Equality Revisited

Joe didn’t much care for (understatement alert!) my post setting out an attachment to equality or acceptance of hierarchy as one axis in the division I’m trying to make between ideologies.

I’m not backing down. Let me try and expand on and strengthen what I said in two areas.

First as to Joe’s comment:“The LAST thing communism is, is equal. Not even in misery. Party cadres are always a cut above – essentially, all it does is substitute political power for currency. Failure to understand this is an essential failure to understand Communism in any of its forms.”

Let’s make one thing clear. What’s being discussed are ideals; they are the ideals that are set at the head of the table by a variety of actors, and a variety of groups of actors, each of whom acts in very complex ways.
I’m rereading Walter Russell Mead, in anticipation of having it out, Matrix-style, with David Adelsik, and one of the most powerful things in the book is his recognition that American foreign policy is inevitably something that emerges from a complex and dynamic system of beliefs and interests and hence is something that can’t be fit neatly into a mental container. That acceptance of complexity in his book is contrasted with his effort to pick apart some of the beliefs and perceptions of interest, and set them out in an articulatable way.

Similarly, I’m trying to talk about complex systems of political action and belief, and reduce them, in an effort to come up with some of the ‘articulatable’ subsystems. So yes, I completely understand that Soviet Russia was in fact as hierarchical as the court in Versailles. But the belief system that held that hierarchy together – aside from a private and naked ambition on the part of the participants – was one that idealized the ultimate Worker’s Paradise.

The interesting thing to me right now is the split…the Matrix-like division between the apparent and the real…in these ideologies. And to understand that, we start by understanding the ideal, because that fantasy, that collective dream, is a big part of what ties people to these ideologies and makes them powerful.

Second, Joe says: “You can’t dispense with the question “what kind of equality” when that IS a key question behind your matrix.” No, Joe, it’s not.

The question becomes the relative importance of the “equality of outcome”/”equality of treatment” distinction and the “for equality”/”natural hierarchy” distinction.

I throw my hands up and surrender to the point that there is a real and deep distinction between the two forms of equality (of outcome and of treatment), and that this is itself a significant and fruitful area for exploration.

But I’ll also suggest that there is also an even more significant distinction between a society that holds equality – any kind of equality – as a foundational belief, and one that does not. I used Dickens’ England as an example of a class-driven society; one in which the accepted reality of inequality – in every form, political, legal, economic, and moral – is itself one of the organizing principles of the society. I could have used Elizabeth’s England, or the Persia of Cyrus, but there are more people that know Dickens – and the point is more clearly made by a society closer to us – than either of those.

Those are fundamentally different kinds of societies than those that hold equality as a value, regardless of what kind of equality is being discussed, and that difference ought to be obvious. If it isn’t, imagine for a moment a Persian artisan making an appeal to Cyrus or Darius based on their common humanity, and on some body of common rights. Having trouble?? No kidding…

The notion that people are equal in any way, and that societies should be organized on that principle was a revolutionary one, and one that we sadly take for granted. We shouldn’t.

The Axis of Equality

I talked about “openness and incompleteness” as one axis of my 2 x 2 political Matrix (I have tickets for 10:00 pm Thursday, btw, with TG and the oldest boys…). The other is Equality.

Equality is one of those words whose meanings change depending on your perspective; the two definitions seem to be “equality of treatment” and “equality of outcome”. I’ll be abstract from this and suggest that while this distinction is damn important, the more important one is between “equality matters” and “no it doesn’t, I rule”.

Most societies have as their organizing principle the question of the distribution of power. Even the most repressive medieval societies were ruled by kings (and queens) who were caught in a delicate web of obligations … both upward and downward … and who usually prevailed or fell in no small part based on how well they managed them.

In modern political thought, we have one pole which suggests that equality is good (in one form or the other), and another pole which suggests it is bad, whether because of Divine Right in some form or another or because of the Invisible Hand and humanity’s inherent variations.

If you take this matrix, you get four quadrants:


Let’s go through them.

Closed/Unequal. The Nazi ideal. ‘Baathist Iraq would be a good example. A rigidly controlled society in which a strict hierarchy is not only an incidental part of maintaining control, but is a part of the value system of the society.

Closed/Equal. The Socialist ideal. Soviet Russia, in the imaginations of its supporters. In reality, Pol Pot’s Cambodia probably would stand as a good (that can’t be the right word in this context) example.

Open/Unequal. The Libertarian ideal. Much of Dickens’ (Victorian) England would be the best historical example I can quickly think of.

Open/Equal. The American ideal. America doesn’t perfectly embody it, but certainly holds it up and makes an effort to do so.

This maps to but doesn’t quite mirror Pournelle’s 2 x 2 matrix, which Trent Telenko pointed out to me in the comments to “The Fantasy Ideology of the GOP”.

