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Michelle Jones and the Shame of Harvard

by Rich Yeselson on September 14, 2017

There is an extraordinary, enraging story in the New York Times today about a brilliant and remarkable woman who did a horrific thing and spent 20 years redeeming herself in prison. When she sought admission to graduate school at Harvard, our most prestigious university itself did a terrible thing of a different kind. John Stauffer and Dan Carpenter, senior scholars, precipitated the rescinding of Jones’s admission to Harvard’s history program, but, even worse, President Drew Faust failed to blunt their cravenness, and instead ratified it.

The very good news? Sounds like NYU got a terrific student for their Phd program in history.

There is also—and here I ride my own sad little hobbyhorse—something to be said here for the value of procedural neutrality, both normatively and, often, to protect individuals who fall outside of “typical” circumstances protected by elite institutions. Admissions decisions to graduate programs at Harvard and elsewhere are the responsibility of departmental faculty. The university technically had the right (I infer) to overrule this decision, but it did so only out of fear of rightwing media! (Read the remarks by Stauffer, which are extraordinary in their explicit moral cowardliness.) Leaving decisions about the intellectual and scholarly potential to those most qualified to make that determination—the indigenous “interpretive community” as Stanley Fish might put it—would have prevented the university’s top administrators, including its president, from exercising a perverse oversight in this case.

A few days ago, Matt Yglesias wrote me an email which asked a great question about American politics and the seeming movement to the left of the Democratic Party. In the wake of Bernie Sander’s landslide victory in New Hampshire over Hillary Clinton, Matt’s question seems even more pressing and interesting. With his permission, I quote it below:

What’s your theory as to how the labor-liberal forces inside the Democratic coalition seem stronger than every (Hillary is now against TPP and facing a fierce challenge from a socialist) even as actual labor unions seem weaker than ever. This is 180 degrees the opposite of the trajectory that I and everyone else were forecasting 10 years ago where either there would be a labor revival (card check, etc.) or else Dems would drift right without an anchor. [click to continue…]

David Runciman wrote a brief essay in the LRB about the results of the British election. I want to focus on one peculiar passage. Runciman observes:

The two countries that have seen the greatest rise in inequality over the past couple of decades are Britain and the United States. Both have a first-past-the-post system designed to offer a clear choice between two main parties. Yet whichever of the two parties wins, the drift towards inequality has been inexorable.

This is, well, nuts or maybe just inexplicable coming from a political thinker of Runciman’s reputation. It tells us nothing about why inequality has accelerated or what might be done to mitigate it. Runciman conflates the British and US political systems because they both have “first past the post” voting—but he somehow neglects to then distinguish them because the US has a presidential model with separation of powers across three branches of government and a widely dispersed federalism, and the UK has a parliamentary model. Which means, of course, as nearly every knowledgable political writer has been screaming during the this time of divided US government, that the US system does not at all offer a “clear choice between two main parties.” In fact, as Juan Linz famously pointed out, in a presidential system two major parties or coalitions can both claim legitimacy by controlling a respective branch of government. (And thus the US can have, simultaneously, two warring “Prime Ministers”, eg, President Obama and Speaker Boehner.)

The American system offers a decidedly murky choice; Because the congressional party (whose election is spread over three cycles) does not merely oppose, but also obstructs the presidential party, the US way of democracy provides the electorate with no logical party accountability—presidential “failures” can be caused by minority legislative parties because the presidential party only appears to voters—and to Runciman, apparently—to be the governing party, but is not. The US system is really enormously different from the UK system. If Runciman had wished to argue that the Congress, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, has, in recent decades, abdicated the making and execution of foreign policy to the president, he’d have a point. But he writes as if clear party control of the levers of American politics was built into the system.

And there’s no need for the whole history lesson here, but that’s exactly how it wasn’t designed in the first place. It was, in fact, designed by people who did not anticipate the development of coherent political parties at all and, in fact, loathed the very idea (even if many of them then proceeded to become rather shrewd party politicians in the next phase of their careers). The whole point, as imagined by men who, with certain important exceptions, were very much determined not to replicate the powers of a monarchy in their fledgling nation, was to create conditions that would force elites to compromise and to limit the power of the propertyless (let alone the slaves) to even enter into the discussion. Compromise between powerful interests, not the clarity of unitary authority, was supposed to occur not only between the branches of government, but also between the national government and those of the states (and between the North and the slaveholding sub-nation of the South). There is absolutely nothing structurally about the American system of government, either in its inception or in its current dissipated condition, that offers voters a “clear choice” regarding domestic politics. (Even the rare historical circumstances that have seemingly given one party or the other effective control, eg, FDR’s already balkanized Democrats for, at most four years in the mid 1930s, in fact allowed a cross-party coalition of reactionaries to make the New Deal for “whites only.”

