Thursday, July 31, 2008

At What Cost?
Last year, when I (like everybody else) wrote off John McCain as a presidential candidate, the conclusion I drew was that he'd tried to run a campaign that, in style and substance, was a pale imitation of George W. Bush. It was satisfying, I though at the time, to see this go unrewarded even among the Republican primary electorate. Of course, I was wrong to write off McCain prematurely, and in fact his reversal of fortune seemed to coincide with a new emphasis on the parts of his record that deviated from Bush and current Republican orthodoxy. Even Republicans didn't want much more of Bush. (A fascinating question would be whether, in the absence of the 22nd Amendment, Bush could be renominated.) Between that relative distance and the fact that other candidates were, for one reason or another, even more objectionable, McCain outlasted his rivals and won the nomination.

But he's generally considered a decided underdog in the fall campaign against Barack Obama--betting markets give Obama a bit less than a 65 percent chance, and the excellent has him at closer to 68 percent as of this afternoon. The conventional wisdom on the race is that it's essentially Obama's to lose; if he can convince a majority that he's credible, he wins regardless of anything positive McCain might do. I think this is probably correct.

In an effort to change the dynamic, though, McCain has turned to his old tormentors--the people who ran Bush's campaigns in 2000 and 2004. And the lies and innuendo are piling up. Some old McCain hands disapprove--and have started to do so publicly. The relationship between McCain and the press, famously described by Chris Matthews as "his base," is going sour. And the Washington Post reports that candidate himself doesn't seem to be adapting well to the style of his new team, with its relentless emphasis on message discipline. ("[H]e is no Bush, his handlers say." Brrrr.)

Josh Marshall this evening has a concise summation of what seems to be happening here:

It was always clear that it was going to be hard for John McCain to emerge from this campaign with his reputation and the presidency, simply because of the rough terrain any Republican faces this year. At this point, it's clear that by the end of this, the reputation is going to be shot. There's just been too much demonstrable lying on the candidate's part, too much sleazy campaigning, too much outsourcing his campaign to Karl Rove. More and more editorialists and even some of the prestige pundits are starting to see it.

So that means, he has to win. Because if he doesn't, he's got nothing left. All he is is a four term senator from a medium-sized state with no legislative record. It's an eminently worthwhile task to chronicle his descent.

The battle between "good McCain" and "bad McCain" continues apace, however. The Post story I linked to above ends with an anecdote about McCain taking a question from the sort of rabid right-winger whom Bush essentially could undress on the trail: the questioner expressed his disdain for McCain's embrace of "amnesty" for immigrants and his support for "the global warming crowd's agenda." But rather than flatter the guy's ignorance, as the script calls for, McCain "launched into a long explanation of his role in a compromise on judges, something that conservatives often criticize him for." And he concluded by reminding his listeners--who presumably wouldn't place great value on such a thing--that "I've stood up against my party many times" because he thought it was the right thing to do.

Perhaps there's hope that McCain will keep his soul and lose the election, which seems to be the best outcome.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Race is On
One reason I haven't been posting as much is because it doesn't feel very satisfying these days to put up blog posts that essentially link to someone else's article, to which I mostly add "what s/he said." But sometimes the point is so important that I'll do it anyway, and so here we are with David Brooks on one of his good days:

Between 1870 and 1950, the average American’s level of education rose by 0.8 years per decade. In 1890, the average adult had completed about 8 years of schooling. By 1900, the average American had 8.8 years. By 1910, it was 9.6 years, and by 1960, it was nearly 14 years.
America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. But the happy era ended around 1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl. Between 1975 and 1990, educational attainments stagnated completely. Since then, progress has been modest. America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment.

This threatens the country’s long-term prospects. It also widens the gap between rich and poor. Goldin and Katz describe a race between technology and education. The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.
[T]he skills slowdown is the biggest issue facing the country. Rising gas prices are bound to dominate the election because voters are slapped in the face with them every time they visit the pump. But this slow-moving problem, more than any other, will shape the destiny of the nation.

Second, there is a big debate under way over the sources of middle-class economic anxiety. Some populists [...]say we need radical labor market reforms to give the working class a chance. But the populists are going to have to grapple with the Goldin, Katz and Heckman research, which powerfully buttresses the arguments of those who emphasize human capital policies. It’s not globalization or immigration or computers per se that widen inequality. It’s the skills gap. Boosting educational attainment at the bottom is more promising than trying to reorganize the global economy.

