Archive for ‘Culture’

Pop Quiz: How is Postmodernism like the Web?

By , 13 May, 2009, 2 Comments

They’re both subjects I blog about.


No, but seriously. My previous complaints about postmodernism have centered on the impact that the ideology has over the social and civic use-value of the humanities. Basically, postmodernist scholars say they should teach young people to question the whole notion of usefulness. The idea probably has some internal coherence that is above my pay grade, but to an average eighteen year old in English 101 at an average school, it’s an education in apathy.


When making this critique, I have been accused of being eerily nostalgic for the distant past when humanities teaching was about using the great books to impart immutable moral mantras to a leadership class of white young men. But what seems to rile my critics most is the idea that education should be socially or civic-ly useful at all. In other words, what’s with my institutionalism?


In my posts about media, I frequently express skepticism about the contemporary shift away from professionalism,  factual rigor, and respect for intellectual property. I do so because I believe professional reporting (which must be financed on the basis of intellectual property) is better for the functioning of the political and social system than the citizen-driven alternatives.


The counter-argument from new media evangelists is deeply postmodernist: just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to decipher meaning because the words on the page CAN mean any number of things to any number of people, the web evangelists discourage a focus on objectivity because links CAN be made to show any connections we’d like. Just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to link authors to their work, the web evangelists discourage respect for intellectual property. When a critic of their views expresses a desire to make academia and journalism socially and civically useful, the web evangelists join the postmodernists in asking “what’s with that institutionalism?”


It gets worse. As Susan Blum shows in her new book, young web evangelists are now using postmodern arguments–authorship is socially constructed and should be ignored, the words belong to whomever is interpreting them at that moment–to justify plagiarizing from the web as “pastiche.” If I had any lingering doubts about the educational use-value of postmodernism, they are gone now.

The institutionalist triumph

By , 23 April, 2009, 1 Comment

The last few weeks have seen an explosion of positive activity on the issue of gay marriage. To sum up, after a really nasty set back in the form of Proposition 8 last fall, we’ve seen gay marriage legalized in Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut, and a powerful move from Governor David Paterson to do the same in New York.

Here is what stands out about these decisions: Iowa is a longtime “red” state, Vermont was too until the 1990s, and NY and Connecticut, though they vote “blue” in national elections have rather conservative rural populations who play meaningful roles in state policy. Therefore, some changing of minds on the right is at play in the tidal wave of decisions this month.

Now, there are two ways to make the case for gay marriage and they reflect the ideological dichotomy I have been describing on this site, between institutionalism and individualism. The individualist case, the one that dominated the gay marriage movement until this year, is about railing against the oppressive social norms of a heterocentric definition of marriage, defending the rights of all of us to love as we please, and including marriage as one form of love we should all have access to. This is a mostly left-wing argument that is related in its tone and its values to 1960s feminism and “free love.” It made it very easy for the right-wing to counter that same-sex marriage would undermine heterosexual families, in much the same way they critiqued the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The institutionalist argument for same-sex marriages is different: it claims that all marriages are better than all non-marriages, that society should actively privilege people (of all orientations) who make monogamous commitments over those (of all orientations) who don’t. So, by this line of argument, all marriages are and should be equal, but married love is morally superior to unmarried love and should be a. legalized and b. socially encouraged.

By arguing against free love, the institutionalists take away the right-wing’s main argument against marriage equality: their fear that it dilutes heterosexual marriage. I have a hunch that what made the tide turn in Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut and New York is that conservatives are beginning to think of gay marriage in these institutionalist terms. David Brooks has been saying it for ages, but no one has listened. Steve Schmidt (McCain’s campaign aide) said it this week and his comments were repeated all over the news.

As Schmidt pointed out in his speech, what has changed since Brooks first voiced this idea is the opinions of young people and the increased interaction between young people of different political ideologies and sexual identities permitted by social media. People who may never interact in the physical world are increasingly finding each other online. Young social conservatives, who may spend their physical lives in communities where homosexuality is  derided and policed, are interacting online with young gay Americans–liberal and conservative–and finding out that the interaction doesn’t dilute their value system after all. Schmidt urged his partisans to accept and embrace this fact if they want to be electorally viable in the future.

This blog is subtitled “Reflections on the Revolution in Culture.” This shift on the right, the change in ideals and, slowly, in policy, driven by the coffeehouse-like minglings of the digital age, is precisely the revolution I had in mind.

