THINGS I’VE BEEN WONDERING (NON-SNARKY, EARNEST EDITION)

Points for answers. Extra credit if you can identify the podcasts I’ve been driving with recently.

Do GOPers make their global warming messaging about attacking Al Gore because they think he’s unpopular and they want to discredit science? Because they think he’s popular and they want to discredit him? Or just because they want to change the topic?

If Barack Obama combined a blue ribbon panel with a moratorium on firings of service members for being gay, how many Democrats in Congress would back him up?

Does having Democrats running the federal government make people who don’t like abortion but want it to stay legal feel more (not 8%, but maybe 1%) comfy identifying themselves “pro-life” without worrying about an abortion ban?

How do thousands of already-and-now-permanently married same-sex couples affect the fight for equal marriage rights for everyone else in California?

When will America have its first Supreme Court nominee who’s open about having had an abortion?

Is Obama serious about using our leverage to push Bibi?

Is Bruce Springsteen the only liberal immune from being tarred with the “elitist celebrity” brush? If so why?

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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.

MONEY, IT’S A HIT

Something else about Lieberman-Lamont: Their race brings together two of the less popular archetypes in American public life: the incumbent creature of Washington and the guy with more money than God.

That’s not a coincidence.

Under the “one dollar, one vote” system undergirded by the “money is speech” regime set forth in Buckley, the ability to raise and spend money ranks high on the already frightful list of institutional advantages held by incumbents. The ability to raise money is the first mark of legitimacy in the eyes of the media and political establishments who too often serve as gatekeepers between would-be challengers and the attention of the electorate. Ostensibly liberal people pledge fealty to the doctrine that serious candidates should be able to raise serious money.

Some millionaire candidates, of course, fail spectacularly. Some spend enough of their dough to leave the incumbent at a significant spending disadvantage. Some do both.

But wherever one comes down on what we should or shouldn’t assume about millionaires’ character and suitability to represent us, the difficulty of unseating an incumbent without being one should concern us.

A PETTY POST

I’ll happily agree with all those saying that the President of the United States using the word “shit” in what he believed to be private is one of the least newsworthy angles on the current carnage in the Middle East. But seeing as it’s in the news anyway, I think it’s worth asking whether he really believed it to be private.

As with other ostensibly unscripted accidental colorful moments from George Bush (see Paul Waldman’s account in Being Right Is Not Enough of Bush calling the Times’ Adam Clymer an “asshole”), this seems to read as easily as a scripted reminder that George Bush is a tough guy from the heartland who doesn’t “take shit.” What better contrast with the legions of smooth-talking caviar-eating French-speaking girly-men whom conservatives imagine sliding through the halls of the United Nations and the G8? What easier way to grab headlines pitting the President against inaction without requiring much in the way of action?

And what could make for better Fox News headlines for a week than if some college professor somewhere comes forward criticizing Bush for using coarse language to talk about Hezbollah?

BILL FRIST: NADER-LITE

One of the consequences of the way I chose to furnish my apartment (futon on one side of the room, table and chairs on the other), is that having the wired internet reach my laptop on the futon – which due to some trouble following the Ikea instructions only works as a bed – means that it can’t reach the table. So I’ll pull things up sitting on the bed, unhook the laptop from the internet, and then take it over to the table to read whatever web page I’ve pulled up while I eat.

I mention only because otherwise it’s unlikely I ever would have read the entire past week of blog posts from Marshall Whitmann. I say this not because I disagree with him (although on most things he chooses to write about I do), but because reading a page of Marshall Whitmann felt a lot like reading a paragraph of Marshall Whitmann several times in a row. Although there are some variations: On Friday, Joe Lieberman was like JFK in that he’s a “blue collar, bread and butter” type unlike the “upper-crust” Ned Lamont; on Monday, Joe Lieberman was like JFK in that he’s a “pro-growth progressive” and not “the darling of liberals” like Ned Lamont.

But the most tendentious of the analogies employed repeatedly by “The Moose” is one that crops up again and again in neoconservative, neoliberal, “New Democratic” and other discourse on the internet: the comparison of left-wingers and Pat Buchanan. Lieberman’s critics, Whitmann warns, are part of a “neo-isolationist, MoveOn.org, Pat Buchanan-lite imperative to rid the Democratic Party of the centrist hawks.” And many of them “are merely Pat Buchanan lite who share the paleo-conservative animus toward America’s special relationship with the Jewish state.”