I’ll try and extend this a bit and explain the differences and why I like mine better…

The Fantasy Ideology of the Democrats

Rhetorically, what I’d like to say is that “While the GOP sells a past that never was, the Democrats sell a future that will never be.” But that’s not the case.

The Democrats, like the Republicans, are living in the past. They have a slight edge, in that the past they are living in – Selma in 1965 – is real. But like the aging high school baseball star, they see everything through the lens of the One Big Game, of the time years ago when they stood at the plate swung away and hit one over the fence.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to explain what the Democrats are doing is that they desperately want to see everything as Selma in 1965, and they are constantly looking for a Bull Connors to stand up against. Why? As a way of establishing their courage and moral stature. Courage because they stood against the forces of ignorance and brutality – and even more important, against our own forces of ignorance and brutality. And moral stature came because they did the right thing in the face of difficult odds and prevailed.

The problem is that governing the country is not the same as marching on Selma. The necessary compromises, the inevitable comfort with the levers of power means that those who once marched from the Sierra Maestra now sit comfortably in corner offices.
And absent an organizing principle, other than Selma, keeping those corner offices becomes the critical feature. I told a story a while ago over at Armed Liberal, it’s a very small local one, but to anyone who has watched Democratic politics in the DLC era, it will sound very familiar:

In the 60’s in Berkeley, there was a movement to create a series of co-ops that would allow student-radicals to both generate jobs outside the hated-but-paying-their-rent capitalist system, and provide a living example that (for all I know) Trotskyite anarcho-syndicalism could triumph in the Belly of the Beast.

Most of these communal businesses failed mercifully quickly, as far as I know (this is all ancient history to me, so if I’m getting part of it wrong, drop a note). By the time I got there, there were two survivors … Leopold’s Records (“Boycott Tower Records, keep Berkeley Free”) and the Missing Link bicycle shop.

Leopold’s was off-campus somewhere near Telegraph, but the bicycle store was a part of the mini-shopping area that was in the ASUC building.

The student government decided that they were going to evict it to make room for a small-electronics (Walkmen, stereo, calculators, etc.) annex to the Student Store. Why??

The small-electronics store could pay as much as $50,000 more in rent every year.

Now this is an appropriately cold-hearted landlord kind of decision to make. But the people making the decision weren’t sweater wearing conservative Young Republicans, driven by their vision of the purity of the market.

They were a bunch of New Left, ethnic-identity, progressive communitarian kind of kids.

Why did they want to make this decision? Because it would mean $50K a year more for their organizing budgets; $50K more in pork they could carve up in the hopes of building their perfect communitarian future.

Now I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time imagining anything more keyed to a progressive communitarian future than a cooperatively owned bicycle store. I mean, how much better does it get? Nonprofit. Cooperatively employee owned. Bicycles, for chrissakes. If you really wanted to educate people in alternatives to the “mass consumerist repressive capitalist paradigm” (I think I got the buzzwords right), wouldn’t that be a good way to do it?

But reality couldn’t stand a chance against the cold need for this elected group to make sure that they and their friends were rewarded.

And the fantasy that allowed them to do this – that blinded them to what they were really doing, and pulled them away from what they professed to believe – was one that had them at the head of the march in Selma on Bloody Sunday, standing arm in arm with Dr. King.

Towards a Democratic Foreign Policy

David Adesnik offers (note: permalinks broken, scroll down to Sunday May 11, “The Left vs. Itself” ) a history of U.S. foreign policy, and an outline of what he believes a liberal, Democratic, and effective foreign policy might look like.

First I have to publicly go on record that this is an exciting time for me; I’ve felt isolated from much of the Democratic party and what passes for liberalism for some time, and am constitutionally incapable of moving to the other side of the aisle. But now, I feel that there is some ferment in the Left both here in the U.S. and in the U.K., and that we’re starting a process that could well result in an effective, moral, and progressive vision of the country and the world. I’m happy as all get-out to be one of the smaller yeast organisms and a part of that fermentation process. We’ll taste the beer in a year or two and see if it’s fit to drink.

But I think that David is waaay off the mark in at least three areas, and want to offer some off-the-cuff collegial corrections.

First, in case, you haven’t, go read his post.

OK?? Click through to see some quick thoughts on what he’s written and some directions I think the Dems ought to be taking.

[Update: I respond to his rebuttal below…]He neatly collapses the history of recent American foreign policy into a blog post, and talks about the varying positions of the Democratic and Republican wings of our politics. But in doing so, he misses or mis-states a few things.

First, he characterizes Bush as a Wilsonian (in the Mead sense). Uh, sorry?? Wilsonians are typically defined as attempting to enmesh nations in a framework of democracy and the rule of law. Bush?? I’d have to make him as a Jacksonian/Hamiltonian in the Mead framework.

