Small Demon
Dec 102008
 

Fred Clark points to interesting research that shows that a dog has a basic sense of fairness, at least when they are the ones being treated unfairly. If you have two dogs who know how to “shake” and you put them side by side, then ask them to shake, but reward only one with a treat, the one who doesn’t get rewarded will fairly quickly lose interest in cooperating with you. Clark also points out that the press reports of the research make a common error, confusing justice with envy, then makes an analogy to human justice:

The researchers might have conducted a parallel study while carrying out this research. They could have hired two graduate assistants, telling each of them that they would be paid $100 at the end of each day’s research. And then, at the end of each day, they could have paid the first assistant, but not the second — not the underdog. My theory is that the underdog would quickly become “less and less inclined” to continue showing up for work.

In the case of these hypothetical assistants, of course, no one would mischaracterize the unpaid underdog’s response as “envious.” She might be angry, but she’d be refusing to cooperate not because she’s jealous of the other assistant, but because she is the victim of an injustice — because the situation is clearly unfair. Her response is not motivated by envy but by a sense of justice.

The Times and National Geographic reports on the actual study do not allow for the possibility that a similar motive is at work in the dog’s response. They don’t seem to recognize the significant and crucial distinction between “angry at unfair treatment” and “envious.” National Geographic stumbles toward a clarification, conceding that “this kind of envy” is “really an aversion to unequal reward,” but then their article goes right back to using the word envy as though these two things were reliably interchangeable.

This particular confusion is, sadly, quite popular. We hear exactly this same bit of madness almost constantly from apologists for irresponsible wealth. Express any concern about inequality or about the plight of those who have less than the minimum amount they need to get by and they will say you are guilty of “the politics of envy.” Try to explain the distinction and they will, in turn, explain that they understand what you’re saying, they simply reject it. “Justice,” they will insist, is simply a polite euphemism for disguised envy. The virtue is just a mask for the vice.

It’s not surprising that they would argue such a thing. Of course they don’t believe there’s any such thing as justice in this life or any other. That’s what they’re banking on. Envy they accept as real. Justice they regard as mere superstition.

Nov 202008
 

Okay, I have a couple of non-political posts in the hopper, but I want to get this down in pixils before returning to regularly scheduled programming. So, here’s what I care about at the present political moment:

  1. Real health care reform that does not simply reorganize the current domination of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. I would prefer a national single payer plan, but I am open to innovation.
  2. An economic stimulus plan that pushes investment in infrastructure, education, and and green energy.
  3. A complete and unambiguous repudiation of extraordinary rendition, torture, and the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens.
  4. A complete & final withdrawal from Iraq & no escalation in Afghanistan.

Number three will be a bright line indicator for me of the Obama administration’s moral seriousness. There are also several things I don’t give a hoot about:

  1. Hillary as Secretary of State — might create something of a circus atmosphere, but if Obama wants her I don’t have any objections.
  2. Same goes for bringing in seasoned professionals from the Clinton administration. I seem to recall that, long ago, in what seems like a fairy tale, president Clinton presided over eight years of peace and prosperity despite the frothing radical right’s attempts to destroy him.
  3. Prosecuting Bush / Cheney for war crimes. Some on the left are disappointed that this appears unlikely & yes the invasion of Iraq was a crime, but a prosecution wasn’t / isn’t ever going to happen in any case & would consume all of Obama’s political capital if it did. That’s just not the way the system works & I’m not going to spend too much time regretting this. History, as Bush himself has said hopefully, will judge. (I think his hope is misplaced & that he will be judged harshly.)
Nov 192008
 

I’ve been posting furious denunciations of Lieberman at TPM & reading the bland responses at 538 in disbelief, where the consensus is that the DFHs really need to just get over Lieberman & move on (doncha know), but I won’t go nuts here on my own weblog. I’ll just say that: 1) I feel dissed by the Democratic Party, including Barack Obama, just after spending a lot of time & money getting Obama elected; and 2) if this really is a window into Obama’s soul, then I don’t expect much in the way of progressive politics from the incoming administration. Centrism is corporatism is conservatism. I thought that’s what the country just rejected, but, hey, I’m just a dirty fucking hippie (DFH) out here in the netroots — useful to the party leadership at election time, but kind of embarrassing, doncha know? Anyway, via 3Quarks, here is the most useful thing I’ve seen on the subject, from Simon Critchley at Adbusters. [Rachel Maddow video via Pas Au-dela.]

