Friday, May 30, 2008


Great to see my profession personified, though Clio really is a woman. And I'm guessing that HER verdict will be even harsher. Thanks to Political Carnival for this cartoon.


It will a long while before Barack Obama selects his running mate, though the speculation is already running wild. The current fad, more robust and long-lasting than most, is that Obama should balance his ticket with a white male who is well to his right. Someone like Virginia Senator, ex-Reaganite, former Navy Secretary Jim Webb.

A number of assumptions, all of them dubious, are embedded in this argument.

First is a belief, stoked by the right, but also by a number of Hillary-ites, that Obama is effeminate and that he needs to have a manly man at his side--"a real man's man full of anger and testosterone." The argument goes that Obama can innoculate himself against charges of elitism by choosing a tough guy who can appeal to America's auto mechanics and firefighters.

Second is the related argument, one that has circulated in Democratic circles since the early 1970s, that liberals will only win if they attract alienated white men back into their fold. The meme began with the 1970 hard hat riots and continued through Reagan Democrats and NASCAR dads. All of them, the argument went, could be won over to a ticket that included a tough guy. Frankly, I don't think that the performative masculinity of the VP candidate matters much. If it did, why did the GOP pick George H.W. or Dan Quayle, neither of whom were the belly-scratching, beer swilling types. And Dick Cheney might be a good duck hunting companion, so long as you stand behind him, but he's too sour and reclusive to appeal to anyone other than Haliburton executives and wingnuts. And the tough-as-nails Lloyd Bentsen was not enough to redeem Michael Dukakis.

Third is the post-9/11 argument that the United States needs to project a tough, masculine face to the world in service of the war on terror. A confident, swaggering America will strike fear in the heart of our foes. Counter-argument: we've have George W. "Mission Accomplished" Bush in office for the last seven and a half years and his bravado has only stoked the flames of resentment among our allies and our enemies alike. Alas, chest thumping is not strongly correlated with effective diplomacy. Recasting America as Marlboro Man makes for good photo ops, but not effective alliance building.

But the outcome of the Democratic caucuses and primaries suggests something quite different. It's the need to win over women voters. Obama has been doing quite well among male voters, but he has been struggling to win the support of women. Current polls show Obama still struggling to gain the support of Democratic women. And national match-ups show that a sizeable percentage of white women voters support McCain over Obama. A recent Gallup poll found that "Obama loses to McCain by nine points among white women, while Clinton wins by three points. Clinton does better than Obama among both blue-collar and white-collar white women." Other polls show Obama doing better among women, but he can't afford to take their votes for granted.

Democratic women have gravitated toward Hilary for a number of reasons, in part as a reaction to misogyny directed toward her, in part because Hilary has addressed head-on many of the concerns of women voters with specific recommendations rather than high-minded rhetoric. Perhaps most important is the deep but mostly unnoticed strain of blue-collar feminism that explains much of the bitterness of Rustbelt women voters and their attraction to a strong woman like Hillary.

I am a skeptic of Hillary and of the Clintons for many reasons--and remain to be convinced that she should be on Obama's ticket. But it's in Obama's interest to look for a veep candidate who will appeal to women voters, whether it is a man or woman. (There are good arguments for picking a woman candidate). In 2000, women voters split more or less evenly between Bush and Gore, but in 2004, they went decisively for W. Obama and the Democrats will get some of them back, but they need to widen the gender gap as far as they can. It is unlikely that women voters are going to be seduced by Webb's macho, Tailhook-attending, antifeminist, cock-of-the-walk style.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


The Senate recently passed an updated GI Bill, sponsored by Dem veep candidate du jour Jim Webb. (I have grave concerns about Webb on the ticket, but I'll send you here for now and spare you my thoughts today). There is a raging debate about the effects of the GI Bill on military recruitment and retention. Its GOP foes, including John McCain, argue that providing educational benefits will lead some soldiers to decide (quite sensibly, in my opinion) not to reenlist. But other analysts contend that the payoff of the benefit will actually assist the military in recruitment.

But as I see it, the debate fundamentally misses the point. The all-volunteer military is one of the most inequitable institutions in American life. Why? Because it puts the burden of military service on those with the fewest resources and limited job opportunities. Not surprisingly, many military men and women come from the hardest-hit Rustbelt towns, from inner cities, and from down-at-the-heels rural areas.

Back when I was a teenager, I opposed the draft (which was not in place at the time) and the Carter administration's introduction of mandatory draft registration. My position was principled: it grew out of my youthful libertarianism (I've grown out of it) and my opposition to Reagan-era foreign policy (a position that I still hold). I was, in large part, wrong, even if my reasons were usually right.

It is an unpopular position in the circles in which I travel, but I think it's the only just one: to require universal service, with a non-military public service option for conscientious objectors. Here are my reasons.

First and foremost: It is unfair for the least advantaged to bear the greatest burdens in service to the country. To be sure, in nearly every period of history (most notably during the Vietnam War), the well-heeled and well-connected have found all sorts of ways of passing the burden to the poor and working-class. Historian Christian Appy's book, Working-Class War, is a powerful reminder of the costs that blue-collar Americans bore in the debacle in Southeast Asia. Appy points out that, in contrast to World War II and Korea, 80 percent of those who served in Vietnam came from blue-collar or poor families.

Second: Service to society will play a small, but not inconsequential, role in fostering a sense of collective responsibility among young people. Right now, that sense of commonality is sorely lacking, especially among the best-off Americans who have spent most of the last forty years steadily withdrawing from the public sector. To be sure there are glimmers of hope. Over the last decade, I have witnessed a massive growth in "community service" programs at my university and elsewhere. These programs are a starting point, even if most students see service primarily as a vehicle for self-improvement or credentialing. It allows them to rationalize their privilege, to engage in paternalistic forms of uplift, and, in the process to pad the resume. Don't get me wrong: I'm not opposed to community service programs, if they are well-organized and involve more than superficial, feel-good, condescending programs. But we need more.

