Another Long Year

Well, here we are again, at the end of another year. This felt like an especially long one. Part of that had to do things I’ve been subjected to alongside everyone else; the Democratic Primary race and its never ending churn of C and D list politicians having their fifteen minutes, which feels as though it has been going on three years longer than it in fact has. Donald Trump’s presidency, in general, culminating in actual articles of impeachment less than half a month from the end of the year. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise at the beginning of the year, if somewhat more leveled off position in the second half. And on and on, in the manic political and media environment in which we now exist. In part because I now operate a political publication, but also because of the near-inescapability of political conversation these days, political events in particular made 2019 feel longer than 365 days (and as of this writing we’ve only actually had 354).

Speaking of that political publication: Liberal Currents has had a banner year, in terms of attention, engagement, and most of all, the quality and quantity of contributions and the number of new, bright, talented contributors we managed to bring on. Jason, Paul, and I started LC in 2017 after the shock of Trump’s victory. As an all volunteer operation (a fact I hope to change in the future but cannot be sure when we’ll be in a position to) there have been moments where our contribution pipeline went quite dry for uncomfortably long. But in July of this year, we hit a real turning point, after which our pipeline has been quite robust. Cameron Harwick, Jerrod Laber, and Adam Rust all wrote magnificent pieces that received a good amount of attention. Adam’s piece resulted in our running a response from Kian Hudson, the Deputy Solicitor General of Indiana. I’m very excited by our current trajectory and incredibly proud of our editors and everyone who has been a part of the project. We’re really making something special. The future looks bright for Liberal Currents.

Coincidentally, I didn’t write any pieces for LC myself until July. And that was a piece I shopped around first, but alas its moment had not come. I’m proud of the piece itself, which I worked quite hard on with a number of other people’s input, Jason’s most significantly (as usual). The others were largely book reviews, a format which we have gone in for much more this year. Other than the piece from July, my favorite non-review piece I wrote concerned the nature of freedom of speech, in the context of current controversies over platforms like Facebook. I also wrote more here than I have in years; mostly spitballing but my piece on Rorty’s vision of national self-respect, and an outline of conservative media’s history, while rough, will probably be revised and turned into something more substantial in the future.

It has also been a very good year reading-wise. In my first post here this year, I noted:

Philosophy of law is no shortcut to understanding law. Hermeneutics is no shortcut to understanding literature. Moral philosophy is no shortcut to understanding right and wrong. Political philosophy is no shortcut to understanding either politics or political institutions as they exist and function in life. Epistemology and philosophy of science are no shortcut for becoming a competent scholar or scientist. Metaphysics is no shortcut for understanding reality.

I concluded that it was time to “dial back philosophy” in my reading and “invest more of my time in history, law, political science, and other works focused on concrete particulars.”

By and large, I have done well. I am currently close to finishing my 57th book this year, and may or may not manage another before the year’s end. That will leave me 2-3 books behind last year, though Goodreads tells me I have already exceeded last year in number of pages read. Gross quantities aside, I learned a tremendous amount this year. The one philosophy book I did read, William Curtis’ delightful book on Richard Rorty, was actually quite clarifying in a way that lends itself to application in more practical subject matter. It also coalesced with the image of Rorty that had been forming in my mind since I read Achieving Our Country last year and wrote the post about it this one. 

Otherwise, in my nonfiction reading has stuck very closely to my goal; I’ve read about climate science, the use of memes in the 2016 election (however disappointing that book was), the history of Cuba, the history of postwar India, the Great Enrichment, the history of Athenian democracy (such as we can reconstruct it), the life of Alain Locke, sociology, the Dutch Golden Age, the history of American counterculture, the French Revolution, the life of marginal groups in contemporary rust belt towns, the nature of dog whistle politics, the history of de jure residential segregation in America, eugenics and immigration restriction, the history of protest in Hong Kong, the life of Malcolm X, the history of Uber, the conflict between Peter Thiel and Gawker, parliamentary theory, and the history of policing and Fourth Amendment case law in the 20th century. Two of the novels I read this year were well researched intergenerational histories as well, and I have fallen quite in love with that format.

