Thursday, July 31, 2008


A flipped propane tanker, a detour through downtown Newark (surprisingly busy during rush hour), and then an hourlong line of traffic leading to an overpriced parking lot. But here I am, at the Meadowlands, cursing the lack of public transit in this colossal suburban wasteland, an hour early for the quintessential Rustbelt cultural experience: a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Traffic frustrations aside, the atmosphere is convivial here. Lots of boomers and near boomers gathered to listen to the Boss in his home state. On this tour, Springsteen has been playing 30 song sets--so I'm expecting a rocking night.

My friends and their precious cargo--beer and sandwiches--are almost here. Peace from the heart and soul of the Garden State.

Monday, July 28, 2008


John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" has taken another sharp U-turn. I'm getting dizzy. This time, McCain has jettisoned the moderate Republican position on affirmative action in service of cheap political posturing. (Many genuinely moderate Republicans, among them the late President Gerald Ford, have supported affirmative action. And many of the military leaders whom McCain professes to revere, among them several former heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, filed an amicus brief defending race-sensitive college admissions when the issue came before the Supreme Court in 2003). But McCain is no moderate Republican.

Yesterday, McCain announced his support for Ward Connerly's ballot initiative in Arizona, one that, like his others, postures as a pro-civil rights bill but outlaws the use of racial preferences in college admissions, government contracting, and employment. Although he confessed that he had not read the initiative, he added: “But I've always opposed quotas.”

But back in 1998, McCain criticized anti-affirmative action efforts. In a speech to Latino business leaders he argued: “Rather than engage in divisive ballot initiatives, we must have a dialogue and cooperation and mutual efforts together to provide for every child in America to fulfill their expectations.”

Even more damningly, that year, McCain joined a small group of Senate Republicans who voted with the Democrats to defeat a measure that would have abolished minority set asides on highway construction contracts. McCain reminded his colleagues that he was (at least then) a member of the "Party of Lincoln" (his quote). That said, McCain's defense of affirmative action was not exactly principled. He hoped to preserve the GOP's image. McCain stated that:

Unfortunately, discussing the inherent contradictions and shortcomings of affirmative action programs, the danger exists that our aspirations and intentions will be misperceived, dividing our country and harming our party. We must not allow that to happen.

It should be added that the set-asides that McCain defended in 1998 (10 percent of federal highway contracts for minority or women-owned firms) was the closest thing to a quota system that existed in 1998. (Recall that quotas in university admissions went by the wayside after the 1978 Bakke decision).

But McCain's position on affirmative action is troubling for more than its hypocrisy. There is a problematic racial calculus at work. McCain is trying to shove Obama onto the third rail of racial politics with hopes that the Democratic candidate will get fried. Obama has made it clear that he supports affirmative action in principle, but also that it's not central to his agenda. More than that Obama has made gestures toward the appealing if impractical arguments for the creation of a system of class-based affirmative action. But McCain is hoping to send a signal to bitter whites that Obama is just another Al Sharpton.

Expect the McCain campaign to continue to look for subtle ways to remind white voters that Obama is a scary, "white-hating" guy. Keeping the politics of race front and center is the GOP's only hope (and perhaps a scanty one) for victory in November.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


Economist Roland Fryer has been a favorite of the chattering classes ever since a gushing profile of him by Freakonomics co-author Steven Dubner appeared in the New York Times Sunday magazine three years ago. Fryer's personal story--the son of a single, impoverished mother, a scholarship student at a lesser state university, a prodigy in economics, a coveted Junior Fellowship at Harvard, and an inaugural Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship--make him a compelling figure. Among economists, he already has a stellar reputation. Lawrence Katz, a major figure in labor economics, is typical in his praise. He raved to Dubner about Fryer: "As a pure technical economic theorist, he's of the first rate....But what's really incredible is that he's also much more of a broad social theorist -- talking to psychologists, sociologists, behavioral geneticists -- and the ideas he comes up with aren't the 'let's take the standard economic model and push a little harder' ideas."

Fryer has brokered his biography and credentials into a role as a talking head on race issues, most recently in the new CNN documentary Black America--a show that has received a lot of attention in the black blogosphere. Though economists are often notoriously wrong, it's remarkable to me how a little cleverness and the pretense to being scientific seems to allow them to slip half-baked ideas into the public discourse. Such has happened in the case of young Fryer.

In Black America, Fryer promotes a troubling and wholly dubious genetic (or really pseudo-genetic) argument about salt and black health and pitches it, with all of the authority of Veritas behind him, to a huge, international audience. In short, Fryer argues that African Americans have worse health outcomes than whites because of their proclivity to hypertension and other salt-retention related diseases. That is the result, Fryer argues, of a selective advantage possessed by some enslaved Africans. Those who retained salt, he contends, were more likely to survive the Middle Passage of transit from Africa to the Americas. Those who didn't retain salt, he believes died of dehydration. As a result, the salt retention gene (whatever that might be) passed on to the descendants of slaves, today's African Americans. His primary piece of evidence: an antique etching of a slavetrader supposedly licking the face of a slave to test his saltiness, and presumably his hardiness. Bad use of historical sources, but I'll save that for another time.

Monocausal genetic explanations of traits in genetically heterogeneous populations are problematic. Natural selection in just a few weeks on a slave ship? Darwin, please. And African Americans, as anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of American history can tell you, are the descendants of Europeans and Native Americans, of Spanish and French and British and Irish. They hail from many different parts of Africa. They are not a genetically homogeneous group. But we Americans, even smart Harvard faculty members like Fryer, cannot jettison our essentialistic notions of race.

The slippery use of genetics by non-scientists like Fryer is not just bad scholarship, but it has potentially dangerous consequences for public policy. Fortunately, there are many, many well-respected scientists out there who think that Fryer's salt/genetics theory is false. Unfortunately, they don't have CNN cameras following them around.

Johns Hopkins public health professor Thomas LaVeist, one of the nation's leading scholars on racial and economic disparities in health, just offered the best critique of Fryer's dubious scholarship to date.

"This bogus theory just won't seem to die," stated LaVeist. "Even though public health researchers have discredited the theory it continues to be promoted by people who are not knowledgeable about the field. THE AVERAGE HEALTH CONSUMER WATCHING CNN COULD TAKE THIS AS THE GOSPEL AND RUN WITH IT TO THEIR OWN DETRIMENT."

LaVeist offers a series of explanations, none of which have the sexy, monocausal, Freakonomics-style cachet of Fryer's argument. But all of them come from decades of research, not just superficial, clever theorizing.

* Blacks are exposed to more environmental toxins because of
residential segregation
* Blacks have less access to quality healthcare
* Higher levels of poverty among African Americans
* Higher levels of use of harmful products such as cigarettes
* Less healthy diets
* Less healthy foods in African American communities
* Residing in more stressful environments

LaVeist goes on:
"To suggest that health disparities are caused by a gene that exists in African Americans and does not exist in others is ridiculous. There are no genes found in only one race group," LaVeist said. "Hypertension and all other major causes of death are caused by a complex set of factors. They are not single gene diseases. If race disparities were primarily caused by a gene, that gene would have to cause hypertension and cancer and diabetes and glaucoma, and Crohn's disease and asthma and HIV-AIDS and every other condition that is more prevalent in blacks and we know no one gene does that."

"I respect professor Fryer, but quoting an economist as an expert on health disparities is like interviewing me for a story about why gas prices have spiked," LaVeist said. "Not only are researchers at Hopkins working on this problem, but people are working on this issue right there in Atlanta where CNN is headquartered. The problem of health disparities is complex. By trying to reduce it to a simplistic explanation we risk having health care providers, policymakers and patients feel there is nothing they can do to address the issue."