Third: A broader base of service in the military will give more Americans a stake in the outcome of wars. The intense antiwar movement during the 1960s was fueled, in large part, by the immediacy of the draft. Hundreds of thousands of students marched against the war because they knew that their lives--or the lives of their brothers, husbands, lovers, sons, friends--were at stake. No more. Hardly any of my students know even a single person who has been stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan. And even fewer know anyone who was injured or died there.

There is a great scene in Michael Moore's film, Fahrenheit 911, when the Rustbelt-born filmmaker asks members of Congress whether or not they would send their children to fight in Iraq. Most of them stammered or looked at Moore like he was crazy. But they had few compunctions about sending other people's children into harm's way. Perhaps they would have done that anyway--certainly the past offers many grim examples of chicken hawks willing to sacrifice others for their own delusions.

Universal service will be no panacea, but it's better than what we have in place now.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I'm back from a relaxing Memorial Day on the beach, but my blood pressure is already rising. And it's not that I have a genetic disposition to hypertension. Rather it's the latest piece of pseudoscience, this time in the form of political consulting masquerading as molecular biology (or vice versa). Thanks to reader MC--an always astute critic of the misuse of genetics in service of social science and punditry.

Today's NYT opines that

"there is tempting evidence of a hereditary component to political choices. There is a strong correlation between the partisan choices of parents and children. Studies comparing identical and fraternal twins suggest that genes are at work alongside the social and psychological influence of parents. Political scientists at the University of California, San Diego have gone another step, identifying specific genes associated with voter participation and partisanship.

It seems as if people with one variant of the MAOA gene are more likely to vote than those with the other version. Among regular churchgoers, those with one type of the gene that make the 5HTT transporter molecule in the walls of neuron cells (don't ask) are substantially more likely to vote than those with the other.

The moral of the story:
If certain genes make us more receptive to political messages, or more or less likely to vote, then we know the next step society must take: Keep the drugs that target the specific genes out of the hands of political consultants

The Times has been bamboozled by a very schematic paper by James Fowler and Christopher Dawes at UC San Diego. The paper is full of caveats that serve as red flags. Here's one: "It is crucial to point out at the outset that we cannot test, given our data, the potential causal pathways we suggest. Therefore, the goal of this study is to show association rather than causality."

On the grounds of that "association", they make the huge claim that "these results represent an important step for political science as a discipline. Specifically, they show that incorporating genetic information into our theories and analysis may contribute to a greater understanding of political behavior." Hubris indeed.

In the end, Fowler and Dawes offer an argument by analogy--and a clever, if particularly dubious one in this case. Political scientists have emphasized the role that institutions play in shaping and constraining political behavior. Their argument takes the new institutionalism a step further: "Genes are the institutions of the human body: they constrain individual behavior just as political institutions constrain the behavior of groups of people. In this article we demonstrate that possessing a particular gene is associated with voting activity. Even after controlling for factors known to influence turnout, having a high MAOA allele raises the likelihood of voting by about 5%."

Thanks, but before I come even close to buying the argument that genes determine voting behavior, I want causality, not correlation. And before I begin rethinking the social sciences, we need a lot more hard science, not just speculation. Bringing genetic research to bear on the messy reality of political behavior, especially when the science is still so undeveloped and theoretically unsophisticated, is problematic. Attributing complex human behavior to two genes on the basis of speculative associations is simply not good social science. Our standards should be higher.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


I'm scribbling this post on a northbound train to NYC. I'm a big fan of public transit and ride the rails often, from home to work or, like this morning, to get my fix of the Big Apple. With gas prices nearing $4 a gallon, we should be thinking hard about bumping up our subsidies for our woefully underfunded transportation system.

It's only 90 miles from Philly to NYC, but our starving Amtrak system keeps jacking up the fares--it's only sensible response to the fact that Amtrak could not survive any other way. In one of the most perverse examples of the way that market fundamentalism distorts our public policy, Congress puts our rail system on a famine diet and then blames it for wasting away--all as an excuse for the dubious panacea of privatization.

The result is a transportation alternative accessible only to the wealthy. A roundtrip ticket from PHL to NYC on Amtrak would have cost me about $150.

So here I am traversing the lovely Garden State on New Jersey Transit. Thank goodness NJ still finds the revenue to offer frequent and relatively cheap service. My total fare, including regional rail in Philly amounts to $42 roundtrip. Bummer that the trip takes three hours. But at least I can read and type on my phone.And riding the rails offers a great view of rusting cities, tacky suburbs, and sometimes stylish graffiti.

NJ Transit has experienced a spike in ridership recently. This is the upside of high fuel prices. But it's time for America to join the rest of the world and put a lot more resources into this environment-saving alternative to the car.

From Rahway, heading north...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Down in Boca Raton, Florida, Hillary Clinton is doing her best imitation of, well, people like me. Politico reports that "Clinton, at times sounding like a modern history professor, praised the abolitionists, suffragettes and civil rights pioneers and talked about her own efforts to fight legislative redistricting and voter identification initiatives that she said dilute minority voting power."

She analogizes her effort to count the contested results of the premature primaries in Michigan and Florida to the actions of courageous activists who "refused to accept their assigned place as second-class citizens. Men and women who saw America not as it was, but as it could and should be, and committed themselves to extending the frontiers of our democracy. The abolitionists and all who fought to end slavery and ensure freedom came with the full right of citizenship. The tenacious women and a few brave men who gathered at the Seneca Falls convention back in 1848 to demand the right to vote."