Looking ahead: legal realism and political science in 2020

Any one of the topics I read a book about this year (including any one of the subtopics touched upon in those books) I could stand to learn a lot more about. But as the year went on, the germ of an idea developed in my mind. Well, more of an impulse, or as those close to me might more aptly call it, a new obsession.

Its seeds were planted by the two pragmatists (in the philosophical rather than merely colloquial sense of the word) who have so influenced my thinking over the last two years, Adrian Rutt and Adam Rust. Adam has experience in both criminal and civil law, and currently works at a firm that represents unions. We have talked at length about his experiences and about legal realism, and his work on originalism (which became the July piece at Liberal Currents mentioned above) opened my eyes to the fact that it is a species of rationalism. Kian’s response only cemented my conclusion: he did not have much to say about the role of precedent, except to note Justice Thomas believes that if we know what the text says, then precedent shouldn’t matter at all. This is rationalism and dogmatism of the highest order, the exact type that Hans-Georg Gadamer debunked in the 20th century.

Legal realism is the jurisprudence, if you can call it that, which focuses on the system as it exists in practice. The more I grew interested in it, the more I worried that embracing it would require discarding the rule of law as an ideal. After all, if the law is nothing more than what the institutional authorities decide, as human beings with fickle psychologies, then how can we ever expect it to be a consistent, predictable, source of stability and bulwark against arbitrary authority?

A very helpful paper by Hanoch Dagan answers exactly that question, breaking down what exactly we value about the rule of law and how legal realism as he formulates it addresses those values. In particular he discusses the pragmatic role of what he calls “doctrinal categories” and how the legal community of a given moment constitutes an interpretive community with a lot of shared understandings that serve to ground interpretations; but these are not the only sources of interpretation. I am not going to rehash the whole paper here, but suffice it to say that Dagan offers a very useful way of thinking about the law as it exists in practice but also in relation to important ideals.

My interest in legal realism and what it means for liberal ideals, and my longer term goal to attend to concrete particulars as opposed to high level abstractions, have led to a project I will be pursuing in 2020, and indeed have already begun. I was loosely calling it the legal realism = unwritten (or ancient) constitutionalism project, but now that the reading list has gelled, I can more clearly characterize it as a crash course in the political science of the American system.

I want to get a better understanding of it all, from top to bottom. The operation of Congress, down to the role of the staffers; the sociology of the legal community and how respectability within it and within the specific social circle that Supreme Court justices operate within constrain judicial decisions; the way policing and prosecution are practiced and how that has changed over time; how the 500 pound gorilla in the room of governance, the administrative state, operates and relates to the more “traditional” branches of government; local government and how it nullifies federal level law in practice; the party system as it is and has been; all of it.

Any one of these is a specialized area of research and knowledge in its own right, so the emphasis here is on “crash course.” I would like to lay a foundation by this time next year, however. In fact, one concrete outcome of this project that I am aiming for is to write a piece in the wake of the 2020 election, whatever its outcome, on what the long term plan should be for Democrats. And that plan will include a laundry list of constitutional amendments to fight for should the opportunity (given a necessary combination of local electoral success, both houses of Congress, and strong party discipline) arise. We too often make the mistake of either writing off amending the constitution entirely, or half-assing what we’d do if we could. The Progressives added four amendments in a seven year span. If you are patient and lay the groundwork, and are ready to be decisive when the right moment comes, it can be done. 

But if you do it, you’d better get it right. If there’s one lesson I have taken away from my various discussions with Adam Rust and my legal realism reading to date, it is that amendments such as ERA are nothing more than an invitation to judges to develop a body of case law. The amendments that matter are ones that restructure our existing institutions in concretely specified ways. The age minimum to run for president, or the apportionment rule for the House, are examples of things that do not leave much latitude for judicial discretion. Creating a new rule like “the president can be removed if two-thirds of the House vote to do so” likewise adds something specific to the House’s toolkit, where “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States” and “Congress shall have power to enforce this article” are much more ambiguous and quite plausibly will change nothing at all.

