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Neo-Calvinism

In a nutshell, the idea that the accretion of status (usually as wealth and power) is an indicator of moral worth. May or may not be associated with conventional religious moral principles.

Bruce Fein: Snobby Conservative Elitists Like Me Are The Only True Judges Of Exceptionality

Bruce Fein is getting his ducks in order to say "I-told-you-so":

None of the presidential or vice presidential candidates would have been worthy of the constitutional convention of 1787 or the Federalist Papers, the high-water mark of political erudition and profundity in more than a thousand years. Among other things, they all subscribe to the delusions that the government can outfox the efficiencies of free markets; that the United States can be made safer and freer by sacrificing the lives and limbs of tens of thousands of American soldiers abroad and squandering hundreds of billions of dollars in quixotic adventures to transform incorrigibly tribal or feudal societies into friendly secular democracies; and, that international terrorism justifies a permanent global war crowning the president with perpetual war powers, including the authority to detain American citizens as "enemy combatants" for life without accusation or charge; to spy on Americans without warrants in contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; and, to employ waterboarding against detainees with impunity.

Translation #1: "Those Founding Father guys were, like, total gods, dude. Like, I read that their shit didn't even smell bad!"

Alternate Translation: "Don't blame me -- I voted for Kodos!"

Anyway, those are all strong statements Fein's making. Mostly false, and obviously so, and where not false, off the point:

  • The people who were there at the constitutional Convention of 1787 weren't "worthy" of it; and in any case, would certainly not be "worthy" to face the challenges we face now. We face our challenges with what we have, not with what we wish we had. (Don Rumsfeld got that much right.)
  • The Free Market is not a god, and it's not a law of nature, Fein and the Marketistas contentions to the contrary notwithstanding. We make choices about how our society is to be structured, and right now, the dominant choices are favoring Marketism. That was not always the case and there is no reason to suppose it will always continue to be in the future.
  • At least Obama, and arguably also Biden, have been quite clear in their belief that sacrificing the lives and limbs of Americans overseas does not make us safer, and if Fein were being honest he'd admit that he knows that.
  • Similarly, it's not at all clear that Obama and Biden support the continuation of Presidential war powers. But I'll just argue that Fein is too strong on this point, since neither Obama nor Biden has explicitly said they'll roll them back.
  • Both Obama and Biden have, though, been clear that the FISA must be honored by the next President, and ought to be honored by the current one.
  • Finally, Obama for his part has been quite clear (and I actually believe McCain would probably backtrack to his older, more ethically-grounded position on this once he was in office) that torture is simply not acceptable.

Moreover, this is all stuff that Fein should know if he's been paying attention, and if he's not been paying attention, there's absolutely no reason anybody should listen to his opinon on anything of consequence. So, what's the point of this exercise in late-term sour grapes?

It has to be so that Fein claim blamelessness and moral high-ground. He's pretending this is really about "mediocrity", it's really about America not turning to its elites anymore. There may actually be some wisdom in such a view -- but Fein's got no ground to stand on, since he doesn't actually know what the real capabilities of the candidates actually are. He hasn't allowed himself to see them. Other discerning people have looked at Obama, for example, and seen a confident, capable politician -- as qualified to lead America as, say, John Adams or Abraham Lincoln at the time of their ascension. What had they "run"? What could we look at in their records to say that they had the "experience" required?

The answers are all questions of either the good fortunate to participate in momentous decisions (in Adams' case), or in a judgement of character based on reputation and rhetoric (in the case of Lincoln). Neither had "executive experience" of any kind prior to assuming office. But in Fein's worldview, they're unassailable giants. What he's blind to is the fact that their stature is a matter of hindsight (and what I like about these examples is that either one would readily admit as much -- well, maybe not Adams, since his stature is really only now being so elevated). 

What this is really all about is that Fein's not getting to specify who's "exceptional." (Which is a damn good thing, since he's clearly got some problems with seeing what's actually going on in the world.) What this is really all about is that Fein's opinion isn't coinciding with the direction the electorate wants to go.

What's really going on is that there are these kids playing on (what Fein thinks is) his lawn, and he wants them to pull up their pants and show him some deference, dammit.

Which they might be willing do, if it wasn't clear that he isn't interested in actually listening to anyone else's opinions.

Before Bruce Fein expects anyone to take him seriously as a credible arbiter of who's exceptional and who's not, he should first demonstrate that we ought to listen to him (by showing he's been paying attention), and that he's got some  awareness of actual history (by recognizing that people were often as small, petty and unprepared in the past as they are now). Until then, he's just a snobby, snooty conservative elitist.