I am all in favor of voting rights--and I agree that it is in the interest of the Democratic Party to figure out how to handle the unresolved mess of the Florida and Michigan primaries. But Hillary's analogy is history as hyperbole. With all due respect to candidate Clinton, she is no Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Lucretia Mott. If she were, she would have long ago figured out a way to let the Michiganians and Floridians revote, after a full campaign with both candidates represented on the ballot. For the sake of the Democratic Party, I do hope that she and Obama reach some sort of amicable agreement that allows the seating of those two states' delegations. But ultimately, their fate does not rise of the level of enslaved African Americans or disenfranchised women.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Rusting cities are all over today's NYT. I am happy to say that for the first time, and perhaps for the last time, I have scooped the Times, which today ran a story on Philadelphia's Greensgrow Farm, the subject of my recent musings on urban agriculture. I'm going to head there this weekend to pick up, among other things, a jar of "Honey from the Hood," one of its signature products.

Somehow, I always end up in places like Philadelphia's gritty Kensington neighborhood rather than the south of France. C'est dommage. But another article in today's Times has tempted me to hop on the next plane to Paris and then jump onto the first TGV southward, en route to the Cannes Film Festival. But, alas, I'll have to wait because I already missed the Cannes screening of what promises to be a Rustbelt Classic, Terence Davies's "Of Time and the City," a film about postindustrial Liverpool. The photo above is a stunning still from the film. The reviews thus far are overwhelmingly positive. The Boston Globe's Ty Burr writes that "Davies himself narrates over the inspired onrush of historical and archival footage, and his hoarse, whispered cadences have the urgency of the confessional and the scornful humor of the outsider.... [I]t's easily the most haunting work I've seen at Cannes." Any film that combines historical footage of monuments and "soulless estates," gorgeous music, and references to Engels and de Kooning deserves a wide audience. I can't wait to see it.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Late on Friday afternoon, I got a phone call from one of my students. Let's call him George. The conversation began with a compliment. "Thanks Prof. S for the great semester," followed by an interesting bit of autobiography. "I am a liberal arts major, but I am going to medical school next year." So far, so good.

But then the ask. What follows was appalling.

"I'm calling because I'm one tenth of a point away from graduating Magna Cum Laude. You gave me an A- in your course and if you change the grade to A, I'll graduate with high honors." George's exams and final paper were graded by one of my highly competent (and probably exceedingly generous) TAs. It's possible (but not probable) that his grade was unjust. In any case, George did not claim that he had been treated unfairly. In this respect, at least, he was honest. In all of my years of teaching, I have only modified a TA's grade once, when the student presented me with unassailable evidence that her TA had a personal beef with her and, as a result, had given her an unwarranted grade.

Back to George: I was probably too soft on the kid. Rather than berating him for last-minute grade grubbing, or going to the registrar and lowering his grade for impudence, I gave him my conventional line on grade changes, namely that if he wants me to reconsider a grade, he needs to offer me an intellectual rationale, put it in writing, and take the risk that I might be a harsher grader than my teaching assistant. I haven't heard from him since. I'm sure that he went on in his search for the weakest link. I hope he didn't succeed.

Were it not for the Buckley Amendment, which protects students' privacy, I would have shouted his name from the rooftops and through the blogosphere from sea to shining sea. Instead, to you George, I wish you a most unhappy graduation. I hope that someday your cheating catches up to you. May you struggle mightily through your medical school courses (which are graded on a curve with little recourse for aggrieved grade grubbers). Should you graduate and pass your board certifications without cheating, may you find a medical position that doesn't require contact with patients, but if so, may your practice be marred by countless, costly, time-wasting malpractice suits. Good bye.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Over the last several weeks, the MSM has engaged in endless chatter about bitter working-class voters and their cultural resentments. It's time to move on. Most of the talk about class in the last few months has been in the form of crude, armchair ethnography, based on the old school assumption that working-class folk out there (especially in places like Appalachia) are the "other," whose incomprehensible folkways need to be interpreted and often mocked. It's ok to talk about class as a bundle of cultural practices or irrational beliefs, but not to talk about it as a matter of inequality, economic power, or political marginalization.

Fortunately, there are some alternative perspectives on the topic of class, power, and politics worth reading. Start with TPM Café. There political scientist Larry Bartels summarizes research that offers a damning critique of the ways that the political system is skewed toward the interests of the rich. Shonu Gandhi picks up on a theme that I have written about: namely the ever-rising financial burden that poor and working-class college students bear as the result of escalating college costs and their dependence on predatory loans. And Dean Baker points out that low-income renters will be the victims of a redistribution of wealth upward to bail out mortgage lenders.

Friday, May 16, 2008


A controversy has broken out over the design of the proposed Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. Many Afrocentric activists are outraged that the statue was designed by a Chinese sculptor, Yei Lixin. I find this argument dubious, not only because of the racial essentialism that informs it, but because King himself (like most black activists of the left from the 1920s through the 1970s) was an internationalist, someone who saw the connections between the state of African Americans and oppressed people worldwide. Other critics of the proposed memorial have argued that the design was "outsourced," drawing a faulty parallel between capital flight and artistry. By that argument, Washington, DC's city plan was "outsourced" to the dangerous Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant and the Statue of Liberty "outsourced" to the unacceptably foreign Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi.

But of all of the criticisms swirling around the King memorial, the most disturbing to me is the argument that King, sculpted with crossed arms and a stern visage, is too "confrontational."

