Tag Archives: Michael Lind

“Star Wars… Nothing But Star Wars…”

Michael Lind at Salon:

On the left, technological optimists were replaced by Rousseauian romantic primitivists. In the 1970s, Green guru Amory Lovins promulgated the gospel that “hard” sources of energy like nuclear power are bad and that called for a “soft path” based on hydropower, wind and solar energy. Other Green romantics decided that even hydropower is wicked, because it is generated by dams that despoil the prehuman landscape.

The New Left of the 1960s and 1970s longed for small, participatory communities, and rejected the giant organizations that New Deal liberals had taken pride in. In the 1980s and 1990s, new urbanists converted most progressives to their nostalgia for the ephemeral rail-and-trolley based towns of the late nineteenth century. GM foods, which New Deal liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson would have embraced as a way to feed multitudes while sparing land for wilderness, were denounced by progressives who favored “heirloom” turkey and melons that the Pilgrims might have eaten. The increasingly reactionary American left, disenchanted with nuclear power plants and rockets and suburbs, longed to quit modernity and retire to a small town with an organic farmers’ market and an oompah band playing in the town park’s bandstand.

A similar intellectual regression to infantilism took place on the right in the late twentieth century. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, conservatism was defined by big business anti-statism, not by neotraditionalism. The Republican opponents of New Deal Democrats shared the New Dealers’ faith in science, technology and large-scale industry. They just wanted business to keep more of its prerogatives.

Contrast Eisenhower-era business conservatism with the religious right of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other evangelicals and fundamentalists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. By 2000, an entire national party, the Republicans, was intimidated by religious zealots. No Republican presidential candidate could support legal abortion or criticize the pseudoscientific “creationist” alternative to evolutionary biology. Hatred of biotechnology, in the form of GM foods and human genetic engineering, was shared by the regressives of the left and the right. First a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, then a Republican, George W. Bush, sought votes by claiming he had been “born again” with the help of Jesus, something that no president before the 1970s would have claimed.

Today optimism about science and technology is found chiefly on the libertarian right. At least somebody still defends nuclear energy and biotechnology. But in libertarian thought, science and technology are divorced from their modernist counterparts — large-scale public and private organizations — and wedded to ideals of small producers and unregulated markets that were obsolete by the middle of the nineteenth century. Libertarian thought is half-modern, at best. To its credit, it does not share the longing of many on the left for the Shire of Frodo the Hobbit or the nostalgia of most of the contemporary right for the Little House on the Prairie.

If there was a moment when the culture of enlightened modernity in the United States gave way to the sickly culture of romantic primitivism, it was when the movie “Star Wars” premiered in 1977. A child of the 1960s, I had grown up with the optimistic vision symbolized by “Star Trek,” according to which planets, as they developed technologically and politically, graduated to membership in the United Federation of Planets, a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN. When I first watched “Star Wars,” I was deeply shocked. The representatives of the advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization were now the bad guys, and the heroes were positively medieval — hereditary princes and princesses, wizards and ape-men. Aristocracy and tribalism were superior to bureaucracy. Technology was bad. Magic was good.

The Dark Age that began in the 1970s continues. Today’s conservatives, centrists, progressives — most look like regressives, by the standards of mid-20th century America. Tea Party conservatives argue that federal prohibitions on child labor are unconstitutional, that the Fourteenth Amendment should be repealed, and that the Confederates were right about states, rights. Religious conservatives, having lost some of their political power, continue to their fight against Darwinism. Fiscally conservative “centrists” in Washington share an obsession with balanced budgets that would have seemed irrational and primitive not only to Keynes but also to the 19th-century British founder of The Economist, Walter Bagehot. And while there is a dwindling remnant of modernity-minded New Deal social democrats, most of the energy on the left is found on the nostalgic farmers’market/ train-and-trolley wing of the white upper middle class.

