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    Better man

    Posted by Sean at 17:26, February 26th, 2010

    I agree with Matt Welch that the proper response to this from Bush II wordsmith Michael Gerson is incredulity:

    Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post, is appalled and that Teddy Roosevelt has become “the conservatives’ new demon.” Excerpt:

    The problem with America, apparently, is not just the Great Society or even the New Deal; it is the Square Deal. Or maybe [Glenn] Beck is just being too timid. Real, hairy-chested libertarians pin the blame on Abraham Lincoln, who centralized federal power at the expense of the states to pursue an unnecessary war — a view that Ron Paul, the winner of the CPAC presidential straw poll, has endorsed.

    Cupla comments: 1) Libertarians have chest hair?

    Yeah, seriously. Except in the mirror, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a libertarian with chest hair. If I had, believe me, I’d have snagged him already. Of course, I’m mostly not relying on empirical data. Without making any effort to confirm one way or another, I’ve always had the vague impression that the Reason guys, for example, are all baby-smooth with those conical moobs. Don’t ask me exactly how that comes through from the way they write, but it does.

    Presumably, Gerson is talking, all metaphorical-like, about tough and uncompromising libertarians (GRRRRR! HOT!), but even then I’m not sure the point works. I’ve heard libertarians dourly obsessed with ideological purity say some pretty out-there things, and it’s not hard to imagine that some of them have, indeed, complained that keeping the Union together involved an illegitimate use of executive power. But not all that many of them. If Gerson is frequently exposed to libertarians with that viewpoint, you have to wonder what social circles he frequents. (Note that expressing reservations about some of the precedents those sorts of government actions set is tantamount to saying that they shouldn’t have been taken. Maybe Gerson does, but I think he’s wrong.)

    Added later: And hey! What about libertarian women? Dare I say Gerson could be accused of reverse sexism?


    Posted by Sean at 20:03, February 25th, 2010

    Via Hit and Run comes this hilarious summation of the current Toyota troubles:

    In fact, this problem with electronic braking came about because of federal pressure through CAFE standards, forcing manufacturers to make lighter cars. As they often do, politicians point their fingers at Big Bad Business. Now a memo has come to light showing that Toyota cut a deal with its Washington regulators on the braking issue last year. As is often the case when politicians point fingers, at least three fingers are pointing right back at them.

    A president who is the new owner/operator of GM yet who still aspires to rid the world of the combustion engine, Obama finds it easy to attack foreign-owned Toyota. The current administration must remember, however, that when U.S. Toyota sales decline, employees at Toyota plants all across the South lose their jobs.

    The global economy has done more to tie the world together than any “Kumbaya” political rhetoric. However, politicians clearly do not understand economics, or they would not be making all the bad, long-term decisions for our country that they have of late.

    I believe in the goodness of people and the free-markets to sort this mess out. Shared economic interest is a powerful motivator. What I do not believe in is the goodness of politicians to aid the process.

    One of the commenters shows up to give the usual rejoinder to such arguments:

    ya .although this is humor hart makes a point .For some reason we think that we have some right to buy a safe car.silly us.Profit is all that matters and saftey just gets in the way.And whats this cr@p about people thinking that the goverment is supposed to look after the countries wefare? It’s not like it’s in the constitution .

    A “right to buy a safe car” is an airy formulation that sounds nice but isn’t very useful. It’s the government’s job to protect its citizens from threats, including unsafe products that are fraudulently sold as safe products, sure. Did Toyota falsify data, though? And does it represent an external threat to the Republic? Even companies with high quality standards can, in completely honest ways, run into problems. New technology always means the potential for glitches that don’t surface immediately. That’s not to let Toyota off the hook for its slow and haphazard response to its recent problems, but it is to say that perfect “safety” is never going to be achieved.