I have written about the danger of "plaster saint" representations of King, of how King's radical message has been domesticated into a feel-good version of civil rights politics. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson offers a version of this argument in today's WaPo.

But it is important to remember that King's power in the 1960s came from the fact that American political leaders and the public perceived him as confrontational. J. Edgar Hoover called for FBI wiretaps of King because he was the "most dangerous Negro in America." The Kennedy administration did everything that it could to prevent the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and then to mute its confrontational message. Whites blamed King for starting riots, for stirring up the otherwise happy Negroes, and for pushing for change--too far too fast. King was an unrelenting critic of America's engagement with Vietnam. He was fearless in challenging the economic exploitation that was at the root of racial inequality in the United States.

We misremember King if we see him as the tribune of tolerance, as someone who simply called Americans to be true to their "creed" of equality and opportunity. King built bridges, yes. But he also offered a radical, prophetic critique of modern America that was profoundly confrontational. That was his power. We should not forget it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Hot off the wires: Phyllis Schlafly has branded critics of her honorary degree as a bunch of losers. Ouch. I'm mortally wounded.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


The ever vapid, rightward slouching Mickey Kaus adopts a Gingrichian position on unions: he opposes legislation to allow the card check system for workplace unionization. This means, given the NLRB's lax enforcement of anti-intimidation laws and its carte blanche to corporate anti-unionization campaigns, that many unions will face nearly insurmountable barriers to winning workplace elections. Then Kaus gets even worse: "It seems to me that a) a tight 90s-style labor market and b) direct government provision of benefits (e.g. health care, OSHA) accomplishes what we want traditional unions to accomplish, but on a broader basis and without encouraging a sclerotic, adversarial bureaucracy that gets in the way of the productive organization of work."

Note to Mickey: 1) we are in a troubled 00s-style labor market, not a tight 90s-stle labor market 2) direct government provision of benefits (eg health care) is still a distant dream for most workers, 3) working people's wages have been stagnant or declining for most of the last thirty five years. And as for "sclerotic, adversarial bureaucracy," well, Kaus should take a detour next time he's hobnobbing with the rich and famous in LA and spend a day or two with the creative organizers in unions like SEIU who are organizing janitors, nursing home workers, and other service sector employees in some of the least secure, most poorly paying jobs in the country. Or perhaps he should spend a few hours with the once-sclerotic United Steelworkers who are responding to globalization by collaborating with their counterparts overseas.

Footnote: Great minds think alike. Check out this astute critique of Kaus.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I can't help but chortle at the news that tort-reformer and near-Supreme Court justice Robert Bork just settled a $1 million dollar slip and fall lawsuit that he filed against the Yale Club of New York.

This from a man who prominently complained:
Courts are now meccas for every conceivable unanswered grievance or perceived injury. Juries dispense lottery-like windfalls, attracting and rewarding imaginative claims and far-fetched legal theories. Today's merchant enters the marketplace with trepidation - anticipating from the civil justice system the treatment that his ancestors experienced with the Barbary pirates.

Judge Bork lost his Supreme Court seat but won the lottery. Harr!


In recognition of the difficult financial straits that many poor people face, some states have been providing modest cash assistance to help the working poor hold onto their jobs. The sums, reported in yesterday’s New York Times, are paltry. Arkansas leads the pack, providing $204 dollars a month extra to poor workers. California is talking about dishing up an extra $40 per month. Michigan, where the economy is tanking, provides a whopping $10 per month for six months. And Massachusetts—that bastion of liberal profligacy—-provides $7 per month as a supplement. Reports the Times: “Alison Goodwin, a spokeswoman for the human services department in Massachusetts, acknowledged that the benefit was ‘modest.’ But she said it would increase the work participation rate.” $7 per month. I doubt it.

It’s been a dozen years since President Bill Clinton signed the legislation that abolished Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). At that time, many observers, myself among them, described TANF as an anti-welfare program, not an antipoverty program. Proponents of welfare reform bellyached about the dangers of “dependency.” The belief that dependency is a state to be avoided is peculiar sociologically. It rests on a very old but dubious American belief in the value of individual independence, one that resonates rhetorically but does not begin to describe the countless ways that we depend on our families, our neighbors, our communities, and, yes, even our government, whether we are rich or poor. To that end, welfare reformers fashioned policies that raised the barriers to welfare receipt, established cut-offs, and instituted work requirements. TANF would carve out paths to independence and self-sufficiency that would liberate poor women (the primary target of welfare reform) and their children from debilitating government handouts.

Well we now know that the barriers to entry and the cutoffs worked—-in dramatically reducing welfare rolls. But we also now know that TANF did nothing to reduce rates of poverty. Why? Because remunerative, entry-level jobs are scarce. The lack of affordable, accessible day care options is a big barrier to women who want or have to join the paid labor force. The sorts of unskilled jobs that attract most former or would-be welfare recipients are not known for their stability and security. Most of them do not provide a cushion for women who have to take a day off to care for a sick child or an unhealthy relative. You miss a day or two of work and you’re fired. But most problematically, most of these jobs simply do not pay enough to provide the basic resources necessary for subsistence.

Consider this hard fact. In 2004, the average yearly income for the poorest fifth of households in the country was a mere $14,700, in contrast to a remarkable and rising $155,200 for the richest fifth. Try living on $14,700 a year with or without children. It's not easy.