Here’s an idea. America needs to have a neomodernist party to oppose the reigning primitivists of the right, left and center. Let everyone who opposes abortion, wants to ban GM foods and nuclear energy, hates cars and trucks and planes and loves trains and trolleys, seeks to ban suburbia, despises consumerism, and/or thinks Darwin was a fraud join the Regressive Party. Those of us who believe that the real, if exaggerated, dangers of technology, big government, big business and big labor are outweighed by their benefits can join the Modernist Party. While the Regressives secede from reality and try to build their premodern utopias on their reservations, the Modernists can resume the work of building a secular, technological, prosperous, and relatively egalitarian civilization, after a half-century detour into a Dark Age.

Cathleen Kaveny at dotCommonweal:

It strikes me that this new two-party system would also leave many Catholics without a home –for obvious reasons, which we DON’T need to discuss here. In other words, THIS IS NOT A POST ON ABORTION.

But the underlying question, which I DO want to discuss here, is what is the Catholic idea on progress?  It strikes me that it is complicated. Any ideas?

Andrew Sullivan

Daniel Larison:

One of the things that Lind’s preferred states all have in common is that they are expansive, bureaucratic, centralized states ruled by autocrats or unaccountable overseers, and they are capable of extracting far larger revenues out of their economies than their successors. Obviously, Lind finds most of these traits desirable, and he seems not terribly bothered by the autocracy. In the case of the UFP, one simply has a technocrat’s utopian post-political fantasy run riot. Indeed, the political organization of the Federation has always struck me as stunningly implausible and unrealistic even by the standards of science fiction. It was supposed to be a galactic alliance with a massive military whose primary purposes were exploration and peacekeeping, and which had overcome all social problems by dint of technological progress. If ever there were a vision to appeal to a certain type of romantic idealists with no grasp of the corrupting nature of power or the limits of human nature, this would have to be it.

Lind’s article is not very persuasive, not least since his treatment of the change from antiquity to the middle ages is seriously flawed. Lind writes:

But few would disagree that the Europe of Charlemagne was more backward in its mindset, at least at the elite level, than the Rome of Augustus or the Alexandria of the Ptolemies.

Nor are the great gains of decolonization and personal liberation in recent decades necessarily incompatible with an intellectual and cultural Dark Age. After all, the fall of the Roman empire led to the emergence of many new kingdoms, nations and city-states, and slavery withered away by the end of the Middle Ages in Europe.

Well, count me among the “few” that would disagree. For one thing, the “Europe of Charlemagne” was also the Europe of the Byzantines, and under both the Carolingians and the Macedonians later in the ninth century there was extensive cultivation of literary and artistic production that significantly undermines claims that this was an “intellectual and cultural Dark Age.” This was an era of substantial manuscript production, and one marked by the learning of Eriugena and Photios. The Carolingian period was actually one of the more significant moments of political reunification in Europe prior to the later middle ages, but it is true that Charlemagne and his successors did not have a large administrative state apparatus at their disposal. The Iconoclastic emperors in the east were hostile to religious images, but in many other respects they cultivated learning and drew on the mathematical and scientific thought that was flourishing at that time among the ‘Abbasids. Obviously, we are speaking of the elite, but it is the elites of different eras that Lind is comparing. The point is not to reverse the old prejudice against medieval Europe and direct it against classical antiquity, nor we do have to engage in Romantic idealization of medieval societies, but we should acknowledge that this approach to history that Lind offers here abuses those periods and cultures that do not flatter the assumptions or values of modern Westerners. For that matter, it distorts and misrepresents the periods and cultures moderns adopt as their precursors, because it causes them to value those periods and cultures because of how they seem to anticipate some aspect of modernity rather than on their own terms.

Ioz on Larison:

I understand that Gene Roddenberry’s retromod vision of the future had Kirk kissing Nichelle Nichols, but even before the stylish sixties gave way to the weird, hierarchical, technocratic dictatorship of The Next Generation, the United Federation of Planets played barely the part of a supernumerary. The governing organization always seemed to be Starfleet, whose motto . . . to boldly go . . . and shoot with lasers . . . Their missions of exploration always seemed to lead to armed conflict, and the bold, interracial, transspecies future had as a model of its money-free, egalitarian, merit-based society something more or less directly descended from the British Admiralty, circa Trafalgar.