Overall, I think that David is right in characterizing most of the recent Republican administrations as Hamiltonian in promoting “a realist approach to foreign policy that considered no dictator unworthy of an American alliance provided that his brutality was matched by his anti-Communism”.

Carter was Wilsonian/Jacksonian, as was Clinton.

Adesnik argues in favor of the Wilsonian notion that “democracies do not make war”, with this comment:

As any compelling liberal foreign policy must be, Wilson’s was founded on the idea of protecting individual rights. Having witnessed the horrors of the Great War, Wilson belived that such tragedies could be avoided if governments would only listen to the voice of their citizens.

Anticipating the democratic peace theorists of today, Wilson believed that no democratic government would commit acts of agression against any other. Thus he insisted that the German Empire be replaced by a German republic.

Yet Wilson also recognized that most governments at the time were not democratic and would not become so. Thus, he sought to project democracy onto the international stage by creating the League of Nations. Its purpose was to create a forum for “world opinion”, which Wilson believed would be an unfailing opponent of war. While this approach has considerable merit, critics point out that the people of the German Reich overwhelmingly supported war when it was declared in 1914, as did the citizens of most other nations.

You’d have to add me to the list of those critics, because I’ll point out that democracies can and often are bellicose (not as often as tyrannies which often rely on demonizing the ‘other’ and the rigid apparat of the wartime state).

Democracy alone…whether within states, or among them…is itself not a strong defense against war, as commentators from Thucidydes forward have shown us.

Neither is the rule of law alone enough. As the U.N. and the E.U. (and to an extent, the U.S.) show us, writing laws itself does not solve problems, it does not prevent injustice, it does not build stable or progressive societies. It does build complicated legal-regulatory structures which ignore inconvenient realities and find ways within the law to ignore (or perpetuate) injustice.

So when Adesnik comes out as a Wilsonian,

As you might have guessed by now, I believe that the foundation of a liberal vision for American foreign policy must entail a return to the Wilsonian vision that animated American liberalism from the First World War until the tragedy of Vietnam. Perhaps the greatest flaw of such a foreign policy is that it does not provide Democratic candiates with a credible means of differentiating their views from that of the current administration.

I think that he’s missing the boat in three ways.

The current Administration isn’t Wilsonian.

The most successful Democratic foreign policies – FDR, Truman, and JFK – weren’t either.

We have a surfeit of international institutions, laws, and regulations. They aren’t working. The public – here and abroad – sees this. Democratic candidates who tie their foreign policy to a new round of international institution-building may as well go home now and save themselves and their donors dollars and heartache. It won’t work and it won’t sell.

So what do we do?

Well, I’ll suggest a few things.

First, and foremost we have to sell America. Adesnik is absolutely right when he points to the Vietnam War as the turning point in U.S. foreign policy, but it wasn’t just because we ‘lost he war’. It was because for the first time, a number of Americans and people abroad were united in the vision that America was wrong, and bad, and even evil.

Our foreign policy has to be based, not just in our mechanistic view of ‘doing what’s good for America’, as one nation among many, but on the notion that we (along with many others) have something to offer the world. And what we have to offer the world – the reason why so many want to come here – is not only our prosperity, but our freedom, our belief in and respect for the individual, and most of all our belief in justice – that everyone is equal before the law, that everyone gets an opportunity, and that if we get it wrong once, we’ll work and change and eventually get it right.

It is our belief in the dignity of every American.

Now those values are under attack within America, too. Not just in our imaginations, but in our policies, laws, and institutions. We need to fight on two fronts – to restore the power of those beliefs here – and to expose them to the world as what we have to contribute.

We need to make it clear that violence will be met with violence. Because we aren’t ashamed to be Americans, we need not be ashamed of defending ourselves nor of taking threats to ourselves or others seriously. Out of a mixture of guilt and passivity, we’ve tolerated extremism and saber rattling and watched it turn into saber waving.

Democrats love their country as much as Republicans do, and shouldn’t have a problem with “kill an American and you’re toast”.

But this (standing up to violence) is a cornerstone of Bush’s policy, and taking that stand alone won’t do much for the Democrats.

First, a successful challenge to Bush’s foreign policy will rest on highlighting the close connections between Bush’s ‘Engine Charlie’ Wilson (““What’s good for General Motors is good for the rest of America.”) view of the U.S. and the world and his policies.

Second, we have to show fairness above all. The Kyoto treaty was probably a bad treaty, but driving CAFÉ and a gas tax – or even a commitment to a future gas tax – would go a long way to show the world that we’re not liberating Iraq to make commuting in a Hummer affordable.