Once again, the fashionable embrace of genetics by untutored social scientists is leading the public down a dangerous path of explaining away the social and environmental causes of racial inequality. It's a problem that is not going away.

h/t to MC for introducing me to LaVeist's work.

Friday, July 25, 2008


Two polls out recently report this about the presidential race in Ohio: Obama is ahead by 10 points; Obama is trailing by 8. Welcome to the Buckeye State. So let me use these schizophrenic results to make some observations about politics in Ohio.

First, we must understand that Ohio has always been one part Rust Belt and one part Bible Belt, and that second part is growing. While the industrial economy in the state’s northern half has collapsed, and all those Democratic-voting union members have left, the bottom half of the state has seen a major influx of Appalachian refugees over the last 40 years.

They have fled Kentucky, West Virginia and even Tennessee, and settled in Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. You can watch this as the landscape proliferates with Southern churches – Rod Parsley, one of the most despicable of the big-box church preachers is headquartered in Columbus. I-70, which cuts east-west across Ohio is really the new Mason-Dixon line.

Second, the state does not have a dominating metropolitan region which sets the political tone of the state and functions as the major economic engine, as is the case increasingly in places like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nevada. Instead, Ohio is balkanized into five small regions, each centered on a small and struggling metro area: Cincinnati in the southwest; Toledo in the northwest, Cleveland in the northeast; Columbus in the middle. (The southeast, devastated by years of coal mining, really might as well be in West Virginia).

While each of these regions has a different cultural and economic make up, they are all suffering. Indeed, the smell of economic desperation pervades all corners of the state now. Ohio is losing jobs, is a national leader in foreclosures and is exporting college graduates.

Third, until 2006 Ohio was thoroughly in the iron grip of one-party Republican tyranny: 16 years of Republican governors and Republican control of the legislature. Before the 2006 elections no Democrat held state-wide office in Ohio. That has had two bad consequences.

On the one hand, it has left Congressional districts (and state legislative districts) more elegantly gerrymandered than those in Texas. Democrats nationally are poised to pick up even more House seats in November, but at least at this point no one seems to be predicting that Democrats in Ohio will take over any Republican districts. (Keep your eye on Sharen Neuhardt in the 7th District race. She is smart, savvy and running in an open seat occupied for 18 years by an epically mediocre Republican).

On the other hand, this Republican domination has left the state Democratic party in a shambles. Over the last decade, Republicans routinely ran un-opposed, the party raised virtually no money, and it had no organizational presence at the grassroots level.

The good news is that Ohio voters elected a Democratic governor and a US Senator in 2006 by stunning margins (though the House seats stayed Republican). Governor Ted Strickland has made it a priority to rebuild the party machinery.

However, Ohio’s combination of economic despair and Southern-style religion and politics will prove a real challenge for the Obama campaign. Faced with all the bad news, many Ohio voters are scared of change. They have turned mean and McCain’s increasingly shrill, sniping campaign will appeal to those voters for whom guns, god and gay-bashing substitute for jobs, education and hope. In 1992 James Carville quipped that Pennsylvania was Philadelphia at one end, Pittsburgh at the other and Alabama in the middle, but in fact Ohio is fast becoming the Alabama of the North.


Just a little over four decades ago, as a wee slip of a child, I lived through the Detroit uprising of 1967. Over the course of a week, 43 people were killed (34 of them black, almost all by the police and National Guard), thousands of houses and stores were burned, and more than 7000 people were arrested. I don't remember much, except the sight of National Guard vehicles rolling past my house and the fact that I could not play in my front yard, for fear that I'd be the victim of sniper fire.

The riots were a trauma on the body politic. Many burned-out shopping districts never recovered. Detroit had been steadily losing population and jobs since the 1950s. That hemorrhage continued after the riot--the pattern of economic flight, disinvestment, and population loss was already deeply entrenched. The aftermath of the riots certainly did not improve Detroit's fortunes, though it's historically inaccurate (if compelling narratively) to blame Detroit's woes on that week in late July 1967. But even if Detroiters exaggerate the centrality of the riots in their city's fate, the events of 1967 forever shaped the way that Detroiters and other urbanites talk about their cities.

Our memories of the urban past are inevitably tinged with nostalgia--the product of forgetting as much as recollection. Whenever I visit Detroit, I am struck by the wistful memories that city residents (or more likely former city residents) have about their childhood neighborhoods. White folks invariably see the 1967 Detroit riot as the turning point. Before "they" took over the city and ruined it, Motown was a city of tight-knit neighborhoods, of racial harmony, and tranquility. If only "they" hadn't destroyed Detroit, it would be a thriving metropolis still. The film above, prepared for Detroit's bid for the 1968 Olympics, captures some of the romance of the lost past (though as you watch, recall that Detroit's population was about one-third black when the film was made and further recall that they city had already been devastated by the loss of more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs, mostly in the late 1950s). Whites don't have a monopoly on romantic evocations of the urban past. Black folks also have sepia-toned memories of the segregated city, where neighbors were friendly, where middle-class and working-class people lived side-by-side, and where they all patronized "race" businesses.

Both sets of memories have elements of truth. The city was a safer place 60 years ago than it is today; many neighborhoods (especially compared to their turn-of-the-21st century counterparts) were close-knit. And the cumulative effect of sixty years of disinvestment makes things much, much worse economically then when Detroit was the nation's "Arsenal of Democracy." But the story of decline and memories of a better past simplify and distort the city's history. White neighborhoods were tight in large part because of their racial exclusivity. There wasn't a lot of racial harmony in the postwar city--the city's segregation was the result of a poisonous combination of racist public policy, real estate discrimination, and grassroots organization and often violence by whites who wanted to keep their neighborhoods free of black "invaders." And the "they" who ruined many urban neighborhoods includes lots and lots of white folks--absentee landlords and shopkeepers who let their properties run down, industrialists and business leaders who abandoned the central city, and politicians who aided and abetted white flight. And the black romance with the past overlooks the high rates of poverty that characterized black lives, the ravages of systemic underemployment and unemployment, the dreariness of most black shopping districts, and the fact that most "race" businesses were economically marginal.

Several years ago, ethnographer Phil Kasinitz published a fascinating paper on his interviews with long-time residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood Red Hook. At that time, Red Hook was on the brink of gentrification, as artists and hipsters, priced out of more expensive neighborhoods, began moving into the old tenements and warehouses along the Brooklyn waterfront. But Red Hook was a heterogeneous place, home to a large public housing project, shipyards, storage facilities, and small factories. Many of the neighborhood's older residents were blue-collar workers and stevedores who resented the mostly black residents of the public housing projects and the monied newcomers who opened galleries and coffeehouses.

What Kasinitz found was a huge gap between how white old-timers (the subject of the article) remembered their 'hood (usually romantically--everyone knew each other, people left their doors open at night, the economy was booming) and the reality of their own lives (unemployment and economic insecurity, the lack of public safety, substance abuse, and crime). In other words, people retold the history of their community through the lens of their current reaction to changes going on in the neighborhood.