To return to the piece I wish to write next year: laying the foundation for this will require a much more disciplined approach to reading. To that end, I have laid out around 20 books which I will commit to reading by October. This will hopefully provide me with the basic level of competence required to write the piece I wish to write. Assuming that I stand by that commitment, I have a further 15 to begin going through after that. If I have really stuck to this project and get through all 35 of those, I have yet another set of books to begin going through; if I make it to this point by November I will feel extremely confident in my ability to write the piece. After that, I just have a grab bag of “would be nice to get to” books, including some more theoretical and philosophical works on ancient constitutionalism, legal realism, and jurisprudence generally. I do not expect to get to this grab bag in any meaningful way in 2020 but might draw from it in 2021.

The piece is one specific goal, as I mentioned, but it’s not really the main one. I am attempting to build a basic foundation with several larger ends in mind:

  • Attempting to popularize small-c constitutionalism against “written” constitutionalism, in part by demonstrating its superior merits in meeting liberal ideals
  • Developing a general framework of political activism by laying out a basic sketch of where the main “levers” of power are and which to employ in a scenario where a political opponent controls some specific subset of them
  • Extending the 2020 piece into an academic paper or even a book laying out the specific systematic changes that we should be working towards
  • Developing Curtis’ (and Rorty’s and Deirdre McCloskey’s) virtue liberalism into something concrete and situated in the American system as it exists in practice

These are all quite interconnected and will require developing the same basic foundational knowledge, so which of these I end up pursuing first or in any depth will depend as much on what opportunities are available to me as anything. The 2020 piece itself is largely meant to be part of a broader effort to create such opportunities.

That is what is occupying my thoughts most prominently these days. I admit that I’m more than a little excited to embark on this project. Perhaps it’s an intellectual retreat in politically troubled times, but it feels less like a retreat than focusing on hermeneutics and ontology. At any rate, watch this space. Congratulations to you all for surviving this long year, good luck with the long year ahead.

Disrupting My Book Reviews

This year at Liberal Currents we started going in for book reviews fairly seriously. I picked up two books with the intention of reviewing them together, but am having trouble producing anything worth publishing. So, as is my way, I’m going to spitball a bit here.

I was happy with how pairing two books turned out for my review of Daniel Okrent’s Guarded Gates on the immigration restriction battles and eugenics at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries. I reviewed it together with Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers, which, published in 2016, was the source of my interest (some would say obsession) with Okrent’s topic. The two books take very different approaches and the subject matter does not line up one to one; Leonard is an academic historian whose topic is primarily the history of economics as a discipline. Okrent is a popular writer who, while diligent in his research, is focusing on telling a compelling story about interesting characters. More importantly, Okrent’s net is much wider. The more I read Okrent’s book, the more I worried that the approach of pairing the books would prove unfeasible for a review. But I found the right angle and I’m happy with how the piece has turned out.

My experience with my current pair was, if anything, the opposite. I had a specific goal in mind when I obtained a copy of Super Pumped, Mike Isaac’s book about Uber: I wanted to see if there was anything to my father’s framing of the primary intraelite conflict being between tech entrepreneurs on the one hand and east coast establishment types on the other, and Uber seemed like a good lens for that. The best lens; no one has thrown down harder against established elites who have gotten in their way than Uber.

I then learned (through conversation with my father, as it happens) of the book Conspiracy, by Ryan Holiday, about the destruction of Gawker by Peter Thiel. I thought, vaguely, that I could deepen my investigation by adding another tech elite’s activities. My first surprise here was to find that Thiel/Uber did not make a very meaningful parallel at all, whereas Gawker, as described by Holiday anyway, basically operated like a media version of Uber without the deep VC pockets to bail it out of any problem.