Third, we need to focus on foreign intervention and aid that empowers from the bottom up, rather than the top down. The Soviet-style of building immense projects and the institutions to support them has to be inverted toward something more like this:

The ramshackle facade of Christopher Wilson’s two-room home in the gritty Southside neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, doesn’t raise great expectations. But through the rickety wooden gate and beyond the drainage ditch lies a new, freshly plastered extension to his house and woodworking shop.

Wilson, 36, who has a wife and two young children, brings in $800 a month making cabinets, tables and chairs for a furniture store and for neighbors. His business got a big kick six months ago when he bought a used drill press and lathe for $650. It doubled his productivity, which in turn allowed him to purchase the materials for the extension and hire a mason.

Wilson bought the tools, at a 20% discount from their secondhand value, from a nonprofit called Tools for Development. Started 15 years ago by Roy Megarry, 65, the former publisher of Canada’s prestigious Globe & Mail newspaper, Tools for Development has a simple but powerful premise: Make secondhand equipment available to poor entrepreneurs at an affordable price. There are no handouts. The entrepreneur pays for the tools either up front or on credit, with interest rates slightly lower than banks charge.

Foreign aid is only one component of foreign policy, but part of what we need to do is pitch our policies downward, at the people affected, and sell them on the value and power of American friendship.

It will be hard to do…selling American ideals and friendship retail, one-by-one. But it is vitally necessary.

We ought to work with our friends and allies to do this, but while we figure out how to do this together, we ought to be doing it on our own.

If that makes me a Jacksonian, so be it.

Addendum in response to Adesnik’s rebuttal:

David Adesnik takes me to task on my interpretation of the Wilsonian and Jacksonian threads in American foreign policy.

I’m irritated – at myself.

I should have made my points more clearly. Haste is an explanation, not an excuse. So first off, let me move away from formally mapping him against Mead. I read the book when it came out, and it’s still in the Giant Stack Of Boxes in the garage. Another explanation, not an excuse; I’ll go dig it out and we’ll talk about what Mead meant later.

Let me try and explain in some greater detail what I meant.

Adesnik points out the post-Boshevik invasion of Russia as an example that Wilson was no dove. I never meant to suggest that he was.

What distinguishes the Wilsonian view, in my opinion, is the belief that formal international institutions and a body of international law – rules between nations, as it were – was the route to peace and international stability. When those institutions permit, violence is certainly acceptable.

Jacksonians, on the other hand, rely on the direct relationships between people and subnational institutions (along with violence).

I’m arguing that the core defect in his proposal is the overreliance on international law and institutions which directly bind states – institutions and laws which today have virtually no legitimacy worldwide, and less here in the U.S.

My counterproposal is that we work to build and nourish good subnational institutions and attack (sometimes literally) bad ones. To me that is a Jacksonian position; I’ll stand abashed if I’ve misinterpreted Mead, but will work to expand and defend my argument.

The Red and The Blue (apologies to Stendahl)

In this morning’s L.A. Times (intrusive registration required, use ‘LAExaminer’/’LAExaminer’), a fascinating column by Joel Kotkin and Karen Speicher on a growing crisis within mainstream American religion:

The war in Iraq exposed many continuing fissures in U.S. society, but none more evident than the divide between the clerical establishment and the laity. The gap presages more fragmentation in the structures of religious faith in this historically devout global power.

Virtually the entire leadership of every mainstream Christian faith – from the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the National Baptist Convention to the United Methodists, as well as the National Council of Churches – adamantly opposed the war against Iraq from the outset. Like many on the secular left, religious leaders denounced the conflict as one of U.S. aggression and needless destruction, and likely to evolve into a long, bloody conflict.

In contrast, the people in the pews, for the most part, were among the strongest backers of President Bush’s goal of ousting Saddam Hussein. According to a prewar poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 60% of mainline Protestants and Catholics favored attacking Iraq; greater than 75% of evangelical Protestants supported a military effort.

What is most disturbing for the future of mainstream religion in America, Roof suggests, is the lack of a middle ground between evangelical fundamentalism and the increasingly out-of-touch clerical elite more united with one another’s common vision than with their parishioners’.

Particularly note the last quote, look around at pretty much any national institution, and check your gut to see how closely it applies.

Here at Winds of Change, the comments section to this post has some interesting discussion that further expands on this.

The Axis of Incompleteness

OK, so I’ve posited a 2 x 2 matrix to define the kind of political divisions I’m trying to talk about.

Let start with the more complicated axis and see if I can knock that out before the pizza we’re making is ready (Friday is always Pizza and Movie night at Casa de Armed Liberal).

I’ll use three words to try and describe one end of the axis:

– Open
– Unfinished
– Fine-grained

On the other, we have

– Closed
– Complete
– Large-scale

Let me give some concrete examples – literally.