Meanwhile, if we must read Star Wars as something other than someone talking that old hack and fraud Joe Campbell a leeeetle bit too seriously, then let me just remind you that the “advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization” was an evil empire run by a cyborg monster and an evil wizard, and that in almost every visual detail its model was not the New goddamn Deal, but the Third fucking Reich.

Ross Douthat:

So here’s my question: What did Lind think of the prequels? Because in a sense, George Lucas addressed nearly all of Lind’s issues with the “Star Wars” universe in movies one through three. (I am bracketing the more creative interpretations of those films …) Queen Amidala of Naboo, Princess Leia’s mother, turned out to be an elected queen, who moved on to senatorial duties after serving out her term as monarch. (How a teenager managed to navigate Naboo’s version of the Iowa caucuses remains a mystery …) The once-mystical Force was given a scientific explanation, in the form of the “midichlorians,” the micro-organisms that clutter up the bloodstream of the Jedi and give them telekinetic powers as a side effect. And the lost Old Republic that the rebels fight to restore in the original films was revealed to be , well, “a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN,” with the Jedi Knights as its peacekeeping force and the lightsaber as the equivalent of the blue helmet.

For Lind, then, I can only assume that watching the prequels was an immensely gratifying experience. And for the rest of us, the knowledge that Lind’s prescription for “Star Wars” helped produce three of the most disappointing science-fiction blockbusters ever made should be reason enough to reject his prescription for America without a second thought.

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Jim Webb Writes An Op-Ed

Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up

Senator Jim Webb at the Wall Street Journal:

Contrary to assumptions in the law, white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy.

The clearest example of today’s misguided policies comes from examining the history of the American South.

The old South was a three-tiered society, with blacks and hard-put whites both dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power. At the height of slavery, in 1860, less than 5% of whites in the South owned slaves. The eminent black historian John Hope Franklin wrote that “fully three-fourths of the white people in the South had neither slaves nor an immediate economic interest in the maintenance of slavery.”

The Civil War devastated the South, in human and economic terms. And from post-Civil War Reconstruction to the beginning of World War II, the region was a ravaged place, affecting black and white alike.

In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt created a national commission to study what he termed “the long and ironic history of the despoiling of this truly American section.” At that time, most industries in the South were owned by companies outside the region. Of the South’s 1.8 million sharecroppers, 1.2 million were white (a mirror of the population, which was 71% white). The illiteracy rate was five times that of the North-Central states and more than twice that of New England and the Middle Atlantic (despite the waves of European immigrants then flowing to those regions). The total endowments of all the colleges and universities in the South were less than the endowments of Harvard and Yale alone. The average schoolchild in the South had $25 a year spent on his or her education, compared to $141 for children in New York.

Generations of such deficiencies do not disappear overnight, and they affect the momentum of a culture. In 1974, a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of white ethnic groups showed that white Baptists nationwide averaged only 10.7 years of education, a level almost identical to blacks’ average of 10.6 years, and well below that of most other white groups. A recent NORC Social Survey of white adults born after World War II showed that in the years 1980-2000, only 18.4% of white Baptists and 21.8% of Irish Protestants—the principal ethnic group that settled the South—had obtained college degrees, compared to a national average of 30.1%, a Jewish average of 73.3%, and an average among those of Chinese and Indian descent of 61.9%.

Policy makers ignored such disparities within America’s white cultures when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith. Also lost on these policy makers were the differences in economic and educational attainment among nonwhite cultures. Thus nonwhite groups received special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.

Where should we go from here? Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.

Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white. The need for inclusiveness in our society is undeniable and irreversible, both in our markets and in our communities. Our government should be in the business of enabling opportunity for all, not in picking winners. It can do so by ensuring that artificial distinctions such as race do not determine outcomes.

Memo to my fellow politicians: Drop the Procrustean policies and allow harmony to invade the public mindset. Fairness will happen, and bitterness will fade away.

Moe Lane at Redstate:

I wonder if the above was the Senatorial equivalent of a mid-life crisis? – Although that’s not nearly self-destructive enough to be a true analogy.  Senator Webb seems to have forgotten that he has a ‘D’ after his name these days, which effectively means that this entire article is thoughtcrime that will pretty much guarantee him a messy primary in 2012.  Progressives do not appreciate thoughtcrime, particularly in their converts: they bought Jimmy Webb in 2006, and they expect their purchases to perform as expected.