The Nordlinger Effect

Those wacky NRO guys -- Jay Nordlinger has spent a weekend in Vermont, and now he Understands The Noble Working Man:

.... here’s how I understand it: Modestly off people — “real Vermonters,” as some people say — are voting for McCain and Palin. Comfortably off people, such as those who own ski chalets, are voting for Obama and Biden. And the following has been frequently noted about the city of my residence, New York: The rich are voting Democratic. And those who work for them — driving cars, cleaning rooms, and so on — are voting Republican.

(I guess we know what "the math" is, now.)

Commenter Landon at Matthew Yglesias's blog describes this as the Nordlinger Effect:

The Nordlinger Effect is when non-rich people respond they’re voting like the rich jerk asking them who they’re voting for just so he’ll shut up and leave them alone.

For his part, Yglesias himself has pointed (unnecessarily) to the work of Andrew Gelman to demonstrate that rich folks in poor states (like Vermont) do in fact tend to vote for Republicans, while poor folks in poor states (like Vermont) do in fact tend to vote Democratic. Others in Yglesias's comment thread take the trouble to note (among other things) that you're not a real Vermonter unless you're born there (at least), all the ski chalets are owned by "flatlanders" from Connecticut, Massachusetts and NY (who won't be voting in Vermont, anyway), and that all the actual data demonstrates amply that "Vermonters of modest means" will be voting overwhelmingly for Obama. (As for housekeeping staff voting Republican: If he believes that, I've got this bridge I'd love to sell him...)

And how the hell Jay Nordlinger can use the phrase "of modest means" without blushing, I don't know. Maybe it's an internal manifestation of the Nordlinger Effect: Jay telling Jay what Jay wants to hear, so his brain will leave him alone.

, nordlinger effect

... In fact, Joe Wurzelbacher is a flat-out shill.

He's a registered Republican, who appears to have voted in the Ohio primary (in which most Republicans apparently stayed home or voted Democratic because McCain was unopposed), and (and this is the best part) he's 'closely related' to Robert Wurzelbacher, son-in-law of Charles Keating, and former VP of Lincoln Savings and Loan parent company American Continental. I'm sure we all remember Charles Keating.

Steve Schmidt is supposed to gone ballistic as soon as he heard the guy's name. So I can actually believe this was not a plant at all.

I'm just dying to hear Joe the Plumber spin about how he really was undecided, and he really wasn't just pretending to be an independent to sucker Obama into pandering to him. Instead of giving him a detailed and honest answer to his question.

So, Joe, I hope you enjoy your 15, because, yes, we do now get to see how good of a tap-dancer you are.


(It's so easy to forget just how damn good Sammy Davis and Gregory Hines were. Joe's got some serious shoes to fill.)

Joe Wurzelbacher is kind of not such an honest guy, it turns out...

Ohio's voter registration deadline has passed Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher by, and he's not actually registered to vote. So you have to wonder how sincere his question was. Fortunately, he's given us something to go on in that regard:

JOE WURZELBACHER: Initially, I started off asking him if he believed in the American Dream and he said yes, he does — and then I proceeded to ask him then why he’s penalizing me for trying to fulfill it. He asked, “what do you mean,” and I explained to him that I’m planning on purchasing this company — it’s not something I’m gonna purchase outright, it’s something I’m going to have to make payments on for years — but essentially I’m going to buy this company, and the profits generated by that could possibly put me in that tax bracket he’s talking about and that bothers me. It’s not like I would be rich; I would still just be a working plumber. I work hard for my money, and the fact that he thinks I make a little too much that he just wants to redistribute it to other people. Some of them might need it, but at the same time, it’s not their discretion to do it — it’s mine.

...

PM: Now did Obama tell you that you would receive some sort of tax cut?

JW: He talked about suspending capital gains to a certain amount… To be honest with you, I don’t want to say I tuned him out — because as he started, he pretty much regurgitated what he said in his debate, first one, second one, and a lot of his rallies. What he said to me was pretty much word for word what he’s been saying for the last couple months. So when he started down that path, it’s like, ”Okay, I’ve already heard this, Obama, give me something different.”

PM: There was nothing new in his answer?

JW: No, there was nothing new. You know, I didn’t appreciate that, actually.

...

PM: Do you think your question surprised Obama, caught him off guard at all?