My childhood memories of racial conflict temper my still rosy-hued recollections of life in my little corner of the city. I saw white racism--even as a child--for what it was. But I still miss the lively street life and the sidewalk camaraderie of my West Side block. It's those two sides of the urban experience--the spirit of community and diversity and the vast political and economic forces arrayed against it--that continue to shape both my scholarship and my choices about where to live, and my politics. I can't forget the Motor City.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


America's racial divide is most pronounced in housing and education--but it manifests itself in many other areas of everyday life, including, yes, the blogosphere. Amy Alexander has a must-read article in this week's Nation on the marginalization of the black blogosphere, featuring my friend and fellow Philadelphia-based activist Chris Rabb of Afro-Netizen. Chris, the only black blogger credentialed at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, has done more than nearly anyone to create a vibrant community of bloggers of color. But the race barrier remains high. As Chris puts it, "The blogosphere is like the real world in many ways....Some of the same obstacles, challenges and inequalities that exist in the real world exist in the blogosphere, too." Although I have not conducted a thorough study, it's striking to me how few black bloggers show up in the blogrolls of white bloggers and vice versa. And the left blogosphere, which should be the most diverse, seems to be as white as the Republican Party. One of my favorite bloggers, Kathy G, just returned from Netroots Nation in Austin and was surprised by the homogeneity of the event. She calls it "about the whitest left-of-center gathering I've ever attended."

I have only been part of the blogosphere for a few months--though I have had a lot to say about race. But what I have noticed is that even my most provocative posts on racial issues have generated barely any discussion. Why? I can only guess. Maybe it's the demography of my readership, though that's hard to glean from Sitemeter. Is it that my white readers find my discussion of African American politics uninteresting or unimportant? Do they, like most white Americans, subscribe to the "we have overcome" theory of race in modern America? Do Afro-Netizens prefer to spend their time reading black-oriented blogs, rather than eclectic ones like mine? Does the racial segregation of the blogosphere contribute to this? Or does everyone simply agree with me? Maybe I should write something really controversial to test the case. Or not.

My last word for now: racial inequality and injustice is still endemic in the United States. These are issues that affect all of us. Paeans to unity mean nothing if that unity is but a superficial nod to the principle of diversity. It means finding common cause to struggle for equality. And that struggle starts right here with you and me.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


One of the most problematic trends in the social sciences is the current fetishization of biology, genetics, and neuroscience. Bio-social science is the next frontier of research. Like many new and trendy subdisciplines that borrow from other fields, it risks superficiality. Few political scientists, historians, and even psychologists are adequately trained in molecular biology, genetics, and neurology. First-rate interdisciplinary work requires rigorous training that is too time-consuming and demanding for all but a few. But that has not stopped many scholars from using insights from those fields simplistically and unpersuasively. Some academics, eager to reach a wide audience (nothing wrong with that--so long as it is done carefully and responsibly), put their half-baked ideas into clever journalistic packages. And journalists on the make glom onto the next "hot" academic trend, hawking dubious scholarship to a wide audience that it does not, for the most part, have the critical faculties to evaluate and critique it.

The most dangerous trend in recent years has been the infiltration of genetic and racial essentialism into medical and genetic research. For those insecure social scientists hoping to burnish their scientific credentials, the racial-genetic turn is seductive. But given the long history of the misuse of genetics in public policy, the dangers are greater a few shoddy articles getting published for the sake of novelty. Racial determinism has already trickled down to the general public in such respectable journals as Slate (where the best--or worst--example of the genre can be found in William Saletan's ill-informed screeds on race and intelligence). Every once in a while the MSM gets it right (for example the New Republic deserves credit for giving space to a young historian of public health who offered one of the most learned and persuasive critiques of the misuse of racial biology that has appeared in a popular periodical to date). But, unfortunately, uncritical references to race and genetics are the norm, not the exception, in the press.

As an antidote to the rise of bad racial science and its popularization, the journal Genome Biology has released a very simple, very sensible guide for scientists and non-scientists writing about the alleged connections between race and genetics. Compiled by a group of scientists and social scientists at Stanford, the nation's leading center for genomic research, it is indispensable. All scientists who use race as a variable in their research should consult this list before proceeding. All social scientists who uncritically borrow from genetics and biology should memorize it. And all journalists who report on race and genetics should tape it to their computers.

Here is the list abbreviated by the New Scientist for lay readers (though you scholars reading this should read the whole piece in Genome Biology):

1. All races are created equal

No genetic data has ever shown that one group of people is inherently superior to another. Equality is a moral value central to the idea of human rights; discrimination against any group should never be tolerated.

2. An Argentinian and an Australian are more likely to have differences in their DNA than two Argentinians

Groups of human beings have moved around throughout history. Those that share the same culture, language or location tend to have different genetic variations than other groups. This is becoming less true, though, as populations mix.

3. A person's history isn't written only in his or her genes

Everyone's genetic material carries a useful, though incomplete, map of his or her ancestors' travels. Studies looking for health disparities between individuals shouldn't rely solely on this identity. They should also consider a person's cultural background.

4: Members of the same race may have different underlying genetics

Social definitions of what it means to be "Hispanic" or "black" have changed over time. People who claim the same race may actually have very different genetic histories.

5. Both nature and nurture play important parts in our behaviors and abilities

Trying to use genetic differences between groups to show differences in intelligence, violent behaviors or the ability to throw a ball is an oversimplification of much more complicated interactions between genetics and environment.

6. Researchers should be careful about using racial groups when designing experiments

When scientists decide to divide their subjects into groups based on ethnicity, they need to be clear about why and how these divisions are made to avoid contributing to stereotypes.

7. Medicine should focus on the individual, not the race

Although some diseases are connected to genetic markers, these markers tend to be found in many different racial groups. Overemphasising genetics may promote racist views or focus attention on a group when it should be on the individual.

8. The study of genetics requires cooperation between experts in many different fields

Human disease is the product of a mishmash of factors: genetic, cultural, economic and behavioral. Interdisciplinary efforts that involve the social sciences are more likely to be successful.

9. Oversimplified science feeds popular misconceptions

Policy makers should be careful about simplifying and politicising scientific data. When presenting science to the public, the media should address the limitations of race-related research.

10. Genetics 101 should include a history of racism


Monday, July 21, 2008


I just learned about a tool called Wordle that provides a representation of the content of a blog. At Understanding Society, Dan Little, a philosopher and historian of science, writes that Wordle
provides an intriguing way of extracting a sense of what a blog or other text is "about" by generating a word cloud based on the frequencies of words used....I think they give a surprisingly nuanced picture of the main preoccupations of the bloggers.

Here's Rustbelt Intellectual (I'm saving this one for my profile photo):

Check it out--and enter your favorite (or least favorite) blog for a snapshot of its interests.


I am a sucker for political satire--and the folks at JibJab have given us this hoot of a video. It's got something to offend everyone--and it will--but it's also really funny. My favorite: the unicorn scene. So take a moment on this hot summer day and LOL.


Nearly every conversation with members of my wife's extended family this weekend somehow got around to that New Yorker cover. One of the more enjoyable parts of family visits with my relatives-by-marriage, all of them New Yorkers and New Englanders, is talking politics. My immediate family is wonderful in many respects, but I check my political views at the door when I visit them. For the sake of my sanity and for the sake of family peace, I long ago gave up debating the issues of the day with my Rush Limbaugh-fan dad, my apolitical mom, and my Republican sister. But my wife's family loves arguing about politics even if, by the standards of the rest of America, they occupy a moderate to leftish band on the political spectrum (only one Republican in the mix, to the best of my knowledge).

I doubt whether the New Yorker has penetrated the consciousness of my Rustbelt family (though I'm certain that my dad thinks that Obama is an ideological kin to Osama), but up in Newton and Cambridge, our discussion invariably veered back to the question of what constitutes effective political satire, whether or not Middle Americans really believe that Obama spent time in a Madrassa, and whether or not the satire was funny. I got bored of thinking about that insufficently satirical bit of cover art sometime early last week, but the rest of liberal, highly-educated, East Coast America (if my relatives are typical) doesn't seem to be tiring of it. And being the lively intellectual lot that they are, our conversations quickly ranged to Thomas Nast cartoons, anti-semitic depictions of bankers during the Greenback/Goldbug controversy of the nineteenth century, and Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Consensus: there's no satirist as great as Nast at the New Yorker right now. And even those offended by the Obama spoof agreed that it was mild compared to the vicious, xenophobic stuff that passed for political humor in late nineteenth century Democratic and populist circles or in early twenty-first century Copenhagen.