The Generation Gap

By , 24 March, 2009, No Comment

Now that it all appears to have blown over, I want to say a few more words about the AIG bonuses, and the media role in stirring the pot of fury. We had a long discussion about this in my core business journalism seminar last night.

Here’s where I come down: it was and is good journalism to comb through the government’s agreements with AIG and the company’s SEC filings, to try to find out who was getting paid for what and to probe the possibility of backscratching when it came to Goldman Sachs. [Though, as we determined in my seminar, there isn’t actually any backscratching involved. GS, it seems, really was smarter than the others.] Anyway, it was good journalism to ask these questions. Once. And report the answers. Once.

It was and is bad journalism to report, on the top right hand column of the A1 page of every major newspaper over two weeks, what various regulatory and elected officials had to say about these bonuses as though it were ACTUALLY the most important event of each day’s news cycle, when any number of other items needed that space. This is info-tainment at work.

Such poor editorial judgment is pernicious. The bonus rage not only derailed politicians from doing the important work of sorting out a real bank plan and a budget; it squandered the political will to have a real bank plan. Now that everyone in the country is out with their pitchforks for the bankers, how is the administration going to sell spending more money on this industry?

If the press had been doing its job, the last two weeks might have produced stories explaining that Wall Street funds Main Street, that even venal AIG insurers are worth your tax dollar right now. Or we might have read on page A1 about the strange phenomenon of Americans ranting against the pursuit of profit and how absurd that is. Such circumspect and constructive items appeared, but only on the inside pages of our newspapers, and in elite pockets of the wonkosphere.

I have a hunch as to why it wound up this way: it’s generational. (Note: Dan Drezner is talking the generations meme today too) The bulk of voters are over 50, close enough to retirement that even a superhero’s bank plan won’t bring back their 401K’s. The bulk of editors are the same age. Most of the time, such people are capable of putting enormous national emergencies above their own interests when the national emergency is framed as securing the future for their children.

This weekend, my mother, generally the type to lie down before moving buses for my sister and myself, said leaving her children to careers in a depressed, deflated, Japan’s-Lost-Decade economy might be worth it to get a pound of flesh from those who destroyed her retirement. I post this not as an indictment of her per se but as an example of the level the rage has reached and an explanation for why young people I know, even soak-the-rich liberals, are far less incensed by the whole bonus question than their parents. Unfortunately, elected officials won’t take any real steps on the banks until such policy polls well among our parents’ generation.

The Only Cure for Populism is Prosperity

By , 18 March, 2009, 2 Comments

I know you’re all fed up with my approving quotes of right-wing critics but this one is too spot-on. David Frum said the above in a conversation with Daniel Drezner on Monday and I was listening to the dialogue while trying to formulate my thoughts on AIG’s bonuses, Cramer vs. Stewart and the administration’s financial plan; his quip tied it all together. Joe Scarborough (another rightwinger whom I generally deplore) pointed out the other day that the anger over each of these issues is grounded in a knee-jerk populism.

I am a populist. Not in the sense the word is often (mis)used, as a synonym for political pandering, but in its actual sense of being concerned with the needs of the masses. And I believe the only way to fulfill those needs is to increase growth for all. I’m not a supply-sider: I think government should use Keynesian spending models to spur that growth, and I think we need to heavily tax-adjust growth on the way up to make sure it’s broadly shared. But there’s just no way to have economic growth without benefitting some people at the top. Get over it.

Nobody will get out of their present economic rutt unless we bail out the banks and as the TARP legislation was written, the Treasury doesn’t have strong powers over how banks spend that money. For the record, I think that’s too bad, and that we probably should have included some clause on compensation when we passed this bill in the fall. But we didn’t. Those who are really riled up about this are whining over bonuses as a focal point for their general angst over bailing out banks.

Here’s the problem: neither Obama nor Geithner, nor Bush nor Paulson before them, has been able to explain how the financial system works or why it matters. Obama’s town hall today is a good example; he was spot on for the first 45 minutes or so, speaking about schools and health care (even I was sold), but when he tried to address the banks, he stopped making sense, even to the biz journos I was watching with, who spend all their time on this stuff. The people on the audience all had glazed expressions–it was clear he wasn’t communicating; it even seemed to me he didn’t understand the math himself–he kept confusing securities with derivatives. Before you crow that such matters are too complicated for the attention spans of ordinary political audiences, listen to the speech FDR gave before bailing out the banks of his day. The only contemporary policymaker who I think has spoken with such clarity is Ben Bernanke, both in his October speech and his 60 Minutes interview this past Sunday. Unfortunately, explaining policy is NOT Bernanke’s job; it’s the job of elected officials and the press. The only person in media I’ll credit with getting this one right is my friend Vikas Bajaj at the NYT.