JW: Well that was actually my intent. Most people, you ask them “do you believe in the American Dream?” Nine times out of ten they’ll sit there and go, “Yeah, of course!” That’s where he messed up, because as soon as I asked him that, his answer shows that he doesn’t believe in the American Dream. You know, like the question you asked before — he pretty much contradicted himself. “I don’t want to punish you but — “ Well, you’re going to anyways.

So, Joe, the point of the question was to give yourself a platform for making a statement about your own beliefs, not to inform your choice as a voter by actually finding out what Obama's were -- you already knew that, so when he told you, you tuned it out. Fair enough. We live in a culture where attention-whoring is regarded as not just a valid lifestyle choice, but everyone's god-given duty. (It's one of the ways that Americans tell if they're members of the elect. And like the good neo-Calvinist you seem to be, what's most important to you is that everyone see that you are among that elect.)

But at least pretend to be honest about it, OK?

But hey -- he sounds just like a pundit, so I guess he's doing something right.

ADDENDUM: He might be registered, after all, as a Republican. But there's so much more to this story it deserves a new lead....

Is Obama more of a Maoist, or more of a Stalinist? You decide!

@ National Review Online, they're busily debating whether Obama is more of a Maoist or a Stalinist. (Andrew Sullivan: "Yes, they're that crazy.")

Second, and relatedly, Obama's radicalism, beginning with his Alinski/ACORN/community organizer period, is a bottom-up socialism.  This, I'd suggest, is why he fits comfortably with Ayers, who (especially now) is more Maoist than Stalinist.  What Obama is about is infiltrating (and training others to infiltrate) bourgeois institutions in order to change them from within — in essence, using the system to supplant the system.  A key requirement of this stealthy approach (very consistent with talking vaporously about "change" but never getting more specific than absolutely necessary) is electability.  With an enormous assist from the media, which does not press him for specifics, Obama has walked this line brilliantly.  Absent convincing retractions of his prior radical positions, though, we should construe shrewd moves like the ostensibly reasonable Second Amendment position as efforts make him electable. [sic]

This is why Ayers is so important:  it is a peek behind the curtain of Obama's rhetoric.  When he talks about "education reform," that sounds admirable and, given the state of the schools, entirely reasonable.  But when you look at what the Obama/Ayers program really tried to do to the schools (see, e.g., Stanley's work on this), it is radical.  With a guy who speaks in euphemisms — "change," "social justice," "due process," etc. — it is vital to have concrete examples of how these concepts are put into action.

What's interesting to me is how simply and cleanly this translates to "any change from within that we don't like is socialism." Because you know damn well that if they were talking about infiltrating government with radical conservatives, as was done during the Bush and Reagan years, it would be regarded as righteous.

Even though, in socialist terms, it would still be an infiltration of bourgeois institutions. Most of these radical conservatives have never really understood that they, too, were struggling against the bourgeoisie.

Of course, this totally leaves aside the fact that he hasn't actually established either a) an ideological or policy connection between Ayers and Obama, or b) provided any of the "concrete examples" he thinks would be helpful (despite citing Stanley Kurtz's content-free "work").

Sullivan's right: These guys are crazy.

Schizoid Conservative Moralism

I've always found it both ironic and unsurprising that American Conservatives are simultaneously raunchier and more puritanical than liberals. Cases in point? Sarah Palin sells herself on sex and motherhood, combining a tailored suit with fuck-me boots and winking like a Hooters hostess at all the horny little conservative boys out in TV land. Meanwhile, Fox news appeals to the Supreme Court for the right to use obscenity and consistently pushes out the most violent and sexually suggestive shows on broadcast TV, while simultaneously bankrolling harradins of culture war like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.

If you were raised in a moderately conservative church, there's a good chance that you encountered some variation of the Preacher's Kid. On the face, they're perfect Christian sons and daughters, in the pew with straight back and perfect grooming and butter wouldn't melt in their mouth -- it's all "yes, ma'am," and "no, sir," and "what would Jesus do?"

But once the adults are out of sight, they're grabbing the bottle and giving out a big fat wink before they take a long, hard pull and beckon for a hit off the joint. Then it's off to deflower a virgin or get nasty with that smoker-boy in the leather jacket.

Any convention-city prostitute can tell you that the Republicans are the kinky ones, and they can also tell you why: It's the repression. They want to both please and resist mommy and daddy at the same time. They want to be both bad and good. They're the Preacher's Kid writ on grand scale.

