15 June 2004

Gmail

Can someone invite me to Gmail?  Please?

Posted in OnTheWeb on 15 June 2004 at 4:41 pm by Nate

Ron Reagan on the Second Bush

Ron Reagan had a piece in Salon a couple of months back in which he harshly criticized the Bush administration, especially in its efforts to appropriate his father for their purposes.

It’s worth checking out.  If you think he had quite a zinger at
the California interment, when he criticized politicians who wore thier
religion on their sleeves for political gain, you should read this.

Posted in Politicks on 15 June 2004 at 4:37 pm by Nate

Religious ghettoes

    David, over at Oxblog, ruminates on the movie Saved!, and he muses about religious communities that live in some sort ot isolation from the larger world.

    I grew up in the community that Saved!
satirizes, and the first 30 minutes of the film were frighteningly
hilarious to me in ways that I think passed over the heads of the
Berkeley audience, as I sometimes was the only person laughing out loud
in the theatre.  I remember the whole culture of creating
alternative, parallel institutions to replicate and concurrently
counter the broader “secular” culture.  We had “Christian” rock,
rap, and heavy metal; “Christian” school systems; “Christian” yellow
pages and business directories; “Christian” media sources (not all of
the TBN or Pat Robertson variety); “Christian” sports leagues; and so
on.  Many of my friends went from kindergarten through college
entirely in a “Christian” educational system.  We were encouraged
to be “in the world, but not of the
world.”  We were concerned about too active an engagement with the
broader American culture, for fear that it would captivate us and bend
us away from the right and true way of living, transforming us for the
negative rather than allowing us to transform it for the “positive.”

    Several aspects of this parallelism have struck me
more and more the further that I get from this culture.  One
reason I put “Christian” in quotes above was that our understanding of
Christianity stayed remarkably restricted.  Other people may have
been Christians, like Catholics or perhaps some mainline Protestants or
Episcopalians (but those latter two were pretty suspicious in terms of
their Christianity), but they weren’t part of our “Christian”
community.  It’s not that we didn’t think they were not
Christians, just that we were sure that our Christianity was better,
more authentic, more trustworthy.  When I became an Episcopalian,
that was viewed with more than a little bit of suspicion — not because
of the possible Romishness of the ECUSA, but because of the perception
that Episcopalians were too liberal to really be Christians.

    But another aspect of this parallel society, which
tried to define itself apart from the larger culture, was that the
definition was both oppositional and entirely on the terms of the
larger culture.  If you think you’re in the world but not really
part of it, than much of your self-understanding comes from looking at
what you’re not part of and consciously going in another
direction.  So when you see that the culture’s sexual ethic has
changed from one which formerly matched yours — monogamy only in the
context of male-female marriage — you look at what the larger culture
is doing and declare it off-limits.  So sex, for example, in the
evangelical ghetto cannot include homo sex, no “casual” sex, no sex
within a committed relationship that has not been transformed into
marriage, no divorce except for infidelity, and so on.  And the
reasoning should be pretty obvious.  The theological view
determines the socio-political view here: God (and even more
importantly) our understanding of God do not change, so all the
structures that are tied into that God in some way are also worthy of
protection and resistance to change.  What do we do, however, if
our understanding of God is not immutable?  What if we begin to
understand human history as a narrative of nearly constant
change?  What happens to faith and life then?  I think this
dilemma has just begun to become acute for many American evangelicals,
but the full implications of what it means for their culture to undergo
revolution in paradigm (which is what might be happening) aren’t clear
to many of them.

    Even more interesting than the above definition by
defiance, many people in this culture do not seem to realize that the
process of defining as “in the world but not of the world” requires a
grounding in the very world that one seeks to deny.  Many
evangelicals seek to keep a wall between their community and the
surrounding culture, but at the same time, they understand themselves
to have an imperative to transform that world.  The necessity to
change requires engagement.  If one wants to attract people to
one’s project of transformation, one has to make it attractive. 
So you show that your culture is not significantly different from the
larger culture, that it has all the same stuff — school systems,
popular culture (of a sorts), cultural institutions, economics, and so
on.  But when you make “Christian” music, it sounds just like
“secular” music, especially given the fact that your group does not
have sufficient cultural power to set the terms of cultural
change.  So Christian music can never actually influence much of
the course of popular music; it can only react to how popular music
develops, changing one step behind the mainstream culture, after
consideration of how one can do that following and still “remain true
to your convictions.”  But it’s still this faint shadow of the
larger culture.  And you become tied into and integrally part of
that which you also deny.

    I mean none of this aspersively.  I don’t think
that evangelicals engage in doublethink about their social roles any
more than the rest of us who belong to groups that aren’t very
self-reflective do.  And I think the movie, in its somewhat
ham-handed way (as David pointed out in his post) recognizes that this
contradiction exists; but just like evangelicals, it doesn’t know quite
what to make of it, and it’s at those points that the humor and satire
fall flat and the ending becomes a bit too pat.