It’s because elected officials and the mainstream media are doing such a lousy job that Americans are turning to info-tainment outlets like Jim Cramer for investment advice and Jon Stewart for political analysis. Jim Cramer has been wrong-wrong-wrong on many stock calls, but it was never the proposition of his show to be right all the time; it always depicted itself as bullish market propoganda for enthusiasts. By the same token, business journalists defending Cramer should watch their words: the only reason Jon Stewart had to take him on is because professional reporters beyond the elite/expert outlets, like the government, did not do a proper job explaining the financial markets to Cramer’s middle America audience.

The result is that firms like AIG have us in their palms. I’m reminded of the moment in Richard III, when Richard, self-described as “deformed, unfin ish’d” woos Anne, a woman whose first husband he actually killed. First, he tells her he wants her, so bad that’s why he killed her hubby and no one else will love her as he does. She’s flattered, but she hates his guts. So he hands her a spear and dares her to kill him in revenge; the moment she fails to do so, she admits she’s his. We have already failed to kill these banks, but it means all our whining about bonuses is wasted breath and they know it. Like Richard, they take the opportunity to adorn themselves with fineries and enjoy the license we have given.

The reality is that we do need the banks, but that we’ll have to regualte them more aggressively as we give them more aid. I for one would much rather our elected officials devoted their attentions to devising a plan for such aid, and explaining it, in real detail, than to righteous indignation. I am hoping that my peers in the media and I will then focus on dissecting and analyzing such a plan, rather than taking pot shots at one another. Until that happens, I suppose I’ll just curl up with Lawrence Olivier.

Partisanship Changes, but it doesn’t go away

By , 18 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I’ve been blogging that I think post-partisanship is a sham. To the extent that the stimulus process was meant to be the test of Obama’s “post-partisan” vision, I’m relieved to report that it didn’t quite work out his way. Partisanship does not, cannot and should not go away. But the nature of the debate reminds us that partisanship is not static, because the parties themselves shift and redefine over time. And THAT kind of change has surely arrived.

Start with the stimulus: what’s the divide between the three Republicans who voted for the bill and all the rest who didn’t? The simple answer is that the three—Collins, Snowe and Specter—are “moderates,” that they fall in the center of the current partisan spectrum. But the Republican party has fiscal, social and defense types, and you can be moderate on one axis and conservative on the other. The divide in this case was on fiscal issues, between fiscal conservatives who think government is more problem than solution and should be shrunk by spending cuts, and fiscal moderates who think government is one kind of solution and should be strengthened by (responsibly financed) expansion.

At its highest minded, this disagreement is a conflict between those who believe in the power of the individual and the decentralized and those who believe in the power of the central institution or community. But being anti-institution is not at all part of the current, about-to-be-old conservatism. On the social axis, for example, it’s the far right that believes in the institution (the nuclear heterosexual family, the Church) and the libertarian-right that leaves such things to individual choice. Meanwhile, it’s the far right (the neocons) that advocates for U.S. military interests and the moderate realists who say no often on grounds of national sovereignty and opposition to global governance. That the institution vs. individual fault line has suddenly become the chief fault line on the right is a new development.

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Note to English teachers: Get Real

By , 3 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I have been contemplating posting these reflections for many months, but a post over at FWFL reminded me how I got on this subject to begin with. The author of that blog, Colin Clout, is a literature graduate student with a broadly postmodernist approach to the study of culture, an approach that pervades much of the academy these days. I crassly summarize this approach as

1. It’s impossible to know, 100%, what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote Hamlet or why Napoleon invaded Russia. Even if these men kept diaries, they might have lied. Therefore it’s intellectually unconscionable to ask such questions.
2. You and I may today find many patterns in this writing that Shakespeare did not intend or could never have thought of especially since words in the English language, or any other language, have changed over time, and since language is imperfect and manmade anyway. Indeed, an old book can be about some newfangled concept if I, reading it today, am reminded of a newfangled concept. Heck, it could be about anything so long as somebody thinks so.
3. It is intellectually admirable to constantly expand the set of interpretations, even if some of them have seemingly weak ties to the historical or social context in which books were written, paintings painted or political speeches delivered, or even to the social context in which those books, paintings or speeches were read, seen or heard. It is sinful to attempt to establish which meanings matter most at any particular time. The more subversion you contribute to the debate, the better you have performed. To quote Mr. Clout directly, “What is the relevance, the importance of humanities? What is the functionality of the academy?…[It is] in questioning the need for functionality.”
In conversations with Mr. Clout, I have said that my problem with this school of thought is not only that I disagree with its main tenets but also that I find it socially pernicious. I think a good researcher of culture can often determine beyond a reasonable doubt what people intended to accomplish and what others perceived. More importantly, however, I think it’s AS windows into such motivations and societal implications that culture, or history, or really most branches of the humanities, matter to begin with.