On moral culpability for the killing of civilians

John McCain, February 15, 2000:

"In the most obscene chapter in recent American history is the conduct of the Kosovo conflict when the president of the United States refused to prepare for ground operations, refused to have air power used effectively because he wanted them flying -- he had them flying at 15,000 feet where they killed innocent civilians because they were dropping bombs from such -- in high altitude."

Barack Obama, 2008:

 "We've got to get the job done there and that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there."

The difference is obvious, really: The President that McCain's talking about is Bill Clinton, who on top of being a Democrat and a draft dodger is a moral degenerate. The President Obama's talking about is a Republican and a staunch lip-service defender of morality. Puritan that he is, McCain of course would and could see no equivalence between these statements.

At a more subtle level, look at the language that's being deployed. In McCain's version, it's all about obscenity and moral condemnation. In Obama's version, it's all about pragmatism. When you start to look at it that way, Obama can look kind of cold and calculating. It's interesting that instead of pursuing that angle (which Democratic competitors found very fruitful during the primaries), McCain projects into it his own passionate moral condemnation. Couldn't have anything to do with his personal history behind the stick of an attack bomber in Vietnam.

[Via the Washington Times, of all places.]

At 4,800 female residents, that's how many rapes per year?

From the Boston Globe story about the idea that the town of Wasilla made rape victims pay to report a rape, this paragraph caught my attention:

After the Alaska Legislature banned the fees, Palin's handpicked police chief, Charlie Fannon, complained that the state's action would force the town to spend $5,000 to $14,000 a year to cover the costs. "I just don't want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer," Fannon said.

Now, supposedly the town didn't actually charge people to report rapes (by billing them for the rape kit that you'd have to use in order to actually get a rape charge to stick). That's actually not what I'm interested in, here: What I'm interested in are the rape statistics implicit in Charlie Fannon's statement.

Let's do some math. Now, I know that medical supplies and procedures are expensive under the current American medical system, so let's be conservative and assume that the real cost to the town for the billable parts of a rape kit are $200 each. That works out to between 25 and 70 reported rapes per year in the town of Wasilla, based on Fannon's cost estimates. That's in a town which might possibly have as many as 4,800 female residents, depending on whose demographic data you accept.

How does that compare with national averages?

The most recent data I could quickly find is from 1998, for a sexual assault rate (incidence of actual penetrative rape would be lower) of 34.4 per 100,000 persons. Roughly estimating, that's about .03% (math corrections welcome). With a total population of about 9,600, given 25 to 70 reported rapes per year, the town of Wasilla has a rape-rate of between about .3% and .7% -- that makes Wasilla's rape rate between 10 and 20 times higher than the national average for 1998, or about 260 to 730 per 100,000 persons.

What the hell are they smoking up there?

[Correcting my math.]

Thought for the moment: Katrina as God's Punishment on the Poor

Question: How do you tell if someone is going to get help after hurricane Katrina?
Answer: Find out if they were actually in the hurricane. If so, probably not.

I've been thinking about something. There's a very important and simple difference between the people who are getting help and the people who are not: The ones who are getting help were able to drive to safety; the ones who are not, were stuck in harms way.

Put another way: If you're middle class, the probability is that you're getting help; if you're poor, the probability is much higher that you're not.

Very soon after Katrina hit on Monday morning, there were hundreds of Army and National Guard trucks en route to the Gulf Coast, loaded with MREs and fresh water. Where did they go? Why, they went where the refugees were: Places like Baton Rouge.

But they didn't go to New Orleans. Obviously, it would have been harder to get in to New Orleans, but you would think they'd be prepared to mobilize a few Blackhawks and Chinooks to airlift in a few palettes of drinking water and MREs to those highway flyovers poking up above the floodwaters. (That is, if those Blackhawks and Chinooks weren't half a world away enforcing a schoolyard-bully foreign policy.) But no: Instead, they went to places that already had a functioning infrastructure, where, though it would have meant some hardship, locals would have doubtless chipped in to help.

The semiotics of this aren't that simple, of course. There's already an undercurrent of discontent at the idea that people who made the "choice" to stay in a place like New Orleans need to be taught a "hard lesson". (You don't need to look to the web for this -- just keep your ears open.) And then of course there's the symbolism of washing away "Sin City South" in a deluge. Anyone still there, must be part of the mess that God wanted to wash away.

"Voluntary Personal Savings Account"

How do conservatives manage to support the Bushite Nanny State and still sleep at night? They should at least be a little restive over the fact that their children have such weak and gullible parents.