A recent Pennsylvania study makes clear the difficulty that working poor families face in achieving self sufficiency. Economist Diana Pierce calculated that a one-parent family with two children (one in preschool, one in elementary school) living in the Philadelphia metropolitan area would need a little more than $42,000 per year to live above the subsistence level. (That works out to a full-time job that pays a little over $20 per hour). Her figures are based on conservative assumptions about monthly expenditures: $1,053 a month for day care (that might seem high, but it only works out to a little more than $45 a day, pretty cheap really); $800 a month for housing (that doesn’t get you much these days); $503 per month in food (try feeding your two kids on that budget for a month, given skyrocketing prices for basic foodstuffs like eggs and milk); $290 a month for healthcare; and $70 a month for transportation (the study was conducted before the dramatic increase in fuel prices).

Even some of the better-paying entry-level jobs, assuming you get hired full-time and don't leave work for a family crisis, pay much less. In 2005, food prep workers in Pennsylvania made only $14,828 per year; retail salespeople earned only $18,783 per year, and janitors garnered a little over $20,000 per year (in part because some janitorial jobs have been unionized).

The old system of welfare was broken. But twelve years after TANF was signed into law, it’s time to admit that welfare reform is broken too. Michael Harrington once described America as a nation that offered socialism to the rich and the free market to the poor. His statement remains the most apt description of public policy in an era when we dole out $7 or $10 a month extra to the working poor, but offer huge tax breaks to wealthy people who invest in the stock market or who inherit minor or major fortunes.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


The GOP has long portrayed itself as the party of family values, but has steadfastly opposed such family-friendly legislation as generous parental leave and, most recently, fair pay for women. And uber-Republican Phyllis Schlafly has gone so far as to claim that there is no such thing as rape within marriage. GOP to Mother: you can stay at home and take care of your kids or your sick elderly parents, even if you have to starve. You might work as hard or harder than your male counterparts and be paid less, but don't sue for back pay in cases of discrimination or you will hinder free enterprise. And Mom, if Dad forces himself on you, close your eyes, lie back and think of Barry Goldwater.

The GOP is responsible for the sorry reality that 170 countries have better family leave policies than the United States. But, protesteth the GOP, such matters should be left to the private sector. But the record is grim. Only 8 percent of private employees in America have access to paid leave to care for newborns or other family members.

And now we learn from the Washington Post that the GOP supported--and then opposed--a resolution in support of Mother's Day. (Thanks to BitchPhD for the tip). Perhaps our GOP Solons discovered, at the last moment, that Mother's Day grew from the efforts of abolitionist and activist Julia Ward Howe, whose first "Mother's Day Proclamation" in 1870 was a scathing denunciation of war. Surely it would not soften the hardened hearts of the party of George W. Bush and John 50 or 100 more years in Iraq McCain to hear Ward's timely words:

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

So read all about the GOP's latest legislative shenanigans:

On Wednesday afternoon, the House had just voted, 412 to 0, to pass H. Res. 1113, "Celebrating the role of mothers in the United States and supporting the goals and ideals of Mother's Day," when Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), rose in protest.

"Mr. Speaker, I move to reconsider the vote," he announced.

Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who has two young daughters, moved to table Tiahrt's request, setting up a revote. This time, 178 Republicans cast their votes against mothers.

It has long been the custom to compare a popular piece of legislation to motherhood and apple pie. Evidently, that is no longer the standard. Worse, Republicans are now confronted with a John Kerry-esque predicament: They actually voted for motherhood before they voted against it.

Republicans, unhappy with the Democratic majority, have been using such procedural tactics as this all week to bring the House to a standstill, but the assault on mothers may have gone too far. House Minority Leader John Boehner, asked yesterday to explain why he and 177 of his colleagues switched their votes, answered: "Oh, we just wanted to make sure that everyone was on record in support of Mother's Day."

By voting against it?

Perhaps the GOP's recent vote for and against Mother's Day was a rare act of legislative honesty.

Friday, May 9, 2008


Photo: Philadelphia's Greensgrow Farm, in the post-industrial Kensington neighborhood.

Only you real TV junkies will remember the campy, ridiculous TV show "Green Acres" (1965-71), starring Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert as pampered city folk who decamp from Manhattan to a decrepit farm in fictional Hooterville. Best described as "television's 160-acres of agrarian psychedelia," it was built on one of the premises as old as America itself: namely the irreconcilable divide between city and country. "Goodbye city life," laments Gabor, the Hungarian socialite who gives up the creature comforts of the Upper East Side for a TV-addicted pig and a bunch of bumpkin neighbors.

But the contrast between city and country is much overdrawn. Cities have long been tied to their rural hinterlands-- economically, demographically, and, for better or worse, politically. Philadelphia, the subject of this week's Rustbelt shout-out, emerged as an important mercantile center because of its proximity to the immensely fertile agricultural land of Lancaster County, most famous for its Amish communities and most infamous today because of the exurban sprawl that is gobbling up some of that land.

In the postindustrial era, nature is reclaiming parts of nearly every old Rustbelt city. Deer and foxes inhabit Philadelphia's vast Fairmount Park system. And scrubby lots are reverting to grass and weeds. Nature's reclamation of the city isn't quite as dramatic in the City of Brotherly Love as it is in Detroit and Cleveland, where large-scale abandonment has resulted in the return of the prairie. On Detroit's once densely-packed East Side (a far cry from Gabor's East Side) pheasants have reclaimed vast tracts of open land.

It's all to easy--and oversimple--to describe this process as one of urban decline. A better phrase is urban transformation. Brownfields are becoming greenfields, rubble strewn vacant lots are becoming gardens, and many cities now have neighborhood-based agribusinesses. Urban farmers are remaking parts of most Rustbelt cities.

