyalties to abstractions. Woodrow Wilson, a displaced Southern minister's kid, renounced the traditional American practice of neutrality and tossed the First Amendment in the scrap heap in his crusade to "make the world safe for democracy." George W. Bush, the Texan-cum-Yankee prep-school cheerleader, has wasted astronomical sums and thousands of lives in a campaign whose ostensible purpose is to democratize the Middle East and "rid the world of evil." The costs of such grandiose schemes may be measured in billions of dollars and acres of corpses. In addition, political power is centralized, citizens are uprooted, and the economy undergoes wartime distortions. These are reckoned acceptable prices to pay for the achievement of mighty (if ultimately unachievable) abstractions. But democracy was no safer despite the First World War, and I daresay evil will exist long after U.S. troops come home from Iraq.

The criterion of devotion to preserving and protecting local spaces and communities never was an official or unofficial desideratum of the Presidency. It was understood early on by the Antifederalists to be an office whose occupants would seek to advance expansion and centralization of national power. Each of the candidates is devoted to that ambition, in spite of differing avenues. Each will concentrate more power in the center. Each will contribute further to the evisceration of our localities. In their homelessness - in spite of any number of homes they may own - each is an appropriate candidate for Presidency. Let's not lose sight of that in the fake fight over whose bank account is bigger.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Technology, Culture, and Virtue

The most recent issue of The New Atlantis has arrived, and in its pages is an essay by yours truly. Any reader of this site should consider becoming a regular subscriber to this important journal, or at least a regular visitor to its website, but for those who can't wait to get the whole article (the link provides a "teaser,"), the essay is essentially the same as the lecture I delivered at Berry College this past March. For those who missed it, you can read it here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Chill from the North

As intimated in a previous post, the A.P.S.A. will be asked to consider whether the siting of next year's conference in Toronto, Canada - in light of Canada's restrictions on free speech - should be reconsidered or at least cause for "engagement" with the host city/nation. A story about the petition appears in today's National Post. Details of the petition, as well as pointed questions, are provided by "The Marquette Warrior." I am among a number of the signatories of the petition.

What's further of interest to me is that the A.P.S.A.'s official response to the efforts by some activists to move the 2012 annual meeting from New Orleans included the stated intention to pursue "enhanced engagement with host cities on state and local issues of importance to the APSA." There was no mention here of "Provincial" or "National" issues, revealing that even the Association's efforts to pretend that the word "American" in its title can include all of North America - and perhaps South America as well - in an undifferentiated fashion, could only have been a wishful thought posing as a fait accompli. While the absence of any discussion whatsoever about siting the annual conference outside America (yes, America) appears to be a wish for a future in which nations cease to matter, in such details the Association cannot help but acknowledge the persistence of nations and differences between them. One would think an association devoted to the study of politics would not find such persistence embarrassing or regrettable. Or perhaps the ultimate ambition is to rename itself "The Global Post-Political Science Association." It's not clear what would be left to study.

UPDATE: More links on the petition are Here.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hear Me Out

I was recently interviewed by Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio. A sample is available on their website here. I answer all questions about everything, even providing helpful wedding planning tips.

For more information about Mars Hill Audio - surely you will want to order the whole issue - visit their website here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

American (Sort of) Political (Politicization) Science (So-called) Association

Recently the American Political Science Association debated at length whether to hold its 2012 annual meeting in New Orleans. Gay and lesbian activists sought to have the site moved due to Louisana's stringent bans against gay marriage. It is viewed by many - a great many - of political scientists that this is an issue beyond debate. The Association in the end decided to keep the meeting as planned in New Orleans, but also made siting considerations part of its official mandate. In particular, in the future it will seek to "engage with public entities" in discussion about policies that may be of concern to some number of political scientists.

This raises an interesting question of immediate concern: next year's annual meeting will be held in Toronto, Canada (based on an exceedingly loose interpretation of what the word "America" means in the Association's title). Canada's speech laws do not extend protections to speech that can be construed by some to be offensive. For instance, it is possible that its anti-discrimination laws could be construed not to protect speech questioning the legitimacy of gay marriage. Thus, it's not clear that some members of the Association can assume that they can fully debate in public the issue of its 2012 siting without fear of prosecution. Or, to refer to a current case, its laws have been construed to permit prosecution of criticisms of violent actions by Islamic extremists, exemplified in the prosecution of Mark Steyn for his criticisms of aspects of Islam. Should not the A.P.S.A. immediately "engage with public entities" in order to ascertain whether all speech will be protected at the 2009 annual meeting?

Perhaps less obviously related, but even more immediately of concern is this year's choice of plenary speaker by the Political Theory section of A.P.S.A., to be held in several weeks' time in Boston. The Association's choice is Slavoj Zizek. If known at all, he is the author of intentionally vague and obscure books that tend to excite people who like vague and obscure books. However, recently Zizek gave some very plain answers in an interview with the Guardian, and it is rather amazing to me that an Association that can expend so much energy agonizing over whether to site its annual meeting in New Orleans can pay no attention whatsoever to statements by a plenary speaker who had some of the following answers to the following questions:

G: Which living person do you most admire, and why?

SZ: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-deposed president of Haiti. He is a model of what can be done for the people even in a desperate situation.

G: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

SZ: Indifference to the plights of others.

G: What do you owe your parents?

SZ: Nothing, I hope. I didn't spend a minute bemoaning their death.

G: What or who is the love of your life?

SZ: Philosophy. I secretly think reality exists so we can speculate about it.