The logic seems to go something like this: Pat Buchanan is famous and really unpopular. He believes Hitler was “an individual of great courage,” that women lack “the will to succeed,” and that AIDS is “nature’s retribution for violating the laws of nature.” Also, he promotes an isolationist doctrine in which America should minimize its presence abroad. One application of that doctrine has been opposition to the invasion of Iraq and criticism of the ongoing American presence there. And he doesn’t much like neo-cons. Ergo: Anyone who is overly critical of the Iraq War is “Pat Buchanan lite” and one step away from embracing isolationism and bigotry. And since labeling lefties as Buchananite is counterintuitive, it’s guaranteed to be right – and to demonstrate the sophistication of whoever makes the charge, especially if it’s a conservative lumping another conservative in with a leftie.

The folks who trot out the Pat Buchanan slur like to pitch it as some kind of sophisticated exegesis of the philisophical first principles underlying criticism of the neoconservative project. But it’s not. Certainly, Democrats have been more comparatively more hesitant in polls to express support for phrases about government pursuing aggressive foreign policy or democracy promotion since the man who’s running the government gave both a bad name. But that doesn’t make them isolationists. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t worthwile interventions they would support, especially if they had reason to trust the people making the case for them. Plenty on the left – to the chagrin of some at The New Republic – have decided that US military intervention in Darfur would be a very good idea while remaining convinced that unilateral US military intervention in Iraq was a very bad one (as Alan Wolfe notes, unilateralism is itself the “first cousin” of isolationism).

And it should go without saying, but if you’re looking for a constituency with greater animus than most towards people who are Jewish, women, Black, or gay, the left isn’t it.

It’s hard to come up with an equal and opposite absurdity to compare to the charge that war critics on the left are like Pat Buchanan. It would need to compare people on the right based on a policy view they have to a wildly unpopular figure on the left who shares it for different reasons. Maybe “Conservatives who tried to use the federal government to re-insert Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube are Ralph Nader lite!” Difference is, Ralph Nader may be unpopular, but unlike Pat Buchanan, he’s not a bigot.

COME ON

The Times reports that 72 Georgetown faculty, administrators, and graduate students have signed a letter protesting the school’s hiring of Douglas Feith for a two-year lectureship. Which of the 72 did Jason DeParle choose to interview? One is the author of the petition. The other

has appointments in anthropology and French and whose résumé lists several writings about French chocolate makers. (“From Master Chocolatiers Today: Bayonne and the Basque Coast.”) She complained that Mr. Feith’s appointment was “presented as a fait accompli.”

What better to reinforce a narrative which marginalizes critics of the neoconservative project as anti-American elitists than an anecdote about a French professor who studies “Master Chocolatiers”? That liberal media, at it again.

Incidentally, Professor Terrio has other research papers DeParle could have cited, like “New ‘Savages’ in the Suburbs: Criminalizing ‘Immigrant’ Youth in French Mass Media.” Or he could have talked to a professor like Judith Tucker, the historian who edits the International Journal of Middle East Studies. But that wouldn’t pack the same narrative punch.

LIVING ON THE WEDGE

Here’s CNN’s headline on the latest GOP response to not being so popular right now:

GOP hones its core agenda: Flag burning, gay marriage, abortion top Republicans’ Senate plan

This will certainly provide fodder for those left of the center who like to argue that the problem with Republicans is that they focus on intangible “wedge issues” rather than material issues that actually affect people. It’s an argument that has some popularity not only with centrist Dems but with a fair number farther to the left too. I don’t think it’s a good one. Thing is, these so-called wedge issues affect real people in ways that are all too real – and often are economic as well. The problem with Republicans isn’t that they focus too much on so-called “social issues.” The problem with Republicans is that they are wrong. The problem with Republicans is that they want to reverse social progress. Democrats need to expand the public understanding of what is an issue of values. But they also have to make the case better on the issues that are already commonly identified that way (Thomas Frank is right to argue that taking stronger populist stands on the economic issues could help to sap right-wing “culture war” politics of their ostensibly anti-elitist appeal).

All that said, one can hold out hope that the image of Bill Frist scheduling hearings on how to amend the first ammendment to ban flag burning will do some damage to his party’s credibility as responsible stewards of the Congress.