As noted above, I strongly share Brooks's sense that this is the single most important issue the U.S. faces on the economic competitiveness front. But the answers aren't obvious, and there's a strong temptation to skip to the end--looking at college completion and skills attainment--when the real sources of the problem are early childhood development and primary and secondary school education, where we're really falling short. Brooks doesn't get into that one, but he does allude to the importance of early childhood development, citing the work of James Heckman, who "directs attention at family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years."

(A digression: Brooks's contention, that inequalty is widening because "educational progress" hasn't kept pace with the advance of technology, is at least a little dubious. The number of Americans with four-year college degrees rose fairly sharply from 2001-2007. But over the same period, real wages for college graduates have declined by 1.7 percent, a sharper falloff than for high school graduates, two-year degree holders, or Masters holders. Professional degree holders have seen their compensation rise by four percent, so this certainly has been a good time for lawyers and doctors. You can see these numbers, and related statistics on education and compensation, here. The article to which it's attached is very worthwhile as well.)

So what's to be done? Support for universal pre-kindergarten seems to be gaining some political currency. (Ezra Klein writes about it, with another hat-tip for James Heckman, right here.) Tough to do, though, in a recessionary climate, no matter how much promise Heckman offers for the potential returns on investment, or how self-evident his conclusion that "[r]emediation for impoverished early environments becomes progressively more costly the later it is attempted."

And if support is gathering for some national role in pre-K education, how about for K-12 schools? This is something I'm working on for CUF right now, in connection with a publication that won't be out for four or five months yet; I'm trying to come up with recommendations for federal policy action to improve the performance of public schools here. There are a few tweaks to No Child Left Behind--a piece of legislation that, notwithstanding the high-minded language of its defenders about closing the educational attainment gap, manifestly wasn't written with big urban centers in mind--that would be helpful and more or less cost-efficient.

But I can't quite let go of The Big One: calling for much more national standardization of public school education. Blame Matt Miller, whose thinking definitely has had a big influence on me here... but the basic premise--if students in Brooklyn and Kansas are competing in the same "flat" world, shouldn't they be charged to master the same skills?--seems pretty irrefutable to me. And if the public views economic competitiveness as primarily a national challenge, isn't it logical that a national response would be appropriate?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Heroes We Deserve
I haven't had much going on here for the last few weeks--owing to a lack of interest in politics, a new hesitation to write much about New York City policy/politics, general malaise and occasional despair, and the shitty, soul-damaging performance of the Philadelphia Phillies. On those subjects, suffice it to say that I still think Obama's going to win (and that it won't matter much, other than the symbolically important rejection of Bush Republicanism), I'm pissed about the coming transit fare increases and a bit bemused at some of the early 2009 mayoral campaign proclamations, I don't know what to do with my career, and the Phillies are a garbage organization run by arrogant and clueless morons and represented by the alienated, the overwhelmed, and the overweight.

Probably the best thing about July has been the movies. I saw "Wall-E" a couple weeks ago, and have twice watched "The Dark Knight." I don't make a habit of attending G-rated movies, or any Disney-related fare, but Wall-E was getting such strong reviews, and my brother liked it so much, that I thought it was worth a look. If you haven't gone, do so: it's beautifully made, rarely if ever insults the viewer's intelligence (indeed, much less so than probably 90 percent of films made for grown-ups), and has a message more complex and nuanced than its attackers on the right have considered.

The premise of "Wall-E" is that in the 28th century, humankind has long since evacuated an Earth overrun by garbage, and is approaching the 700th anniversary of a "five-year cruise" through the solar system while robots clean up the home planet. But the job was too big, and all but one robot has broken down; meanwhile, the uniformly obese humans have been so coddled by disposable food and having every need cared for by mechanized service provided through a mega-corporation, Buy N Large, that most can't even stand up anymore--not that there's anything to stand up for.

Evidently, "Wall-E" offended the delicate sensitivities of the always-put-upon right-wing:

Shannen Coffin: From the first moment of the film, my kids were bombarded with leftist propaganda about the evils of mankind. It’s a shame, too, because the robot had promise. The story was just awful, however.

Greg Pollowitz: It was like a 90-minute lecture on the dangers of over consumption, big corporations, and the destruction of the environment. … Much to Disney’s chagrin, I will do my part to avoid future environmental armageddon by boycotting any and all WALL-E merchandise and I hope others join my crusade.

