Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Public Good

Want to get depressed? Read Chris Hedges' piece over at TruthDig entitled “The Idiots Who Rule America.” His article resonates with me in part because of my interest in what Jürgen Habermas calls “the public sphere” (hell, my most recent book, Blogging America: The New Public Sphere even sites him in the title). Hedges writes:

Our elites—the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools—do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good.

The course of education in America laid out by John Dewey, in other words, has been sidetracked into an elitist shaping ground.

One of the things that long ago led me to dismiss a great deal of what passes for economics is the concept of the “rational consumer,” the idea that people will ultimately act in their own best interest. History shows, over and over again, that this is nonsense. But it certainly is useful when one desires to ignore (or forget) the needs, desire, or input of T.C. Mits (The Celebrated Man In The Streets—thanks, Lillian Rosanoff Lieber): if people do ultimately act in their own best interest, there’s no need, really, to bother with them.

The result?

We may elect representatives to Congress to end the war in Iraq, but the war goes on. We may plead with these representatives to halt Bush’s illegal wiretapping but the telecommunications lobbyists make sure it remains in place. We may beg them not to pass the bailout but 850 billion taxpayer dollars are funneled upward to the elites on Wall Street. We may want single-payer, not-for-profit health care but it is not even discussed as a possibility in presidential debates. We, as individuals in this system, are irrelevant.

According to Habermas, the public sphere, where real debate takes place and people (not elites) contribute, was squeezed nearly out of existence by corporate forces in the nineteenth centure. My argument, in both my last book and my earlier The Rise of the Blogosphere is that we now have a chance for it to come back, thanks to the Internet and unfettered access to it. The reactions against the blogs, I think, are reactions against the people, against the idea that we can decide for ourselves, without gatekeepers, without elites telling us what to do.

Hedges takes what is essentially the Habermas concept in a different direction, writing of “the public good,” a necessary corollary to “the public sphere.” He say, and I agree:

We will either recover the concept of the public good, and this means a revolt against our bankrupt elite and the dynamiting of the corporatist structure, or we will extinguish our democracy.

Democracy, after all, is by the people, not simply for the people. Unless we regain sight of that, the divide between the elite and the rest of us will only continue to grow—and our country continue to weaken.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The “O”s Have It?

We’ve been through the “e” craze (ecommerce, etexts) and the “i” craze (ipod). Now look for the “o” craze—if Obama wins this election.

Looking back at the debates, and we will hear of “oPoise.” The White House Press Corps will be producing “oNews.”

Oh rily? Yabetcha!

Our media are composed of nothing if not slavish followers of fad. And Obama may become a fad like we haven’t seen since the days of the hoolahoop. Even if his victory (it victory it be) is less than overwhelming, the media will need a replacement for “W”—and “O,” though it would be used differently (it doesn’t make a good nickname, for a number of reasons), will be offered playfully in front of almost everything connected with the, er, oval office.

“Oforce One”? He’ll be flying in it. Too bad the Oldsmobile is no longer made, but a fleet of oHybrids could save the ogovernment scads on fuel.

“oPolicy” will be decided by the “oCabinet.” An “oMeeting” with Ahmadinejad would make big news and drive the right crazy. “oLiberals” could distance themselves from the boring liberals of their parents’ day.

The biggest problem may be for Bill O’Reilly. Oh, Bill, whatcha gonna do?

Monday, October 13, 2008

By the Numbers

A story on NPR this morning, about evaluating teachers through test scores made me think back once more to Paolo Freire's 'banking model of education' from his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And that, in turn, led me to thinking about bankers—not uncommon: these last few weeks everything leads us to think about bankers. And numbers.

One of the real root causes of our current economic crisis is a reliance on numbers for evaluation and decision making instead of on banker knowledge. Credit ratings, for example, have been used as the basis for mortgages in place of that old stand-by, personal (or institutional) experience with the borrower. This did make things easier—at least on the surface. The lender didn't have to take responsibility for future actions on the loan by the borrower. The initial lender had acted on the numbers, and could rest easy.

But the score also becomes an excuse in case of failure, a remove from responsibility. This is particularly important when actual responsibility for the loan also disappears—that is, when the loan no longer rests with the bank, but has been sold, split into pieces, and re-sold. “Hey! Don't blame it on me. I only followed the numbers.”

I only followed the numbers.

That may come to haunt us as much as “I only followed orders.”

Not surprisingly, the banks that are weathering the current storm best are small, local banks, where loans are made based on personal observation and from money that the bank controls. The bankers, responsible for the money they are handing out (and with no expectation of transferring that responsibility to anyone else), can't rely on the numbers. Instead, they learn to rely on their own judgment and on institutional memory within the community.