So to my politically savvy relatives (and to whoever else is reading this blog), I offer these two satires of the satire, both of which are, in my opinion, funnier and more effective than that infamous New Yorker cover itself. The first is from this wonderful collection of political cartoons, the second is from The Nation.

Now I promise never to talk about that New Yorker cover again. Ever.

Friday, July 18, 2008


Earlier this year I had the remarkable experience of hiking for a few days in Pinnacles National Monument in central California. The dramatic rock outcroppings that give the park its name are simply breathtaking and the views indescribable.

I walked along paths originally laid out by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s – the CCC Boys – and by the looks of things in the rest of the park that was about the last time the place had any serious Federal attention. The facilities are shabby and understaffed, an insult really to the magnificence of the place itself.

Pinnacles provides an object lesson in what has happened to the nation’s public infrastructure everywhere. While levees are failing, bridges are collapsing, roads are buckling, sewer systems are overflowing, schools are crumbling, and national parks hold themselves together with duct tape, it is time to ask how the United States came to be a nation literally falling apart.

Pinnacles was created early in the 20th century during the Progressive era. It was developed more fully during the New Deal. As such, it was a small piece of a much larger phenomenon in America -- building a whole variety of vital public infrastructures: paved roads and public transit systems; water, electric and gas lines; public schools and public parks. Some of this was built by the private sector; much of it was built publicly.

Building that infrastructure occupied Americans into the 1960s, and it was essential to the growth of the American economy and the American middle class in those years. Then we stopped building it, we skimped on maintaining it, and we took it all for granted. Sure, we deluded ourselves, the tap water would always be clean, the potholes would always get fixed, and our school facilities probably didn’t need to be updated after all.

We fell into this complacency in part because by the 1970s politicians, most of them Republicans, began to preach an alternative economic reality. The private market would take care of everything if only we would unleash its power by curtailing regulation and slashing taxes. Taxes and regulation, the free-market fundamentalists thundered, were the evils of our society. Reduce one and eliminate the other, and we will enter the economic promised land.

What many called the “Reagan Revolution” in our economy never really worked, of course. Federal budget deficits grew, thanks largely to those tax cuts and to military spending (Reagan famously told his staff that defense spending shouldn’t really be considered part of the each annual budget), the national debt exploded and annual economic growth during Reagan’s term was lower than during Carter’s. Meanwhile, wealth was transferred to the wealthy, middle class wages stagnated, and poverty rates reached levels not seen since the Depression. Some revolution.

And it turns out that this revolution didn’t do much for the infrastructure we all count on either. The free market turns out not to be very good at investing in roads and airports, at providing public education, or at keeping the water clean. Nor has it proved very good at investing in the kinds of new technology that will position the United States for a post-oil world. Fuel efficient cars, wind turbines and the next generation solar arrays are coming from Europe, not from the United States. Public investment is an investment in our economic future. One has only to travel to the emerging nations of Asia to see that.

The free marketeers of the Reagan generation forgot the first rule of economics: you get what you pay for. Over the last thirty years, as we have responded to every social issue with another round of tax cuts, we haven’t paid for our infrastructure. Now the sad results of that disinvestment are regularly front page news.

Despite all the evidence that we need massive investment in our public infrastructure, however, some politicians – John McCain first and foremost - continue to promise the same tired economic policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

In the end it turns out that the free market fundamentalism of the last thirty years has essentially amounted to a combination of credit card spending and deferred maintenance. The war in Iraq, being paid for entirely by the national credit card, may cost us over one trillion dollars, and according to one estimate it will cost us about the same to repair our infrastructure.

Rebuilding our essential public infrastructure means we have to reorient our economic policies toward public investment, and we must stop pretending that one more tax cut will make our shared problems go away. The CCC Boys did something magnificent for their generation. It is our turn to do the same.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Joining Rustbelt Intellectual as an occasional contributor--and providing his own inimitable combination of historical savvy, wit, and provocation--is Steve Conn. Best known in academic circles for his wide-ranging work in intellectual, cultural, architectural, and urban history, Steve is a wickedly smart, strongly opinionated guy whose thought-provoking pieces have appeared in places as diverse as USA Today, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Montana Standard. A professor of history and director of the public history program at Ohio State and a member of the History News Service Steering Committee, Steve avoids sofa-burning mobs outside Buckeye football games and steers clear of anti-abortion activists. He is also one of the few people to have a summer home in Philadelphia.


I am really not a 60s romantic. But one thing that I miss from that time was the extraordinary role that artists played in criticizing the senseless war in Vietnam. From Country Joe and the Fish to Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix, musicians challenged the easy shibboleths of Cold War America, sometimes with humor, sometimes with bitterness, sometimes with tears.

Unfortunately, the Iraq War has not spurred the same outburst of politically-engaged artistry. I'm not sure why. It may be that the immediacy of the draft in the 1960s--and the American death toll in Southeast Asia, about ten times that of Bush's war so far--created a sense of urgency.

It's telling that the most powerful antiwar songs of the Bush II-era have come from the South, a region whose sons and daughters are disproportionately represented in the military and where "God, guns, and guts made America #1" bumper stickers are commonplace.

One of my favorite bands, the Drive-By Truckers, have written two of the very best antiwar anthems to date. Frankly there is no better, no more powerful or moving song about the tragedy of the Iraq War than "Dress Blues" (above) about a Marine from Greenhill, Alabama.

And on the Truckers' newest album (h/t to Scott McLemee at Quick Study--I'm always six months or a year behind the latest music) is "The Man I Shot," which captures the terror of shell shock or what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, one of the countless, everyday human tragedies of the war.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Thanks to Edge of the American West for brightening the day of this New Yorker reader. Some dap to Eric.


A lot of ink and angst has been spilled over this week's New Yorker cover--but there's a much bigger story about Obama, racial politics, and the campaign. And it's one with far more troubling implications than a botched attempt at political satire. Today's NYT reports on its latest survey of public opinion on racial matters. The complete results are here. It punctures a hole in the "we have overcome"/"post-racial" bubble that has floated over the Obama campaign for the last year.

For those of us who follow public opinion surveys on race, there is nothing particularly surprising about the NYT survey. Blacks are more pessimistic than whites about race relations (only 29 percent of blacks state that race relations in the U.S. are "generally good" compared to 55 percent of whites). 68 percent of blacks claim to have experienced discrimination by race, compared to 26 percent of whites (I wonder who they are and what discrimination they have experienced). The survey confirms white Americans' persistent belief that blacks have an equal or better chance of getting ahead in American life today compared to whites. According to the Times, 60 percent of whites share that belief. (If white folks spent more than an hour in an average urban public school, perhaps they would change their minds).

Part of the reason for the black-white gap is reflected in the response to the survey's question: "how many of the people who live in the immediate area around your home are black?" 83 percent of whites answered "none" or "a few"--a reflection of the reality of persistent racial separation in American life. The survey also reflects the appalling ignorance of America's racial demographics. Though only 13 percent of Americans are black, a third of whites believe that blacks comprise 20-30 percent of the population and an astonishing third believe that blacks make up 30-50 percent of the population. A particularly ignorant 8 percent of whites believes that more than half of Americans are black. The black figures are, alas, little better. In fact 17 percent of blacks believe that more than half of Americans share their background. (It's time to pick up Rick Shenkman's book, Just How Stupid Are We: Facing the Truth About the American Voter?)