    And it’s certainly not going to be achieved by the government that brought you such gems of undistorted candor as “jobs created or saved” and “you can keep your current plan.” Clear safety standards are a great goal, but the dense thicket of regulations that chokes enterprises in real life doesn’t necessarily meet it. In many industries, it’s hard to tell whether you’re even in compliance with the relevant regulations—sometimes different standards conflict, and you can’t meet one without violating another. (Lawyer friends tell me that’s especially true in environmental law.) And in any case, the more power Washington claims over business, the more incentive business has to lobby for special treatment that works to its own benefit while punishing competitors.

    If politicians righteously refused to play that game, they might have the ethical high ground from which to sermonize. But they don’t, and they don’t. And they’re not helped toward greater self-awareness by big-government supporters, who naturally treat the “profit” motive as venal and exploitative without considering that the “power-trip on using state coercion” motive may not necessarily be any less so.

    Toyota trust issues

    Posted by Sean at 19:09, February 24th, 2010

    This post touches on something that’s been making me queasy for quite a while about the Toyota scandal (via Instapundit):

    The bureaucrats and politicians in Washington are out to get Toyota because of ongoing recalls of the Japanese automaker’s popular vehicles. The House held one hearing yesterday, and another is scheduled for today. Toyota also is target of a U.S. criminal probe and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

    That leaves Toyota owners like me in the predicament of choosing the bad guy in this scenario. Toyota may not be the good guy, but given the choice between incompetent government and a private company with a solid track record, I pick the government as the one to wear the black hat.

    Japan is a great place for consumer product safety in the sense that its manufacturers generally turn out reliable merchandise; however, it’s not such a great place for consumer product safety when the inevitable problems arise, because the legal and social systems overwhelmingly favor the powerful, income-producing corporation over the individual citizen with a grievance. The domestic Mitsubishi Motors and Mitsubishi Fuso scandals cooked for years, and the reason wasn’t incompetence or conscious callousness, exactly. It was more that dealing responsibly with field failures requires that unpalatable realities be dealt with actively, and, in general, the Japanese way of dealing with unpalatable realities is to push them to the side and hope they resolve themselves.

    I noted a few weeks ago that at least one automotive writer had argued that the actual product defects behind the Toyota recall were unlikely to have been caused by indiscriminate cost cutting or sloppy quality downgrading. I’m no automotive expert, but that rings true to me. Toyota well knows that it got to its current position by producing reliable products. Accordingly, it seems to have committed its biggest blunders in not dealing squarely with problems once they emerged, not in trying to coast on its reputation while passing off junk on unwary consumers.

    That doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to get spanked. It does. But it’s hard to take the high-mindedness of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, legislators from Michigan, and UAW flacks at face value, given the stake they have in improving Detroit’s wretched reputation. Everyone looks bad here, but I agree that the entity with the greatest probability of addressing its systemic flaws is, in fact, Toyota.

    Added on 25 February: This guy writes a long post that ends with a YouTube video of a pop song that, at least in his own head, is kind of related to the topic.

    And it’s a New Order song.

    Were we separated at birth, or something?

    Anyway, I like this paragraph (note use of vainglorious, one of my favorite words):

    I have more faith in Toyota to build safe, reliable cars than I do in congress to manage my health care. The elaborate kabuki of congress grilling Toyota executives for answers to complex engineering problems that they cannot possibly understand does little to help me quantify my own risk. Or to trust that the government is at all competent to manage anything more complex than non-time-sensitive, home delivery of small envelopes. It’s precisely the addiction to preening before the cameras, incessant fear-mongering, and vainglorious speechifying that makes me trust the government less. How can I trust them to provide health care when I can’t even get a straight, factual, and disinterested answer to a straight-forward and well understood engineering problem: is my car safe or not?

    Well, the government isn’t disinterested, which seems to explain a lot of what’s going on at the moment.