Glenn Beck: I can’t wait to teach my kids how we’ve destroyed the Earth. … Pixar is teaching. I can’t wait. You know if your kid has ever come home and said, “Dad, how come we use so much styrofoam,” oh, this is the movie for you.

Putting aside the absurdity of politicizing an environmental message--pollution doesn't know party--I think the viewpoint of "Wall-E" is considerably more aligned with classical conservative values than these blowhards realize. The movie played to me as a criticism of human complacency--an indictment of how individuals lose purpose when they start ceding autonomy over their own lives. Happily, some on the right seem to agree:

Another lesson missed is portrayed perfectly in Coffin’s claim that WALL-E points out the “evils of mankind.” The only evils of mankind portrayed are those that come about from losing touch with our own humanity.

A much wider range of evils can be found in "The Dark Knight," which is probably the best movie of its type that I've ever seen. Less a "superhero" flick than crime thriller and psychological investigation, it has a tragic arc and an ultimately despairing message, suggesting that any redemption is provisional and ambiguous.

I'm going to get into some spoilery territory here, so if you haven't seen the film yet and like to go in "cold" (as I increasingly do with movies), it might be best to stop reading.

It takes the better part of two hours for this to come clear, but "The Dark Knight" is really about Harvey Dent, the Gotham City district attorney portrayed by Aaron Eckhardt. Batman himself (Christian Bale), well exposited in the first film of the series, "Batman Begins," is something more than a plot device, but ultimately it's not his story. As the film opens, Dent seems to be the embodiment of what Batman, the vigilante crime-fighting alter ego of narcissistic billionaire Bruce Wayne, is trying to accomplish in his beleaguered city: a hero who can make things better for the public acting within the law, an idealist who is nonetheless effective. Dent is who Batman wants to be, a fact shown most clearly by the DA's romance with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Bruce Wayne's oldest friend and love interest, and the embodiment of his hopes to enjoy a normal life after the struggle against crime is won and Batman can hang up his cape.

Dent begins to work with Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, in another terrific performance marred slightly by the moments when his English accent breaks through), the police lieutenant who has been working with Batman to expose and shut down organized crime in the city. But he's troubled by Gordon's practice of working with cops of dubious integrity--many of whom Dent had unsuccessfully investigated in an earlier job. This is in some ways the most important turn of the plot: Gordon leans heavily on his team, but their corruption ultimately is disastrous for Gotham. At the behest of the Joker (Heath Ledger), the brilliant criminal hired by the mobsters to kill Dent and Batman, crooked cops abduct both Dent and Rachel, putting them in mortal danger; the police and Batman can save only one, and it winds up being Dent--who is mutilated in an explosion.

He goes mad with grief and rage, and emerges as Two-Face, another vigilante whose concern is not the protection of the public but vengeance, as dictated by chance (the flip of a two-headed coin, one side of which was charred in the explosion that burned away half of Dent's face). In the end, he is subdued--but his reputation, and the aspirations of Gotham, would be ruined if the public found out about his crimes. Batman, with Gordon's reluctant acquiescence, agrees to take the blame for the murders Two-Face committed, allowing Dent to be remembered as a hero and martyr. He is "Gotham's White Knight," leaving Batman in the darkness.

I don't know if many others would characterize the movie in this way, probably because of the ferocious power of Heath Ledger's performance--the last of his career--as the Joker. Without question, Ledger steals every scene in which he appears: he's such a force of nature, and such a perfect foil for Batman, that you almost can't help sympathizing with him. The filmmakers made a conscious decision to show the Joker fully formed, rising to power over the criminal community, rather than furnishing him a backstory: the script includes a winking allusion to this, as the character offers varying explanations as to how he got the facial scars he covers with white makeup (referred to by an accomplice, more accurately, as "war paint"). Like Batman, he's human in his abilities and somewhat more than human in willpower: and he adheres to a moral code--"no rules"--in some ways more absolute than Batman's own.

In a traditional superhero movie, the morality of the good guys--the notion that conformity to an affirmative moral code is a strength, not a weakness--would prevail in the end. Not here. Though the Joker is captured (not killed, which I'm sure was a conscious choice with an eye toward bringing the character back in future films; with Ledger's demise, I hope they choose not to go this route), and his most appalling attempted crime is foiled, he's not defeated. Compromised from within by the corruption of Gordon's unit, traumatized by the searing pain and emotional tragedy inflicted upon him, finally swayed by the Joker's explanation of his own motivations, Dent was turned into a monster--a third force of nature.