But there the parallels largely run dry. I wanted to make some general point about the exercise of power and how hard it can be to tell, in the moment, who really has it—Holiday has a great line, after describing an incident in which Gawker ignored an injunction from a Florida judge:

We asked earlier who the underdog was in the dynamic. It is probably not the party that can defy an order from a judge and get away with it.

ignoring legal orders is the benchmark for power, then Uber is in a league of its own. In October of 2010, just four months after the first Uber user hailed a ride, officials from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency showed up at their headquarters to serve them a cease and desist order. The company, then known as UberCab, was in violation of local regulations, and could face fines up to $5,000 per trip, while the company’s management faced up to ninety days of jail time per day they remained in operation.

Isaac sets the scene:

Graves was scared. “What are we supposed to do here? He said aloud, reading his name on a piece of paper that said he could be going to jail. Hayes, the venture capitalist, wasn’t sure what to say. He was used to investing in consumer tech companies, but rarely (if ever) did they run afoul of the law. Geidt, just a few months out of college, stood quiet and nervous, too. This was her first foray into the professional world. Now she was looking a jail time.

Kalanick didn’t miss a beat. “We ignore it,” he said to the room.”

And that was that. They dropped “Cab” from their name and moved on.

This was their first year. Over the next seven years, Uber would not only break numerous local laws with impunity, they would develop a whole playbook for doing so effectively. In Philadephia, where the battle with local authorities was especially fierce, they would rack up 120,000 violations adding up to a $12 million fine. Uber is available in Philadelphia to this day—and in a settlement they managed to get that fine cut down by more than two thirds, to $3.5 million.

The proximate source of Uber’s power in this regard is quite simple: investors had given them an unbelievable amount of cash with basically no strings attached other than the mandate to grow, grow, grow. This allowed them to hire top talent, of course; talent which allowed them to develop sophisticated strategies for staying ahead of local enforcers, among other things. But far more important and not sophisticated by any stretch was their ability to simply throw money at problems. This included paying for expensive lawyers, of course, but also being able to promise drivers that “all costs associated” with run-ins with local regulators would be covered by Uber. During their doomed play for the Chinese market, Uber spent $40-50 million a week in subsidies alone, to entice drivers away from competitors.

Gawker did not have that kind of war chest, though it had very good liability insurance. Thiel, of course, did have the money to burn trying to take Gawker down, and that’s precisely what he did.

But here I find myself dissatisfied with where a potential review would go. Will it really boil down to “money = power”? The halo around tech “disruptors” and being part of the “rude” (but specifically rude and lefty) press plays an important role too, but this amounts to little more than pointing out that money and status are power. Hardly Earth-shattering stuff; not much meat to sink your teeth into.

Ultimately the books are incompatible in the lessons I would want to draw about them. Conspiracy raises some important questions about a court system too expensive for even, as Thiel put it, “single digit millionaires” to afford, as well as the tension between privacy and freedom of expression, and other press-and-judiciary related questions. Super Pumped, on the other hand, is simply a book I would want to give to all my old libertarian buddies, as well as anyone in finance, and anyone too enthusiastic about disruption per se as an approach to creating progress. I think the end of replacing taxi cartels with services like Uber is a good one in principle; I also think one would be hard pressed to square the means Uber employed to that end with even the rule of law as an ideal, even in the most minimal conceivable formulation.

Rather than deepening the material for approaching the same set of questions, pairing these two books seems simply to multiply the set of questions to be addressed. So I think I’m going to have to bite the bullet and drop one of them, probably Conspiracy, which offers a more unique and therefore less generalizable scenario.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been failing to write this Thanksgiving break. Hope you all had an enjoyable one.

A Sketchy History of America’s Conservative Media Insurgency

This is perpetually a dream project for me. There is absolutely no way I will have the time to devote to it to really do it right in the next year or two, and after that it is still unlikely. But I’ve given this a great deal of thought over a fairly long period; in some ways this is the topic I have remained most continuously engaged with for the longest span, investing here and there in reading, writing, discussing, and refining little by little.

So I’m going to sketch out the basic outline of how I think about this here, in a blog post, for future reference and hopefully to flesh out into something properly scholarly at some point.