    Ode to Joy

    Posted by Sean at 18:36, February 24th, 2010

    If you’re not already disturbed by the degree to which contemporary life resembles the dystopian fiction you were assigned in high school, allow me to draw your attention to this jaw-dropping piece at Reason.com. It has everything: classical music as mechanism of punishment and coercion (as writer Brendan O’Neill notes, straight out of A Clockwork Orange ), a conditioning of perceived lower-caste youths to reject beauty (straight out of Brave New World ), and a camera-equipped flying arrest contraption (straight out of Fahrenheit 451 ). Some other goodies, which read like something in The Onion :

    A few years ago some local authorities introduced the Mosquito, a gadget that emits a noise that sounds like a faint buzz to people over the age of 20 but which is so high-pitched, so piercing, and so unbearable to the delicate ear drums of anyone under 20 that they cannot remain in earshot. It’s designed to drive away unruly youth from public spaces, yet is so brutally indiscriminate that it also drives away good kids, terrifies toddlers, and wakes sleeping babes.

    Police in the West of England recently started using super-bright halogen lights to temporarily blind misbehaving youngsters. From helicopters, the cops beam the spotlights at youths drinking or loitering in parks, in the hope that they will become so bamboozled that (when they recover their eyesight) they will stagger home.

    The weaponization of classical music speaks volumes about the British elite’s authoritarianism and cultural backwardness. They’re so desperate to control youth—but from a distance, without actually having to engage with them—that they will film their every move, fire high-pitched noises in their ears, shine lights in their eyes, and bombard them with Mozart. And they have so little faith in young people’s intellectual abilities, in their capacity and their willingness to engage with humanity’s highest forms of art, that they imagine Beethoven and Mozart and others will be repugnant to young ears. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    The dangerous message being sent to young people is clear: 1) you are scum; 2) classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it’s a repellent against mildly anti-social behavior.

    I wonder whether the authorities themselves listen to much Beethoven and Mozart, let alone Shostakovich, these days. It may not be just from the perspective of an uncultured child that they see classical music as punishment.

    Coat of many colors

    Posted by Sean at 13:49, February 19th, 2010

    Both Mark Alger and Robohobo commented on this post in ways that I think deserve a fuller response.

    On the one hand, class doesn’t matter in a free America. Mark says:

    Actually, Sean, if there’s a point to be made about Palin’s class, it should be made about where she is as an adult — what she accomplished on her own — rather than what she presumably “inherited” from her parents. In that case, she is — or was — working class, as her husband is virtually a poster boy of a working-class hero. (The real one, not the Sears one John Lennon sang about.)

    I’m going to argue that, since we don’t HAVE a hereditary ruling aristocracy, we don’t have an upper class, and, since we don’t HAVE a class of helots or villains, legally bound to the land or to an occupation, we don’t have a lower class, and that therefor, we are ALL middle class, and that trying to parse us further is invidious and — dare I say — un-American.

    The way Robohobo puts it is:

    No one in America is in any way disadvantaged. Fer heaven’s sake our poor are fat. The good part about this country is that someone like me who comes from a poorer background can succeed – and then have it disappear again – but that is another discussion.

    It sounds illogical to call everything the middle, which implies the existence of endpoints, but I know what Mark means: by standards that take in older societies with a history of aristocracies and serving classes (or flat-out serfs), America is entirely made up of commoners who are free to move about and make money and use it as we see fit. No one is titled, and there’s not even the shadow of disused titles cast over us. We have the Social Register and the First Families of Virginia and stuff, but they’re not the same thing.

    So at the most basic level, I think the point Mark and Robohobo are making is the most important one. People in their twenties just starting out may have quite a bit of baggage from their background to contend with, but those who’ve reached their mid-30s or so are responsible for what they’ve done with their own lives. They shouldn’t be indulged if they start whining that they can’t get it together because of their underprivileged childhoods. As a friend of mine who’d made a stable, happy life for herself after an abusive childhood once said, “Your issues may be your parents’ fault, but they’re still your responsibility.” Any discussion of class in America that encourages people just to resign themselves to the lives forecast by their upbringings is fallacious. I agree with that.

    I don’t really think that that’s the issue we’re talking about here, though. No one is arguing that Sarah Palin or Barack Obama was reared by wolves. What people do argue over (or at least make assertions based on questionable assumptions about) is how much their paths to success were eased by upbringing. Within that framework, I still think the point that neither had to struggle as much as some members of his or her claque imply is a valid one. (And Mark, isn’t it just as possible to say that Todd Palin was willing to marry up as that Sarah Heath was willing to marry down, in class terms? Presumably, moving into the governor’s mansion involved concessions for him, just as working the fishing boats involved concessions for her.)