My point? Reliance on numbers is no replacement for reliance on knowledge of results, of the past, of the people.

Thing is, reliance on results, the past, and people also requires trust. And trust, given the size of most of our contemporary institutions, is extremely difficult to establish. How can you really get to know anyone in an institution of thousands, tens of thousands, or more?

You can't. But we aren't willing to reduce the sizes of our institutions, so turn to numbers instead.

Numbers that have failed us in the past (No Child Left Behind), are failing us now (the sub-prime crisis), and will fail us in the future.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


One of the things I love about the movies—hell, about literature as well—is the subtle homage, the one where you don't even have to recognize it to get the sense of the scene, but that adds a special little tick when you do. The casting of Jack Elam and Woody Strode, for example, in small roles in Sergio Leone's C'era una volta il West means nothing to most who see the film. To us who are fans of the Western, however, it states flat out that the filmmakers know the genre and will be using its motifs throughout—and that homage won't end with the two characters.

The other day, I saw the new Coen brothers film, Burn After Reading. People haven't been particularly kind to it, but I enjoyed it.

Only today did I realize that the film (as usual with Coen brothers movies) contained an homage to one of my favorite films, and that I had missed it completely.

At the end of the film, two CIA officers discuss events, deciding to do little about them (aside from paying for a bit of cosmetic surgery for Frances McDormand's character). They are talking about people dying for unexplained reasons, going off to Venezuela, and other odd occurrences.

Today, I realized they were bowing to Alfred Hitchcock and North by Northwest, where there's also a discussion in a CIA office:

Official #1: And the unsuspecting Townsend winds up
with a stray knife in his back.
Official #2: C'est la guerre.
Official #3: It's so horribly sad. Why is it I feel like laughing?
Official #4: What are we going to do?
Official #3: Do?
Official #4: About Mr. Thornhill?
The Professor: We...do nothing!
Official #4: Nothing?
The Professor: That's right. Nothing.

What goes on in Burn After Reading is very much what one finds in North by Northwest and a host of other Hitchcock films. I appreciate that the Coen brothers, through such homage, acknowledge the traditions they extend.

Monday, October 06, 2008

If It Walks Like a Duck, It's No Maverick

This is getting to be depressing. Maybe it's time to go back to Mali, to Tombouctou—for the next month, at least, until after election day. After all, it's not too hot there right now, and the Niger River is still high enough for the riverboat to make its way from Mopti to Gao, a leisurely trip with not a lot to do but watch for Tuarags over the sand dunes along the riverbank. There, perhaps, Sarah Palin's dishonest, deceitful, and decadent (yes, decadent) head wouldn't be haunting my waking hours.

After eight years of spurious attacks, abuse of the English language, and empty rhetoric (not to mention uncalled for wars and economic politics that do nothing but take from the poor and give to the rich), I am getting so tired of it all I can hardly respond—though that is exactly what “they” want. So, though I would rather do most anything else, I feel I must add my voice to the chorus singing against Palin and McCain's depiction of themselves as “mavericks.”

A maverick is a stray, an unbranded stray, a young animal that has wandered out of sight of the herd. It becomes the property of whomever finds it and brands it.

Only in that last sense is Palin anything of a maverick: McCain found her and branded her. Oh, did he ever brand her (or, rather, his herders did—for he has recently been branded, too, and brought back into the herd, though he never did really stray out of sight)!

If McCain and Palin want a metaphor that suits them, it is not “maverick.” “Loose cannons” works much better. Palin never really has fit with the Republican party. She has always done whatever she wanted, not what the party wanted (until recently, that is; until she was branded for the vice presidential nomination).

If for no other reason, McCain's temper puts him out of the maverick and into the loose-cannon category. It is the only thing making him different from all of the other Republicans who have voted with Bush 90% of the time—and that's the majority of them.

“Maverick,” as McCain and Palin envision it, comes from the TV show, with the Republicans imagining themselves as one or another of the Maverick brothers, Bret and Bart, or cousin Beau. They like to imagine themselves in James Garner's tie and hat, able to out-talk and out-think just about anyone. Strangely enough, they also imagine that they have the honesty and integrity at the core of the Maverick characters (I guess self-deception is a necessary core to their game).

Certainly, neither Palin's nor McCain's performance in the debates showed any maverick qualities. McCain was nothing but mean and arrogant (muttering “horseshit” a couple of times, from what I understand) while Palin proved to be nothing more than a Potemkin candidate, a false front for fooling the passers-by.