Why is Paris a more interesting city than Irvine? Why is it that when we see pictures of the Champs or of Rue l’Odeon we’re more interested than when we see pictures of Fashion Island Way?

In another example, what is the difference between the styles of fighting of the U.S. Army that invaded Iraq with minimal losses and the Soviet Army that took incredible losses invading Grozny?

One succeeds (on specific terms) and one doesn’t.

Because one is ‘unfinished’, it is fine-grained, and deliberately open in design and planning, and the other is the result of a massive single vision. On one hand you have the coherent but slightly different visions and plans created and executed by people close to the scene, and on the other the broad-brush implementation of the huge plans made by distant visionaries.

One is, in a word that ought to resonate to this audience, open-source.

The other isn’t.

Visionaries don’t usually have open-source dreams. Their dreams are entire, whole, of a cloth. And like Lenin, they are often willing to build mountains of corpses to construct them.

Other people are the material of these dreams, not participants in them.

I was an immense fan of the architect Le Corbusier until I actually walked through one of his buildings, a convent in France. And I thought it was horrible. Because it was ‘finished’.

There are two great books: “How Buildings Learn”, by Stewart Brand, and “Building the Unfinished” by Lars Lerup. Both of them talk about how neighborhoods and buildings are changed by those who live in them and use them, and how good neighborhoods…ones that we find attractive and liveable…are those that have been adapted by those who use them.

So what I’m trying to talk about is an axis between a Romantic ideal…a single grand vision, an orgasmic leap from self to world via will…and a pragmatic, Classical ideal which talks about complex, evolving systems.

Berlin talked about “the Hedgehog and the Fox”…the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one great thing. He was talking about intellectual history, not political history. But we can talk about political systems in the same way…

The Fantasy Ideology of the GOP

The other day I said:

I begin to get a new way of parsing contemporary politics, and an explanation of why the conservatives in power now are really liberals in disguise.

I expected a bigger response to this, but figure I may as well just jump into what I see as a new taxonomy of current American politics.

I’ll start by setting out four of the corners:

– Romantic Liberals
– Classical Liberals
– Classical Conservatives
– Romantic Conservatives…

I’ll try and explain what these are one by one, but I figure I’ll have some fun with y’all and start with the one guaranteed to make folk’s eyes bug out.

Romantic Conservatives – and why it is that the GOP today is really not conservative. Today, the GOP is pretty squarely in this camp. Why do I call them Romantic?

Because they are in thrall to an ideology almost as fantasy-driven as Al-Quieda’s. It projects a fantasy of an economic America of limited government and yeomen entrepreneurs running small businesses, and a social America that looks like the television shows of the 1950’s. Neither one reflects any kind of real American history any more than Qutb’s fantasy connects to real Middle Eastern history – instead they are references to a series of Chamber of Commerce pamphlets and old situation comedies.

And the concrete policies they choose completely undermine the fantasy – another characteristic of Romantic politics. The centerpieces of Bush’s economic policy, if you look at them carefully, don’t benefit small business, professionals, or small entrepreneurs. The impact of these incentives is as targeted as a JDAM, and it is on the large corporations who make up the GOP’s core constituency.

It assumes that the best way to promote small business is to … give tax breaks and shift policies in favor of big businesses and big investors, thereby accelerating the concentration of economic power – which means shuttering the small businesses as they go under. It assures us that the best way to preserve our way of life is to … deprive us of the liberties and the equality before law that are central to it. In essence, GOP policies are aimed at using the power of the State to reward those who they think should be rewarded and enforce their ideals of human behavior…one of the basic definitions of liberalism, no?

Note that a different set of large corporations and institutions make up the Democrat’s core constituencies, and their policies are similarly targeted in denial of their stated ideology. We’ll get to them later.

The Battle Over Liberalism

Joe weighs in with a commentary below on Michael Totten’s column on liberalism, which has prompted a lot of discussion around the blogs.

Well, as the designated liberal here, I’d better weigh in, or I’ll lose all my street cred.

[JK: A.L. has added an excellent update to the earlier verison of this post! The last line is a bit of a stunner, but I won’t spoil the surprise…]While I think a lot of Michael, and see some things in his post that can lead us some places, I have to agree with Kieran Healey that what we have is some observations in search of an argument. Now that is a charge that I’m all too aware of, given that many of my own posts tend to do the same things.

But in the background, I’ve been struggling toward an argument on liberalism that will both account for what I (and many others) see as the problems with it, and what I believe is essential about it.

And while I think Michael missed the 10-ring, I think he got his shot onto the target, and I want to look at what he did and see if I can set out the beginning of an argument that builds on what he suggested.