    And when we’re talking about non-politicians, the issue expands to include children, who are not yet responsible for their own paths in life. We may not like to call the mechanism “class,” but it’s a fact that your parents’ education and income level are the most reliable predictors of your own. “Equality” can be conveniently waved around to give cover to social policy that actually reinforces inequalities that need to be addressed. By that I mean inequalities of opportunity, of course; I in no way support coercive programs engineered to fulfill someone’s grand vision of equalities of outcome. My point is not that calling Sarah Palin a “working-class” woman dilutes the meaning of the term in a way that drains authentic prole energy away from fundamental social revolution, or some such nonsense. My point is that there’s a real difference between modest middle-class and working-class realities, and if we’re going to use those terms, we shouldn’t misapply them.

    In which our protagonist decamps to the intersection of Rant Avenue and Harangue Boulevard

    Posted by Sean at 15:13, February 15th, 2010

    I remember Anne Lamott’s column in Salon’s Mothers Who [Over]Think column from years ago, though I never happened on her stuff otherwise. That was clearly a blessing. Ann Althouse has a gloriously derisive post about Lamott’s new LAT column about her recent trip to India. Seriously, not even Forster, after a week-long bout of dyspepsia, could have devised a traveling heroine who was this fatuously un-self-aware.

    Equally seriously, my tiny but dedicated readership, if I EVER ONCE write about my life in Japan or travels in Asia in a fashion this exploitative and patronizing, you are to form a posse among yourselves and kick me in the head until I stop moving.

    Uh-huh. That bad.

    I’ll just cite the two bits I can bear to deal with in my post-brunch mimosa haze:

    But after a few days on the subcontinent, I came to the unshakable belief that we will have decent enough healthcare reform, and soon. What’s going to help America rebound from Bush/Cheney is what saved and saves India — love, nonviolence, a lot of help, radical playfulness and perspective. I saw Indians living in spaces the size of my bathtub, giddily colorful amid the squalor and deprivation, making themselves beautiful and focusing on what they do have.

    When I get ready to travel around the globe, I tell the people of my church how afraid I am and ask for prayers, for safe flights, for travel blessings and for avoiding death by snake bite. My pastor always reminds me gently that when you get on the plane, it’s a little late for beggy, specific prayers — rather, it is time for trust and surrender.

    Okay. Lots of people find flying scary, and it is true that once you’re strapped in, you’ve surrendered control of your safety for several hours in a way that you haven’t when you’ve boarded a bus or train. Point taken.

    But only to a degree. The reason most of us are willing to get on planes is that people who didn’t just accept, with good humor, our lack of wings were willing to push aviation forward, at great (often fatal) risk to themselves, to figure out how planes could take off, be kept in the air, land, and hold increasing numbers of passengers safely. Without the insolence of human inquisitiveness pushing against the strictures of nature without accepting them, Lamott wouldn’t have gotten as far from San Francisco as Chico between the day before and the day of the Massachusetts election.

    I know this is going to sound corny, but I turn into a little boy again whenever I board a plane. Once we’re at cruising altitude, it’s time to gripe about the nearly-unpotable wine and the cramped toilets and the bad movies and the dry air and such. But takeoff and landing, when you’re physically immersed in the reality that generations of stored knowledge have led to your ability to sit with several hundred people in a machine that can fly—that’s the stuff of magic. Or it used to be not so very long ago.

    I am not trying to argue that Lamott is wrong to say (implicitly) that Christian faith is compatible with the enjoyment of the multifarious gifts of Western culture, but I will say that what she mostly relies on to get her flights from here to there is not “trust and surrender” but brassy human inquisitiveness and the refusal to accept our natural lot. If she really wants to be trusting, she can always build herself a natural reed boat and try using it to get from San Francisco to, say, Chennai.

