Did you hear Jason Collins is gay? He also plays professional basketball making him the first openly gay athlete in one of the big four American sports. If you have not heard you can be forgiven, after all Tim Tebow was released Monday.
I am not trying to minimize the importance or difficulty of Collins’ decision, but I think the reaction is somewhat indicative of our country’s forward movement on civil rights.
I support gay marriage. I work for a free-market think tank generally thought of as conservative. That may have been a problem in the not-so-distant past, but it is certainly not a problem today (and of course, one must look no further than the passage of Wisconsin’s anti-gay marriage amendment during a Democratic landslide election to see that support for gay marriage never broke cleanly along left-right ideological lines in Wisconsin).
I find it interesting that the release of WPRI’s new report on the state of marriage in Wisconsin comes in the same week as Collins’ announcement. The report, written by Christian Schneider, takes no position on gay marriage. He writes:
The purpose of this report is not to document and lament the social devaluing of marriage. Nor is it a defense of “traditional” marriage between a man and woman. Rather, this report demonstrates the negative economic impact of declining marriage rates in Wisconsin and recommends encouraging marriage as a stabilizing economic institution, no matter its form.
This is not Schneider punting; it is a clear statement that this report sets out to identify the economic impact of changes in the institution of marriage in Wisconsin. He presents a strong case that marriage is a powerful positive force in society, arguing that efforts to stabilize the institution are the business of policy-makers.
In reading Schneider’s report I certainly find support for my position that disqualifying a notable chunk of the population from participation in this institution is a mistake for Wisconsin. It’s never made sense to me that a loving couple should be denied the civil institution of marriage. Nor has the issue ever struck me as particularly political.
But whatever your position on marriage equality as it relates to civil rights, the report is a worthy read. Click here to read.
Second, who cares if they did? The white privilege wristband activity appears to me to be nothing more than a class activity that teaches students that we have not yet reached a place where we have equality of opportunity in this country. That’s not my fault, that’s not your fault, and that’s not the fault of any student who wore a wristband (assuming this activity actually occurred anywhere). Equality of opportunity is a goal that has not been reached because of our nation’s difficult racial history, the problem of entrenched poverty, an imperfect public education system, and million other reasons including the fact that true equality of opportunity is an almost utopian goal that is just plain difficult to create. If this activity is one way to teach this, so be it.
Third, why are people associated with conservatives making an issue of this? It’s no secret the Republican Party struggled to gain minority support in the 2012 election; making a racial issue over a public school lesson on power and privilege is strategically misguided. Yet, as I saw this morning, none other than Bill O’Reilly is running with the story tonight.
Excuse the rant, but focus on issues like this is one reason Conservatives get caricatured as out-of-touch.
This is my last post on the WPRI blog for my summer position. It has been a wonderful experience. As a forward-looking exercise, I will write about some of the differences between the United States and the United Kingdom, where I spend the majority of my time, notwithstanding the summers (in the US, that is…one must be charitable to call anything in the UK “summer”). This entry will constitute something of a list of thoughts from a current American ex-pat. The following is a list of things that really jump out at me from an American perspective:
Food and Drink: Orwell said famously that the faults of Britain, “from a foreign visitor’s point of view, are the gloom of our Sundays and the difficulty of buying a drink.” After walking into an English restaurant—or having an English breakfast—one wonders whether the proverbial saying is true: “The best English cooking is, of course, simply French cooking.” In a famous essay titled “In Defense of English Cooking,” Orwell goes on ad nauseum about everything from the fantastic array of puddings to the variegated selection of marmalade, from the delicacy of English cheeses to potato cakes exclusive to the island. It reads more like a high-end shopping list at Dean & Deluca than it does any English food I have ever tasted. Fish and chips, pies, Cumberland sausages and potatoes (“bangers and mash,” as it is known), steak and kidneys, and beef stew invariably grace the pages of most English menus in my experience. English food is solid and reliable, if limited in its repertoire. Of course, the incredible diversity of England’s ethnic cuisine is one of its finest attributes, but in terms of purely English food, the name of the game is simplicity and reliability.