He said:

Liberals are builders and conservatives are defenders. Liberals want to build a good and just society. Conservatives defend what is already built and established.

Close, but not quite.

I’ve been talking for a long time about Romanticism, and about the roots in Romantic thought of much of modern radicalism and even terrorism.

Romanticism, to try and boil a definition down to a sentence, stands on two legs: an unwillingness to be shaped by the world around us, and a desire to remake to world to fit our image of it.

At its most extreme, it leads to the kind of suicidal megalomania that we saw on 9/11.

But it also attaches us to ideals, and makes us willing to fight for them, even when inertia suggests that we would be better off tending our gardens.

When Totten points out that his liberal acquaintances don’t know much about history or about current affairs, I’ll suggest that it is because much of modern liberalism has become an exploration of the internal landscape of our ideas, without the connection to an external world.

In opposition to Romanticism, I’ll suggest that we have Classicism, which I’ll define for this purpose as “knowing one’s place”. Part of that is an inherent willingness to accept authority, and another part has to do with a willingness to accept the concrete reality of place…to accept facts as they are.

Pirsig talked about this in slightly different terms in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. He actually goes deeper into it in ‘The Cruising Blues’.

Liberalism…classical Liberalism and again contemporary liberalism as I’m trying to redefine it…was a masterstroke because it found a path between the two movements above, which have defined the poles of social thought for as long as people have been writing about it. It simultaneously created a ‘place’ where people stood, and made that place one that they could control.

I’ve got to get back to work, but I’ll toss this out as a starting point for discussion.


Here are two good quotes from Robert Pirsig’s article ‘The Cruising Blues and Their Cure’, from Esquire.

An alternative – and better – definition of reality can be found by naming some of its components …air…sunlight…wind…water…the motion of waves…the patterns of clouds before a coming storm. These elements, unlike twentieth-century office routines, have been here since before life appeared on this planet and they will continue long after office routines are gone. They are understood by everyone, not just a small segment of a highly advanced society. When considered on purely logical grounds, they are more real than the extremely transitory life-styles of the modern civilization the depressed ones want to return to.

If this is so, then it follows that those who see sailing as an escape from reality have got their understanding of both sailing and reality completely backwards. Sailing is not an escape but a return to and a confrontation of a reality from which modern civilization is itself an escape. For centuries, man suffered from the reality of an earth that was too dark or too hot or too cold for his comfort, and to escape this he invented complex systems of lighting, heating and air conditioning. Sailing rejects these and returns to the old realities of dark and heat and cold. Modern civilization has found radio, TV, movies, nightclubs and a huge variety of mechanized entertainment to titillate our senses and help us escape from the apparent boredom of the earth and the sun and wind and stars. Sailing returns to these ancient realities.

In the terms I discuss above, sailing is not Romantic, it is Classical. It is about accepting concrete reality, not willing a new one into being.

We call sailing romantic, because it is an escape from what we in the industrialized West see as our ‘reality’, which is one of offices, bureaucracy, and the other manifestations of civilization. But like many of the disciplines I have enjoyed in my life, rockclimbing, sailing, and racing motorcycles, it relies above all on a clear-eyed acceptance of what is real.

That acceptance is not without moral qualities. Pirsig discusses virtue:

Now, however, with a boat of my own and some time at sea, I begin to see the learning of virtue another way. It has something to do with the way the sea and sun and wind and sky go on and on day after day, week after week, and the boat and you have to go on with it. You must take the helm and change the sails and take sights of the stars and work out their reductions and sleep and cook and eat and repair things as they break and do most of these things in stormy weather as well as fair, depressed as well as elated, because there’s no choice. You get used to it; it becomes habit-forming and produces a certain change in values. Old gear that has been through a storm or two without failure becomes more precious than it was when you bought it because you know you can trust it. The same becomes true of fellow crewmen and ultimately becomes true of things about yourself. Good first appearances count for less than they ever did, and real virtue – which comes from an ability to separate what merely looks good from what lasts and the acquisition of those characteristics in one’s self – is strengthened.

And to me, these virtues…getting up and going on, steadfastness…are the root of real virtue.

When Totten talks about “Building” and “Preserving”, I want to shift the focus to “Imagining” and “Accepting”. Now this construction is overly simple and in some ways clearly untrue (liberals have some grounding in reality and conservatives have imagination); but I think that it can serve as an organizing metaphor to understand what I’m getting at. Liberals center their values around imagining, and they want to fashion social worlds that enable them to manifest their imaginings, to materialize the moral good that they can envision. Conservatives center their around accepting, and they want to fashion social worlds that are stable.

Without liberal imagination, we would still be in thrall (literally!!) to kings. Without conservative acceptance of reality we would be – like the B’aath regieme, like Pol Pot – whipping our people to implement the fevered imaginations of our leaders, and struggling with leaders who must have more and more power in order to be able to will their imaginings into reality.