But, the filmmakers suggest, corruption can't take root in barren soil. There's an earlier scene in which Dent, still heroic, seizes one of the Joker's subordinates, sticks a gun in his face, and begins flipping his coin to determine whether he'll shoot the man or not if he doesn't reveal information. We know that it's a two-sided coin--that the threat is a bluff--but the henchman doesn't, and neither does Batman, who dissuades Dent by telling him that the man is a paranoid schizophrenic and pointing out that Dent's tactics, if exposed, would undermine his prosecutions of the mob. The scene reinforces the message of an earlier conversation between Dent, Rachel, and Wayne over dinner, in which Dent spoke up for Batman's vigilante actions: just as Wayne wants to be Dent, Dent wants to be Batman. (Later, in a ruse to draw out the Joker, he "reveals" to the public that he is, in fact, Batman.)

Certainly I'm not the first person to point this out, but recent movie heroes--even superheroes--have worn their flaws on their capes. I suppose this reflects public tastes in a cynical time: with our national leaders exposed as liars and torturers, and our most prominent celebrities with their flaws on display every day, maybe it couldn't be otherwise. But bad times do seem conducive to good art; it was true in the '70s, and it's true today.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Responsibility Hustle
I read something in the Times last night that bothered me quite a bit. As part of an ongoing series called "The Debt Trap," reporter Gretchen Morgenson tells the story of a 47 year-old Philadelphia-area woman named Diane McLeod, whose life is in ruins after incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

There are really two stories at work here: McLeod's own misjudgments and irresponsible behavior, and the enabling actions of creditors that, to paraphrase the article's title, gave her more and bigger shovels with which to dig herself deeper into debt. Morgenson seems more interested in the systemic problem:

Ms. McLeod, who is 47, readily admits her money problems are largely of her own making. But as surely as it takes two to tango, she had partners in her financial demise. In recent years, those partners, including the financial giants Citigroup, Capital One and GE Capital, were collecting interest payments totaling more than 40 percent of her pretax income and thousands more in fees.

Years of spending more than they earn have left a record number of Americans like Ms. McLeod standing at the financial precipice. They have amassed a mountain of debt that grows ever bigger because of high interest rates and fees.

While the circumstances surrounding these downfalls vary, one element is identical: the lucrative lending practices of America’s merchants of debt have led millions of Americans — young and old, native and immigrant, affluent and poor — to the brink. More and more, Americans can identify with miners of old: in debt to the company store with little chance of paying up.

Through her early 40s, McLeod had no significant problem with debt: she alternated between stay-at-home motherhood and relatively stable employment, and she purchased a home in 2003 that appreciated, as they're supposed to. (I wouldn't know myself.) The easy credit terms of that purchase--because her credit was good, no down payment was required--wound up doing her no favors, of course. Nor did the refinancing she obtained a year later to consolidate $25,000 in credit card debt, which required about $9,500 in costs. To meet those expenses, McLeod withdrew from her retirement account, an action that bears an early-withdrawal tax penalty of $3,000, which she put on a credit card.

This is all bad enough. But the case Morgenson is setting out here only holds if, at the same time, liberals and others who deplore the enabling behavior of McLeod's "partners in her financial demise" grasp that she bears some culpability as well. After another couple turns of bad luck--losing her second job as a jewelry saleswoman, and a hysterectomy--McLeod really did herself in: "She made matters worse during her recovery, while watching home shopping channels. 'Eight weeks in bed by yourself is very dangerous when you have a TV and credit card,” Ms. McLeod said. “QVC was my friend.'"

The article doesn't disclose how much additional debt McLeod ran up while convalescing. But in all, it notes that she owed $237,000 for her mortgage--more than half again the original purchase price of the house, thanks to two refinancings--plus about $34,000 for credit cards. That number continues to rise as late fees and overage charges mount each month. She is likely to file for bankruptcy--as a rising number have done over the last nine quarters.