Do I sound entertained?  It’s because I am: and I will enjoy every second that Jimmy Webb is broken on the wheel for relapsing into error like this.  And do you know why I will enjoy every second?  Because of ‘macaca,’ that’s why.  Jimmy Webb stood by and calmly, disinterestedly watched as his new owners flash-mobbed his opponent for supposed racism in the 2006 Senatorial election. He did that because Jimmy Webb wanted to be Senator so badly that he was willing to overlook precisely the hyper-emphasis of race that he complains about now; after all, it put him in office, and that was the important thing, right?

So: Jimmy Webb is right in that we need to stop using race as a criterion for public assistance, and that government-operated diversity programs are doing the country no favors.  And I hope to God that the progressive movement uses my agreement – and the rest of the VRWC’s – to utterly destroy Jimmy Webb’s career.

Roger Clegg at NRO:

The good news is that he calls for an end to (almost) all “government-directed diversity programs,” and, less equivocally, declares that “nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white.” Whites are not monolithic, he points out, and neither are nonwhites. All excellent stuff, and his words are especially brave, welcome, and important coming from a leader in the Democratic party. When was the last time a top Democrat said anything like this?

The bad news is that he seems pretty clearly to be leaving the door open to special programs for African Americans, as indeed he has in the past — but, now as then, it’s hard to understand why.

As a good Southern populist, he decries, á la Shirley Sherrod, the exploitation of poor whites and blacks by monied interests. Putting that aside (I don’t think most white Southerners are comfortable as victims), he’s right in his other major point that the original justification of affirmative action forAfrican Americans — who had suffered through slavery and just been liberated from Jim Crow — does not apply very well to members of ethnic minorities who have only recently immigrated to the United States.

But it doesn’t apply very well to African Americans in 2010, either. Senator Webb asserts that blacks “still experience high rates of poverty, drug abuse, incarceration, and family breakup,” but the word “still” is misleading, since the critical one that largely drives the others — illegitimacy — has gotten radically worse, not better, as discrimination has radically diminished.

Consider, in any event, those African Americans who were born in, say, 1992 — the birth year of those now getting college-admissions preferences. Those students are not slaves or former slaves, were not alive under Jim Crow and have never been victims of government discrimination, and were born over a quarter-century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed to protect them from public and private discrimination. Additionally, theAfrican Americans who get these preferences at the more selective universities come overwhelmingly from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, not from impoverished farms or ghettos.

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

It seems to be generating a lot of chatter, some of it critical, on the right. Policy-wise, I’m with Roger Clegg. But I guess I’m more forgiving of Webb’s reluctance to come out against racial preferences for African Americans. First, I think Roger would agree with me that Webb is right that the case for preferences for blacks is morally and historically distinct from, and better than,  the case for preferences for, say, Hmong, Hispanics or Jews. Again, I agree with Roger that the case isn’t persuasive, but it’s considerably more persuasive than other kinds of preferences. Moreover, it’s hardly shocking that a Democrat would feel the need to equivocate on the subject. So, while I’d rather that Webb made a stronger case, I think his case is extremely strong given where his party is these days. Simply by arguing that the diversity racket is bogus, he’s moved the center of gravity on the left considerably rightward. Were he to succeed in persuading his fellow Democrats (inconceivable as far as I can tell), it would be great progress and would do serious damage to race preferences of any kind. So kudos to Webb, I say.

John Cole:

I think a lot of people are missing where Jim Webb is coming from in his op-ed. I’m not going to defend the entire thing, but I think you need to understand that Webb comes from a portion of Appalachia where poverty is so deep, so ingrained, that the idea in those regions that there is some sort of “white privilege” is in fact laughable. To them, the privilege of chronic unemployment, life in a tarpaper shack with no medical care, food stamps but no grocery store, and not much of a future doesn’t look like that great of a deal. And you need to understand, there are a LOT of people in this situation. I regret the way the piece read, and I hate the title, but Webb is talking about addressing the deep-rooted poverty he’s seen his entire life in the back hills of VA, WVA, Kentucky, and elsewhere. I don’t find that message to be much different from the lesson Shirley Sherrod was trying to pass on regarding class v. race. In many regards, I bet Sherrod and Webb would agree.