What the results of the racial divide mean for the November election remains to be seen. Ominously, only 35 percent of whites have a favorable opinion of Barack Obama and 57 percent view him unfavorably. High black turnout could be critical in a few swing states, but if whites do not overcome their suspicion of candidate Obama, especially in the Rustbelt (or what demographer John Logan calls the "ghettobelt" for its high rates of racial segregation), we might have President McCain. Regardless of who wins, what is clear is that the symbolism of a black candidate--and even of a black president--is not enough to overcome the still-deep rooted patterns of racial segregation, separation, and mistrust that are still endemic in American society.

Monday, July 14, 2008


The Dean of History Bloggers, Ralph Luker, has just published a list of 80 history blogs that he views as "central to history blogging." He argues that "without them, history education on the internet would be seriously impoverished."

Thanks, Ralph (someday we'll meet in person) for including this newbie on your list--see the whole roster below (go to Cliopatria for the links). And muchas gracias, too, for introducing me to some new sites to visit.

# Acephalous
# AHA Today
# Airminded
# Altercation
# Ancient World Bloggers Group
# Archaeoastronomy
# Axis of Evel Knieval

# BibliOdyssey
# Blog Them Out of the Stone Age
# Blogenspiel
# bookn3rd
# The Bowery Boys
# Britannica Blog
# Built History

# Cabinet of Wonders
# Cardinal Wolsey's Today in History
# Chapati Mystery
# The China Beat
# Civil War Memory
# Civil Warriors
# A Corner of 10th Century Europe
# Curious Expeditions

# Dan Cohen
# Digital History Hacks
# A Don's Life
# Durham-in-Wonderland

# Early Modern Notes
# Early Modern Whale
# Easily Distracted
# The Edge of the American West
# edwired
# Eunomia
# Europe Endless

# Frog in a Well

# Ghost in the Machine
# Got Medieval

# Historiann
# A Historian's Craft
# Historiblogography
# History is Elementary
# History Unfolding
# Hugo Schwyzer

# In the Middle
# Informed Comment
# Investigations of a Dog

# Jottings from the Granite Studio

# Lawyers, Guns, and Money
# Legal History Blog
# The Little Professor

# Mercurius Politicus
# more than 95 theses

# New Kid on the Hallway
# The Nonist

# Obscene Desserts
# Old Is The New New
# OUP Blog

# PhDinHistory
# PhDiva
# Pink Tentacle
# Politics & Letters
# Positive Liberty
# Progressive Historians
# The Proletarian
# Public Historian

# Religion in American History
# Rogue Classicism
# Rustbelt Intellectual

# Siris
# Steamboats are ruining everything
# Strange Maps

# Talking Points Memo
# Tenured Radical
# Trench Fever
# Tropian

# U. S. Intellectual History

# Varieties of Unreligious Experience

# Walking the Berkshires
# Westminster Wisdom
# Whitman's Brooklyn
# wood s lot

# Zoom
# zunguzungu


For the last forty years, political commentators have hurled us back in time to the year that shook the world, 1968. John McCain's campaign, a beaten up 1968 Chevy Bel Air of an operation so far, has given us a quick drive-by of the "Summer of Love," burning $4 a gallon gas at 10mpg.

Just when the weight of 1968 cliches is about to crush the body politic, political analyst Kenneth Baer offers a compelling alternative. In an excellent piece in the WaPo, Baer (full disclosure: an old student of mine) stands astride tired, hackneyed 1968 history, shouts stop, and offers us a compelling alternative (pace WFB). The roots of modern American politics, he argues, can be found in 1978, not in that troubled year a decade earlier.

Why? The tax rebellion, the first judicial blow to affirmative action, the energy crisis, the anti-gay assassination of Harvey Milk, the creation of FISA, the Camp David accords, China's new openness, the introduction of cellular telephones. I might add a few more telling developments: Resorts, Atlantic City's first legal casino, opened that year; President Carter declared a state of emergency at Love Canal in upstate New York; Cleveland, Ohio went into default (under Dennis Kuchinich); Karol Woytyla became Pope John Paul II. And all of it happened to the sound of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town, whose song "Factory" is one of the best anthems to the Rustbelt ever sung.

I remember 1978, and fortunately, because my Ford Pinto didn't blow up, I'm here to tell about it.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Alright, so I don't love gambling. But here I am in Atlantic City. Amidst the glitter and bling of the casinos, I feel like a teetotaler in a beer garden or a monk in a strip club. I'm more conservative with my money than the most hard-core deficit hawk. The thought of losing my hard-earned cash to the house (inevitable given the odds) makes me jittery with angst. More than that, I find slot machines and their customers depressing. Windowless casinos are dreary places, especially when the sun is bright, the sky is clear, and the temperatures are in their upper seventies and low eighties. But there is something compelling about AC, even if gambling leaves me cold.

AC is close to home (only an hour from Philly and two hours from New York). The restaurants, from hoagies to haute cuisine, are great. And the beaches beckon, even if the occasional soda bottle or condom washes up alongside the hermit crabs and oyster shells. My health-conscious significant other wants to work on her tan for the first time in several years (all those years of 50 spf sunscreen give her the excuse to indulge a little this weekend). We'll ride our bikes on the boardwalk, admire the bronze bodies of summer, listen to some jazz on Chicken Bone Beach, go drinking and dancing, take day trips to Cape May and Sandy Hook, and have a blast on a rare long, kid-free weekend.

Atlantic City is a place of abundant contradictions. It embodies the economic, racial, and cultural schizophrenia of modern America. Its history--as a place of escape and fantasy for blue-collar and middle-class Philadelphians and New Yorkers--is the subject of Boardwalk of Dreams, an extraordinary book by historian and Rustbelt Intellectual fellow traveler Bryant Simon. A witty and learned writer (seldom are the two characteristics found in a single author, especially an academic), Simon powerfully evokes the fantastical and the mundane, and at the same time, decodes the racial and economic realities that make modern AC both unbelievably gritty and super posh. Read Simon, but if in the meantime, if you've never been to AC, you can take a virtual tour of its glitz and grime in this great photo essay at Philly Skyline.

AC is one of the poorest cities in New Jersey, yet home to some of the state's most upscale dining emporiums and fashionable clothing boutiques. Like nearly every city in the Northeast, AC benefited from the real estate boom and saw some new condos and town houses spring forth from its pockmarked landscape of vacant lots. But all the casino revenue in the world can't undo the combined and mutually reinforcing processes of racial segregation and economic marginalization. Atlantic City is a case study in uneven development. Billions have gone into casinos and hotels, yet to shop for groceries or go to a movie requires getting in a car and driving to the dreary, sprawling suburbs on the other side of the bay. Casino dollars have not trickled down to the 'hoods. The public schools are lousy. And Atlantic City is--as it has always been--segregated by race.

It's a place of fantasy and decadence--and for a few days, we'll partake of the unreal life in the city. But outside our massive parking garage, just a short walk away (if anyone here bothered to walk), is a place every bit as real and ruined as North Philadelphia or inner city Detroit or Chicago's South Side.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


I don't have much time this morning, but this just arrived in my email box. It's part of Obama's effort this week to reach out to Hillary Clinton supporters and to build a base among working women. It's a little glimmer of hope--one of the positive results of the insistence by Hillary supporters that women's issues get attention in the campaign. From my vantage point, the paid leave (still too small, but better than what we have now) and the minimum wage increase are the most important. What do you think?