In an important sense, midcentury media was both centralized and wildly competitive and creative. This is because even then, even in the absolute heyday of mass media, “media” was not one single monolithic thing. Magazines and club periodicals and other niche audience publications occupied a space that was energetic as well as ideologically and stylistically diverse.

Mass media, however, was a cartel through and through. From newspapers to book publishers to broadcast television, a very small number of people who all ran in the same social circles set the agenda and got to decide who could and who could not have access to national audiences. The entire niche publishing market combined was a drop in the bucket compared to the enormous audiences enjoyed by the midcentury media cartel.

I would like to pause here for a moment and say that midcentury media is long overdue a serious demystification. The problem is that right now that entire discursive space is monopolized by right-wing narratives, which is chock full of bad actors. On that, more in a moment. But the main thing I wish to say is that like any cartel which is able to get away with a lot of bad bullshit, midcentury mass media did, indeed, engage in a lot of bad bullshit, and get away with it.

Contra the aforementioned narratives, I think that most of the bad bullshit was not political in nature, but was just about drumming up interest—strong-arming people to get a story, selectively and dishonestly quoting people to achieve a certain effect, and so on. In other words, by and large the bad shit they got away with was out of indifference to the harm they caused in pursuit of their bottom line, or sloppiness plain and simple. Because as the only game in town, they could afford to be so callous and so sloppy.

But I don’t want to overstate this, as I often did back in the old bloggers vs journalists days. These were also serious institutions, in every sense of the word. It’s just that institutions of that kind are a lot more shot through with bad behavior than we like to think, especially when dealing more immediately with the faults of their replacements.

On the question of bias: I do think they had it, but here I think the leftist critics are more on the money than the rightist ones. The midcentury cartel had a conventionalist bias. It’s just that they hardened into a cartel at a moment when New Deal Liberalism was at its apotheosis, enjoying extremely broad public support. And so it was biased in that direction. Later, the conservative media insurgency would define itself against that very bias. Later still, as that insurgency began winning major victories, the institutions of the old mass media would begin to define themselves against the insurgents—the beginning of a long slide into the partisan press we live with today.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Again if I had the time and resources I’d flesh out the good and the bad more thoroughly, along with the exact nature of media bias at particular moments. But I don’t, so let’s move on to the next part: the dawn of the conservative media insurgency.

National Review holds a certain place of pride in movement conservatism, but it is and has always been in the niche audience market. The real conservative insurgency began with Talk Radio. As is typical of entrants seeking to compete with big, established players, conservative media entrepreneurs went into a close substitute field that was basically unoccupied, creating a cottage industry overnight. 

Fox News was the next big accomplishment of this movement; while cable news was not new by the time it launched in 1996, it was still not as pervasive as it has now become. And with the comparative wealth of channels cable TV offered relative to broadcast, there was more room for entrants in general.

The Internet was naturally the last big piece, and it has been big indeed, though we musn’t overstate it—the communities created by Talk Radio and Fox News are probably the biggest pieces of the conservative insurgency’s positive contribution to its final victory. The rise of the Internet probably contributed to that victory most directly by bleeding newspapers dry of classifieds revenue, and by suddenly putting every form of media into more direct national, even global competition with one another. In other words, the Internet ruptured a number of contingent business arrangements and market structures that had buoyed the established media’s profitability for a long time.

But of course, alongside these blows to the entrenched players, the Internet also opened the market up to all comers. The excitement around so-called “Web 2.0” centered specifically on the development of tools and platforms that non-technical users could easily employ to publish themselves online. This very blog, obscure as it is, could have millions of viewers tomorrow under a completely conceivable (not to say likely) set of circumstances. The birth of the big social media platforms reduced the number of steps you needed to receive such sudden and massive attention, which is so common these days we coined a phrase for it (“going viral”) for convenience’s sake.

Unlike Talk Radio, but like Fox News, the conservative insurgency was not the lone pioneer in online media. Especially because the blogosphere really lit up under a Republican administration, the leftist and liberal blogosphere was active and energetic. But the conservative one was equally so, precisely because the mainstream press, though flagging, was still dominant, and when contrasted to the genuinely conservative voices they could now find online (and in Talk Radio and on Fox News), the hated Mainstream Media (“MSM”) was intolerably left-biased. Out of the conservative blogosphere was birthed many an online conservative publication, Breitbart being among the most significant.

