ESCAPE FROM TV-VILLE


Over at Dissent, I have a follow-up piece on class on TV, responding to Alyssa Rosenberg’s critique of my original post:

As she points out, not all portrayals of rich people reinforce conservatism. On the other hand, where our culture is conservative about class, it’s usually in leaving it unmentioned. For every joke about the excesses of the super-rich, there are hours of TV quietly reinforcing the idea that being poor or deeply economically insecure is an aberration. And when we do see self-identified working class characters show up on TV, too often it’s as the bearers of “cultural” conservatism, making a guest appearance to complain about gay people hitting on them or immigrants speaking Spanish in public (not that there are too many of either on network TV).

Check it out.

Update (7/19): Here’s an interesting e-mail I got from someone considering the impact the TV-ville economy had on him when he was growing up:
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WELCOME TO TV-VILLE, POPULATION: PEOPLE RICHER THAN YOU


At Dissent, I break down the numbers on the jobs TV networks buy scripts about:

Imagine you live in a town of 174 people called “TV-ville.” Each person living there represents one of the pilot scripts bought by the four big TV networks for the upcoming fall season. (I’ve culled these from a list recently published by New York magazine, which has a brief description of each of those scripts. The 174 scripts I have included were those that mentioned someone’s job.) If you ever need law enforcement, you’re in luck. TV-ville is home to twenty-three cops, and if that’s not enough to make you feel safe, there are also seven CIA and FBI agents to back them up, as well as victimologists, spies, and fourteen investigators (public and private). If you get sick, you have twenty-four doctors to choose from. If you need to sue, you can call one of the town’s eighteen lawyers. But there’s a downside to living in TV-ville: It may take a while to get a table, because the whole town only has one waitress.

Here’s the rest.

DAYENU, PAUL RYAN!


Peeling through all the layers of deception and immorality in Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan requires a modern dayenu:

If he cut taxes further on the rich but didn’t end Medicare, it would have been enough.

If he ended Medicare but didn’t end Medicaid, it would have been enough.

If he ended Medicare and Medicaid but didn’t claim he was protecting them, it would have been enough.

If he claimed he was protecting Medicare and Medicaid but didn’t claim it would boost employment, it would have been enough.

If he claimed it would boost employment but didn’t claim unemployment would fall to 2.8%, it would have been enough.

If he planned to cut taxes for rich people and end Medicare and Medicaid but didn’t call it a deficit reduction plan, it would have been enough.

ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE

After years of resisting the inevitable, Ben Eidelson has finally succumbed to our demands for him to start a blog of his own. Better late than never.

In his inaugural post, Ben considers Obama’s conversation with Joe The Soon To Be Country Music Star in light of Rawls’ veil of ignorance:

Lots of philosophical liberals push the idea that we should endorse whatever social arrangements we would support if we didn’t know who in our society we were going to be. But one concern about these “veil of ignorance” appeals is that they demand an awful lot of empathy. For them to work, those of us who are upper- or middle-class need to be able and willing to abstract from our actual lives and reckon with the possibility that we could have been poor. What’s interesting about Obama’s argument is that it appeals to a similar principle of prospectivity or impartiality, but in a way that’s less demanding. For Obama’s version only calls on us to entertain possibilities we’ve directly experienced: Make policy as if you didn’t know what stage of your life – your own life – you were in. One important limitation of this appeal, though, is that it only works in the context of a society with substantial upward mobility.

As they say on the internets, “Read the whole thing.” Including the comments, which include three Eidelsons and a cast of other characters.

I’ll just add that there’s an interesting study out there arguing that rich people who have moved far up the income scale in their own lives may tend to be more conservative about class issues than their equally rich peers because their own experiences may justify a belief that people as poor as they were could “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps” the same way they did.  It can be easier for these Horatio Algers to disregard claims from the poor or their advocates about barriers to moving up the income ladder – even if those barriers were in fact different, or non-existent, in their own rise to success (like me, Ben may have stories from Jewish day school about discussions along the lines of “Jews came here with nothing and we made it, so why don’t Blacks do that too?”).  Ange-Marie Hancock, in her book The Politics of Disgust, calls this “false empathy” and discusses how public perceptions and public policy about women on welfare got made based on people’s attempts to put themselves in those women’s shoes without noticing they had no soles.  She calls out Senators (particularly women) who supported making moms on welfare track down the fathers of their children for child support as a condition of continued benefits, and didn’t consider the potentially deadly consequences.

CULTURE OF LIFE/ CHOICE

In the comments, Ben – who we can all agree should start his own blog ASAP – offers a thoughtful response to the last post:

Don’t you think a person can consistently hold that (1) under current law, abortion is a matter of individual choice; (2) as long as abortion is a matter of choice, there is a single right answer that women ought to choose; and (3) since many women nevertheless make the wrong choice (in this person’s view), and the harm of making the wrong choice is sufficiently great, the law should not leave abortion to individual choice? This constellation of beliefs would explain, without contradiction, feeling pride in another person’s choice not to have an abortion while supporting legislative measures to take the choice away from them. Similarly, “Choose Life at Yale” can consistently pursue a two-pronged agenda: (a) as a stopgap measure, advocating for women to exercise their choice under current law in a particular way, and (b) on the assumption that (a) will not be 100% successful, advocating for denying women the choice in the first place. In this way, Palin’s rhetoric about her daughter doesn’t seem different to me than a moral vegetarian’s both feeling pride in a child’s decision to be a vegetarian and favoring the criminalization of meat-eating.