What works is a tension between the two things; a tension within each of us as people, within our politics as a society.

Looking at this, I begin to get a new way of parsing contemporary politics, and an explanation of why the conservatives in power now are really liberals in disguise.

Politicians Choose Voters, not Vice Versa

I’ll divert the focus from the international scene for a moment and talk about domestic politics, and an unintended consequence of the information revolution – paralyzed legislative bodies, unable to come to grips with the real issues facing the various states and the nation and exempt from punishment by the electorate. That’s right, unless you are meaningfully accused of murder (Gary Condit), incumbency is essentially considered a property right these days.

There are a number of reasons, and I’ll focus here on one…reapportionment.

Reapportionment is the process whereby districts are drawn for legislators, and what has happened is that old-fashioned gut instinct has been replaced with a level of sophistication and exactitude made possible by computer’s ability to crunch statistics, and by the excellent and readily available sets of statistics on voting behavior by precinct and demographic changes down to the city block level.

This allows sophisticated operatives (and we had among the first here in Los Angeles in the Berman brothers) to design legislative districts with an impossibly high level of assurance on how those districts will vote.

And this means that each vote counts for substantially less, because the contest was pre-selected when the politicians selected their voters, instead of the other way around.

This is going on worldwide right now, as U.S.-style election consultants and electoral techniques spread. A quick Google shows articles from Ireland, Italy, and Greece, as well as the U.K.

Here in California, (thanks to a permalink-less Mickey Kaus – just scroll down to Sunday, May 4 – hey, Mickey, we went high school together!!) California Congressman Devin Nunes is proposing an anti-gerrymandering initiative. Where do I sign up?? I’ll dig in and share the word. You can’t email his office because of the stupid ‘contact your representative online’ system in place, but you can fax him at (559) 733-3865. Other states should follow.
I’ve blogged about this over at Armed Liberal (here and here) and want to bring three great articles up here.

First, in the normally somnolent L.A. Times, in an article titled In California, Politicians Choose–and Voters Lose:

What if the World Series had been played during spring training, the commissioner of baseball having picked the competing teams? Baseball fans would be outraged. Yet something similar has happened to California elections. In the vast majority of legislative and congressional districts, we have no general election contests this fall because the races were decided in the spring primaries. The political stadium is dark.

How many competitive races for the House of Representatives are there in the Southland? None. How many competitive races for the state Senate? None. How many for the Assembly? Two–at most.

That’s what a politician likes–the fewer voters, the better, and especially if they are the most partisan ones. Candidates beat their breasts about what hard-core partisans they are, and the tiny number of people who go to the polls respond by electing the most hard-core partisans in both parties.

The result is a largely dysfunctional Legislature. Members chosen in a closed primary, with a minimum of voters participating, come to Sacramento intent on representing the narrow partisan positions that got them there.

Is it any wonder they cannot negotiate a state budget? Passing the budget–it was two months late this year–is the most important and most difficult thing a legislator does because it requires compromise and negotiation. The current system encourages exactly the opposite.

One Republican who might have broken the budget impasse this summer privately told friends, “Look, I can’t afford to cross my primary voters; they demand that I hang tough.” The sentiment was the same on the Democratic side. A look at the shadow Legislature elected in March shows future members will be even more ideologically rigid.

Californians might remember this when they cast their meaningless votes in November for their preordained members of the Legislature–if they bother to vote at all.

And why should we?? I live in a district – CA 36 – which was just ‘adjusted’ to assure a Democratic plurality. In the Democratic primary, my congresswoman, Jane Harman, originally took the seat (after stepping down for a laughable run for Governor) by simply showing up and explaining to the list of local Democratic candidates that she wanted it, and that the national party would support her, so thank you all very much for running.

Dan Polsby had a great interview (tip of the hat to Team Volokh), in which he explains that

he 2002 elections for Congressional Representatives will be the first conducted under the new districts drawn following the 2002 Census. Although important issues are at stake in November, most of the districts’ borders have been gerrymandered so skillfully that the typical race’s outcome is predetermined. Time Magazine estimates that 394 House seats are “safe,” 29 are “almost safe,” and eleven are “toss-ups.” That’s eleven toss-ups out of 435 separate elections.
In contrast, 8 of 34 Senate seats are said to be toss-ups. The Senate is more than ten times more competitive than the House, in large part because Senate races are fought over entire states, which can’t be gerrymandered. With districts, however, by carefully redrawing boundaries, parties can ensure that that most of their incumbents enjoy a comfortable majority.

This is the opposite of what the Framers of the Constitution intended for the House of Representatives. They wanted the House to represent the views of the public by allowing voters to make wholesale changes in their Representatives every two years. The Senate, in contrast, with its staggered six-year terms, was supposed to provide a brake on popular passions.

