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David Brooks on America’s Tribes

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The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

That is TRC’s ever-favorite “conservative” editorialist, David Brooks, writing about the widening gaps between American tribes in his piece yesterday, titled, the Great Divorce.

Brooks clearly is enamored by his idea that American culture is tribal, not classist, and he runs and runs and runs with it. As a major news and opinion consumer, TRC thinks it can be pretty easy to notice when a writer has come up with something he or she thinks is quite clever, and, maybe doesn’t think it all the way through. Thus is Brooks’ dilemma.

It looks today as though David Brooks’ piece is causing a bit of an internet uproar. Politico has the rundown. The main complaint seems to be that Brooks, that harbinger of east-coast 1950s conservatism who longs for America to regain its glory by acknowledging it is losing its moral compass and soul (or some such nonsense), is oozing with bourgouis elitism and condescension.

So, internet, I have to ask: Why are you surprised? This is David Brooks. He is a standard upper-class (ahem, upper-tribe) ideas man, who when it comes down to it, is thoughtful, but clueless about modern life. I just assumed everyone knew that was David Brooks m.o. Brooks work in the last few years at the NY Times has represented only a swan-song to golden era nostalgia.

Even Brooks’ conclusion that we need a big national service program to bring the upper and lower tribes together (I agree), falls apart in the need for one harmonious tribe that shares values and practices. He misses the entire point of what comes before in his piece: the tribes don’t have much in common, we don’t all need to share the same practices and institutions and values, and besides, the postmodern neighborhoods of the poor are probably too confusing to find their way to each other anyway.


Written by Christopher ZF

February 1, 2012 at 14:11

How un-American is calling the President un-American?

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According to John Boehner, the currents Speaker of the US House of Representatives, President Obama, the current,  democratically elected President of the United States of America is “almost un-American.” Isn’t that amazing?

Here’s the actual quote.

This is a president who said I’m not going to be a divider, I’m going to be a uniter, and running on the politics of division and envy is – to me it’s almost un-American

One has to simply marvel at the use of the qualifier ‘almost’ in that sentence. Is there a chart somewhere in the possession of House Republicans that details individual Americanness? How many more unfavorable decisions does Obama need to finally be pushed over the line that denotes almost un-American from actually un-American? I wonder where slandering the President as un-American falls on that chart.

Frankly, this made be puke a little. Such disrespect for the President is commonplace on the campaign trail, from the loud-mouthed Tea Partiers and the crazy right-wing folks who think Obama is a secret Muslim looking to bring Sharia Law into the halls of Government. But to hear it from John Boehner is truly disappointing. He’s a good guy, I thought, who disagreed with Obama’s policies but did not sink into the gutter.

Boehner also said his goal is to  “work with the president.” Clearly.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 24, 2012 at 13:13

What is American about America?

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There’s a story this morning floating the webs about how MSNBC compared a Romney campaign slogan to an old Ku Klux Klan slogan, and then had to apologize and berate their own “appalling” lack of journalistic standards. It really isn’t all that interesting of a flap, but it is the stuff blogs are made of.

For the Romney campaign, this story has to be an absolute winner. The bad guy in this story is MSNBC, the liberal agenda driving left-wing “news” source attempting to bring balance to the world of political coverage by being well to the left of center. Because those other mothers are well, well to the right of center.

Anyway. Romney comes out looking okay, done wrong by MSNBC, who apologizes. Sure.

Which is unfortunate, because the real story here should be the Romney slogan. Which is: Keep America American. If that doesn’t make your skin crawl…then, well, I guess you want to keep America American.

TRC has a problem with this. But its not easy to delineate, because TRC, too, wants to keep America American. But I don’t think Romney wants to keep America American by continuing a rich diversity of culture and language, for example. Continuing American traditions like welcoming immigrants who are seeking a better life that the US has to offer, opening our hearts and doors to religious tolerance. Continuing to fund and explore and move forward towards new and wonderful and different while doing our damnedest to be responsible, even if we fail. Continuing to encourage civic engagement, and passionate yet stable upheaval of political norms, social movements towards justice, re-interpretation of law and the constitution to continue bettering the lives of everyone, being a voice of good in our own country and the world, recognizing equal value despite race or religion or sexual orientation or gender or any such difference. Continuing to imbue just the right level of romanticism into our past and future, while acknowledging that that romanticism has had terrible consequences for people all over the world, and none more so than the people who were here before us. Continuing, in short, to keep what is great about America, our willingness to do good and our acknowledgement that we have done terrible, as a vital part of the US of A. Or maybe he does want all this.