It's fitting that Philadelphia, America's first city, is on the cutting-edge of reconciling farm and city. Community groups and activists have set up farms in such unlikely places as the site of the former Mill Creek housing project in West Philadelphia, on the ruins of an old factory in Kensington, and on the grounds of two local schools (which provide mint to a high-end candy maker). Urban farming is not going to solve the problems of massive disinvestment and deindustrialization, but it brings life to left-for-dead urban spaces and provides produce for urban residents who would otherwise be left to fend for themselves in understocked neighborhood grocery stores.

Philadelphia has also long been famous for its large farmers' markets, most notably the Reading Terminal, where Amish farmers have been selling goods for more than one hundred years. And there is, of course, the vast Italian Market, made famous by Rocky, which is now best described as the Italian/Vietnamese/Cambodian/Mexican/Yuppie market.

But just as impressive are the more than 30 neighborhood farmers markets that have sprung up in nearly every corner of the city, selling farm-fresh produce at affordable prices. Some of Philly's markets sell baby arugula to gourmets, but many of them provide high-quality produce to people in poor and working-class neighborhoods. Rural farmers' encounter with the city has led to all sorts of innovation. My favorite is the story of Amos Fisher, reported in this week's City Paper.

The Amish farmer started coming to the Germantown area in 2001, selling at Cliveden Park and serving a predominantly black community. He'd bring standard stuff — tomatoes, melons, onions — but little by little, regulars started asking for other things, like collard greens. "When we first started, I didn't even know what those were," he says. "Now that's one of the largest we sell." When someone gave him seeds for banana squash, he had to look it up on the Internet to figure out how to grow it. "If a customer requests it, I'm trying it," he says. His most popular item, however, remains an old standby: "If we don't have sweet corn, they may as well not come."

I've bought produce from Amos, who sets up his table about five minutes from my house. Anyone who thinks that the city is in decline just need spend a few minutes with him.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Let me add three exclamation points to Kathy G's detailed post at Crooked Timber on Washington University's outrageous decision to award an honorary degree to the odious, profoundly anti-intellectual Phyllis Schlafly. Feminists of the world unite against this travesty!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


“The Republican brand has been so badly damaged that if Republicans try to run an anti-Obama, anti- Reverend Wright, or (if Senator Clinton wins), anti-Clinton campaign, they are simply going to fail. “ So is Newt Gingrich’s headline grabbing diagnosis of his party’s chronic illness.

But Dr. Newt’s home remedies are a sign of his real quackery. The first three have to do with energy, including advocating the summer gas tax holiday. The fourth has to do with a moratorium on earmarks, a tired Republican battle cry that won’t find many takers among the G.O.P. senators and representatives who bring home the bacon to their districts.

Four of the remaining five are a hoot and the last is one of the Republicans’ oldest and tiredest recommendations. Here goes:

--Overhaul the census and cut its budget radically.

That’s bound to fire up the people. Joe Sixpack in Xenia is losing sleep about this one.

--Implement a space-based, GPS-style air traffic control system.

Note to Newt: Reagan killed PATCO twenty five years ago. Now you want Star Wars for the runways?

--Declare English the official language of government.

OK, that will bring them out to the ballot box. And it will work real well with McCain's efforts to hive off some of the Hispanic vote from the Democrats.

--Protect the workers' right to a secret ballot.

Here is Newt’s special pleading for anti-union business leaders. Scarcely an issue that will warm the hearts of bitter blue-collar workers.

--Remind Americans that judges matter.

Wait, haven’t the Republicans been reminding us of this for the last, well, 40 years. In any case, for better and for worse, judicial nominations have never been very high on the list of ordinary voters, particularly when the nation is bogged down in an endless war and the economy is tanking.

If this is the best that the Republicans have got, we can pause and take a breath.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Yesterday's Inside Higher Education reports that Washington University released a statement defending its Trustees' unaminous vote to grant an honorary degree to Phyllis Schlafly. "The statement noted that past honorees have reflected a wide range of political views, and that the university has honored civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond; political and government leaders such as Madeleine Albright, John Major, Patricia Schroeder, John C. Danforth, Paul Simon and Richard Gephardt, and many others."

I am sorry but Schlafly does not belong in this august company. Why honor a woman who dishonors the shooting victims at Virginia Tech, who believes that dinosaurs and early humans walked the earth at the same time, who argues that "Mexicans obviously have no thought of invading the Southwest with troops, so their hope is reconquista by migration, both legal and illegal," and who told the Senate Labor Committee that "sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman, except in the rarest of cases."

Phyllis Schlafly's paper trail is extensive and many bloggers are on the case.

Monday, May 5, 2008


Last May, a prominent conservative activist wrote a column blaming the brutal murders at Virginia Tech on course offerings in the school's English department. It's a vicious piece of writing that ends with a cold-hearted description of Virginia Tech's memorial service for the slain students, faculty, and staff. Read closely: "At the campus-wide convocation to honor the victims, Professor Nikki Giovanni read what purported to be a poem. On behalf of the English Department, she declaimed: 'We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it.' Maybe others will render a different verdict and ask why taxpayers are paying professors at Virginia Tech to teach worthless and psychologically destructive courses." So wrote Phyllis Schlafly on May 9, 2007.

Ten days from now, Phyllis Schlafly will march with the proud graduates of Washington University in St. Louis, one of the Rustbelt's greatest universities. There she will be awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

I am appalled.

Don't jump to any hasty conclusions about political correctness. I strongly support academic freedom. I believe that universities should foster debate in the classroom. My job as a professor is not to foist my politics on my undergraduates. I teach about Phyllis Schlafly and present her ideas thoroughly and carefully in my lecture on feminism and its critics. I present what I dare say is a fair and balanced account of the rise of the Goldwater movement, which launched Schlafly to national prominence. Over the years, I have assigned books and articles by people on the right, left, and center whose ideas I sometimes find problematic, sometimes abhorrent.