I think that as we permanently solve the system, that we ought ot make it a better deal for younger workers by allowing younger workers to take some of their own payroll taxes and set it aside in what is called a voluntary personal savings account.
[President G. W. Bush, speaking in Greece, NY, 2005-05-24; listen to mp3 stream / download mp3]

Huh. I thought they already could. Don't we have these things called "IRAs" and "401Ks"? Or, for that matter -- "savings accounts"? You'd think the President didn't know about those. Maybe he just forgets -- from moment to moment:

Don't you like the idea of -- I mean, some of you have got 401Ks, and you open up your statement every month. Don't you like the idea of a statement?
[President G. W. Bush, speaking in Greece, NY, 2005-05-24]

More to the current conservative mania: How does George Bush deal with the cognitive dissonance of his party stumping by proxy for the will of the majority while he so strenuously attempts to force his own will upon the people? After all, as David Greene at NPR reminds us [RealAudio], the President's "60 day campaign" just passed day 84 with yesterday's visit to Rochester....

Most Of The People, Some Of The Time, Redux, Etc.

"Judicial activism" is a funny term. It seems that now, when Judges behave conservatively (as in, conserving clearly delineated constitutional rights), that's "activism" -- especially if it requires that the judge point out the simple Lincolnesque truth, that it's possible to fool most of the people for long enough to get a really dangerously sweeping proposition passed into law.

Case in point: Nebraska's version of the boilerplate "Defense of Marriage" act has been struck down as federally unconstitutional in two distinct and sufficient ways: It "creates a significant barrier to the plaintiffs' right to petition or to participate in the political process" and "imposes significant burdens on both the expressive and intimate associational rights" of gays, lesbians, and potentially anyone who wants to form a legally binding association that's not a state-sanctioned "marriage" between a "man" and a "woman."

Like, say, shacking up. Or signing a palimony agreement. Between straights.

The Neo-Calvinists and their fellow-travellers keep talking about the fact that "over 70% of Nebraskans" decided to support the measure "defining marriage as between a man and a woman" after being barraged with highly charged advertisements and exhortations from the (real or virtual) pulpit for weeks to months. What really happened is that "over 70% of Nebraskans" decided to support a measure that they clearly did not understand. They didn't understand, for example, that it would radically restrict the rights of foster parents, unmarried opposite-sex domestic partners, persons in power-of-attorney relationships, non-custodial parents, and so on.

What really happened is that "over 70% of Nebraskans" got conned.

If it weren't for the fact that it would require abrogating the US Constitution, I'd be inclined to let Nebraska, Kansas and the rest of the virtual bible-belt just slide back into the dark ages. Politicized evangelism has far, far greater potential to destroy this nation than racial issues have had at any time in the last 40 years. Racial issues have at least been constrained: By notions of decency (no mainstream white could use the "N" word without censure), and by commonly-held economic desires (almost everybody wants the American Dream, and almost everybody is willing to see that, even about classes of people for whom they have contempt). Religious issues are not so constrained: When it's a religious issue, your opposition is evil, pure and simple -- believe that, or be damned. End of discussion. Please leave the church by the side door, so you don't soil the earth your neighbors have to walk on.

But [un?]fortunately, we do all have to live together in this country. We don't get to let them live in the mediaeval hell they seem determined to create. Not the least reason being that the virtual belt isn't limited to big square red states -- it harms people in places like Michigan and Connecticut who've never done any harm to anyone by being so immoral (or so unfortunate in their sexual orientation) as to dare to co-habitate without the benefit of state-sanctioned marriage.

So we don't get to let them sleep in the bed they've made. But we don't have to let them make us sleep in it, either.

Who Needs A Majority When You've Got Righteousness?

Forget about resisting the tyranny of the majority. We're past that. Right-wing Republicans are looking to lock in the tyranny of a minority.

People in both parties, but most notably currently prominent Republicans, are saying there's still hay to be made on the Schiavo case. Democrats say that it can be used to galvanize opposition to the planned Republican takeover of the judiciary branch. Republicans say that it 'energizes the base' -- where the definition of "base" seems to be "hard-core right-to-life Evangelical Christian Republicans." The most wildly exaggerated numbers I know of put that at about 25% of the American population.

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, on Morning Edition this morning [RealAudio], says they're both wrong: That if there had really been an opportunity there, smart Democratic legislators would have jumped on it; and that, furthermore, Republicans had gone too far. "You know, there is a difference between energizing your base, and having your base push you off the edge.... Was it that we needed to prove to the middle, the middle of American politics, that we were willing to go someplace place that they didn't want us to go? How many times can you do that and still be successful politically?"