Nov 162008
 

My friend the indefatigable Anny Ballardini has begun assembling an online collection of poems written in response to the recent US election. There is a call for further submissions, as well. (Anny does a lovely job, by the way, of presenting poetry online.) The New York Times did something similar last week, with poems from five American poets — Ashbery‘s was the only one that moved me — but in any case the collection developing at Fiera Lingue is much more capacious, generous, & daring than the stuff in the Times.

Nov 152008
 

Note: I began this post several days ago, but I haven’t felt much like writing. Partly this is mid-semester slump, partly that I have been busy with other things, about which I’ll have something to say anon.

It does feel different, doesn’t it, the country having elected Barack Obama president? For one thing, it appears to have driven the far right completely around the bend & that cannot be a bad thing. And though I am no kind oc constitutional literalist, it feels good to have a former Con Law prof as president-elect; after eight years of an extra-constitutional unitary executive, I was particularly happy to see this orgganization chart. And listening the the president-elect’s first news conference, I was struck by the tone of thoughtful intelligence and, yes, the use of complete sentences that followed sensibly from one to the next. The use of language marks a political divide in the modern US, as it probably always has, of course. High tone versus low down.

In fact, I heard the NY Times reporter David Kirkpatrick make an argument about the current state of the Republican party the other day on NPR that made the distinction between the “high” Republicanism of David Brooks and George Will and the “low” Republicanism of Sarah Palin & Rush Limbaugh. It is a division revealed by language and may be more important at the moment, according to Kirkpatrick, than the more usual divisons between fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and imperialist neoconservative foreign policy hawks. Less remarked upon is a similar division on the left, between inside-the-beltway establishment liberals and the progressive grassroots, which has been newly energized by Barack Obama’s campaign. The blogger Digby at Hullabaloo, refers to these two camps as Villagers (the establishment) and DFHs (dirty fucking hippies). And one of the main things that marks these different groups is their use of language, which in turn reflects their different attitudes toward the intellect.

It does seem if Republicans are retreating toward their most radical core beliefs & adopting the attitudes of “low” conservatism & the rhetoric of small town bigotry, but that sort of politics seems to be losing its purchase in many places. Levittown voted for Obama. Michael Sokolove, author of the previously linked article, writes:

My article in The New York Times Magazine reported that his [Obama's] words were coming across as lofty and abstract to people more attuned to concrete concerns like the hourly wage and the monthly car payment. The article was published on the morning before Mr. Obama made his one big gaffe of the campaign, telling attendees at a San Francisco fund-raiser that some blue-collar voters have been so beaten down that its not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion….

Sokolove concludes that a combination of race & “his manner of speaking” made it difficult for the blue coller workers of Levittown, initially, to trust Obama’s message; ultimately, they voted for him, along with similar workers in suburban Detroit and other places. On the other hand, his race & manner of speaking cut no ice with the voters of the rural south and Appalachia, where race continues to dominate. In Macomb County Michigan & Levittown, on the other hand, the fading of racism allowed Obama’s message, ultimately, to cut through the class markers embedded in language.

Those linguistic class markers interest me as a poet. It appears that particular uses of language, at least on the political right, distinguish “high” from “low” modalities. (This may also be true on the left but the cases are not parallel.) Sarah Palin’s soccer mom dialect delighted her fans partly because they heard their own voices in it, while the mandarins of conservatism found her repulsive. We on the left laughed at her because we associate mangled syntax with stupidity. Palin’s truly pyrotechnic dismantling of syntax seems to me to be a desperate & only partly conscious effort to mask her ignorance — what high school & college students knowingly call bullshitting (as a term of art) when they write papers on books they haven’t read. All of this gets amped up & fed back by audiences celebrating their own ignorance & taking comfort from the spectacle of Palin celebrating hers. So the demotic is in bad repute at the moment, having been turned to destructive purposes. What seems so horribly wrong about Palin’s speech is that it borrows the strngth of demotic English, not to express thought forcefully — as ordinary, even “ungrammatical” English can do — but to cover for dishonesty and moral aridity.

Demotic language — comedy, pop music, even advertising — can, used honestly, drive toward the truth; they can of course also be used to to deceive, cajole, flatter, & pander. My sense of president-elect Obama is that he understands this, though he strikes me as being a little uncomfortable with the demotic. But I feel a real sense of satisfaction that I now have a president who speaks, not in Bushian bursts of static or Palinesque knots of blather, but in recognizable sentences that link togehter into coherent thoughts. In order to lie to the public, Bush & Palin had to lie first to themselves. I don’t think the president-elect is lying to himself & consequently I don’t think he will lie to me.