But I do not think that any self-respecting institution of higher education should offer a doctorate in humane letters to a woman who holds views that are antithetical to the very principles of higher education. If Eagle Forum University awarded Schlafly an honorary degree, I would not complain. But Washington University?

Phyllis Schlafly has never had much good to say about higher education in the United States. Echoing the now hackneyed conservative critique of higher ed, she sees campuses as a seething pit of political correctness and leftism. "Colleges and universities," she asserted in 2003, "have hired highly-paid itinerant facilitators to train incoming freshmen to feel guilty if they are white and to think politically correct thoughts about race and diversity." Poor freshmen, she argued, are subject to "Soviet-style re-education sessions." Here is an appalling abuse of history, comparing orientation sessions at American liberal arts schools with Stalin's gulags. Statements like this alone should disqualify Schlafly from the honorary doctorate.

Schlafly believes that elite institutions, including Washington University, stock their classes with foreign students because they are "so profitable." But worse than that, admitting foreign students furthers the pernicious agenda of left-wing political correctness. She is unsparing: "Foreign students on untracked visas fit right in with the prevailing college ideologies of multiculturalism and diversity. As enforced by the campus thought police, multiculturalism means that all cultures (except our Western Judeo-Christian civilization) are equally good, and diversity means preferring immigrants from non-Western countries."

Schlafly is also a foe of science. She has long denounced the teaching of evolution. From a 2004 column: "Liberals see the political value to teaching evolution in school, as it makes teachers and children think they are no more special than animals. Childhood joy and ambition can turn into depression as children learn to reject that they were created in the image of God." I have to admit that this is the first time that I have encountered the argument that Darwin is bad for students' self esteem.

Schlafly is most famous, of course, for her vicious criticism of feminists. She opposed the opening of VMI to women as an example of radical feminism run amuck: "The radical feminists just can't stand it that any institution in America is permitted to motivate and train real men to manifest the uniquely masculine attributes. Feminists want to gender-neutralize all men so they can intimidate and control them. The feminists' longtime, self-proclaimed goal is an androgynous society. Repudiating constitutional intent, history, tradition and human nature, they seek to forbid us, in public or private life, to recognize the differences between men and women."

Not surprisingly, Schlafly weighed in on the recent controversy involving then Harvard President Larry Summers: : "When will American men learn how to stand up to the nagging by the intolerant, uncivil feminists whose sport is to humiliate men? Men should stop treating feminists like ladies, and instead treat them like the men they say they want to be."

Phyllis Schlafly has spent her entire career engaging in calumny and slander. Much of her writing defies reason and eschews dialogue. There is little humane in her thought. She is not a woman of letters. It goes without saying that Schlafly has been one of the most influential political figures in modern American history. Historians have already recognized her contribution to the transformation of modern American politics. But that does not make her worthy of one of academia's highest honors. She does not belong in the community of scholars who will convene at Washington University on May 16.


My first introduction to London came in the grim mid 1980s, the nadir of Thatcherism. In the two years that I lived in England, the miners’ strike was crushed, the United States used British military bases to launch its attack on Libya, and radioactive dust from Chernobyl blew over the British Isles. I still can’t give blood because of my potential exposure to Mad Cow disease from all of the terrible, overcooked beef that I ate there. The only silver lining (or I should say sterling lining) to the cloud was that the dollar and pound were nearly at parity. For a student with a fellowship paid in US dollars, living was good.

I spent at least one day a week in London in the 1985-86 academic year, doing research in what was then called the Greater London Council Archive in the then very, very gritty Islington neighborhood. Britain’s transformation over the last quarter century is particularly visible in my old stomping ground. The Greater London Council, as Monty Python might put it, is no more. It has gone to meet its maker. It has joined the bleeding choir invisible. And Islington, like many inner London neighborhoods, has become a playground for the rich, full of trendy boutiques and super-expensive restaurants. It’s little working-class row houses are now unaffordable. And the corner pub where I lightened the burden of archival research with a pint or two of Fuller’s ESB is now history.

The Greater London Council (the successor to the London County Council, whose records on public health I was examining in the archives) shuffled off its mortal coil in 1986. Or rather I should say it was executed. The GLC had become one of the leading bases of anti-Thatcherism, largely because of its leader, “Red” Ken Livingstone, who had been elected in 1981. Under Livingstone, the GLC cut Underground and bus fares and improved council housing (what we call public housing). My numerous long walks through London neighborhoods in search of a good pint or a curry took me past many a set of council flats that blended into their surroundings, a stark contrast to the isolated high-rise state-supported housing in the Parisian banlieux or the projects on wind-swept, marginal land in most American big cities.

Back in the 1980s, London was still a working-class city with staggering rates of unemployment. In one of his most brilliant theatrical acts of protest, Livingstone’s GLC posted unemployment figures on a billboard on County Hall within plain sight of Parliament, forcing Thatcher and her cronies to avert their eyes from the numerical reminder of the economic hardship that was the result of their policies. Not that they cared, because it was a necessary structural readjustment. Of course, Livingstone was by no means perfect. He was often too blustery for his own good, he alienated allies in the Labour Party, and he was too much a political loner. In one of his lowest moments, he reached out to Sinn Fein, the Northern Irish terrorists. But then again, his opponents were no better. Thatcher and her crew were consorting with all sorts of unsavory characters, among them Chile’s brutal Pinochet and the leaders of Apartheid-era South Africa. Red Ken's gesture was symbolic. But Thatcher and Reagan's alliances with dictators the world over had devastating long-term consequences.