    All this matters because Lamott goes misty-eyed over the ways poor Indians “[focus] on what they do have,” without seeming to notice that those coping skills mean a lot more to them than they do to her. For her, making do means recognizing that your side sometimes won’t win politically, or that jet lag might make you run into the glass door of a coffee house when you return to your pampered American existence, or shrugging it off when a monkey pulls some of your dreads loose. To the people in India she’s talking about, though, it means accepting your bathtub-sized space as home and not breaking your own heart over and over and over again by pretending that you can ever find a way to move beyond it. Call me a nit-picker, but those things strike me as just the eensiest bit different.

    Of course, the problem with freeing people with nothing to demand the right to something more—whatever they have the wherewithal to achieve—is that they may not want what you want them to want. Mouthy proles back here in the West have the damnedest way of asking whether taxes really need to be raised or that new sun-darkening behemoth of a health-care plan really needs to be put through. Better to avoid awkward issues like that altogether by focusing on the noble, exotic poor of distant lands, who can be left behind with their mysterious thoughts once the plane takes off.

    Can we separate our Two Americas?

    Posted by Sean at 15:38, February 11th, 2010

    Dear Elizabeth,

    Normally I’d feel a bit cheeky addressing you by your first name, but by this point, I feel as if I knew you. Last night, I had a gossipy, ribaldly intimate catch-up dinner with an old friend, and I swear I walked out of that restaurant being privy to less about what he’s been doing with his nether parts lately than about what you, your husband, and all your former hangers-on have been doing with yours. I can’t seem to go two days together without clicking on one of my favorite news sources—blamelessly sipping my breakfast tea (Fortnum & Mason, from leaves) and hoping for a provocative new volley in the health-care or jobs-bill debate—only to come upon yet another installment in your little domestic dramas.

    You know, this would all be fine if you were entertaining about it…like, say, Diana, Princess of Wales (RIP), who had a saucy-glam fashion sense, threw herself down palace staircases in fits of despair, and had a host of royal-family elders and handlers arrayed, all espionage-thriller-like, against her.

    But you aren’t. You are not like Diana, Princess of Wales (RIP), who had a saucy-glam fashion sense, threw herself down palace staircases in fits of despair, and had a host of royal-family elders and handlers arrayed, all espionage-thriller-like, against her.

    You are, indeed, NOTHING WHATEVER like Diana, Princess of Wales (RIP), who had a saucy-glam fashion sense, threw herself down palace staircases in fits of despair, and had a host of royal-family elders and handlers arrayed, all espionage-thriller-like, against her.

    You are a fishwife.

    I don’t believe everything I read, but the stories of your high-handed treatment of staff members and aides are too consistent to be dismissed. And seriously, you’re entitled to grieve for your dead son as you see fit, but ABC says, “Among her purported demands was that Young donate $250,000 to the Wade Edwards Foundation, a non-profit group named for the Edwards’ late son, who died in a car accident in 1996.” I read that and think, If he’s so vile, why would you want his money anywhere near your son’s memory, even…no, especially…if it were part of some little revenge plan?

    And if fishman were a word, your husband would be one. He is a central-casting ambitious politician who fell for some adulatory-ass groupie woman, got her pregnant, and then tried to get the most willing adulatory-ass groupie man at hand to take the rap for him. It ultimately didn’t work. He will never be president of anything from here on, probably not even his college alumni club.

    You would be fully justified in jointly doing a Profumo and devoting your lives to anonymous service to others from here on out, but I’m not on crack, so I don’t expect anything like that to happen. Instead…I don’t know, Greece is in trouble at the moment. Maybe the four of you could buy yourselves a nice island in the Aegean and enjoy wrangling over who stole whose husband or sex tape or whatever until Kingdom Come, without its getting into the papers and spoiling my enjoyment of my tea (Fortnum & Mason, from leaves). I’m addressing this to you, still officially the lady of the Edwards household, because I’d very much like you to consider it an invitation. To go away.