G: What is the worst job you've done?

SZ: Teaching. I hate students, they are (as all people) mostly stupid and boring.

G: What has been your biggest disappointment?

SZ: What Alain Badiou calls the 'obscure disaster' of the 20th century: the catastrophic failure of communism.

G: What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

SZ: That life is a stupid, meaningless thing that has nothing to teach you.

G: Tell us a secret.

SZ: Communism will win.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A Culture of Responsibility

Today's New York Times features a front page story about the decisions that were made by banks to promote the widespread use of home equity loans. Citibank - currently drowning in an ocean of bad loans - is shown to have adopted the advertising jingle "Live Richly." Appealing in a period when every house had to feature faux aristocratic decorator touches (courtesy of convicted criminal, Martha Stewart), two story entrance halls that demanded a thermostat set at 90, and three car garages to house the Hummers and SUVs, such advertising campaigns appealed to a ready audience primed to spend without worrying overly about the ability to pay back, much less save for the future.

This article - perhaps true of the editorial slant of the New York Times - suggests that a good deal of the blame for the culture of debt lies at the feet of the banks who underwrote massive personal debt on easy terms. Its author writes, "No long ago, such loans, which used to be known as second mortgages, were considered the borrowing of last resort, to be avoided by all but people in dire financial straits. Today, these loans have become universally accepted, their image transformed by ubiquitous ad campaigns from banks." Nothing marks a liberal from a conservative (both, so-called) than the assigning of blame for such a transformation. For the liberal, the blame lies with the corporations, or more generally, "society" (e.g., crime, single-motherhood, poverty, etc.); for the conservative, the responsiblity lies with individuals. Much follows from the distinction.

Recently David Brooks returned to a theme he'd visited earlier - "the culture of debt" - to argue against both these positions and instead suggest a "conservative Burkean or liberal communitarian" attentiveness to culture. He wrote, "This third position begins with the notion that people are driven by the desire to earn the respect of their fellows. Individuals don’t build their lives from scratch. They absorb the patterns and norms of the world around them."

Brooks's attentiveness to culture is laudable, but in the end he shows the paucity of his understanding of the sources of culture. Seeking to acknowledge the place of the liberal position, he notes that government is doing its part to reassert cultural norms (presumably by infusing massive dollars into the likes of Bear Stearns, Fannie May and Freddie Mac, and our pockets in the form of "tax rebates"). However, he ultimately notes the need for individuals to change their behavior, arguing that "the most important shifts will be private."

The problem with Brooks's analysis - for all its merits - reflects more broadly the paucity of the contemporary liberal and conservative worldviews. For liberals, solutions lie with government policy. For conservatives, they lie in encouraging individual responsibility. Both tend to neglect the cultural backdrop in which public policy or individual decisions are made. They especially neglect the necessary institutions and community practices (including visibility, an active vigilance against a kind of effective invisibility) that reinforce norms that might chasten our temptation toward self-seeking and individual gratification. Liberals and conservatives alike share the classically liberal distaste for the limitations that communities might exert upon individual choice, particularly sexual (in the case of liberals) or commercial (in the case of conservatives). Each is complicit not only in a culture that has encouraged massive indebtedness of the sort explored in these articles and columns, but more widely a culture that more generally neglectful of the future.

A decisive break with cultural institutions that sought to restrain excesses of individual self-seeking - communal and religious norms especially - has made us lose sight of an important fact that was evident to those cultures. There is not an even playing field on the "battlefield" between individual choice and communal good. What most cultures have always recognized is that the fact of our individual corporality - our embodiedness as separate creatures - means that the fact of our individual gratification will always be more evident and obvious to us. Only with great difficulty can that most obvious and even instinctive urge toward self-seeking be chastened. While it is true that we also exhibit an instinctive love for children, as creatures that manipulate our natural world we can too easily take for granted that particular instinct without due regard for the ways we can actively seek to avoid responsibility for children or even seek to avoid procreation altogether. Our current culture of childlessness confirms that we are creatures uniquely capable of pursuing self-interest to its illogical conclusion.

True to his "conservative" convictions, Brooks suggests that our current debt crisis will be self-correcting - as in the Great Depression or following the dot-com bubble (!!), we will reinstitute the cultural norms that encourage frugality and responsibility. Keeping with Brooks's basic pollyanish optimism, even the bad signs are good. It's remarkable that Brooks can suggest that the popping of the bubble could be interpreted as evidence of a cultural chastening, rather than as one of a near-continuous chain of bubbles that have continually inflated one another. If the Great Depression represented anything, it was the persistence of pre-modern cultural patterns that were able to reassert themselves in the midst of terrible want and deprivation. Neighborhoods and family ties were largely intact (Ronald Reagan's father lost his job and was assisted by neighbors. And, thereafter, the New Deal. Those neighborhoods ceased to exist, many under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Morning in America usually meant that it was moving day, time to leave the neighborhood for the exurbs that Brooks adores). Those networks and ties, experienced daily and directly, and their capacity to reinforce communal norms have been eviscerated.

We use the word "culture" with great ease and familiarity. Popular culture, Culture Club, multiculturalism - and so on - trip from the tongue without a true accounting for the profound challenges and constant assaults that any culture must weather. Rather than seeking to shore up what we inherited, we collectively disassembled most of what remained during the great build-out following World War II. In half a century's time we largely undid what generations had built. If indeed we now face a time of rebuilding, it's to be wondered whether anyone has enough knowledge of how to put together what was so easily taken apart.