Republican lion and Episcopelian minister John Danforth agrees. He notes that "traditional Republicans" have complained about the courts going too far. "Most republicans would have said, 'We think that the courts go too far.' Now, it turns out that it's Republicans who are saying that we want the courts to go very far, but in our direction, and I just think that's wrong."

I'd like to think that both Danforth and Fabrizio are right, in their own ways. Danforth's view implies a basic belief that people ought to be morally consistent: That means ought to be consistent with the end, not merely contributory to it. Further, he's clearly a real believer in a pluralistic society. Fabrizio states his view in pragmatic terms, with the clear underlying assumption that it's normal for a nation to be comprised of people with differing views. (If you can dictate people's views, you don't need to worry about being "successful politically.")

But they're both wrong, at least in pragmatic terms. The Republican train is being driven by people who don't see a problem with means that are contrary to the end, or with the idea that the nation ought to bend to their will. Voices of moderation, even when conservative, are no longer welcome. They get in the way of the program, which is to let the Republican Party (by which they mean the intensely activist religious right component) install hegemonic control over American discourse.

Their will is a holy will, after all. Whether it's all the same religion is another question; all that really matters is that one (the religion of power and capital) can be translated into the ends of the other (semitic absolutism, as manifest in right-wing American Christianity).

What Is Neo-Calvinism?

In a nutshell: Neo-Calvinism is Smith's and Weber's Iron Cage. Except that instead of holding the Neo-Calvinists, it restrains the lesser beings that would trouble them -- namely, the poor.

More prosaically, "Neo-Calvinism" is the idea that the rich are more morally worthy than the poor. Their wealth does not confer virtue -- rather, it signifies it. It is the most potent and dangerous of several modern Capitalist sects, because it unifies moral righteousness with an ideology of power.

Calvin, along with notable reformation successors like Martin Luther, believed that a person's salvation was predestined: God (being infallible, omnipresent, omniscient, etc.) had determined in His own time that you or I should be saved or damned. Nothing that we do in our lives can affect that; the decision is already made. In pure Calvinism, this doesn't let you off the hook for moral behavior, because moral behavior is said to be an indicator of your fate.

So good people are good not because they do good things, but because God said they were. "Goodness" is merely an indicator.

As is prosperity. Wesley once famously lamented that as Methodists lived good lives (rising early, working hard, practicing thrift and sobriety), they tended to prosper -- which had the unfortunate side effect of causing them to focus on that worldly prosperity.

Neo-calvinism essentially forgets about God, and makes commerce itself the religion. Prosperity is still a signifier of moral worth -- but instead of being a secondary signifier, it's primary. It indicates stronger character, superior "fitness." It's a close kin to Greedism, but it's more powerful because it marshalls concepts like virtue and fairness to its service. It's related to Objectivism -- and I daresay most Objectivists are Neo-Calvinists -- but it permits a spiritual dimension that can be lacking amongst Randians.

Neo-calvinists are everywhere, all around us. Wherever you find someone who cries "It's not fair!" when they notice that the wealthy pay proportionally greater taxes than the poor, you have found a Neo-Calvinist or one of his fellow-travellers.

Most of the people, most of the time is good enough

Or bad enough, depending on your point of view. And it's most fun if you can fool yourself while you're at it. The tutor points out this morning that most Americans are pretty profoundly confused about what's good for them:.

We live in a democracy where most of those on the verge of bankruptcy are more concerned to repeal the Death Tax on estates above $2 mil, than they are with preserving their own home when their credit card debt catches up with them. This is a testimony to the relative power of marketing versus education. Who can blame Congress for making an honest buck off the passing of bills? Meanwhile, the media look more and more like the WB Studio Productions, what in the trade actors call "Industrials."

My point of view is from the bottom. Or down below, at least, if not on the rocks. I made a bunch of money last year; but I've made hardly any this year, and that's much more typical. I'll freely admit, that if I got badly sick, I'd be pretty screwed.

The really fun and interesting thing about all of this oppobrium about deadbeat consumers who are ruining America is that it's the culture of over-consumption that these people exemplify that keeps America going. Responsible consumption would destroy the American way of life faster and more certainly than any market crash. So the forces of Right are really fooling themselves, too, if they actually think that this is at all about helping the economy. Personal bankrupcy is the expansion grid on the American economy.