Absolutely, I agree that it’s philosophically consistent (a) to want abortion/ animal cruelty/ awful haircuts banned and (b), for as long as the practice remains legal, to support/ admire people who choose against it.  I think very few people, whatever the practice in question is, would maintain (a) and not (b).  Lots of people, however, maintain (b) and not (a) (and not just on bad hair-cuts).  That is, lots of Americans believe abortion is a choice that should be available but that should not be chosen.  Others wouldn’t go so far as to say abortion is always the wrong choice, but will admire and be more comfortable with people who choose against it.  These pro-choice voters who (whether always, or just usually) want people to choose life represent a huge chunk of our electorate. That’s the reality politicians on both sides of this issue face.

Fortunately for these “(b) but not (a)” voters, there are a lot of “(b) but not (a)” politicians out there.  Depending on where you set the bar, you could count most pro-choice members of Congress in this group.  So voters who are uncomfortable with abortion but don’t want it banned tend to have ample opportunity to vote for representatives who reflect their desire for abortion to be both legal and rare.

Anti-choice politicians need these voters to choose instead to vote for someone who shares their discomfort with abortion but not their opposition to banning it.  There are different ways to do this: emphasizing abortion restrictions that these pro-choice voters may support and the pro-choice candidate does not, chipping away at the sincerity of the pro-choice candidate’s desire to reduce abortion, and more.  Another is to shift the focus away not just from Roe v. Wade, but away from policy questions entirely, so that (b) is the only issue.

I say the way Palin talks about these issues is misleading not because I doubt that she and others maintain both (a) and (b) with conviction and consistency, but because (setting law-breaking aside) (b) is only an issue given her failure to achieve (a).  And emphasizing (b) in the way Palin does regarding her daughter, and the way some of her admirers do in talking about Sarah’s choice to birth Trigg, obscures the most significant policy question here – abortion’s legality – while appealing not just to voters’ negative feelings about abortion but to their positive feelings about choice.

And when anti-choice politicians talk about their respecting their daughters’ choices – particularly when they are fathers like John McCain – it helps take the edge off their anti-choice politics by making them seem tolerant of the whole range of choices women make, even or perhaps especially when they cite their admiration for pro-life choices.  I don’t have reason to doubt that John McCain or Sarah Palin would continue loving a daughter who chose abortion without throwing her out of the house.  But if they had their way with the supreme court, those daughters could be thrown in jail.  So I think non-coerciveness as parents is a distraction from coerciveness as politicians.

There’s also a class issue here, in that as long as abortion is legal but subject to the cocktail of restrictions anti-choice folks are pushing at the state and federal level, women from families like the Palins and the McCains can go on making their choices while those “small town voters” they vouch for have less and less choice to make.

WIFE SWAP CONSERVATISM

While on vacation out East, I got the chance to pick up and read Walter Benn Michaels’ 2006 book The Trouble With Diversity. Might as well spoil the suspense and start by saying Benn Michaels didn’t convince me when he argues (like Michaels Lind and Tomasky) that left-wing “identity politics” around race and gender stand in the way of a serious left-wing class politics. The book reminded me at various points of Catherine MacKinnon’s argument (in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State) that feminists and Marxists view each other with suspicion because each party could undo one kind of oppression while leaving the other oppression intact. It’s often not clear to whom Benn Michaels, an English professor, is addressing his argument. He offers criticisms (often clever, always articulate) of some academic arguments about identity, but he doesn’t engage with many pivotal ones – like the literature on intersectional (rather than additive) approaches to identity, considering how identities mediate each other – how being identified as a poor Black woman has different social and economics meanings than just being poor plus being Black plus being a woman. He calls Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States “certainly the most influential academic text on the social construction of race,” but cites only two sentences from it.

If the argument is directed at political practitioners, we’re left wondering how he actually pictures the left gaining power and effectiveness by throwing race and gender overboard. In a telling line criticizing the focus on sexism at Wal-Mart as a distraction from exploitation there, Benn Michaels asserts that “Laws against discrimination by gender are what you go for when you’ve given up on – or turned against – the idea of a strong labor movement.” Tell that to all the folks in the labor movement and labor-allied groups who’ve worked to support the Dukes lawsuit and the fight against Wal-Mart’s sexism as part of a broad-based critique of a company that helpfully illustrates the connections between conservatism’s threat to gender equality, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and other values progressives and most Americans hold dear. Benn Michaels’ approach, which denies that rich people can be victims of oppression or that poor people can be oppressed by more than only poverty, would render the left unable to fully understand, let alone seriously engage, with what Betty Dukes and millions of women like her are facing (see also Whitewashing Race). As badly as Benn Michaels may wish for a revived labor movement, in advocating a disregard for identity politics he’s echoing the disconnection from progressive social movements which contributed the labor movement’s decline in the first place. Those blinders regarding oppressions besides class mirror the blindness to class of too many in, for example, the pro-choice movement – blindness of which Benn Michaels would be rightly critical.

