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August 28, 2008

Welcome Back, Bill

One of the more personally rewarding aspects of Bill Clinton's speech last night to the Democratic Convention was that it liberated me to reconcile with him. Not that he cares, of course. We've never met. But like milions of Democrats over the last sixteen years I've been rather infatuated with him: the rhetorical clarity, the pouty ernestness, the visionary acuity. And if an infatuation means anything, it means a willingness to dismiss or ignore those glaring character defects that infuriate those not so smitten (especially when they look at guys like me and wonder why we just don't "see it").

But over the last year, as his behavior during Hillary's campaign became more and more offensive and unignorable, I began to feel something akin to what wives must feel after they discover their husbands of twenty years have been cheating on them from day one.


Maybe it's the disconcerting embarrassment parents feel when, for whatever reason, they suddenly see their own charmingly precocious kid as an irritating, self absorbed, obnoxious blowhard. (No personal experience there, really.) This image fits, I think, because what makes Bill work is that he has always been a child-man: selfish and relentlessly self-justifying, passionate and agressively innocent--all finely tuned by an exquisite and powerful adult intelligence. The best of Bill has always enabled the worst.

But last night made me love him again--now that the little shit is behaving himself.

Posted by stevemack at 10:31 AM | Comments (0)

August 25, 2008

Intellectual Elites: Embarrassment of Riches

Jefferson, the great democrat, famously argued for the "natural aristocracy," by which he meant a meritocracy. In fact, the very possibility of a society in which the best and brightest would be free to rise to the top was supposed to be one of the chief virtues of democracy.

Be careful about what you wish for.

As many have observed before, one of the more unsettling consequences of a meritocracy may be greater inequality--once assumed to be the antithesis of democracy. As Mickey Kaus told it in his book of the early ninties, The End of Equality, as the smarter among us rise to the top they will increasingly monopolize the means to wealth (i.e., the best jobs), leaving the intellectually challenged to fight for what little is left. William Deresiewicz inverts the point--arguing that there is a certain intellectual impoverishment entailed in educational elitism:

When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down? An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed. We live in a society that is itself so wealthy that it can afford to provide a decent living to whole classes of people who in other countries exist (or in earlier times existed) on the brink of poverty or, at least, of indignity. You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort. You have to live in an ordinary house instead of an apartment in Manhattan or a mansion in L.A.; you have to drive a Honda instead of a BMW or a Hummer; you have to vacation in Florida instead of Barbados or Paris, but what are such losses when set against the opportunity to do work you believe in, work you’re suited for, work you love, every day of your life?

Yet it is precisely that opportunity that an elite education takes away. How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn’t that be a waste of my expensive education? Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? How will I face my classmates at our 20th reunion, when they’re all rich lawyers or important people in New York? And the question that lies behind all these: Isn’t it beneath me? So a whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.

It seems our intellectuals don't quite know what to do with themselves--just as we don't know what to do with them either. This is a point I made (perhaps more seriously) in an essay on
"The 'Decline' of Public Intellectuals."

Posted by stevemack at 01:37 PM | Comments (0)

Wicked Paradox Revisited

Pew Research has a new poll out measuring the decline in support for religiously informed political commentary. The "new survey," Pew reports, "finds a narrow majority of the public saying that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters and not express their views on day-to-day social and political matters." Ironically--and perhqaps troubling--the decline is a result of (Christian) conservatives becoming gun shy:

Four years ago, just 30% of conservatives believed that churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics. Today, 50% of conservatives express this view.

As a result, conservatives' views on this issue are much more in line with the views of moderates and liberals than was previously the case. Similarly, the sharp divisions between Republicans and Democrats that previously existed on this issue have disappeared.

This is a little troubling, I think, because it suggests that for Christians the criterion for engaging in public discourse or not is winning. Not, in other words, "participation." This development reinforces many of the problematics I noted in a long essay I originally posted last year: Wicked Paradox

Posted by stevemack at 12:55 PM | Comments (0)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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