Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolution for Progressives

My father has told me for years that the history of the American Left amounts to this: Whenever the left decides to form a firing squad, it stands in a circle. It's hard to disagree.

I thought about that adage watching the reaction to Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural convocation. The whole episode, I suspect, will pass after January 20, but the teapot tempest the selection has created among "progressives" does not do us much credit. It suggests that some, at least, on the left are simply going to recourse to the old habits rather than embrace the opportunity we have to change the direction of the country.

A quick, potted history: Since the late 1960s the American left has been defined by two commitments. On the one hand, a politics of personal identity - identity being defined largely on the basis of biological essentialism (race, gender, sexual orientation); on the other, opposition and critique rather than the exercise of real political power. The left fell in love with losing, felt comforted by it, addicted to it. (Winning, after all, suggests power and power corrupts). Not coincidentally, the left has been largely irrelevant to American politics for a generation. (Todd Gitlin, among others, has written quite perceptively about all this).

This was the left I grew up in, through the late 1970s and 1980s, and it all came home to me early in the Clinton administration. As the Clinton health-care plan died an agonizing Congressional death, as welfare "reform" was fought, as Newt Gingrich closed the government not once but twice, and as Congressional Republicans attempted a coup d'etat by impeaching Clinton over a tawdry sexual affair (yes, Hillary was right - it was a vast, right-wing conspiracy) this issue that most motivated grass-roots progressives was. . .gays in the military!

To the best of my recollection, the largest public demonstration to take place during the Clinton years was 1993's gay rights march which was designed, among other things, to generate support for permitting gay Americans to serve openly in the military. I was at that rally - along with several hundred thousand of my closest friends - and I remember having a queasy feeling.

As a kid, I grew up in the anti-Vietnam, anti-military left. I grew up believing that the Pentagon was the problem (I still believe that) and that it needed to be shrunk, not expanded (I still believe that too). I spent my college years talking people of all kinds out of joining up, and yet here I was on the mall with people who wanted in. Meanwhile, health care reform vanished, and Newt Gingrich took out a contract on America.

The lesson of the Clinton years for me was this: Clinton was no progressive, but he was certainly better than the alternative and he got precious little support from us. After 12 years of Reagan-Bush, we had a chance to get some of what we wanted, but we didn't know what to do.

The reaction to Rick Warren feels a bit like that 1993 rally to me. Angry opposition based on the easy reflex to the old identity politics. For the record, I'm disgusted by Rick Warren too, not simply because of his vile homophobia, but because I resent bitterly any intrusion of religion into our public life - whether it is Warren's brand of feel-good ol time Christianity, Lieberman's Judiasm or Scalia's catholicism. Why do we need a religious invocation at all??!!

So here we are, after 8 years that have made the Reagan-Bush years look positively utopian and how will we respond? The question I pose here is not whether Obama will disappoint some on the left - he will. Rather, I wonder if what constitutes the left is prepared to trade purity for victory, compromised accomplishment for lost causes.

I propose this New Year's Resolution for progressives. Say it out loud with me: In 2009 I will not pit "better" against "best." I will concede some in order to achieve more. I will not fall on my sword just because some piece of legislation or some presidential appointment does not score 100% on my ideological purity test. I will enjoy winning, even if the victory is incomplete.

Change was the mantra of the Obama campaign. Were progressives listening? Are we prepared to change as well?

Monday, December 22, 2008

London Calling, Again

Winding up my visit here with a few more observations:

Over the last 10-15 years, London has been blanketed by CCTV cameras. They are almost literally everywhere, and thus it is nearly impossible to walk, or to take the Tube, or to drive without being spied on camera at least once during your journey.

It is a level of surveillance that makes many Americans (including this one) uncomfortable. But it also underscores a real difference between American and Europeans about how the best social order is to be achieved.

Americans profess - Dick Cheney notwithstanding - a deep commitment to individual rights. The rights of individuals trump, in the minds of many Americans, any notion of collective rights, or collective responsibilities. Europeans, on the other hand, have had a more highly developed sense of the common good, and individual liberties have often been asked to take a back seat to it.

The notion of individual freedom hardly needs defending, but perhaps we ought to look at the costs we pay for our commitment to those freedoms. Economically, we view ourselves purely as individuals operating in the market place. When any one of us doesn't succeed in that market, we have always viewed the failure as individual rather than structural: it's my fault that I can't find a job. Government policies for the unemployed and poor have tended to agree.

Likewise, we treat health care as an individual proposition rather than a collective right. The notion that in America one's health is tied so directly to one's employment (and wealth) strikes Europeans as just short of barbaric.

Most absurdly, the Supreme Court has ruled - willfully ignoring all the historical evidence to the contrary - that gun ownership is an individual right, just like the right to speech, not a collective right that can be effectively regulated through the political process. (For more on the history of the 2nd amendment see my colleague Saul Cornell's book A Well Regulated Militia).