    Yrs. faithfully,


    PS: Walter Olson at Overlawyered has some stuff about that law you’re trying to use to nail Andrew Young for “alienation of affections.” Of course, I’m sure you know all about how your legal team’s strategy works, being an attorney and all.

    Rock the vote

    Posted by Sean at 04:24, February 11th, 2010

    The Unreligious Right had an interesting post up a few days ago about why some conservatives are chary of criticizing Sarah Palin publicly, even if they have critical things they want to say:

    First and foremost, even those of us on the right who are not Palin fans do not want to associate ourselves with the deranged leftist hatred focused upon her. With the lunatic ravings of people like Andrew Sullivan directed against Palin on an almost daily basis, many people probably feel that Palin receives more than enough attacks, and doesn’t need Republicans to pile on. I know that’s how I look at it. I’ll criticize Palin on specific points, and other Republicans do the same.

    A significant reason that many on the right are not leaping to attack Palin is that we agree with her on certain points, and don’t view her through a lens of hysterical fear and loathing.

    I think that’s understandable to an extent. The problem is that when reasonable people with substantive criticisms hang back and keep their mouths shut out of sympathy, the public debate about someone such as Palin ends up careering wildly between fulsome praise and invective. There’s little exploration of the real estate in between where sensible observations can be made. And that makes it easy for Palin and her advisors to assume that all her critics are arguing from emotion rather than reason and can therefore be safely ignored. (That’s not unique to Palin, of course. She just happens to be the figure in question here.) Yes, Palin’s detractors have often been uncommonly nasty. But the way to compensate isn’t by biting back serious doubts about her; it’s by voicing them in a fashion that pulls the public discourse back toward even-temperedness and rationality.

    Hello, world—we’re here again

    Posted by Sean at 23:45, February 8th, 2010

    In the interest of balance, I should point out that Sarah Palin isn’t working class any more than Barack Obama is, though both her supporters and her detractors have a tendency to assume she is. Roger Kimball, for instance, wrote the following yesterday:

    But what (a locution that comes up often among her admirers) a breath of fresh air she is! Here you have a woman from a working-class background who, by dint of her own energy and ambition, becomes Governor of her state—a good Governor, too, by all account not tainted by The New York Times. She espouses good conservative principles: self-reliance, fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense. And, on top of all that, she is a courageous and loving mother to a passel of children.

    Not to take anything away from Palin’s energy and ambition, each of which is clearly considerable, but her father was a science teacher and her mother a school secretary. Her memoir recounts how reading-centered their household was; there’s a good bit of attention given to her father’s putting the television in a cold room over (I think) the garage to make it difficult for the children to spend too much time watching it. That you can be solidly of the middle class and have a lot more outdoorsy roughness in your life in Alaska than you probably would in most of the lower 48 is not something I’d dispute, but I don’t know that it makes you less of the middle class.

    As with President Obama, I don’t say this to deny Palin credit for her actual accomplishments. I just think that, as long as we’re going to be categorizing people by class, we should do it in a way that correlates well with the way people generally understand the terms we’re using. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, but I think there are useful distinctions to be made here, especially when we’re considering things such as education. This article (via Erin O’Connor and Joanne Jacobs) is from The Guardian, but the phenomenon it describes isn’t restricted to the UK:

    Pupils from deprived backgrounds are being conned into thinking they can advance in life by a system that hands out “worthless” qualifications, Harrow school’s headteacher said today.

    State schools risk producing students like “those girls in the first round of the X Factor” who tell the judges they want to be the next Britney Spears but cannot sing a note, Barnaby Lenon said.

    Bright children from poor backgrounds are being short-changed by those who lead them to believe that “high grades in soft subjects” and going to “any old university to read any subject” were the route to prosperity, he told a conference of leading private and state school headteachers.

    Meanwhile, at independent schools, pupils were being encouraged to take the toughest subjects, such as sciences and modern languages, and many were doing qualifications seen as more rigorous than regular GCSEs and A-levels, such as International GCSEs and the International Baccalaureate.