After the Conservatives put the axe to the GLC, Livingstone reinvented himself as an MP and later as Mayor of London, albeit with far fewer powers than he had held as head of the GLC. Even if he sometimes slipped, Livingstone continued to fight for working Londoners. His signature accomplishment--one that should be emulated worldwide--was introducing congestion pricing to curb traffic in central London. Livingstone also staunchly supported the subsidies necessary to maintain an extensive, yet affordable public transit system.

But last week, Red Ken lost the mayoralty to celebrity journalist Boris Johnson. Johnson will, no doubt, be as colo(u)rful a leader as Livingstone. But that colour won’t be red. Instead, expect Johnson to accelerate the transformation of London into a playground for the rich and to cut many of the subsidies for working people, students, and the poor that Livingstone had fought so hard to keep in place. In his own bull-in-a-china-shop way, Livingstone fought for policies to protect London’s still-sizeable working-class from the vagaries of privatization, a predatory real estate market, and an economy that provided systematic advantages to the wealthy. With Livingstone now gone, London will be all the less for it.

Friday, May 2, 2008


Charles Tilly, one of the great social scientists of the last half century, died on Tuesday at the age of 78. I only met Tilly once and it was a perfunctory greeting. But I have long admired Tilly as a model for the type of interdisciplinary, engaged social science that I attempt to practice. Thinking about Tilly and his scholarship led me this morning to turn to the work of Yale political theorist Ian Shapiro (who, to the best of my knowledge, has not written a word on Tilly.)

A few years ago, Shapiro offered a spot-on denunciation of current academic fashions across the social sciences and humanities. “In discipline after discipline, the flight from reality has been so complete that the academics have all but lost sight of what they claim is their object of study. This goes for the quantitative and formally oriented social sciences that are primarily geared toward causal explanation. Following economics, they have modeled themselves on physics—or at any rate on a stylized version of what is often said to go on in physics. But it also goes for many of the more interpretive endeavors that have been influenced by fashions in the humanities—particularly the linguistic turn in philosophy and developments in literary hermeneutics.”

Shapiro offers a multicausal explanation for these parlous developments, among them the “ebb and flow of academic fashion” and “the incentives for advancement in an era of exhausted paradigms and extensive specialization.” And perhaps more importantly, he argues: “Some are political in the broadest sense, having to do with the relations between disengaged human sciences and the reproduction of the social and political order. The flight from reality is not without consequences for reality…At best it marginalizes the potential effects of political and social criticism, and sometimes it contributes to the maintenance of oppressive social relations—however unwittingly.”

He offers a number of illuminating examples to illustrate these trends, among them the rise of a narrow behaviorism in political science, historians’ conception of “society as text,” the poisonous spread of rational choice theory outward from economics to political science and sociology, and the application of abstract notions of efficiency to jurisprudence (aka law and economics). Were I to have written Shapiro’s book, I might have added the turn toward biology and neuroscience in economics, sociology, and history, another manifestation of social scientists’ search for gross theories that simplify and in the process distort, one that extends from the social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century to the sociobiologists and scientific racists enjoying such a revival today. I might have also added the phenomenon that one of my colleagues, one of the most important political historians of his generation, calls the rise of “post-empirical” history, characterized by little original research, theoretical turf-marking (usually through superficial evocations of the work of literary, cultural, or political theorists), and sweeping claim-making that usually bears little relationship to the material at hand. Much of this work postures as political but, more often than not, leaves oppressive social relations unscathed either through obscurantist prose, excessive individualism, or an obliviousness to the mechanisms that institutionalize and replicated unequal power relationships.

This leads me at last to the late Professor Tilly, a scholar who flew head-on into reality, not away from it. There was nothing trivial in the kinds of questions that Tilly asked or the answers that he provided. Tilly was not at all allergic to theory. But for him theory grew out of rigorous research, rather than becoming a container into which he crammed a distorted version of reality. Tilly made grand generalizations that could—and should--be tested. And he tested them himself, using manuscript censuses, economic data, national and local archives, letters, and diaries. His work had a geographical scope and reach that many scholars today advocate, but few practice. He explored states and revolutions, the relationship of military power to the rise of taxation, and the role of systematic violence in fostering inequality. His work spanned the centuries, touching on medieval, early modern and modern history. He wrote knowledgeably about revolutionary France, early modern England, South Africa, and twentieth-century urban America. His topics spanned gender, race, immigration and migration, labor, economics, military history, and poverty.

One of his most important books, Durable Inequality, hinges on two concepts to explain the reality of asymmetrical political and economic relationships. The first is one of the oldest in the social sciences, even though it has fallen out of fashion in much work today. That is exploitation. The other, one of Tilly’s richest and most brilliant formulations, is “opportunity hoarding, which operates when members of a categorically bounded network acquire access to a resource that is valuable, renewable, subject to monopoly, supportive of network activities, and enhanced by the network’s modus operandi.” Tilly’s concept of opportunity hoarding allows for a sophisticated insight into intergroup dynamics; race, ethnicity, and identity; and nation-building. It allows for an examination of the ways that boundaries and politicized space (whether it be national borders or municipal and school district zones) create and reinforce inequality. Above all, Tilly’s work offers a mechanism for those who wish to combine studies of identity and interest, two subjects that, at least in history, are seldom combined.

One of Tilly’s major research projects was the study of “contentious politics,” social movements, revolutions, riots, and collective violence. His work is also, in the very best sense of the term, contentious. In his dozens of books and hundreds of articles, Tilly did not shy away from debate and provocation. He knew that social science and history had consequences for reality. May Charles Tilly rest in peace and may the rest of us, in his spirit, continue contending.

Footnote: Crooked Timber's post on Tilly is worth reading; even more so the comments that follow.