Which is one reason this is difficult to express.  Among the greatest American qualities of America is that Mitt Romney can run for president with a terrible, terrible campaign slogan like “Keep America American.” Such a terrible thing is among the best things about America. But it really is awful. Because when a conservative GOP flip-flopping shallow Presidential Candidate says that he wants to Keep America American, it just feels…gross. So, I suppose I strongly agree with Mitt Romney, even though I couldn’t disagree more.

**UPDATE: If you are interested in more than TRC’s ranting on the Keep America American slogan, The Atlantic has a very nice piece that you should read.

Written by Christopher ZF

December 15, 2011 at 10:04

Gingrich vs. the Secular Atheist Islamists

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In the future (5 days from now, precisely), an article by Henrik Hertzberg will come out in print in the New Yorker. That article will concern one Newt Gingrich and his alternative-history novels, and use these novels as a lens from which to view the current GOP nominating process.

About these novels, I have nothing to say. Really. I have never read a novel by the politician Newt Gingrich. Probably, that won’t happen. Why politicians think they can write novels, I’ll never understand (maybe they can), but if you want to hear a wonderful rant about a terrible novel written by a politician, ask Mrs. TRC.

But there is something of interest to me in Hertzberg’s piece. Hertzberg says:

Gingrich’s sudden rise and special appeal to the emotions of “the base,” one suspects, stem less from his vaunted “big ideas” than from his long-cultivated, unparalleled talent for contempt.

This might be right. Because if Gingrich is the smart one, the ideas man, the educated historian first, and the Washington DC insider (that he oh so clearly is) second, then how can one explain the kinds of things that Gingrich is quoted saying? This is not just the ridiculous (EMPs and mining the moon) but just nonsense as well, as we’ll see. Gingrich’s “brains” are overrated, TRC believes, but his ability to use words to express contempt, well, that might be unparalleled in modern American Politics.

To highlight this, I will conclude with a final culling of Hertzberg’s article. He ends with a quote from Gingrich that on its face makes no sense at all to anyone who understands the words that are being used, or who at least takes a second to stop and think about it. I don’t like to generalize that most people do not do so, but that can be the only purpose of such a comment as this. Gingrich, and I, assume they will just find the contempt in Gingrich’s comment, and hear what they want to hear: Christians, led by Newt Gingrich, have to save America.

In March, at the Cornerstone Church, in San Antonio, Gingrich declared, “I am convinced that, if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America,” his grandchildren will live “in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

Is there any better way to frame the danger to “what it means to be American” than to threaten Americans with Atheism and Islam?  What can be worse than an atheist nation dominated by radical Islamists?

Any ideas man worth his weight in novels would notice the irony.

Written by Christopher ZF

December 14, 2011 at 21:02

WR Mead joins David Brooks in lamenting the terrible nature of everything

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What is changing? Is the Twilight of the Boomers setting upon us, requiring cultural prognosticators to make social diagnoses about the failure of America? I know things are bad around here these days, but, come on.

Yesterday, it was David Brooks casting the country in the cloud of moral vacuity, unable to recognize evil, embracing the selfish returns of the individual, and hiding behind our interests to the demise of the nation. Pretty heavy charges.

Today it is Walter Russell Mead, decrying the moral failures of the Baby Boomers, casting his moral judgment upon the whole of an American generation. Says Mead:

 Too many of us clung for to that shiny image of youth and potential too long, and blighted our promise because we were hypnotized by it. This is of course narcissism, our greatest and most characteristic failing as a generation, and like Narcissus our generation missed greatness because of our fascination with our glittering selves. What begins in arrogance often ends in shame; there are some ominous signs that the Boomers are headed down that path. Sooner or later, the kids were going to note what a mess we have made of so many things, and now, it seems, the backlash has begun.  

Mead goes on to list the failings of the boomers, and suffice it to say, the list is long, and the charges leveled at our parents are pretty dire.