Obama to Unveil Plan for Economic Security for America’s Working Women

As President, Obama will provide a tax cut to 71 million working women, guarantee seven days of paid sick leave for 22 million additional women, and make childcare more affordable for 7.5 million working mothers

CHICAGO, IL—Over the next two days, Barack and Michelle Obama will hold campaign events to highlight Obama’s plan to provide economic security for America’s working women. Obama’s plan directly addresses the challenges that women and families face affording quality child care, juggling personal and professional commitments, and coping with soaring prices.

“I don’t accept an America where a woman earns less than a man for the same work, or an America that makes women choose between their kids and their careers. It’s unacceptable that women are denied jobs or promotions because they’ve got kids at home. It’s unacceptable that 22 million working women don’t have a single paid sick day,” Senator Obama said. “When I’m President, we’ll take these critical issues head-on and help women and families thrive in a changing economy.”

On Thursday, Senator Obama will attend a women’s fundraiser in New York with Senator Hillary Clinton and focus on his economic security plan at a town hall meeting with women in Fairfax, Virginia. Michelle Obama will hold women’s roundtables in Pontiac, Michigan and Kansas City, Missouri today and tomorrow to discuss the challenges facing working women and families—and the relief they’d see under an Obama presidency.

Obama’s Plan for Economic Security for America’s Working Women

Ø Tax cut for working women. Barack Obama will provide 71 million working women with a tax cut of up to $500—or $1000 per family—to help offset the impact of stagnant wages and skyrocketing costs.

Ø Balancing work and family. Obama will help address the challenge of balancing work and family by guaranteeing seven days of paid sick leave to the 22 million working women who currently have none. Obama will also expand child care tax credits, double funding for afterschool programs to serve 1 million more children, and will create a summer learning program to serve an additional 1 million young people.

Ø Health care for every American. As President, Obama will reduce health care costs by $2,500 for a typical family, while providing affordable health care for every American.

Ø A secure retirement guaranteed. Obama will strengthen retirement security for working women, who currently enter retirement with less than half the retirement savings of men. Obama’s plan will automatically enroll workers in retirement accounts (with the option to opt-out) and make these accounts portable to help working parents save while balancing their family obligations.

Ø Equal Pay. Obama will fight for paycheck equity and to close the pay gap that leaves women earning only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. The pay gap is even more pronounced for minority working women—with Hispanic women earning only 53 cents and African American women only 62 cents for every dollar of male earnings.

Ø Affordable college. Obama will put the cost of college in reach for by providing a $4,000 refundable tax credit available at the time of enrollment in exchange for community service.

Ø Raise the minimum wage. Obama will help low-wage working women move into the middle class by increasing the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011, and indexing it to inflation—and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Ø Support Women-Owned Small Businesses: Obama will help women-owned small businesses innovate, grow and create jobs by cutting their capital gains tax rate to zero, and implementing the Women Owned Business contracting program that has been abandoned by the Bush Administration.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Semi-clad, free-loving hippies, bearded protestors, androgynous purse-carrying wrist-swishers: it's the 60s and they're back! John McCain launched a major ad yesterday, "Love." It begins with stereotyped images of the 1960s and ends with cliched images of McCain.

The ad is the latest in a long and now tired history of Republican distortions of the 1960s for political gain. The tumultuous decade was not even over when Richard M. Nixon's handlers turned protests to their advantage, depicting the square Californian as the voice of the silent majority, ready to defend middle America against the excesses of campus protests and riots. His TV spots (check out "Convention" for a taste) were among the best ever produced: they depicted a dark, apocalyptic vision of America on the brink of apocalypse. Nixon's team perfected the message in 1972, portraying true straight-shooter and uptight South Dakotan George McGovern as the candidate of acid, amnesty, and abortion (he opposed the first, took more or less the same position as mainstream Republicans on the second, and had grave misgivings about the third). By then, running against the 60s became a standard bit of campaign fare: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush positioned themselves as bulwarks against the madness of the era; even Democrats like Jimmy Carter positioned his prayerful and fiscally conservative self against the alleged excesses of the Great Society. The DLC made running against the 1960s the core of its two-decade-long effort to win back Reagan Democrats and capture business interests for the Democratic Party.

The Republican version of the 1960s was not--and is not--good history. The 1960s was as important a period in the rise of the New Right as it was for the left. Young Americans for Freedom was as big and influential as Students for a Democratic Society. The Campus Crusade for Christ remade student life in ways that were as far-reaching as the counterculture. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George Wallace, Phyllis Schlafly, and Jesse Helms were as much products of the 1960s as Eugene McCarthy, Tom Hayden, Gloria Steinem, and Stokely Carmichael.

It's unfair to expect campaign ads to represent history accurately. But using the 1960s as political propaganda is probably not a winner this year. Sixteen years ago--when 1968 was a lot closer in memory--an anti-60s campaign failed. Smoking but not-inhaling, peace-protesting, womanizing Democratic candidate Bill Clinton dodged association with the 1960s just as successfully as he dodged the draft. Clinton may have been one of Newt Gingrich's "counterculture McGoverniks," but the label was not his undoing. Eight years later, the Republicans played the sixties card again, but Al Gore had greater liabilities than his presence at Harvard at the fin-de-60s (though his military service certainly innoculated him from some criticism). Only hapless John Kerry, the Vietnam vet and 70s-era McGovernik, faced charges of guilt-by-association with such figures as Hanoi Jane, even though the incumbent president and vice president had both dodged the draft and avoided service in Vietnam. Kerry's problem was not his association with the 60s. It was his campaign's utter inability to neutralize the mendacious Swift Boaters.

It's a sign of the poverty of conservatism that McCain has decided to make a splash in 2008 by running against 1968. I'm sorry to say, but forty years was a long, long time ago. The younger participants in the Summer of Love are pushing sixty. Most Americans just don't have strong feelings about the sixties anymore. The election of 2008 won't be won or lost as a referendum on the 1960s. The presumptive Democratic candidate was scarcely a sentient being then. Obama was not rolling around in the mud at Woodstock or protesting against the Vietnam War or donning a dashiki.

Put yourself in 1968 and imagine candidates shaping a campaign around the issues of 1928--forty years earlier. Old Tricky Dick wouldn't have gotten very far running ads that alluded to prohibition and Catholicism. And Hubert Humphrey attempted to taint Nixon with the Herbert Hooverism to no avail (a sign of the poverty of Democratic rhetoric in the late 1960s).

McCain might not be over the 1960s--and the exhausted conservatives might believe that reigniting the culture wars is their ticket to victory. But at a moment of economic crisis and amidst an unpopular war, I have to ask McCain's advisors: what were you inhaling when you put the ad together?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


That the Republican Party's post-1964 resurgence owes a lot to civil rights politics goes without saying, despite considerable debate on how much of a role that economics, suburbanization, sexuality, gender, and religion played in the rise of the New Right. William Voegeli, a conservative political scientist at the Claremont Institute, has weighed in on these issues with an unusually reflective and thought-provoking article on race and conservatism. Voegeli grapples with the connections between states-rights rhetoric and anti-civil rights politics, with William F. Buckley's infamous contention that whites are an advanced race, and with the New Right's indifference to civil rights (at best) and vocal support for segregationism (at worst).