    “Let us not deceive our children, especially children from poorer homes, with worthless qualifications, so they become like the citizens of Weimar Germany or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, carrying their certificates around in a ­wheelbarrow,” Lenon said.

    Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, backed Lenon. Media studies had seen a big increase in popularity in state schools, simply because it boosted their position in the league tables, he told the conference of the 100 Group discussing social mobility.

    “More children who were eligible for free school meals sat GCSEs in media ­studies than in physics, chemistry and biology combined,” Gove said.

    Sarah Palin majored in communications in college once she’d decided what she was interested in doing, but I suspect her parents would have stepped in, and quickly, to put the kibosh on her wanting to do a concentration in high school on some skill-free subject that clearly wasn’t going to get her anywhere—not because they loved her more than factory-worker parents would have but because they knew how the academic system worked. Jacobs’s excellent book Our School , about a charter school that serves poor children in San Jose, vividly describes several parents who know their children are bright, want them to succeed, and are willing to do their part in disciplining and encouraging—but who nevertheless can’t pass on time-management and study skills that they themselves never learned. (Happily, the teachers, who do have experience at shooting for and meeting high academic objectives, respond by being willing to play bad cop when necessary to get the kids up to speed on responsibility and achievement, not by watering down the curriculum with “media studies” so everyone can pretend to be doing well without any further exertion.)

    So anyway: Sarah Palin. She wasn’t from a powerful Alaska family, and she didn’t start off by going to law school and angling for a position as a local power broker from which she could work her way up, so I don’t think her achievements redound any less to her credit if we accurately call her “middle class” than they would if we inaccurately called her “working class.” And accuracy has a beneficial potential side effect: if we frankly acknowledge the extent to which the children of educated parents are, by and large, in a better position to do well in school and beyond, we may be able to have a more frank discussion about what schools need to do to help less fortunate children make up for the skills they’re missing from home life. (We might also get over the idea that you have to be working class to be earthy and unpretentious.) Precedent says it won’t happen, but as an inveterate, life-long Go-go’s fan, I choose to live (to rip off from Kimball’s post title) in La-la Land:

    A working-class hero is something to be

    Posted by Sean at 23:18, February 4th, 2010

    Ann Althouse cites this piece by John B. Judis in TNR, which in turn takes the writer of this WaPo article to task for getting his facts about President Obama wrong. What I find really interesting is the way Judis catalogues the numerous reasons to believe that Obama grew up with a sense of entitlement and flitted from occupation to occupation in exactly the way shallow people obsessed with power and prestige do…then, out of nowhere, finishes like this:

    Barack Obama is, by any fair measure, a great American, and he could turn out to be a great president. But he is not yet a great politician. He has not been able to transcend the political limits of his own social background. And that has been one of his problems as he attempts to extricate America from the mess he inherited.

    But the limits aren’t just political; they’re experiential as well. Judis is at pains to argue that Obama “clearly was not obsessed with making money, but with performing a public service,” but he (Judis) seems to have no comprehension whatever of the degree to which a lot of actual working-class people tend to perceive “public service” positions like his (Obama’s) as out-of-touch condescension, geared less toward helping the disadvantaged to clear a path toward achieving their own goals than toward making the public servant feel good about his own magnanimity. It’s the modern version of the manor-house-ladies-visiting-food-and-moral-hectoring-on-the-cottage-dwellers routine.

    Perhaps Obama did doubt that he was “accomplishing much” as a community organizer, in the sense of serving people in need. Or perhaps, like seemingly thousands of other Ivy grads each year, he decided that what he was doing wasn’t fast-track enough and, as a humanities/social-science major, that his best shot at giving himself a grad-degree boost was law school. And when I say “fast-track,” I’m not just talking about money; power, influence, and image figure into a lot of people’s calculations of self-worth as much as money does. (Judis does recognize that.) New York is chock-a-block with cutthroat lawyers who imagine they’re more moral and civic-minded than the bankers downtown—just because, as nearly as I’ve ever been able to tell, they don’t work for banks.