The real problem I see here is that while both McLeod (and the millions like her) and the corporations acted irresponsibly, only the individual suffers for it. The businesses are rewarded, to an obscene extent, for very similar behavior.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

No Saints Need Apply
While the big political controversy of the week involved the New Yorker cover satirically presenting Barack and Michelle Obama as a Muslim terrorist and '60s revolutionary respectively, the far more interesting material is inside the magazine, where Ryan Lizza penned a very lengthy but fascinating account of Obama's early political career in Chicago. I appreciated the juxtaposition of the sensationalistic cover and the content within, which presents Obama's rise as utterly typical for any young, ambitious American pol: the expected themes of opportunism, self-improvement, strategic acumen and no small degree of cynicism are all present.

Lizza presents Toni Preckwinkle, Obama's local Chicago alderman (I think it's a gender-neutral term) and his first political mentor. She was among the first real believers in Obama--and among the first to become disillusioned with him:

Although many of Obama’s recent supporters have been surprised by signs of political opportunism, Preckwinkle wasn’t. “I think he was very strategic in his choice of friends and mentors,” she told me. “I spent ten years of my adult life working to be alderman. I finally got elected. This is a job I love. And I’m perfectly happy with it. I’m not sure that’s the way that he approached his public life—that he was going to try for a job and stay there for one period of time. In retrospect, I think he saw the positions he held as stepping stones to other things and therefore approached his public life differently than other people might have.”

On issue after issue, Preckwinkle presented Obama as someone who thrived in the world of Chicago politics. She suggested that Obama joined Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ for political reasons. “It’s a church that would provide you with lots of social connections and prominent parishioners,” she said. “It’s a good place for a politician to be a member.” Preckwinkle was unsparing on the subject of the Chicago real-estate developer Antoin (Tony) Rezko, a friend of Obama’s and one of his top fund-raisers, who was recently convicted of fraud, bribery, and money laundering: “Who you take money from is a reflection of your knowledge at the time and your principles.” As we talked, it became increasingly clear that loyalty was the issue that drove Preckwinkle’s current view of her onetime protégé. “I don’t think you should forget who your friends are,” she said.

Far from the narrative his most ardent supporters have suggested--that this man of unique background was propelled forward by his unique talents--Lizza describes how Obama essentially engineered his own public persona:

Obama seems to have been meticulous about constructing a political identity for himself. He visited churches on the South Side, considered the politics and reputations of each one, and received advice from older pastors. Before deciding on Trinity United Church of Christ, he asked the Reverend Wright about critics who complained that the church was too “upwardly mobile,” a place for buppies. [...] At the time, Obama was working on “Dreams from My Father.”

Many have said that part of the appeal of “Dreams” is its honesty, pointing out that it was written at a time when Obama had no idea that he would run for office. In fact, Obama had been talking about a political career for years, musing about becoming mayor or governor. According to a recent biography of Obama by the Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, he even told his future brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, that he might run for President one day. (Robinson teased him, saying, “Yeah, yeah, okay, come over and meet my Aunt Gracie—and don’t tell anybody that!”) Obama was writing “Dreams” at the moment that he was preparing for a life in politics, and he launched his book and his first political campaign simultaneously, in the summer of 1995, when he saw his first chance of winning.

Later, he describes how Obama pushed his own luck too far, running for Congress in 2000 against incumbent Bobby Rush, a local icon and former Black Panther, and getting stomped. The lessons Obama drew from that: he couldn't run his style of politics in a district, like Rush's, that was overwhelmingly black and overwhelmingly poor. His appeal was strongest amongst young white professionals--and accordingly, he redrew his Illinois State Senate district to better position himself for future success, including more deep-pocketed liberal donors. Money was crucial to his hopes: in 2002, as he began considering a U.S. Senate race two years off, Lizza quotes Obama's best friend recalling a statement of Obama's notable both for its crassness and acumen:

“Then he just laid out an economic analysis. It becomes about money, because he knew that if people knew his story they would view him as a better candidate than anybody else he thought might be in the field. And so he said, ‘Therefore, if you raise five million dollars, I have a fifty-per-cent chance of winning. If you raise seven million dollars, I have a seventy-per-cent chance of winning. If you raise ten million dollars, I guarantee victory.”