Once upon a time, indeed until after World War II, most university education was in the humanities: young propertied men went off to prestigious Ivy-covered halls to read Chaucer and Cicero, and their professors helped them understand, specifically, how those texts might inform their future decisions as businessmen or statesmen or generals.

That very functional approach to the study of culture was undone during the Cold War, by academics who wanted to make sure that smart people did not choose to help the government or the corporation, since (these thinkers determined), those were more or less corrupted institutions from which the academy was meant to offer a retreat. They argued that they were preserving young minds from a dehumanizing bureaucracy, but I wonder if there isn’t something dehumanizing about the separation of the mind, of academic intellectual endeavor, from the person, a social being embedded in the political and economic contingencies of a specific historical moment.

The moment academics in the humanities rejected the social for the psychological is, coincidentally or not, the moment public education grants shifted from the right brain field to the left. If Mr. Clout and his peers are worried about financing their profession, they might start by reconsidering their ideology.

Women and the political transition

By , 22 January, 2009, 1 Comment




Now-official Secretary of State Clinton: when watching the inaugural, I noticed that the procession grouped dignitaries by professional designation–first the legislators walked down the Capitol steps, then the Obama cabinet designees, then the first family, then former Presidents and Vice-Presidents, accompanied by their spouses, and finally Biden and Obama. Hillary Clinton fit several of those categories: as of Tuesday, she was the junior Senator from New York, the Secretary of State designee and the wife of a former President. I found it telling that she did not walk out with her Senate colleagues or her fellow Cabinet appointees but as Mrs. Clinton on Bill’s arm. As an HRC supporter during the primary, I consider much of her time as First Lady relevant experience (part of the campaign’s core argument). BUT just like you list your most recent job at the top of your CV, it seems to me that on Tuesday Jan 20th, as the administration in which she is about to serve takes over, Hillary Clinton’s primary identity should have been as a member of the Obama cabinet. That it didn’t work out that way reminds us of the many glass ceilings that are still unbroken.

That is not to say that any woman who wants a job should be promoted to it. Or that family ties are irrelevant. My enthusiasm for Secretary Clinton is grounded in the fact that she was working towards a career in public service BEFORE she became a political spouse, BEFORE she had the dynastic ties. Caroline Kennedy, who thankfully withdrew her name from the race to fill Clinton’s Senate seat, is the opposite: someone who has never shown an interest in electoral politics, except for a few weeks this winter when she thought it might come with her name. The same women voters won over by Hillary Clinton are the kind of people irked by Caroline Kennedy because it seems she has never, and never could, put career first.
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Moreover, politically, she never made much sense. New York Democrats already have a big name, downstate (ie New York City) voice in Sen. Chuck Schumer, who gets plenty of press. As a Senator, Clinton’s value was that she ran from an upstate district as a moderate and thereby allowed Democrats to make a case for themselves to the more conservative voters of rural northern New York. That’s how the Dems finally managed to take control of New York State government in Albany. From Governor Paterson’s perspective, ensuring that electoral constituency as a base for his party, and his own reelection, is paramount. Which is why I’m thrilled that he escaped the Kennedy trap.Link
Women were one reason that trap was so effective. So long as it makes sense in our national psychology to see Hillary Clinton as Bill’s wife first, Senator and Secretary of State second, so long as the dynasty is seen as the most important thing on HER C.V., it is possible to make the case that anyone with such a dynasty on THEIR C.V. can also be the glass ceiling-breaking women’s pol.

Because there were many women whose support of HRC during the presidential primaries was driven mostly by her gender; I wasn’t one of them, but I was sympathetic to the gendered part of her appeal. And those people were clamoring for a woman to fill her seat, but it needed to be a woman who, like Clinton as her supporters saw her, had a professional identity independent of any hereditary or marital ties. I had my eye on Carolyn Maloney, who’s sharp as nails, a career politician, but also a downstate liberal. Paterson gave us one hell of a pleasant surprise today by inviting moderate, upstate Congresswoman Kristen Gillibrand to his mansion to discuss her taking the job. Indeed, given the upsate vs. downstate nature of NYPolitics, someone of Gillibrand’s moderate make up is just what NYDemocrats need.