Posted in Rayleejun on 15 June 2004 at 3:57 pm by Nate

American Partisanship

The Times ran an interesting piece this weekend on the nature of American partisanship.  This is pretty typical of the gist of the piece:

Do Americans really despise the beliefs of half of their fellow
citizens? Have Americans really changed so much since the day when a
candidate with Ronald Reagan’s soothing message could carry 49 of 50
states?

To some scholars, the answer is no. They say that our basic
differences have actually been shrinking over the past two decades, and
that the polarized nation is largely a myth created by people inside
the Beltway talking to each another or, more precisely, shouting at
each other.

These academics say it’s not the voters but the political elite of
both parties who have become more narrow-minded and polarized. As Norma
Desmond might put it: We’re still big. It’s the parties that got
smaller.

Just because a state votes red or blue in a presidential election
doesn’t mean that its voters are fixed permanently on one side of a
political divide or culture gap. The six bluest states in 2000, the
ones where George
W. Bush fared worst – Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Hawaii,
Connecticut and Maryland – all have Republican governors. Even
California went red last year when Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate
Republican, became governor.

Most voters are still centrists willing to consider a candidate from
either party, but they rarely get the chance: It’s become difficult for
a centrist to be nominated for president or to Congress or the state
legislature, said Morris P. Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford
and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Now the article sums up the conventional explanation for the increasing partisanship of the electorate as follows:

Why, if the public is tolerant, would the political elites be so angry?
One reason given by Professor Fiorina is the decline of party bosses,
who promoted centrist candidates because their patronage systems
depended on winning elections, and the corresponding rise of
special-interest groups, who are more concerned with candidates’
ideology.

I spoke with political scientist friends at Berkeley who actually study this
stuff (like Mo Fiorina), but they disagree with his conclusions,
partially out of a technical methodological question (which has huge
implications, actually), and partially out of a very different
understanding of the chain of cause and effect.

First, the method problem.  The focus of this article is on the
state and national levels, but people elect Congress from their
particular districts.  So we’re dealing with two different levels
of aggregation, as it were.  On the larger level, people are more
moderate, but on the smaller level — the Congressional district —
voters are actually quite intensely partisan.  Think of it this
way.  Pretend the political landscape actually is a
landscape.  So it looks like a topographical map, where you can
see the elevation of any particular point, but from which you can also
calculate an average (mean) elevation above sea level.  So imagine
you’ve got a landscape, and it has peaks and valleys. 

Where
there are peaks or valleys, their depth or height indicates the
degree of partisanship.  But the average level for a picture like
the one above show a fairly middle of the road elevation.  But if
you lay a grid horizontally over the picture, the squares will likely
contain more peak or valley than the opposite, and overall you get a
sector that is primarily peak or valley.

This somewhat gives you an idea of the methodological problem. 
When we talk about the country as a whole or even a state or region as
a whole, we smooth out the partisan bumps that exist.  If you laid
a partisan map over the country, similar in approach to the graph
above, you’d find wide and radical differences between parts of the
country.  Mississippi would be a fairly high peak, while the San
Francisco Bay Area or Boston would be a very low valley.*  So the
map of the U.S. would be pretty bumpy.  But if you look at the
country as a whole and apply the statistics and measurements that
describe the country or even a region on average and apply that
backwards to the very small level of congressional districts, you get a
much smoother, more moderate topography.


*I choose the peak and valley for the party based on how we normally
treat party idenitfication numerically, with Republicans as +1 and
Democrats as a -1.  No implication about relative worth exists,
because my own biases would probably reverse putting Republicans on the
sunny peaks.



Second, in the U.S., most congressional districts
are highly peaked or “valleyed”, indicating a high degree of
partisanship in any particular district.  Most districts are
comfortably Republican or Democrat, and so are a high peak or low
valley.  This, according to my political scientist friends, occurs
for two reasons.  First, legislatures and parties in them have
drawn comfortably uncompetitive districts, where one party dominates by
eight or ten percentage points over the other.  Second, within the
parties, voters just do tend to be fairly partisan.  For some
reason (my friends are working on the answers to this, as we don’t
quite know yet), voters act in intensely partisan ways, especially when
they live in comfortably partisan districts.  It’s only when a
district has a competitive balance between the parties that we see
“moderate” candidates emerge, and we have an extraordinarily low number
of competitive congressional districts in the country today.

Interestingly, I learned that primary voters, who are often reputed to
more partisan than their party-fellows at large don’t differ
significantly from those party-fellows.  In other words, it is
something of a myth that we get more partisan party candidates because
people who vote in primaries are more extreme than those who vote in
general elections.  Republicans and Democrats who vote in
primaries are not significantly more ideological than Reps or Dems at
large.

So the NY Times article provides a very interesting viewpoint on the
partisan wars of the country, but perhaps a little too
Pollyanna-ish.  The data that matters, from individual
congressional districts, indicates that we are an intensely divided
people.  We may even out as a country, but we don’t vote for our
politicians (excepting the President) by country, and so it’s not a
reasonable way to look at our current political atmosphere.

ADDENDUM: David Brooks’ column today
posits another reason for the partisan divide in today’s politics —
it’s based upon a conflict between professional and managerial
classes.  As often, it’s an interesting read….

Posted in Politicks on 15 June 2004 at 2:29 pm by Nate