All right. Now let us return to the question of quality, raised ever so fleetingly during the discussion of the midcentury cartel.

I mentioned that a lot of bad bullshit occurred under the midcentury cartel because they could get away with it. Well, the conservative insurgency has engaged in a hundred times as much bad bullshit. They have done so because, in general, it is not the nice guys who are able to unseat a truly entrenched power. There is an important parallel in the history of the partisan polarization of congress, discussed by political scientist Frances Lee and summarized by Vox here. In that telling of history, Democrats dominated Congress for decades, and in order to overturn that, the Republicans in effect declared all out war, putting all tactics on the table and steamrolling past established norms.

The conservative insurgency is a phrase I picked precisely because I think it is best seen in such total war terms. Talk Radio played for keeps, and Breitbart definitely does. The more they succeed, the more their enemies sink into the same total war mindset.

Frances Lee thinks that the war of the congressional parties cannot be settled until one dominates again and the other accepts defeat for a while. Here the metaphor becomes hazy, for congressional seats are determined by first past the post voting and other particularities that do not apply to the media landscape. We have lived through times when the press was explicitly partisan before, and that may be our new normal again. A conservative media victory on par with the midcentury cartel is simply impossible under present technological circumstances, and unlikely given the notably unconservative bent of the typical resident of America’s large urban population centers.

Whatever the future holds for American media, the present seems relatively clear to me: at a high level, the big presses are transparently aligned with one major party or other. This does not, again, make them symmetrical: the conservative media ecosystem is truly a cesspool of the worst sort. And that, again, does not get the liberal press off the hook: its sins range from the laughable mediocrity of Glenn Kessler-style “fact checking” and Washington Post #resistance theater in its new motto, to becoming dependent upon pumping up the very bad tendencies it ostensibly is aligned against.

But I don’t mean to do any serious evaluations here. I just wanted to sketch out that broad history: from midcentury media split between the creative niches and the conventionalist cartel, to the conservative media insurgency spearheaded through Talk Radio and Fox News, to the Internet’s gutting of mainstream media’s business models and empowering of the online conservative media ecosystem, to our current partisan press.

That’s the gist. To be fleshed out and defended (and modified based on research of course) at some future time. Please do not hesitate to steal it if you intend to do the scholarly legwork (not that I would mind a link or a shout out should you do so!)

The Project of a Nation

One of the best works of political philosophy I’ve read in the last few years is Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country. Rorty’s politics were very much not my own; he was as hard left as they came, though just as adamantly anti-communist. The book came out in 1998 and served as something of a survey of the 20th century left, its accomplishments, its pitfalls, and what we might call its fall into decadence. At 67 years old, Rorty had seen much of this himself, and been born into a politically active family from the start. He had a uniquely rich perspective on the subject, in short.

Rorty was a pragmatist; he cared little for doctrinal disputes or purity and more for results. And so while today we might find it surprising that so committed a leftist was a staunch defender of nationalism, his reasons had nothing to do with blood ties or cultural essentialism or anything smelling even vaguely of metaphysics, as nationalism tends to.

The book opens as follows:

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.

And like that we’re off to the races. Further down he adds:

Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past—episodes and figures to which the country should remain true.

Rorty emphasized this need for national pride and inspiring national stories because he believed that we had veered too much towards national shame. Or perhaps that the two tasks, of reminding the country “what it can take pride in” and “what it should be ashamed of” had polarized in an unhealthy way. On one side we are told story after story that is meant to make us feel the shame of past and present sins, on the other we are given inspirational stories that have been bled of their human complexity, bleached out to be made into acceptable children’s fables and little more. On this latter score, Rorty cites, with approval, James Baldwin’s description of the:

collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.