Weather: Rain, rain, and more rain. Summer is practically non-existent—except for a two-week stretch each May (thankfully around my birthday) that gets everybody hopeful that “this year will be different.” Invariably, it is not; summer fails to arrive and most weeks, my English friends spend their time hoping next week will bring consistent sunshine. Vitamin D supplements are imperative, as some parts of England receive insufficient sunlight each year for the human person.
Provincialism/Navel-gazing: Since I am affiliated with an academic institution in the UK, this is noticeable especially within academic departments. Many of my institution’s best departments have an abundance of scholars working on issues that are, quite frankly, not as impactful as others. While still perfectly legitimate fields of study in themselves, the History Department, for instance, has a multitude of scholars working on issues of early English agrarian policy, rural English development, and medieval religion in two specific rural towns, inter alia. What is a potential problem, however, is when these fields crowd out more impactful and international themes, such as the study of Soviet Russia, China, America, or even European studies. I am inclined to think that this strategic decision by many departments—and I offer here only one example of many—is linked inextricably to British nationalism. After the fall of the British Empire, nationalism lost its imperial and international edge and became relegated to the boundaries of a small island nation. I cannot help but think there is a nexus between the decline of the Empire and the increased provincialism of academic disciplines at some British institutions. When there is no longer a British Empire “out there,” study becomes increasingly about what is left remaining “right here.”
Despite the importance of the European Union to modern affairs, designed to temper nationalism for the collective security and economic union of all of Europe, the same old European nationalism that the world has seen repeatedly is flaring up in recent fights over the Euro currency, security policy, and economic cooperation initiatives like bank bailouts and the issuance of common treasury bonds by the European Central Bank. In Britain’s case, since it is not party to the Euro Zone Agreement, nationalism manifests itself in a subtler way: a sort of Euro-skepticism that crosses political parties and demographics. It is commonplace to hear such phrases as “Britain and Europe,” or “us and the Europeans,” as if the insular nature of the island provided it with an airtight bubble of complete protection from the worst aspects of Europe. (The early involvement of Britain in WWI and WWII, as well as numerous other wars waged on the European continent, belies this notion completely.)
The Coffee Shop: Despite some of my complaints about the quality of customer service (on top of a less than eight-hour work day), British coffee shops are terrific. Tea, coffee, or hot chocolate—coffee shops are a place of both individual and social flourishing. Whereas in America, one sees more people reading alone or taking their coffee to go, coffee shops in Britain retain the sort of salon feel that doubtless marked their existence around the turn of the century. Simply put, the Brits manage somehow to maintain the intellectual milieu of the coffee shop without the somewhat empty, capitalist feeling of transaction and departure, say, from an American Starbucks. After the coffee shops close, intellectual conversations shift to the pubs and ale houses. Another great British amalgam is the coffee shop/bookstore combination (with a much different feel, of course, than your average Starbucks inside of a Barnes & Noble).
Bookstores and Publishers: Bookstores abound in England, and not just in my university town. Many of them are independent, picayune bookstores that deal in both new books and used, often timeless, tomes. The country’s largest bookstore chains are Blackwells and Waterstones, the former being very academic—far exceeding the quality of many university bookstores—and the latter more akin to the now-defunct Borders or Barnes & Noble. Even Waterstones, however, is more academic in the quality of its selected titles than a mainstream American bookstore; this undoubtedly says something about the British demand for the availability of quality academic reading. The ability of these chains to not just stay in business, but do remarkably well—even in the age of internet giants like Amazon, where in the UK, shipping is always free—is truly a testament to their quality. Another discernable difference is the quality of publishing in Britain. In America, there has been an incredible consolidation of non-university, non-academic presses. Penguin, Harcourt, Simon & Schuster, Random House, and several others dominate the publishing market in America; meanwhile, in Britain, a panoply of smaller presses exist, without the kind of consolidation that occurred in America. This is hugely important when it comes to translated works and other rare books (or versions) one would be hard-pressed to find on American shelves (usually, one would be left resorting to Amazon’s “virtual shelf”).