Later in the essay, Runciman expresses shock that the purportedly smooth running American political structure has crashed into a ditch like the regional trains that its warring parties of equal legitimacy refuse to fund. He writes contemptuously, comparing the squalid Brits with the squalid Yanks, “It is blackmail and veto power, with small groups clamouring to get what they want from the people in charge. This is the current model of American politics, which for all its premium on clarity and executive power is also extremely messy, with all sorts of minor players holding the big boys to ransom.”

But writers and scholars like Norm Ornstein, Thomas Mann, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (and many many others) have written copiously about how and why divided government does not engender clarity in the current iteration of the American presidential system. Runciman seems wholly unaware of this literature.

Sorry to be so sour, but has Runciman ever read The Federalist? Or Madison, in particular? Or just a good history about the ratification of the American constitution To frame his essay with this spurious comparison made it impossible for me to take the rest of his argument seriously.

The migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is a tragic variation of a phenomena we have seen time and again around the world: the indifference, deep ambivalence or, at worst, rage directed at “others” from homogeneous, native populations in the advanced nations. This is a defining social condition of Western Europe, the UK, and Scandinavia today and there is no need to rehearse here the many episodes that fall into this category. Influential splinter parties from UKIP in the UK to the venerable National Front in France to the Danish People’s Party to the Netherland’s Party for Freedom have constructed potent working class voting blocs around anti-immigrant and anti-Islamist platforms. [click to continue…]

Hortatory Uplift Is Not a Plan

by Rich Yeselson on July 9, 2013

I thank John S. Ahlquist and Margaret Levi (hereafter A/L) for their response, “With Fortresses Like These …” to my essay in Democracy, “Fortress Unionism.” I had an odd feeling reading and rereading their essay. I though its bark was far worse than its bite. A/L warn that my strategy is “doomed”, and rests on “dangerous assumptions.” Unions are already doing what I advocate, and they are thus headed down “the drain.” Yet, given their final set of suggestions, it seems as if we really don’t have much to disagree about at all.  When all is said and done, A/L ignore most of my proposals before agreeing with others.

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Good and Plenty

by Rich Yeselson on June 5, 2012

 There’s a mordant joke running thru Francis Spufford’s spectacular Red Plenty that can be illustrated in the following story.  A self-taught Armenian monk travels to Oxford to importune the most distinguished mathematician in England.  The monk eagerly presents his findings to the grand Don.  After listening to the monk, and observing some of his formulas, the mathematician says to him, “I have good news and bad news.”  The monk replies, “What’s the good news?”  “You are a genius,” says the mathematician, “and you’ve invented geometry.”  “Great!” says the breathless monk.  “What’s the bad news?”  “Euclid invented it a couple of thousands years before you did.”  (I know, I know—please don’t post comments noting that Euclid didn’t actually invent geometry—the story is heuristic!)

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James Poulos’s Illogic

by Rich Yeselson on February 20, 2012

James Poulos posted a much commented upon essay in The Daily Caller the other day, entitled, “What are Women for?

Poulos has a kind of oracular and circuitous prose style (takes one to know one), and it’s sometimes hard to understand exactly what he’s trying to argue.  And sometimes oracular devolves into just terrible and weird writing as when he intones, “The purpose of lifting the left’s Potemkin skirts is not to score tits for tats.”  Um…I lost him between the skirts, the tits and the tats, and I don’t even want to know where he ended up.

But, allowing for his affectedness, Poulos is actually up to something at once deeply derivative and banal, yet astonishing in the residual, reactionary power he brings to it. For evidence, see this second “response to critics” essay of his.   The argument—once Poulos has dispensed with some pretty tedious “plague on the right and left (but mostly left)” throat clearing—comes down to this: he thinks that women are closer to nature because they are able to give birth, i.e they have a “privileged relationship to the natural world.” And, therefore, “what they are for”, as he argues in the second essay (which is actually the more lucid of the two) is to civilize those who “fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.” That would be men. After all, as he says in essay one, “a civilization of men, for men, and by men is no civilization at all, a monstrously barbaric, bloody, and brutal enterprise.”

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Mitt Romney and the Fallacy of Political “Authenticity”

by Rich Yeselson on February 13, 2012

I think all you pretty much need to know about the alternative directions Mitt Romney’s possible presidency might take can be distilled into four words:  “Democratic party”, uttered in an interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace from December of last year, and “Democrat party” spoken just a couple of weeks ago on CNN to Soledad O’Brien as part of his already famous, “I’m not concerned about the very poor” episode.

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Avoiding the Lasch of Modernity

by Rich Yeselson on August 4, 2009

George Scialabba wishes he could be as calmly appalled about our historical moment as Richard Rorty, but Christopher Lasch keeps haranguing him, shouting from an artisan commune on the Other Side that it is worse—much worse—than Bin Laden, Bush, and Jon and Kate plus Eight all rolled into one. Scialabba has been writing wittily and vexingly about modernity and its discontents for decades. And in What Are Intellectuals Good For?, a collection of his review essays, he demonstrates his astonishing erudition in considering and citing many thinkers besides Lasch and Rorty.
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