Taking Whitman and Dewey as his guiding stars, Rorty offers:

The sort of pride Whitman and Dewey urge Americans to feel is compatible with remembering that we expanded our boundaries by massacring the tribes which blocked our way, that we broke the word we had pledged at the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and that we caused the death of a million Vietnamese out of sheer macho arrogance.

But, one might protest, is there nothing incompatible with American national pride? I think the Dewey-Whitman answer is that there are many things that should chasten and temper such pride, but that nothing a nation has done should make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect. To say that certain acts do make this impossible is to abandon the secular, antiauthoritarian vocabulary of shared social hope in favor of the vocabulary which Whitman and Dewey abhorred: a vocabulary built around the notion of sin.

Here I must part ways with Rorty slightly and admit that I’m quite fine with a vocabulary of sin, but not one that requires abandoning anti-authoritarian shared social hope.

So much for Rorty. I recommend the book very highly; I have thought of it often lately. Though told from the perspective of an old American leftist, I think it provides a clear formulation of the positive path out of the discourse of negation that my dad has spoken about at some length, in his book and many other places. In one interview, he specifically pointed to the difference between how Mark Zuckerberg was portrayed in The Social Network compared to how Edison was portrayed in the 1940 Young Tom Edison. Rorty emphasizes the need to remind a country “what we ought to be ashamed of” far more than my dad would, but their positive discursive vision is almost identical: we need to revive, support, and sustain a healthy national pride.

It is from this perspective that, as an American, I felt jealous as I read Ramachandra Guha’s magisterial India After Ghandi. The subtitle of the book is The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, and this framing is already surprising, though very obviously true. India is the largest democracy in the world and therefore in history. Guha from the beginning emphasizes that, recent economic growth aside (which, shortly after finishing the book, I sadly learned has been less than originally thought), India pulled off a political accomplishment that is nothing short of astonishing. As the second largest country in the world, and by far the most diverse ethnically, religiously, culturally, linguistically, you name it—almost everyone among right-thinking observers assumed the whole project would blow up. And yet here they are, still a united, secular democracy, some 72 years later.

I did not read the book to learn how amazing India was. In truth, I read it because I am abhorrently ignorant about the largest democracy in the world. But as Guha described monumental accomplishments such as the integration of the independent principalities and the rolling out of the infrastructure to allow a universal suffrage election so soon after independence—I thought to myself, boy, how I’d love to read someone with Guha’s careful hand writing about the postwar period of American history, to the present. Guha wrote a book for India that fit the exact specifications of what Rorty wanted for Americans: he did not shrink from India’s internal strife, its mistakes, its abuses, but I find it hard to believe any Indian could read the book and not walk away with their national pride tremendously—and deservedly!—augmented.

My goal this year was to read more books on countries like India that I know far too little about. And I still hope to do so. But the approach Guha took makes me want to read more American history. The section on the first Indian elections in particular makes me want to get to Pauline Maier’s Ratification, which I have heard is phenomenal. I’m slowly working through the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers before doing so, for context.

Context is important. But so is hope. And so is pride.

Rhetoric, History, and Totalizing Abstractions

As has become my habit here, this post is not going to form a whole that is entirely cohesive. I have some thoughts to work through and it may be a bit rough going.

I take rhetoric very seriously, and so when a communications theorist I follow promoted Make America Meme Again as a work by two of the top scholars in the field, I thought this was a chance to put my money where my mouth was and really engage with contemporary rhetorical analysis.

What a vast wasteland that field is, if this work is indeed representative. An enormous amount of space is dedicated to theory review, from Deleuze and Guattari to Guy Debord. Meanwhile, the source material receives far less attention. A single alt right meme will be used as an example for a lengthy discussion of détournement, when the concept of ironic detachment is perfectly serviceable though less academically sexy.

Had I written the book, I would have filled most of the pages with source material, and included an extremely long online appendix for further reference. After describing a basic concept or model, such as the use of ironic detachment to create a veil of plausible deniability, I would go over dozens of specific examples of how it played out. The authors of the book did not convince me that they had done much beyond reading some articles about their subject matter, as well as consulting sources like KnowYourMeme.com.