That said, we needn’t accept Benn Michael’s arguments about the irrelevance of race- and sex-based politics to appreciate the book’s critical insight: that the plutocrats triumph when poverty is understood as an identity to be respected rather than as a problem to be eliminated. Conservatives, as he argues, have masterfully reframed our class problem as being about the elitists who look down on poor people rather than about the robber barons, de-regulators, and union-busters who make them poor. Examples abound in conservative literature (Tom Wolfe comes in for some enjoyable criticism in The Trouble With Diversity), but Benn Michaels is right that seemingly liberal takes on class often suffer from the same problem. And he’s right that conservatives draw on the language we use to talk about race to pull this off.

I was reminded of People Like Us, a very engaging PBS documentary about class in America that explores a series of interesting situations – working-class folks fight with ex-hippies about what kind of supermarket to bring into their neighborhood; tensions within African-American communities about whether Jack and Jill clubs aimed at well-off Black kids are elitist; a daughter’s embarrassment about her “trailer park” mom – but all from the perspective of how different classes can get along, not how we can reduce or eliminate class differences. The least sympathetic characters in the movie are a bunch of snotty high school kids at a mixed-income public school talking in awful terms about why they wouldn’t talk to the poor kids they go to school with (“What would we talk to them about?”). It’s a good movie. But you could walk away with the sense that our class problems would be solved if the rich kids would befriend the poor kids. Which, as Benn Michaels would argue, would be much less expensive or destabilizing for the powers that be than making those kids’ families less poor. As Benn Michaels writes (in one of many paragraphs that makes you wish more political books were written by English professors) about an episode of Wife Swap:

At no time, apparently, did it occur to the makers of the show, the people in it or the people reviewing it, that what the show really demonstrates is how much better it is to be rich than to be poor. Or perhaps one should say not that the show ignores this point but that it is devoted to denying it, and that it succeeds so completely (this is its brilliance) that we find ourselves believing that run-down shacks in the woods are just as nice as Park Avenue apartments, especially if your husband remembers to thank you for chopping the wood when you get home from driving the bus. The idea the show likes is the one Tom Wolfe and company like: that the problem with being poor is not having less money than rich people but having rich people “look down” on you. And the rich husband is bad because he does indeed look down on the poor people, whereas the rich wife (the one who has never done a day’s work in her life and who begins the show by celebrating her “me time,” shopping, working out, etc.) turns out to be good because she comes to appreciate the poor and even to realize that she can learn from them. The fault here is not in being rich but in thinking that you have better taste – more generally, in thinking that…you are are a better person.

FAMILY MATTERS

This article, one of the last by the recently-deceased Ellen Willis, is one of the more articulate, accurate, and biting critiques I’ve come across of Thomas Frank and What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a book many pundits make reference to and few do justice.

Willis takes on what I think is the most glaring weakness of Frank’s latest book, one which goes totally unaddressed in the full-length reviews and tangential digs bashing him for his supposed elitism: Frank argues that Republicans elected on the basis of their social conservatism don’t actually deliver socially conservative policy. As we say in Yiddish, “Halvai” – if only. As Willis notes, conservatives have successfully used the powers of their offices all too successfully to reshape the country’s “social policy” more faithful to their dogma – including making it prohibitively difficult for women in large swathes of the country to exercise freedom of choice. Frank is of course right to recognize the Federal Marriage Act as a stunt and a sop, but the unfortunate truth is that many of the right’s sops to social conservative activists pack a real punch in diminishing the freedom of the rest of us to access contraception, access knowledge, and access partnership rights.

Rejecting Frank’s insistence that the social conservative legislative agenda is a chimera doesn’t much damage the rest of his argument though. Frank is right to argue that conservatives build a base for right-wing policy based on classed appeals to stick it to elites by fighting social liberalsim, and that that base make possible policies that make elites that much more decadent. And he’s right that a progressive politics that speaks to class and is willling to condemn George Bush’s congratulating a woman working three jobs as a mark of elitism would do something to sap the power that right-wing aesthetic class warfare has in the absence of the materialist class warfare Lee Attwater rightly rued could bring the left back into electoral power.

Willis is right to suggest that that won’t be enough, and that progressives need to speak with strength and candor in the culture war rather than simply feinting or punting (and she speaks perceptively to the way we project our owjn ambivalences onto the electorate, which then reflects them). But she’s wrong to lump Frank in with Michaels (say, Lind and Tomasky) who are set on shutting feminists up.

And of all the charges to level at Thomas Frank, excessive loyalty to the Democratic Party is one of the more inane ones Willis could have chosen. That said, it’s a compelling read.

Zichronah livrachah.