Voegeli, however, makes at least two erroneous arguments that undermine his article's larger political point. The first, and most important, is his assumption that civil rights legislation fundamentally expanded the power of the federal government in ways that vitiated what he believes are legitimate arguments for reserving most, if not all powers, to the states and localities. The civil rights movement, he contends, succeeded in "politicizing all the spaces in which Americans live their lives. The lesson that federal government intervention could extinguish the wickedness of segregation was learned too well, and reinforced the liberal conviction that government could—-and therefore must—-intervene to eradicate every social ill, no matter how large or amorphous, affecting minority groups." Voegeli is right that the coercive power of the federal government made possible many civil rights advances, most notably the advent of integrated public education in the South and the abolition of segregated public accommodations. But whole areas of everyday life remained largely unaffected by federal civil rights legislation: most notably housing. The tepid 1968 Fair Housing Act (also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act) left the most distinctive and pernicious feature of segregation and a prime cause of racial inequality--residential segregation--mostly untouched. Although rates of black-white residential segregation fell in the 1990s, most of metropolitan America remains intensely balkanized by race, the result of ineffective civil rights laws. And even federal intervention to desegregate schools was terribly limited. Most school districts in the North and West remained separate and unequal, untouched by federal law. And contra Voegeli, busing (that controversial remedy) was mostly the result of state administrative action (mandates by state departments of education), not federal intervention. The story of the implementation of civil rights legislation is not one of uniform triumph: it is one of struggle between advocates of racial equality and ideological or procedural critics of civil rights enforcement, most of them Republican. Often the Republicans won all out; more often still, they weakened civil rights policies without destroying them entirely. That's why affirmative action is on the rocks nearly everywhere and why, since the 1980s, American public education has grown increasingly segregated by race.

Voegeli's arguments about affirmative action are also problematic. "Affirmative action," he argues, "has been the civil rights movement's political gift to the conservative movement. Conservatives have been delighted by the chance, finally, to present themselves as the ones articulating a principled egalitarian argument on behalf of innocent people whose prospects in life were diminished when they were judged according to the color of their skin rather than the content of their characters." This is simply bad history. It is true that civil rights activists, among them Martin Luther King, Jr., the Urban League's Whitney Young, and CORE's James Farmer all argued for some form of compensatory programs to undo hundreds of years of systematic racial segregation. But affirmative action as we know it was the creation of a Republican president, Richard M. Nixon. And despite the fact that Ronald Reagan unleashed and legitimated conservative anti-affirmative action rhetoric and appointed scores of judges who have slowly eviscerated civil rights laws, affirmative action remained administratively intact throughout his administration. Reagan could have--but did not--gut the executive branch agencies responsible for enforcing affirmative action. On the other hand, the courts whittled away at affirmative action, particularly in education and contract set-asides, gutting remedial arguments for affirmative action and leaving the program resting on the thin reed of the diversity rationale. In other words, affirmative action is far more powerful in its critics' imaginations than it is in practice.

In the end, Voegeli hopes to defend the Republican Party against the charge that "the essence of conservatism is and always has been Dixiecrat-ism." Or put differently, "everything that conservatism has accomplished and stood for since 1965—-Reagan, the tax revolt, law-and-order, deregulation, the fight against affirmative action, the critique of the welfare state...everything—-is the poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree." I think the metaphor of a hybrid tree, grafted onto racist roots is better. The importance--and in most cases centrality--of race to the rise of the New Right is undeniable. Reagan, after all launched his 1980 campaign in infamous Philadelphia, Mississippi, and played to his Dixiecrat constituents brilliantly. Nixonian and Reaganite law and order politics--nothing to be proud of, especially given the steady rise in crime between the 1960s and the 1990s--resulted in the expansion of a carceral state which disproportionately impacted African Americans but had little impact on crime rates. It is impossible to ignore the racial roots of the transformation of criminal justice in symbolic moments like the infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988. Even though only a tiny percentage of whites were ever victims of criminal acts by blacks, crime had (and still has) a black face. On the welfare state, right-wing criticism of Social Security and Aid to Dependent Children (later Aid to Families with Dependent Children) is as old as the New Deal itself. But the poison fruit of anti-welfarism ripened in the post-1960s period, when the mainstream media represented welfare as a black problem (on this point read Martin Gilens's superb and impeccable book, Why Americans Hate Welfare) and when candidates like Reagan stoked white resentment with his racist and entirely fictitious depiction of the "welfare queen." And just ask Charlie Black, who crafted Jesse Helms's infamous anti-affirmative action ad (and who is now flacking for John McCain) whether or not there was racial symbolism in the white hands crumbling up a job rejection letter and in the laden and inaccurate phrase "racial quotas." Rightist anti-tax politics also has a racial component (Thomas and Mary Edsall's sometimes problematic Chain Reaction and more recently Robert Self's important history of Oakland and the East Bay, made this clear nearly twenty years ago) and has its origins as I have noted before, in the rhetoric of slaveholders in the nineteenth century.

Race is not all: anti-statism, libertarianism, law-and-order politics, and anti-welfarism have long pedigrees in the United States. But they bore abundant fruit only when grafted onto the roots of racism.

To Voegeli's credit, he acknowledges the Republican Party's racist past--and the moral and political costs of the New Right's position on civil rights. That's a start. But there's good reason why the G.O.P. remains America's white party.

Monday, July 7, 2008


I have never been much of a fan of casinos. Cities around the country have built them, usually on the false promise that they will generate urban redevelopment. When I visited the Motor City Casino in Detroit two summers ago with a British film crew, we stood on Trumbull Avenue, just a good baseball hit from the Motor City's massive parking garage. They marveled at the contrast between the gambling emporium and the rundown houses and trash-strewn lots just across the street. Although every city wants to become the next Las Vegas, the grim reality is that most casinos draw most of their visitors and most of their revenue from locals. Given the large number of elderly people who play the slots, casino-generated revenue is a massive redistribution away from seniors. A few more gambling halls will not save our cities, but they will rip a lot of us off.

One of the seniors who regularly patronizes casinos is John McCain. I'm not so worried about the impact of redistributing that multimillionaire's wealth, but it does say something that McCain is a compulsive gambler who has spent, and presumably lost millions of dollars (it adds up quickly at a few thousand a roll) at casinos from sea to shining sea and overseas too. TNR reports that:
In the past decade, [McCain] has played on Mississippi riverboats, on Indian land, in Caribbean craps pits and along the length of the Las Vegas Strip. Back in 2005 he joined a group of journalists at a magazine-industry conference in Puerto Rico, offering betting strategy on request. "Enjoying craps opens up a window on a central thread constant in John's life," says John Weaver, McCain's former chief strategist, who followed him to many a casino. "Taking a chance, playing against the odds." Aides say McCain tends to play for a few thousand dollars at a time and avoids taking markers, or loans, from the casinos, which he has helped regulate in Congress. "He never, ever plays on the house," says Mark Salter, a McCain adviser. The goal, say several people familiar with his habit, is never financial. He loves the thrill of winning and the camaraderie at the table.

Only recently have McCain's aides urged him to pull back from the pastime. In the heat of the G.O.P. primary fight last spring, he announced on a visit to the Vegas Strip that he was going to the casino floor. When his aides stopped him, fearing a public relations disaster, McCain suggested that they ask the casino to take a craps table to a private room, a high-roller privilege McCain had indulged in before. His aides, with alarm bells ringing, refused again, according to two accounts of the discussion.

"He clearly knows that this is on the borderline of what is acceptable for him to be doing," says a Republican who has watched McCain play. "And he just sort of revels in it."

Whether it be local governments gambling on casinos or investment banks gambling on risky mortgages or the federal government gambling with our tax dollars on gambits like the War in Iraq, we have gambled too much on America's future and lost. We don't need another heedless, multimillionaire risk-taker in the White House.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


It seems only appropriate to take a moment to mark the way, way, way untimely death of one of the most virulent, racist, homophobic, misogynistic politicians of recent American history, Jesse Helms. Most North Carolinians believe in a just God: and if they are right, She has dispatched the late Senator to the place where evildoers find no respite from their sins.