The more I think about this, the less it all bothers me. For one thing, the criticisms of the Clintons during the primaries--that this guy was too airy and idealistic to win against the fierce Republican machine--looks pretty silly in light of all this history. (I never bought that one; Obama's hobbies are pickup hoops and poker, and you don't go in for things like that unless you're pretty freakin' competitive.) Maybe more to the point, anyone who has studied the careers of Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt knows that those two men, whom I consider the greatest American presidents, did some things of which they shouldn't have been proud. Lincoln's shading on the slavery question from the late 1850s through the middle of the civil war surely infuriated the idealists of his day; the superb Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals, which Obama has enthusiastically cited over the last few months, celebrates Lincoln's sharply honed political instincts, not his idealism. Roosevelt climbed to the 1932 presidential nomination over the political corpse of his erstwhile closest ally, former New York Governor Al Smith, and won in a landslide despite a campaign notable for its lack of specific policy proposals.

About ten years ago, I worked briefly for the consulting firm Arthur Andersen in its political affairs shop while in grad school. One day the head of the division, a former chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, took me out to lunch at some swanky DC place. He told me stories about Joe Biden and some of the other big names he'd worked with, and imparted this bit of wisdom that has stayed with me: "They're all assholes. Anybody who runs for president has an enormous ego and almost no sense of his own limitations. And they have to be. It's not an undertaking that allows people who aren't assholes to succeed." With that in mind, Obama's less noble actions and attributes might be viewed as a feature, not a bug.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The National's Anthem
I thought this was kind of cool: my wife's favorite band, local (sort of) Brooklyn boys The National, have designed a t-shirt in support of Barack Obama. All proceeds will go to the campaign.

"Mr. November" is one of their better-known songs. I initially thought it was about Derek Jeter in the 2001 World Series, then maybe about high-school football, and finally, probably some experience unique to the writer. A lyrical sample:

I wish that I believed in fate
I wish I didn't sleep so late
I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders

I'm the new blue blood, I'm the great white hope
I'm the new blue blood

Given some of the recent concerns about Obama's commitment to progressive principles (albeit perhaps overblown), the chorus seems particularly timely:

I won't fuck us over, I'm Mr. November
I'm Mr. November, I won't fuck us over

Here's hopin'.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Stupid Hippies
I'm now a bit more than halfway through Nixonland, and it's doing something I didn't expect: making me far less sympathetic to the "New Left" than I previously was.

I don't think this was by any means the intention of author Rick Perlstein, a proud liberal who obviously sees his title character as the villain of the piece. (And it's probably worthwhile to note that the book isn't bringing me toward a greater sympathy for Richard Nixon himself, whose dishonesty and bad faith truly was breathtaking.) But the antics of groups like the "Yippies," particularly at the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, are indefensible; I would have wanted to beat the shit out of Abbie Hoffman myself.

[The Yippies'] bravura was inspiring. Their arrogance could render them little better than punks. In New York, the Lindsay administration enlisted Abbie as a community liaison to keep the peace in the East Village. Part of the deal was that the cops weren't allowed to arrest him. So he marched into the local precinct one day and made himself increasingly obnoxious. The captain who was his police handler, refusing the bait, retreated to his office. Abbie followed him inside and smashed the precinct's prized possession, the tropie case containing the precinct's service citations, sending the cop into the hoped-for rage. (p. 290)

What Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and their colleagues presented at Chicago as a "Festival of Life" reads to me forty years later like nothing more than a nihilistic glorification of anarchy, predicated largely on making the grown-ups (even more) miserable. (And Pete Townshend wins infinite points with me for shouting Hoffman down and bashing him in the head with his guitar at Woodstock.)

The Yippies probably weren't the worst actors, though; I'd leave that for some of the purely idiotic student radicals that Perlstein describes (again, with at least some sympathy). He sets up the campus conflicts of 1968-69 as "pukes versus jocks," using each side's derogatory term for the other. The lefty students--taking over buildings, harassing administrators and faculty, vandalizing libraries, destroying property--frequently faced off against fellow students who essentially wanted to keep going to classes and rejected the idea that these long-haired loudmouths spoke for them, as the media culture of the time constantly asserted. To my amazement, as I read this account, my sympathies are with the squares.

There's a strange tradition in liberal politics of left-leaning individuals who have more disdain for those further to their left than their real adversaries on the other side. Maybe that's what I'm feeling here. But I think it's more that the tactics of these attention-seekers were so destructive to the admirable causes they ostensibly championed. Perlstein describes a standoff at Cornell in 1969 in which an African-American student group bullied and manhandled fellow students, visiting parents and above all a dean who, over the course of the decade, had worked to increase black enrollment from about 80 to nearly 300 and had committed to establishing an Afro-American Studies department. They wanted more--and ultimately they didn't want anything:

Perkins [the Cornell dean] thought he was negotiating. He couldn't realize his adversaries were playing an entirely different game.