So clearly, that's not what it's really about. It's about a long-range re-solidification of the American economic class structure. The class structure broke apart in the 20th century, and (excepting the 1920s) especially since 1950. It became possible for working class families to reliably place their children into the middle and upper-middle classes; now, those at the upper end of that spectrum would like to solidify their hold on the higher strata of neo-calvinist blessedness by setting skid-traps to the underclass: Below a certain threshhold, any wrong step can take you all the way back down. And once you're down, those new bankrupcy laws will make damn sure you don't get out.

But this is America. And in America, anything is possible. The longer the odds, the bigger and sweeter seems the dream.

The Imaginary Terri Schiavo

Imaginary people make much better martyrs.

Case in point: Terri Schiavo. The appeals are finally exhausted; Terri Schiavo is dead, unequivocally, unappealably. And we've just begun to see the consequences. Quite aside from the impending wrongful-death suit (which will be brought regardless of the results from the forthcoming autopsy, to be performed by a Jeb Bush appointee), the fight has catalyzed a constituency. It's given bullshit artists like Tom Delay (that old exterminator) a soapbox to stand on. Note, as we go forward, the endless repetition of their Big Lies: That the "American People" are behind the reckless Conservative-Republican adventurism; that the case shows improper involvement by the courts, instead of the courts doing their jobs by (perish the thought!) making judgements.

What was this case about? It certainly wasn't about whether one person would have preferred to have her body die; it passed beyond that threshold years ago. It passed beyond that when Bob and Mary Schindler concocted a "person" they called "Terri Schiavo", and identified her with their daughter, and pasted her face over their daughter's face whenever they saw her limbic-brained body in that bed. The "Terri Schiavo" that Bob and Mary struggled so hard to defend was not their daughter, but their dream of their daughter, or at least the best dream they could muster under the circumstances.

And she was a perfect daughter, in many ways: She didn't talk back, never contradicted their version of her life's narrative, never corrected their inventions about what she might be thinking at that moment. Or have thought when she was eight, for that matter.

It certainly wasn't about what the real Terri Schiavo's wishes might have been. What they are, I can't know, and I daresay Michael Schiavo can't know for sure. But judges have been evaluating the matter for seven years and not found a reason to suspect that she wanted her body to remain alive long after she'd lost the capacity to engage in detectable interactions with other people.

True, Michael can't have known for sure; but her parents -- surely they must have known?

Why? Why would we suppose that? My own parents wouldn't have the faintest idea what I'd want in such a situation. For practical purposes, they know nothing of real substance about me that they didn't know before I was eight. I could name four or five close friends, a handful of ex-lovers and seven or eight not-so-close friends who'd have a better idea.

So, no, it's got nothing to do with Terri's wishes. But it's got a great deal to do with how her parents imagine her wishes -- with the wishes of their fictional Terri, as it were.

And Jeb and George Bush's and Randall Terry's and Tom Delay's fictional Terri. Which is the real obscenity, here, of course. If it were just Bob and Mary, it would be a tragedy. And anyway, their version of Terri is at least based on something real. But with Jeb & George & Randall & Tom in the game, any hope of the real Terry S. being remembered are completely gone. She's doomed to be immortalized as an abstracted martyr for the cause of eliminating secular justice.

Sometime In 2004, Blogs Became Commercial

It's just that relatively few people have realized it, yet. As I so often say: When there's big money involved, the alternate modalities will be co-opted. (Or crushed.) Even more than information wants to be free, money wants to make more money. We're now sitting in that fragile cusp (oh, hell, we may be past it) where the "winners" of the next gold-rush will be decided. It's not a huge gold rush -- not yet -- but in its own way, it will be just as hokum-driven as the dotcom boom.

I know this because I bothered to do some simple math with numbers in a news story about American blogging habits. From Britain, of all places. A friend pointed me to the BBC's obligatory popular rundown on what a blog is and why their readers should care, combined with a little bit of exoticism regarding us cousins. The article relies heavily on a report from Pew Internet and American Life Project; it's thin on details, but the do provide us with a helpful bullet list in their sidebar:

  • Blog readership has shot up by 58% in 2004
  • Eight million have created a blog
  • 27% of online Americans have read a blog
  • 5% use RSS aggregators to get news and other information
  • 12% of online Americans have posted comments on blogs
  • Only 38% of online Americans have heard about blogs

By implication (according to the sidebar), of Americans who've heard of blogs (38% of online Americans), 71% have read read them (27% of online Americans -- 27/38=.71); and a bit less than half of those have gone on to post comments (12% of online Americans -- 12/27=.44). (Less interesting, but more impressive: about 30% of people who've heard of blogs have posted comments...) Interesting. If taken at face value (which wouldn't be a good idea), that means almost half of people who've read blogs have posted comments to them. Before we even start to think about commercial applications, that may well represent a radical increase in the population of people participating in online forums.