More valuable but in a way more frustrating is Jeffrey Stewart’s The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke. It is more valuable because Stewart really has done the work of going through Locke’s archives, all relevant paintings and novels and poetry, and even works of philosophy. He covers segments of societies and places that I knew next to nothing about, and thanks to that I was able to learn a great deal. But he has that terrible habit of biographers of going too far beyond his material—in his case, positively leaping. It’s not even necessary; Locke’s relationship with his mom is weird enough on its own and his homosexuality difficult enough for the time period to provide a great deal to unpack. But rather than unpacking, Stewart inevitably overextends himself, going on for pages of analysis when a few suggestive examples would do the trick. Without such heavy-handed forays into abstraction, the book may have had some hopes of being merely 500, rather than 900 pages long.

The next three books I read came as a welcome relief after all that. Nation of Rebels by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter is in many ways the perfect antidote to the kind of overwraught left-theory of the books mentioned above. I’ve meant to read it for years after reading an essay covering the basic argument. In essence, the theory behind the counterculture movement ends up feeding into consumer culture; “counterculture” becomes a source of differentiation and status games expressed primarily through what you buy.

One part on homogenization that stuck out to me:

As we have seen, the tendency toward homogenization (…) is the product of a very complex set of forces. Some of it is a reflection of consumer preference, some of it is due to economies of scale, some of it is caused by distortions in the market and some of it is caused by timeless, universal human tendencies. In many cases, it is not obvious that we can do anything about it; in many more cases, it is not obvious we should do anything about it. The most important point, however, is that there is no single “system” at work producing this effect. There is simply a bundle of different, sometimes contradictory forces.

This hooks up nicely with an argument I made about the use of “capitalism” and “imperialism” in left thought. I can sum up the argument as follows:

  • “Capitalism” as a theoretical system is devised to operate a specific way according to logical necessity, and applied to a diverse set of specific institutional environments.
  • The actual form of commerce is logically contingent on the institutional, technological, cultural, and even individual specifics of time and place.
  • We are better off using a plurality of less ambitious models to make sense of concrete phenomena, than a single totalizing abstraction that subsumes all particulars.

Even since writing that post almost exactly a year ago, I’ve been exposed to enough additional left theory to say that this is a general problem. The way that terms like “neoliberalism”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”, “patriarchy”, and “white supremacy” get used are similarly totalizing and overwrought. From the perspective of the hermeneutic circle, we could say that these theorists, like the authors of the first two books mentioned above, spend far too much time attempting to project the whole without allowing sufficient feedback from the concrete parts we have access to.

The other two book, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age and Civilization were genuine pleasures to read, and quite consistent with my goal of sticking closely to history this year. One of my biggest goals is to elucidate an understanding of liberalism that puts the relationship between commerce and art front and center. Tyler Cowen’s two books on this subject, along with Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues, and the aforementioned Nation of Rebels, are all excellent material for that. But Holland in the Dutch Golden Age is of particular interest to me, because they really embodied it. Renaissance Florence did too, of course, but the Dutch had an urban middle class of historically unusual proportion who provided a base of art purchasers that was also unusual in how broad it was. I cannot read enough about this period right now and was delighted to get to the section of Civilization which discussed it.

Michael North, the author of Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, gets into the real nitty gritty details. This is helpful for moving beyond generalizations about markets and art at any time or place. In the case of Holland, the shift in demand towards older works had the consequence of reducing the demand for contemporary art, causing a contraction in the number of painters who could make a living. Big talk about how markets are good for art is not helpful; supporting contemporary artists who you believe are doing good work, and urging others to do so, is an important part of enabling a vibrant creative culture. This is basically what Alain Locke did himself, in fact, with the Harlem Renaissance.

This is a similar level of detail that Cowen gives you in In Praise of Commercial Culture in discussing, for example, how the market for sheet music influenced the kinds of compositions that were created in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the level of detail that is actually meaningful, and which I have waited far too long to seriously invest in my knowledge of.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Until the next thought-dump.