Apparently, the nostalgia of recent American history is waning, and there is not too much hope for the American future these days, as we forthrightly criticize the whole population as a bunch of narcissistic, self-serving, evil-embracing failures. What is going on?

Maybe I’m wrong to find these kinds of laments frustrating. Perhaps we are a nation that has fallen away from goodness and into the territory of amorality and self-interest. Perhaps my failure to recognize that aspect of American Culture results from my participation in that amorality. But, for the love of Christ, I sure hope not. I sure hope Brooks and Mead are wrong, wrong, wrong. Of course there are moral failings, and of course the baby boomers have screwed things up. But the boomers did good things for this country, too, and sorry David Brooks, but I tend to think that every day in the United States, most people choose to do the things that are upright, positive and good. We are not a country that has turned our back on caring for each other, recognizing each other, and longing for peace. Not as a whole, not even as a majority. Maybe TRC is just optimistic. Maybe the people who are attracted to power, attracted to making the rules, are the ones who have such grave moral failings, or maybe not. But it does not compute, at TRC, to find such deficiencies in our whole nation.

Or maybe a generation is reaching its twilight, and looking back on their own failures. If that’s the case, I hope all this sorrow works itself out soon, so the rest of us don’t have to spend the next 5 years reading about how a cloud of failure and despair has ruined everything. That certainly won’t help anything get better.

Written by Christopher ZF

November 14, 2011 at 14:53

philosophical queries about Labor and Economy

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Labor day weekend got me thinking about Labor and the United States (surprise), and prompted a few queries that I’ve been considering for the past few months. Specifically, two separate trains of thought have been brewing, and I think that they are (or should be) related.

First. There has been much written recently regarding how the “green economy” that President Obama envisioned rescuing the US from the recession has failed, and that green jobs are not the future, but political hokem that provides great speeches but little results. David Brooks, this morning, for example:

In his 2008 convention speech, Barack Obama promised to create five million green economy jobs. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimated in April 2009 that green jobs could account for 10 percent of new job growth over the next 30 years. Alas, it was not to be. The gigantic public investments in green energy may be stimulating innovation and helping the environment. But they are not evidence that the government knows how to create private-sector jobs.”

Or you could just call it like they see it, as  Jennifer Rubin at WashPo does, decrying the “green jobs fetish” of President Obama, and hoping to see an end to the “cotton-candy policies” of the liberals. Well it is true. Green Energy and Green Economy have not created as many jobs as are needed to facilitate a recovery from this recession; a recession not caused, by the way, by the growth of the green economy.

Second. On NPR, yesterday, I heard about 10 seconds of an interview with E.J. Dionne, (full disclosure: the Dionne and David Brooks Politics Chat on Fridays is my favorite NPR segment of the week). The interview was in conjunction with his Sunday Op-Ed: The Last Labor Day, where he argues: We may still celebrate Labor Day, but our culture has given up on honoring workers as the real creators of wealth and their honest toil — the phrase itself seems antique — as worthy of genuine respect.

In this interview, Dionne said something to the effect that the historical notion of Labor Day in the United States is antiquated, because the United States is no longer populated with laborers but with consumers. Even though most Americans actually do work blue-collar, labor-intensive jobs, these jobs fail to be a part of the vocabulary of modern culture, in part because blue-collar, hard-working America is no longer seen as celebratory in-itself, but as a way for consumers to earn money to consume things, and to move up in the world, (boot-strap America, as I call this notion). This lack of focus on labor is not just in the real world where the traditional notion of the laborer is now recession-unemployed (and unemployable?) but even in media and news coverage and popular culture.

To illustrate this point, E.J. Dionne asked listeners to consider Hollywood cinema. One need not go back too far to see regular film portrayals of hard-working low-income Americans celebrated for doing the work they do; the absolute pinnacle of working-class celebration in film is mentioned by Dionne, and has a special place in American cinematic history, and my heart: It’s a Wonderful Life. This today has (mostly) disappeared (Dionne rightly claims that John Sayles still makes films). Dionne cites two “blue-collar” movies that have been successful out of Hollywood in recent years: Good Will Hunting and The Fighter. Both are set in poor, hard-working, day-laboring Massachusetts, and show the plight of two exceptional men who do not belong in the life they are born into, and thus attempt to rise above. They are stories of upward mobility, according to Dionne, not celebration of the worker. Though both of these films are far more complex than this paragraph denotes, I think the point stands: We do not make movies about Ben Affleck’s loyal friend who will toil the rest of his life in construction while his buddy moves on to money and the girl. Maybe I heard more than 10 seconds of the interview.