The militants had embraced a revolutionary dialectic. Escalating demands, impossible to meet, served "the objective of raising the level of awareness among blacks" to that of the vanguard, which would come to share with the vanguard "another objective, the destruction of the university, or at least its disruption." Issue unreasonable demands, and "the beast we are dealing with will use all the means at his disposal to maintain control of power." That would reveal the fascism behind the liberal facade. (p. 376)

Of course, when you start off assuming that an institution is a "beast," and refuse to be moved from that assumption, then beast-like tactics on your own part are self-evidently justified.

Perhaps the Democrats weren't able to pull off the admittedly tough political trick of endorsing the protesters' ostensible aims while strongly condemning their actions. Perhaps--this is the section of the book I'm now getting to--they didn't do nearly enough to differentiate between themselves and the fringe groups, making it that much easier for Nixon et al to disingenuously link them ("the party of amnesty, abortion and acid"). Either way, the Republicans have been running, and mostly winning, on the culture war ever since.

As I wrote recently, I don't think this is going to be as much in evidence this year (though the McCain campaign is evidently trying). That said, I'm starting to wonder if the real parallel might be not between the Democrats of 2008 and their predecessors four decades ago, but the fanatics of the left back then and those of the right today. The common thread is the arrogance and certitude: just as the Yippies and student radicals were absolutely free of self-doubt about their course of action, so too are the fanatics, in and out of government, who believe the current administration can do no wrong and that any action against "the beast"--government--is justified. It would be a fitting irony if their own hubris turned the tide back.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Frat Club
After a long day driving home from a holiday weekend and the Phillies' painful loss yesterday-into-last-night, I wanted to veg out a little and wound up watching "Old School" on TBS. I'd never seen it before, but the basic premise--three guys in their 30s wanting to recreate the fun of their college years--isn't very remote or hard to grasp for me. The leads (Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell) are all pretty good comic actors, and Jeremy Piven as the Crusty Old Dean seemed like an inspired choice.

It's an okay movie. The gags are uneven, I didn't much care about any of the characters, and some of the last-act plot resolution comes off like the writers just didn't care at that point. But what surprised me is that it's pretty much thematically parallel to one of my favorite movies of the last decade, "Fight Club." Both stories essentially revolve around the unarticulated yearning of chronologically grown-up men to find something more "real," some experience that allows them to reconnect with their truer selves. In "Fight Club," it's beating the holy hell out of other guys whom you basically like (at least initially); in "Old School," it's joining a fraternity that allows for boozing, hijinks, and wrestling in KY jelly with teenage girls. The most affecting moment in "Old School" comes when two of Luke Wilson's co-workers, real estate lawyers all, surreptitiously approach him in the office and beg to be admitted into the frat; Wilson's approach is fairly close to Tyler Durden's famous dictum that "the first rule of Fight Club is... you do not talk about Fight Club."

The real parallels are in the second half of each film, when it becomes clear that both sets of participants feel more invested in their escapist pursuit than in their workaday lives. There's no match in "Old School" for Tyler Durden's migration of Fight Club from an evenings-and-weekends hobby to something resembling a revolutionary army, maybe because the characters aren't as developed--but the level of devotion was sufficiently high that I was half-expecting the frat members to simply kill off Jeremy Piven's dean. (Instead, he's ultimately done away with in a manner that first comes across as shockingly funny, then just frightening--and I write this as someone who's gleefully and somewhat pointlessly killed off fictional characters myself.)

I guess my mild fascination with this mostly comes from the question of whether the writers of "Old School" consciously picked up on a theme from "Fight Club," a movie with a lot more critical heft, to weave into their fairly formulaic comedy. The wiki entry does cite a supposedly intentional homage, though it wasn't one that I picked up on while watching. (The same section claims that Ferrell's "Frank the Tank" drives the same car as the inadvertent murderer Frank from my absolute favorite movie of the last ten years, "Donnie Darko." I didn't notice any other similarities between that one and "Old School," however.) I often think about how writers of conventional mass-market entertainment, most of whom have better taste themselves and probably experience some level of frustration at the knowledge that they aren't making High Art, work out their issues; maybe this is one such instance.