When a lot of people said the Democratic party “left them” in this region, we’re talking about dirt poor folks who have basically given up on the government. These were the folks that embraced the Democratic party of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt (Eleanor is particularly beloved to this day in rural WV), to them, the Democrats of today really are no different than Republicans in their indifference toward the poor and working poor, and they end up voting on social issues. Tom Franks said a thing or two about this. There really is no one fighting for unions any more. Show me a Democrat that is different from a Republican on coal in WV and I’ll show you an unelected Democrat.

Again, I think the way the piece read will rub a lot of people the wrong way, and that is was in the WSJ makes it a hard pill to swallow for a lot of us, but I don’t think for a minute Webb meant to claim that minorities have not suffered.

Nsenga K. Burton at The Root:

Virginia Senator James Webb has made no bones about his disdain for affirmative action programs and policies. The Democrat believes that affirmative action programs marginalize whites and that “white privilege” is largely a myth. Webb’s views about affirmative action caused controversy during his 2006 run. In a Wall Street Journal book review written in 2000, he stated that affirmative action “has within one generation brought about a permeating state-sponsored racism that is as odious as the Jim Crow laws it sought to countermand.” Since he sounds like a Republican and a Tea Party member, the reintroduction of this topic via a Wall Street Journal op-ed is a great way to rally the troops, especially in a state like Virginia. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: There is a reason the Democrats used to be called Dixiecrats.

James Joyner:

While I don’t disagree with the premise, I’m not sure what policy conclusion one reaches.   I fully agree and have long argued that using race as the sole criterion for policy preference should end.  But, surely, we don’t want to create new categories, such as “Scotch-Irish Sons of Confederate Veterans,” for special treatment.   We could target based on poverty, perhaps with some sort of regional cost of living adjustments.

I like the concept of “enabling opportunity for all.”  But what does that mean in practice?   Do we Federalize education?  Under our current system, which is typically funded by local property taxes, children in poor communities are trapped in poorly funded schools.   That’s doubly true if surrounding communities are also poor.   And this gets compounded by the fact that poor families are more likely to be single-parent families with households headed by poorly educated, young people too tired to give their kids’ education much attention and poorly equipped to do much good, anyway.   How do we break this cycle through the government?

Kevin Drum:

Class-based program programs might, in the end, provide modestly less help for ethnic minorities than current policies — though well-designed ones might not. But they have some advantages too. For one thing, they help poor people. That’s worthwhile all by itself. (Kahlenberg quotes William Benn Michael as noting acidly that currently the debate in higher education is mostly about what color skin the rich kids will have.) Beyond that, there’s another benefit: for all the good it does, there’s no question that race-based affirmative action has drawbacks as well. It makes employers suspicious of minority graduates, wondering if their degrees were really fairly earned. It provokes a backlash among working class whites. And it’s open to abuse on a number of fronts. Class-based programs don’t solve all these problems at a stroke, but they go a long way toward addressing them

Would it be possible for us to adopt class-based programs? One obstacle, I think, is the insistence of conservatives on refusing to even admit that racism is a problem anymore. It’s become practically a truism on the right that racism is a thing of the past, nothing more than a convenient whipping boy to be exploited by race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who prey on liberal guilt and federal largesse. This is just poisonous. There’s no way that blacks or any other ethnic minority will ever take conservative complaints at face value if they flatly refuse to concede that there’s even a problem left to be addressed.

This isn’t normally a subject I write much about. I’ve done only modest reading about it, and my personal background — middle class white guy born and raised in Orange County — obviously doesn’t give me any valuable personal insight. But the status quo has done, and continues to do, a lot of damage to all sides. It’s probably a fantasy to think that there’s any progress to be made in our current fever swamp atmosphere, but a conservative concession on the reality of race as a continuing problem — think racial profiling, penal system injustices, health system disparities, etc. — combined with a liberal concession on emphasizing class much more than we have in the past, would almost certainly be a step forward.

UPDATE: Michael Lind in Salon

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