London and the Arts: Is there a more vibrant city in Europe than London? Perhaps Paris if you are a Francophone. For the Anglophone, however, London is the place to be. The availability and quality of the arts in London is really the elevating factor in its prominence. The number of cultural happenings in any given weekend is truly staggering.
So what is wrong with our state? Are we just easily influenced by political ads? Some have suggested that Tammy Baldwin’s recent uptick in advertising combined with Tommy Thompson’s silence is responsible for the latest Marquette numbers. Maybe, but I am inclined to believe that citizens of our hyper-politicized state don’t simply vote for the candidate the TV most recently told them to.
Perhaps the Marquette numbers are skewed. As my wife informed me years ago as we looked for a storage space for our respective Political Science and Nursing degrees, social science (which includes polling of course) is a soft science. Charles Franklin’s numbers could be off. However, given his past accuracy I am inclined to trust the Marquette poll.
I think the explanation for the new Marquette numbers is pretty simple: Wisconsinites like Barack Obama better than Mitt Romney. Such an unsophisticated explanation likely confuses and angers pundits and party operatives eager to separate our country into two opposite political camps. After all, how can the same people who elected Scott Walker twice in one term support Barak Obama or Tammy Baldwin? Well, shockingly the political preferences of most people cannot be explained through a simple red-blue dichotomy.
If someone tells me they agree with 100% of what Mitt Romney stands for I assume A) I am speaking with Mitt Romney or his wife, or B) I am speaking with someone who is lying to me. As I have written many times over, no party has a monopoly on good ideas; hence the evolving preferences of Wisconsin voters is both healthy, and to be expected.
It is a long time until November and when looking in my crystal ball, I fully expect Wisconsin’s electoral votes to go Barack Obama while Tommy Thompson wins yet another statewide race. But, it’s Wisconsin, so who the heck knows.
As the whole world knows by now, David Corn of Mother Jonesprocured secret video footage of a private Romney fundraiser that captures the candidate in an unusually perturbing and candid light. “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president [Obama] no matter what,” Romney declared. He went on to declare that these entitled folks feel themselves to be victims, and the coup de grâce, that “my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” He simply writes off skeptical voters, and with that, forfeits any pretense of uniting a country that so desperately needs it after President Obama’s failure to do so.
I want to suggest a better line of rhetoric for the GOP than the brash mention of those who do not pay income taxes and the extolling of individual responsibility by “pulling yourself up from your bootstraps.” The GOP would do well to take a small lesson in political theory, particularly in social contract theories. In past eras, it was far easier to implore conservatives to heed the advice of their best political and historical minds. Alas, today this is not so. Yet, I believe that reopening the pages of the great conservative Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) could help salvage much of the GOP’s rhetoric from a disastrous inability to connect with American voters.
Burke’s concept of the social contract is an intergenerational one. It is staunchly against the explicitly “statist” contracts of Rousseau or Locke and Hobbes before him. In these statist models, the people come together laterally and agree to the formation of a state and sovereign with limited, and often times enumerated powers. Burke’s contract ignores largely the state, focusing instead on “partnership” between generations. He says:
“One of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated is, lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters, that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society, hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers.”
Quite simply, society is a contract. “The state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Precisely where the GOP could earn points, especially with young and middle-aged voters often skeptical of their policies, is in explicating the profound transfers of fiscal burden that entitlement programs represent, and the shocking and unprecedented betrayal of Burke’s “societal partnership” between generations of the present and the future. (Professor Niall Ferguson suggested just this in his recent BBC Reith Lectures.) The most important remedy the GOP may offer is a solution to restoring the social contract between generations, a flaw of democracy that worried deeply that most observant and trenchant of commentators on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Aristocrats think and operate with a sense of their ancestors and their bloodlines, he said, while citizens of democracies live entirely and dangerously in the present.
The United States’ national debt is symptomatic of something that is terribly awry with our current representative government, i.e., decision-making ceased long ago to have any temporal frame of reference whatsoever. No notion of future generations exists, precisely because they are not represented; lacking Burke’s vision of the social contract, it is too easy to defer difficult decisions in the present and pass the bill to a future generation not yet represented. Ferguson hits the nail on the head in one of his lectures: “a pretty blithe disregard for the legacy of the past characterizes, it seems to me, a great many legislators. But perhaps more seriously, a real neglect of the interests of future generations…and that’s really the problem.” Representative government must operate with a greater sense of continuity between generations.