In Europe, where collective responsibilities compete more equally with individual rights, the result has been a more lively urban realm - measured by the life on the streets and in the parks and in cultural venues of all sorts. It can't simply be a coincidence that as Americans venerate individual rights, we have retreated further and further from public life - into "gated communities," private transportation, and on and on. We are scared of each other to a dispiriting extent, and for a generation have not been able even to discuss the idea of a commonweal.

Massaging the balance between public and private, between the individual and the group is the very essence of what urbanism means. Cities, after all, are where people come together to pursue their private dreams, but in a way which makes it possible for others to pursue theirs as well. No one in a city gets to do anything s/he wants at whatever time s/he wants precisely in order that we can all do much of what we want to do most of the time.

Londoners have given up some measure of their individual freedom as CCTV cameras have proliferated across the city. The thousands of them that crowd the streets and shops and parks and paths, making this one of the most energetic urban spaces on the planet, don't seem to mind too much.

Friday, December 19, 2008

London Calling

Greetings from London! where I've snuck off for two weeks.

There is nothing so tedious as Americans who come back from Europe moaning about how much better things are there than they are in the United States. So with that by way of begging your pardon, here I go.

I haven't been here in two years, and I'm struck particularly that England is moving so much faster in directions to deal with environmental issues, urban questions, and sustainability than we are in the US.

Take public transportation (which I have been taking since I got here): it isn't simply that the trains, buses and subways are so crowded with users, or that they run so much better than they do almost anywhere in America - that much has been true for a while. But it is clear that in London, the rest of Great Britain (and in Germany where I spent 3 days last week) governments and the private sector are aggressively investing to make these systems even better. Modern buses and bus stops (that tell you what bus is due to arrive when); sleek modern train cars; and most of all speed. London to Paris now in 2hrs 15 min.

By comparison, Amtrak looks positively shabby. When I heard that Barak Obama will travel from Philadelphia to DC for the inauguration, I joked that the inauguration would probably be delayed for several hours because of an Amtrak breakdown. American railroad track can't accommodate high-speed trains, and no one has bothered to invest in upgrading most of that track in about half a century.

Likewise food production. Stop into any ordinary supermarket in London and you will find that locally (or regionally) produced food, organic food, free range meat etc are widely available. What is still largely a boutique niche in the United States is entirely common and mainstream here.

Climate change is an accepted fact here - not something with scare quotes around it as in America - and so the discussion is not whether to act, but how. The winner of the design competition for the next generation of double-decker buses for London, announced today, will be hydrogen-powered. And thanks to the "congestion fee" which charges people who drive private cars in central London, the buses make it around town more efficiently than they used to.

All of which is to say that being here, I can't help but feel in a more palpable way that America no longer leads the world, not at least on these critical issues. We look dated, backward, and thoroughly mid-twentieth century, not twenty-first. When I first came to London in the 1970s it felt quaint and old-fashioned, like it hadn't quite emerged out of the trauma of WWII. Now I wonder if English people feel the same way when they come to the United States. What was it that Ezra Pound wrote about Western civilization in 1920? an old bitch, gone in the teeth.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Abdication of George II

I won't claim that we have been witnessing something unprecedented, but I'm hard pressed to think of any analogy. We have had presidents die in office, one who resigned in disgrace, but I don't know that we've ever had a president who simply abdicated the way George Bush has. More than that, I'm not sure we've ever had such a shirking of responsibility that has gone without much of an outcry.

George began checking out of the White House, without actually leaving it, after the elections of 2006. After the troop escalation in Iraq early in 2007 he simply referred matters concerning the war to General David Petreaus. Nothing could be debated, discussed or assessed without Petreaus weighing in. For most of 2007, the Decider simply deferred to the General. In other countries they have a phrase to describe what happens in an alleged democracy when a General really runs the show.

A year later, after the economy began to tank, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson assumed the job of day-to-day president. He briefed the press and hectored Congress. He became the public face of the administration trying to deal with the collapse of markets. W was replaced with Hank.

In his first address after winning the presidency, Barack Obama reminded the nation that we only have one president at a time. He's quite right, but apparently someone forgot to tell Bush. He has blithely punted all the problems he created to the new administration weeks before that administration actually has the power to enact policy.

There is no question that the nation is sick of and embarrassed by George Bush. The Washington press corps left the White House press room for Capitol Hill after the 2006 midterms, and took much of the nation's attention with it. This accounts, I think, for the fact that the 2008 election cycle began so early - we were all so desperate to be done with the Bush fiasco that we wanted to start thinking about his replacement as soon as possible.

Still, Bush's abdication of his job - he was elected for a four-year term after all - verges on dereliction of duty, a Constitutional crisis, small by the standards of the others he has created, but a crisis nonetheless. The nation does only have one president at a time, after all, but now we effectively have none.