Art and the Link Economy

By , 17 January, 2009, No Comment

Yesterday, I took some friends from college to the Met, which has late-night weekend hours that cater to a younger crowd. We saw a unique exhibit, a tribute to the outgoing head curator, Phillippe de Montebello. The exhibition is an 8 room collection of his major acquisitions, arranged chronologically by the year the Met purchased them.

Normally, of course, these works hang in the museum thematically–17th century Dutch paintings are in one wing, medieval Chinese scrolls are in another. Because this exhibition framed the artworks through the lens of de Montebello’s career, rather than art-historically, the two disparate genres often hung side by side. One room has these two paintings next to one another:

Top: Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri; Italian, 1591–1666), Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619
Bottom: Balthus (French, 1908–2001), The Mountain, 1936–37

Though of course I knew this already, looking at them together really brought out how much the Renaissance art world was confined to a small group of people who all knew the same basic collection of classical and Biblical stories: this meant that you could show a crowded close-up scene like this without any background and expect everyone to know what was going on. Fast forward to the 1930s and it’s assumed that viewers won’t share such a coherent base of narratives you can throw on the canvas. Instead, to the extent that anyone is still painting narrative scenes, you have broader views that take you THROUGH a story, a fictional story that is new to everyone looking at the work. This is something I hadn’t really thought about before, and probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t seen these works side by side.

For the techie in me, it was a reminder of how the digital link is meant to work: instead of just seeing the internal logic of a blog post like this one, you jump horizontally from this to a Wiki entry on de Montebello or journal articles about these artists or an exhibition review, and learn things you wouldn’t learn if you had just flipped linearly through the Met catalogue.
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On the other hand, there were places in this exhibit where the logic of the link was sorely missing. In particular the curatorial captions on the plaques accompanying the work were the opposite of helpful and often showed a lack of expertise about the particular period or place the work hailed from. One of my companions, a PhD student in early American history, pointed out that the caption for a piece of furniture noted the name “Nicholas Easton” inscribed inside, but said his identity was unknown. In fact, she says, historians of early New England know him well. Academia functions in specialized silos, and if this exhibit is any indication, art and history professors could do well to indulge in more inter-disclipinary link-exchange.

Getting Meta

By , 30 December, 2008, No Comment

I’m a guest today at literature/academia blog “Fierce Warres and Faithfull Loves.” I’ve been asked to share some thoughts on Nadeem Aslam’s essay in the NYT magazine a few weeks back. Frankly, I didn’t much like the piece. Here’s why:
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“Aslam treats nonfiction as a fiction-style narrative that just happens to be true; in this, he follows a growing trend among nonfiction writers that I frankly find despicable. The fact that all the social purposes I can conjecture for this piece are so politically unpleasant only makes me dislike it more.

For my full take on Aslam, check out the symposium.

Larry Lessig admits “he’s an old Communist”

By , 23 November, 2008, 2 Comments

Four years ago, Lessig’s book Free Culture unleashed a movement to abolish copyright and bring down the evil corporate producers of “mainstream culture.” I have never believed in this movement. Tonight, Lessig told Charlie Rose he doesn’t believe it either.

He says he’s an “old Communist,” a la Gorbachev, trying to reform a system; the younger free culture radicals who quote him are Yelstins, who’ve taken his policies too far. Lessig says he doesn’t want to get rid of copyright because it still incentivizes some people to produce valuable content who wouldn’t do it for free. His hippie proteges think anyone who produces art for money is not worth society’s time. Now whenever I’ve read Lessig, I’ve always felt he falls on the radical side of the line. Either I was wrong, or he’s now changing tacks because he realizes the moderate approach has a better shot of reaching its goals.

He’s not alone. Over at BuzzMachine, Jeff Jarvis says he doesn’t have it out for print media and media corporations at all and outlines a business model for how established news organizations can coexist with a gift economy of citizen-journalists. It’s a good plan and it strikes me as a deviation from the things Jarvis has written in the past; again I wonder if (as he claims) this is what he meant all along, or if he’s just getting practical at last.

Either way, it’s good to have people of Lessig’s and Jarvis’s clout advocating a middle-ground. Then again, Gorbachev tried to remind people to take it slow too…and it didn’t work out so great for him.