Best yet, such a line of rhetoric could appeal to a broad base of the American public, not just in terms of age but also across political parties. The GOP could earn electoral credentials with conservatives by presenting credible (and specific) plans to preserve and save entitlement programs for future generations; the GOP would need to defend these proposals from demagoguery for electoral gain by arguing that such an approach is a reckless path to bankruptcy. But the Burkean social contract rhetoric could also appeal to many Democrats and Independents who worry about the increasing fissures between the wealthy and not so wealthy. It is no wonder, many of them would say (not unreasonably), that there is no social contract between generations of Americans when wealth inequality has risen to an unprecedented level. The daily routines of some Americans make it almost impossible for them to sympathize with the long-term interests of other Americans once their kith, as Charles Murray shows in Coming Apart. In all, the GOP would do well to revisit the political thought of their great thinkers like Edmund Burke, and there was once a time when such obvious statements could go unstated.
I did not wake up Monday morning expecting to purchase diabetic socks, a pulled pork sandwich, and suspiciously inexpensive “officially licensed” Brewers and Packers merchandise. Nor did I expect to take a two-question test to determine if I was going to heaven while drinking a High Life tallboy. Ok, I did not actually do these things Monday. But I could have, and all in one place: The St. Martins Fair.
For those who have not been, the St. Martins Fair is a bazaar held throughout the summer that becomes a bloated mile-long street festival on Labor Day weekend. It is overflowing with diversity, that one the thing that, to paraphrase the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, makes a place exciting and successful.
My wife, a veteran of the fair, failed to give our two sons and me fair warning of what we were walking into. It looked like Woodstock as we drove in among an eclectic mix of families, teenagers, and let’s just say interesting dressed folks holding something in beer cozies at 10:30 am walking down the side of road. I learned shortly thereafter they were walking to avoid paying five dollars to park directly below a sign that read “Park at Your Own Risk.” Having already paid the fee, I decided to risk it.
The fair itself is one part state fair, one part flea market, and one part Hamsterdam (for those familiar with The Wire.) The commercial diversity was striking. Sporting goods, clothes, art, furnaces, reflective vests, antiques, games (wooden for hip young urbanites and dusty used games from the 80s for hipper young urbanites), and just about anything else you would ever want, or likely, not want. But it was not just goods being hawked. A booth in front of the non-denominational Christian church spread its message by giving away free bottled water on the hot day. Another religious booth chose the more intense strategy of offering the aforementioned quiz that promises to reveal your fate in the afterlife.
The latter booth prompted the hilarious sight of a man opening a beer while declining to find out if he was going to heaven, stating, “I’m already there.” He was just the beginning. While pricing a 2006 Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl Champion beach towel I overheard two middle-aged women bemoaning the younger generations affinity for the halter-top. Another woman, clearly a mother, chastised the owner of a booth for selling children replica AK-47s that shot soft pellets. More broadly, the frequent sight of people from all walks of life enjoying the simple accessible pleasures of a cold beer and a cigarette on a summer afternoon gave me faith that sin taxes will long remain reliable sources of state revenue.
The one notably missing type of diversity at the Fair was, to the event’s detriment, racial. Aside from a few Hmong farmers selling produce it was a very white crowd. Nonetheless, I think the fair would have made Jane Jacobs proud. People were talking, eating, shopping, and most of all people watching. In other words, it was the unique event where attendees were both audience and entertainer.
The Fair was well worth the risk to my car, which made it home just fine. The whole day was a reminder that it is the mix of people, interests, and beliefs that makes not only the St. Martins Fair, but Wisconsin, a great place to live. The legislature would be wise to remember the value of Wisconsin’s diversity when it gets back to business after the fall elections. Homogeneity in our politics and our public policy approaches (like our communities) leaves too many fruitful and interesting doors closed. Plainly, our state’s politics ought to be as diverse and welcoming as our people.