To Jesse's shade, I offer up "Wallace"--a song told from the vantage point of the Devil himself (who has a Wallace bumper sticker on his Cadillac--and no doubt a Helms one too). The song is from Southern Rock Opera, one of the greatest albums by the greatest Southern band of Jesse's last decade, The Drive-By Truckers. So throw another log on the fire boys...George Corley Wallace has company.

Throw another log on the fire, boys, George Wallace is coming to stay

When he met St. Peter at the pearly gates, I'd like to think that a black man stood in the way.

I know "All should be forgiven", but he did what he done so well

So throw another log on the fire boys,

George Wallace is a coming…

P.S. A little more on Jesse: examples of his vile rhetoric, the Helms-McCain connection, and a really smart post about Jesse Helms's long history of racism.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I count it a great few days that my readers have come from across the political spectrum. A recent study suggests that left-wing bloggers spend most of their time among their ideological kin and rightist bloggers spend most of their time with their ilk. Only 6% of political blog readers regularly visit both left and right blogs. So thanks to new neoconservatives,Rustbelt liberals, and Canadian feminist-socialists for finding their way here. I'm happy to be part of the proud six percent. I'll be visiting your sites regularly.


Is the academy destined to become a haven for bland, apolitical scholars?

The NYT reported today on a study of political beliefs among academics by sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. Gross and Simmons found a generational gap between academics who came of age in the 1960s and those who came of age in the 1990s. The former are more likely to self-identify as liberal and consider themselves as activists. A majority of the latter call themselves moderates.

I am not a child of the 1960s (except in the broadest sense that everyone in our time lives in the era's shadow). The whole world wasn't watching me and my generation. I inadvertently drooled through Kennedy's last year, learned to walk just a few months before LBJ took office, and was forbidden from watching the evening news coverage of the Vietnam War. I was too young to join the 60s protests, occupy campus buildings, and party with the counterculture. I don't really remember 1968, other than watching the Detroit Tigers win the World Series, and that's not because I spent the year in a smoky haze of pot. I didn't inhale.

But I am not a child of fin-de-siecle America either. As a young academic at a rich university, I found myself uncomfortable in the 1990s, in an era that was the zenith of neoliberalism, when income inequality was taken for granted, when students from super-rich families believed that they were "middle class," when hyper-professionalization ran amuck through undergraduate and graduate education, and when uncritical acceptance of market values shaped even people with whom I share many common political and social values.

In age, I am closer to the younger scholars, but politically I am closer to the older ones.

In many respects, the implications of Gross and Simmons's study are depressing--and not because I hold some romantic brief for the 60s generation. In both print and in public forums, I have pointed out many of the blind spots of boomer politics and scholarship. One of the greatest failures of the 60s left was that it was too suspicious of power, deeply anti-institutional, and too uncritical about grassroots resistance, local control, and the power of the "people." The left's suspicion of organized politics, in particular, exacted a high price. To paraphrase Todd Gitlin (in one of his better moments) while the right was taking over government and the media, the left was taking over English departments.

Don't get me wrong: I am not calling for the reassertion of liberal or leftist hegemony in the university. Overall, academia is not diverse enough politically for my taste. I am all for robust debate among people of differing political vantage points. I have many colleagues whose politics I find problematic, but we share the common goal of fostering intellectual discussion and training our students to examine their assumptions, whatever they may be, with rigor. My political skills are sharper because I spend time with people who disagree with my politics--forcing me to express my ideas more clearly, carefully, and subtly. There's nothing more intellectually deadening than spending all your time preaching to the choir.

But the trend that Gross and Simmons identify: the dominance of political moderation among academics, bodes ill for the intellectual life of the university. Moderation spells blandness to me. The one thing to be said about boomer academics is that, even when they are wrong, they are passionate. They argue like it matters--and sometimes it does. Passion is an essential ingredient of their intellectual life--and it should be of ours too. I'll take scholarship that tries to engage the central problematics of our day--that has political implications--over bland, if technically competent work, that eschews risks.

The leftists and left-liberals of the 60s generation believed that the university could be the seedbed of revolution. They were naive--and wrong. But I hope that as they pass into retirement that their passion for engaged scholarship, for bringing the world into the ivory tower and climbing out of the ivory tower and spending time in the messy, non-academic world does not disappear into a sea of blandness. That would be a real loss.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Yesterday Obama announced his support for continuing, in modified form, the faith-based initiatives of the Bush administration. Progressive religious leaders, like Jim Wallis, have praised Obama's plan. But predictably, it has taken hits from the religious right for his argument that organizations taking federal funds should not be permitted to discriminate on grounds of religion or use the funds to proselytize. And he has also taken flack from staunch advocates of church-state separation who argue that no religious organization should receive federal support, no matter how worthy its work.

Both sides overdraw their case. To the conservatives: the federal government (and all grantmakers, for that matter) have the right to put strings on the funding that they provide. If you are unwilling to accept the strictures in service of your scriptures, then simply don't take the money. During the Bush administration there have been too many religious groups gorging at the public trough for whom service provision is a thinly-veiled cover for conversion or which are pursuing wholly religious-based programs like abstinence-only sex education that do not serve the public good.

But the church-state absolutists go too far in the other direction. Spend anytime in the inner city and you'll find some of the most effective social service provision coming from faith-based organizations. Churches provide lunches, shelters, anti-substance abuse counseling, and assistance to victims of abuse. Many of the counselors and support personnel employed by these programs are part of the communities they serve. They are knowledgeable--and their neighbors trust them. They know how to reach out to the people. Obama's South Side Chicago is full of effective church-based programs, just as is my neighborhood in Philadelphia.

There is a risk that church-based social programs will compete with or supplant more effective governmental programs. Religious groups should not be the sole or primary providers of social services. Most church groups have the will but not the capacity to address social problems as effective as larger-scale organizations and, dare I say, even the government itself. There are many non-faith based nonprofits that do as good or better a job as their religious counterparts--and they should not suffer government favoritism toward religious groups. And to reiterate a point: all private-sector service providers need to be monitored, regulated, and especially evaluated. This is especially true with groups like church-based social service agencies that might, if left unsupervised, be tempted to use federal money inappropriately. Accountability is key. Regulation matters.

One last church-state point. The U.S. government already provides a massive subsidy to churches, one that dwarfs any amount of money that an Obama administration will provide to faith-based initiatives. That is, of course, the U.S. tax code, which exempts religious organizations from paying taxes and which allows private contributions to churches to be tax deductible. This federal tax expenditure channels billions of dollars into proselytizing efforts, creationism, anti-gay and lesbian programs, and religious fanaticism of every variety. Other than the loosely-enforced IRS provision that churches can lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in political campaigning, there are no checks on what, in effect, you and I are subsidizing through our tax policies. This is a far more problematic aspect of church-state relations than well-regulated, carefully monitored, non-discriminatory religious-based social services like those Obama proposes.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Just as I had surmised, the supposed uprising of bitter women, implacable in their anger at the Obama triumph over Hillary Clinton, is the product of sleazy Republican machinations. Of course, many feminists were justifiably angry at the misogyny directed toward candidate Clinton--and for good reason. But the idea that they would rush to the embrace of anti-feminist, sexist, and retrograde John McCain is yet another perverse example of MSM women-bashing (women are SO irrational and emotional that they would support sexist McCain) and lazy reporting. It took blogger Amanda Marcotte just a few minutes to do what major newspapers and the broadcast news--too credulous and too feckless--could not do. She unearthed the Republican roots of the supposed feminist avengers of Hillary. But this is just the beginning. It's just a matter of time before we hear from "civil rights" leaders for McCain...and so on. Let the swift-boating and ratfucking begin.