    There are two major problems in perceiving these things clearly, I think. One is that there’s a serious class divide in America based on expectations. Obama grew up, it appears, among people who saw going to a hoity-toity college and then bossing people around for a living as the natural progression of things. Working-class people do not. (I say this as the son of a steelworker and a high-school dropout who later got a GED and a data-operations certification. My parents and their friends were optimistic and happy, but the idea of wanting to devote your working life to lording it over people would have been very foreign to them.) I’m sure Obama had times when he had to struggle—difficult exams and all that—but he was following the same path as his peers, and one that his elders were presumably easing him along. That doesn’t diminish his actual accomplishments, but I suspect it does make it pretty much impossible for him to imagine what life is like for people who have succeeded by working their way up.

    The other problem is that Obama has a fundamentally performative personality, as we would have put it back when I was majoring in comparative literature. Oratory suits him. Earthy spontaneity doesn’t suit him, and it shows. Perhaps that means he’s uncomfortable in his own skin as a human being, or perhaps it means that he’s growing into himself as a politician. My sense is that, like a lot of people who’ve been able to dodge failure their entire adult lives, he’s skittish about doing anything obviously risky, and it’s that skittishness that makes him seem withdrawn. (Say what you will about W’s plummy background—by his own estimation, he’d crashed and burned as an alcoholic and sinner, and he’d gained in gravitas by pushing through that.)

    I very frequently agree with Althouse, but when she says of Obama’s disconnect with the middle-class, “[I]t is a struggle to figure this out when you are getting your facts so wrong,” I think she’s a little off the point. Background matters, but sensibility matters more. I knew I was going to live in New York from the time I was a small boy. It never occurred to me in high school that I wouldn’t be applying to Ivies like my more comfortably-off friends. (I have my parents to thank for that, BTW. They would have been perfectly justified in informing me that it was my responsibility to work my way through college. Instead, they took out parent loans so I could spend four years daydreaming about Japanese literature for a Penn degree.) I go back to my hometown, and much as I love spending time with my parents and other relatives, I’m an outsider there.

    In a way, it breaks my heart. We all want to feel close to our origins, and I’m far more distant from mine than the two-hour drive might suggest. In another way, though, this is the richness of America: you the individual do not have to be what others assume you were born to be. Though I won’t pretend I don’t like money, I don’t value the way I live because I make more than my father does; I value it because it suits my personality. Happily, I’m not a politician, so I don’t have to go back to Allentown and pretend unconvincingly to be sunk in and at home there. If President Obama wants to succeed more with regular folks, maybe he could stop trying to act like one of them (seriously, man—no…just, no) and be frank about being an outsider and politician. If he adopted the posture of a public servant who wanted to know their reality, and then started really listening to them tell him about it, he might realize that Washington knows too little about it to micromanage it. And then it would matter a lot less whether So-and-so at the WaPo got the chronology of his life story straight.

    Added on 7 February: Thanks to Eric for the link; while I’m sorry to have gotten him worked into a froth, the post that resulted is a good one as always. There’s one statement Eric made that, while perfectly accurate, might benefit from some elaboration:

    Sean sees Obama as an insecure poseur, and thinks that he should try being honest about his background.

    I think one of the big problems is the labels themselves. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Obama describe himself as explicitly “working-class,” and I don’t have the two books of his I forced myself to read (see? I’m a true child of the working class living a life of struggle!) in front of me, but I don’t remember that being the tack taken there, either. The media like to stress the “humbleness” of his beginnings, but there are plenty of anonymous solidly middle-class folks, too.

    The point I was trying to make was more that Obama depicts his life as one of overcoming obstacles, and in the sense that we usually mean it when talking about a politician’s life story, I don’t think that’s really true. Obama’s not from an insider family the way, say, Harold Ford, Jr., is, but he had a lot more than his own determination and our open society helping him on the way from Punahoe to Occidental to Columbia to Harvard. His family was full of educated people who knew the system.

    All of which is to say, I don’t think that President Obama is being dishonest in the sense of covering things up. I just think that his background says less, in and of itself, about how much grit and determination he needed to get where he is than the media and the rest of his claque seem to think.