But here's the real meat: When they saw those numbers in the sidebar, direct marketing people in the reading audience (who eat, sleep and breathe much more complex math than that) were drooling on their keyboards. Consider that a direct mail campaign is regarded as doing very, very well at 5% response. These are not numbers to swing elections as a constituency; but they are well into "thought-leader" territory. These blog readers are high-throughput nodes. They're the folks who spread Jib-Jab movies and forwarded the Kick Osama Butt song. At least, that's how the consultants will spin it.

Also quite interesting: Almost a fifth of people who've "read a blog" (5% of online Americans) use RSS readers to aggregate blog content. RSS readers by their definition identify regular readers, so something in excess of about 20% of blog-readers are regular blog-readers. And the stream of drool intensifies.

You have to actually do some math to sort all that out, mind; I think they're probably better at it over there, but I wonder if they weren't actively hiding those numbers by not crunching the numbers. (In America, I'd just go for ignorance -- I don't have much faith that our reporters have the math skills to calculate a proportion.)

I can honestly say that I never thought blogging was a fad. But I will go out on a limb (not that I have to go very far) and say that "podcasting" was dead before it started. Or, at least, the meaning of the term will change. "Podcasting" will come to be the audio equivalent of "TiVO", as we start to see those forthcoming gizmos that let folks TiVO-ize satellite-radio broadcasts. They'll start as special attachments for iPods. (Perhaps even as an iPod itself -- though I don't think Apple will go that far. It would hurt iTunes sales.) Then they'll spread to other music players ("there are music players besides the iPod?!"). Podcasting as we currently know it will die a quick and inglorious death, mourned only by the people who hoped to have their name forever attached to the term.

Blogging has previously never really been at an equivalent risk. The technical barriers to entry are low: A decent secondary education and enough disposable income to afford $10/mo or less in hosting fees. They face very little competition. (Well, except for newspaper columnists. What are those? Well, um, they're these folks who'd regularly get their "blogs" printed in newspapers. See, these newspapers, they're printed on really big paper, so everything is in columns, and a columnist would get one column out of six on the page... ... Newspapers. They print them, on paper, and sell them to people so they can carry them around and read them.... How do they know how many to print? They don't. A lot get wasted. Yes, I know that's a waste...)

How To Keep the Proles Stupid, And Feel Good Doing It

Problem: You're a school administrator who's being judged on your graduation rate; at the same time, you're having your resources depleted, and you're losing the capability to improve that graduation rate. What do you do?

Solution: Persuade the bad students to drop out. That seems to be the method of choice in Orange County, Florida, at least according to a special report [streaming video avalable at transcript page] on Tuesday's News Hour. Here's how it works:

  1. You identify the students most likely to fail.
  2. You then go to those students, and tell them all about the GED program. (And don't miss the opportunity to mentiont that attendance is optional -- not that something like that would matter to 16-17 year old kids...)
  3. The students think it's a really sweet deal (hell, it gets them away from school, and legally, too), so they withdraw from school (in Florida parlance thats a "code W26").
  4. Once they go W26, they're officially no longer part of your statistics -- and you've immediately improved your graduation rate, really dramatically. (And, as a bonus, since W26 students aren't classified as "dropouts", you get to cut your dropout rate, as well.)

What really matters, of course, is whether this works for the kids. That's not as easy to tell as one might hope: Apparently there aren't any ready statistics on how many kids who are "referred to" GED programs actually enroll in them, and since attendance isn't mandatory, there's no way to tell how many of the kids who do enroll, actually go. The best evidence available, though, indicates that most referred, don't enroll; and of those who enroll, most don't attend classes.

In the neo-Calvinist ethos that drives programs like No Child Left Behind, there's no problem here: The kids "referred" to the GED program are exercising free choice, and paying the consequences for their actions. In my experience, though, it's a very rare 16 or 17 year old who's fully qualified to assess the pros and cons of stepping off the main rails of The System and onto the free and open road. If someone is there telling them a happy tale designed to serve their own ends -- whether it's a guidance counselor, recruiting officer, MLM huckster, what have you -- we can't be surprised if they fall for it.

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