This all got TRC on to various and sundry matters of inquiry. But here are two thoughts. Work is a good in itself, right? Regardless of the added value later of that which is manufactured for consumption or services that are rendered? Shouldn’t we remember the words of Abraham Lincoln (as quoted by Dionne) when we think about our day-to-day-lives: ” Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Capital is good, and consumption is good, but the Horse must come before the Cart, no? Otherwise workers are commodities, unions unnecessary, and rights lost because the capital is point, not the person.

But this leads to the second, and more difficult thought that has been stewing at TRC for the past few months. As people decry the green economy a failure, and find that the “green future” cannot provide the economic needs of the country, or the world, should we not ask: do we need to reevaluate the expectations of an employed, functioning economy? Are we at a point where the post-recession economy will not even resemble the pre-recession economy? These are philosophical questions, but they seem extremely important at this juncture in time.

Take renewable energy. Renewable energy requires manufacturing, assembly, installation and maintenance, just like dirty energy. It does not require fuel extraction, which is good because coal mining is a dangerous business. But it is a business that employs a lot of people. Wind and solar do not require daily employees. They are operated by a single man in a computer somewhere in the region who watches the energy demand and manages the generation needs. If we were to create a new infrastructure of renewable energy and high-speed rail and broad-band internet, there would be an influx of millions of jobs. But then these tasks would be accomplished, and then what? What should the future economy look like, beyond recovery from this recession?

Perhaps the green economy will not be able to sustain the US after recession because there will never be enough green jobs. Not because the green economy failed but because the green economy just does not need as many hands to operate. That’s not an endorsement of fossil fuels, but if its true, it means we need to find something else to make meaningful work. And this is just one field. Efficiency is rising in all sorts of tech and manufacturing fields. Robotics will only continue to increase productivity while requiring fewer human hands. And what happens when A.I. becomes A.I.? Which will happen, some day. These are maybe philosophical questions today, but will be actualities in the future, and must be accounted for.

We shouldn’t bandy about trying to destroy renewable energy and the green economy because it’s different from the past like a bunch of luddites. Rather, shouldn’t we re-imagine a new economy, where the future is prioritized over the past, and people are prioritized over capital, and labor means working for something that means something? All while moving society, and the economy, forward instead of backward? Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But I think we can use some wishful thinking in this country right about now, as we pass yet another Labor Day in the midst of economic recession. What this future economy looks like though, is beyond TRC’s current imagination. I guess the United Federation of Planets provides one option (seriously.)

Written by Christopher ZF

September 6, 2011 at 11:47

America the Superpower

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A few weeks ago, I had a conversation about the idea of the United States being a superpower in the world, and the only superpower in the world, and what this means to those of us who did not become politically conscious until the years following the end of the Cold War.

In this discussion, I stated that I was not afraid of a world where America did not hold the position of “World’s Only Superpower.” Maybe I am being naive, but that distinction doesn’t seem important to me. What is far more important to me is having an economically sound, safe nation governed by reasonable laws and protections for all citizens. Whether China is a superpower or not, I want those things for the US. But America as Sole Superpower is still a very important notion to many people. Like Neil Gardiner, who wrote the following today in The Telegraph:

And like the contest in 1980, 2012 will likely decide the future of the United States as the world’s dominant superpower, with Americans faced with a stark choice between renewal and decline. As the latest Pew survey of global attitudes shows, the world is beginning to lose faith in the strength of America’s leadership, with general publics in 15 of 22 nations surveyed believing that “China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world’s leading superpower.” Even in the US itself, 46 percent believe that China has already or will replace America as the world’s leading power.

So ‘America the Superpower’ hangs in the balance of the 2012 election. If the GOP wins the election, how will that affect the outcome of America’s stance as superpower?  Does small government (which Republican Presidents do not actually want), less spending (on Democratic priorities, but not necessarily in general), fewer taxes, fewer social safety net programs with more privatized services, and less regulation allowing for more pollution, illness, and a greater demand for healthcare make a nation a superpower?

Written by Christopher ZF

July 15, 2011 at 12:03