As some objective evidence, take a look at Nathan Newman, who has a great analysis of increasing deadlock and partisanship in Congress (with a really cool animated .gif); he has some traditional historical explanations, but I suggested that the incumbent-centric gerrymandering above is a huge part of the problem.

This is a bad, bad, thing people…one of the worst U.S. exports, and something we should work hard to stamp out here and abroad. It is one of the main pillars of the SkyBox (what I call the barriers to entry in politics), and has damaged the U.S. badly.

Redemption and Rock n’ Roll

I saved this for Saturday, in keeping with Joe’s “good news” policy.

In the L.A. Times this week, there was a front-page story of a man’s fall and his first steps toward redemption. I’m a sucker for those stories, most of all because I believe in redemption (I once argued for hours with a friend that Pulp Fiction was most of all a moral film, because it was the story of Jules’ – Samuel Jackson’s character – redemption).

And I was a deeper sucker for this story, because I sort of know the man involved, and because of the impact he indirectly had on my life.

The 53-year-old diabetic with a weakened heart, a white, unkempt beard and several missing front teeth awakens in his $35-a-day room the size of a jail cell, cradling his electric guitar. He gets dressed and shambles a couple hundred feet down the street to a seedy BART plaza in the Mission district. He sits on a battery-powered amplifier, plugs in the guitar, puts a cardboard donation box on the ground and begins to play and sing.

The notes are fuzzy and occasionally halting, but the technique is unmistakably sophisticated: chords and melody played simultaneously, the way Chet Atkins might have done. An old gravelly blues voice, perfectly cracked, effortlessly in tune, pours from the slumped singer. The truthfulness of the voice commands you to listen, but it also commands you to wonder: Who is this? What is a guy with these chops doing here?


His name … his stage name for 23 years … is Carlos Guitarlos. Two decades ago, he was a member of a famously mercurial Los Angeles bar band, Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs. The band, a collection of big, obstinate, blues-loving men who played and partied fiercely and disdained rehearsals, was at the epicenter of Los Angeles’ club scene during a brief era when the roots-rock and punk-music movements collided, forging groups like the Blasters, Los Lobos, X and Fear. These bands were fraternities of elemental musicians, contemptuous of stardom, seeming to long only for one transcendent moment on stage.

By the late 1980s, that fervor was largely gone, along with the Rhythm Pigs. Guitarlos became another obscure name in the long list of musicians felled by drugs and booze, desperately following his ex-wife and infant daughter to San Francisco, living by playing on the streets and sometimes sleeping on them, losing himself in cocaine.

Which is where most of these stories end. Every once in a while, though, one of the fallen will rise and, as former Blasters guitarist and songwriter Dave Alvin puts it, “bear the symbolic cross for the others.” And so it has come to pass that in this transit plaza, where commuters and drug dealers swirl in separate circles, paying little attention to him, Carlos Guitarlos is on the verge of resurrection, of making that new start.

While I was raised in Los Angeles, I moved away early, and never meant to come back. My Parisian then-wife and I were transferred here by our employers, and we were unhappy about it, and by extension with each other.

We started going out; to plays, concerts, and little clubs, and in one little club (Club 88 on Pico) one night we saw three bands: Top Jimmy (with Carlos Guitarlos), Los Lobos, and then in an unbilled after-hours set, The Blasters. It was sweaty, beer-drenched, ear-ringing rock and roll perfection. I’ve seen a lot of amazing concerts…Nine Inch Nails in a small club on Sunset, Jesus and Mary Chain at the Whiskey…that I was lucky to experience, but there was something Platonic about this one.

And driving home, two things happened. First, Wife #1 and I realized that we’d fallen in love with Los Angeles, and in turn reconnected with each other…which meant that we would go on to have Biggest Guy and Middle Guy, two of the three best things in my life…and I realized that above all I was in love with America, because unlike NIN or other bands, whose music cuts across cultures and unites a worldwide “youth culture”, bands like Top Jimmy, Los Lobos, the Blasters, and X…the Los Angeles ‘roots rock’ bands of the 80’s were specifically from and about America. And listening to them you couldn’t help but to connect with the music of America’s past, and with the people who listened to that music. Not people in symphony halls, or intellectuals listening to avant-guarde compositions in salons, but the average people who listened to AM radios as they worked and played and drove.

My affection for place and love of country gelled in some part because of that rock and roll show; and I’m damn grateful for that.

Carlos Guitarlos’ self-published new CD will be at Tower Records, and I think I’ll go by and pick one up today. You may want to do the same, if you can talk your local music store into finding it for you.

Who knows where it might lead…for him, or for you.