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12 posts categorized "Review"

July 26, 2005

What's the Matter With Kansas?

The TPM Cafe's book club is reading Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?. There, Todd Gitlin addresses Frank:

Why would it be unfair to call your book the cleverest piece of vulgar Marxism ever written? It would be no small compliment. The competition is stiff, or at least the entries are myriad.

I'm very surprised that Gitlin would describe Frank's book as "Marxist" in any sense of the word.
Gitlin seems to think that Frank is a vulgar Marxist for claiming that Kansans are mistaken about their fundamental interests:

The big trouble is with your deep premise, which first shows up on the way from page 1 to page 2: “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests.” The point crops up a few hundred more times in your pages.

The problem lies in those glimmering words, “fundamental,” “interest,” and “wrong.” What’s a fundamental interest anyway? You appear to be a pure utilitarian. People ought to be rational calculators, dammit.

I think Gitlin is missing Frank's point. Ezra Klein is making a similar mistake when he argues that there's nothing's the matter with Kansas.

A lot of people think that Frank is excoriating Kansans for voting against their economic interests. If that were the case, Frank might rightly be accused of condescension. As George Lakoff points out, most people vote their values rather than their economic interests. I know I do.

It's easy to dismiss Frank as an intellectual peddling an obscure argument from false consciousness. In fact, Frank is making a much simpler and more direct argument. Kansas meticulously documents the ways in which Kansans are being fooled by fake populism. Blame marketing, not Marixsm.

It would be one thing if Kansans were making an informed tradeoff between economic self-interest and values. That's basically what upper class Democrats do when they agree to higher taxes in exchange for other social goods. According to Frank, what's wrong with Kansas is that Republicans promise cultural reform but never deliver. Kansans are getting suckered year after year. They don't vote their economic self interest, but they never get the cultural results they're voting for. Frank is wondering why the voters of Kansas keep getting tricked by the platitudes of backlash conservatism.

Backlash conservatism has two pillars: a) Fake class consciousness; b) Culture war saber-rattling.

Think of the backlash as a brand. Behind every successful brand is a core brand idea. What will this product do for you? Or, more importantly, what kind of person will you be if you buy this product? The core brand idea of the backlash conservatism (hereafter, BC) is that the Republican party defends working class values from the scheming, arrogant liberal elite.

Frank's central thesis is that Republicans campaign like culture warriors and govern like robber barons. They've created a self-perpetuating myth. They explain everything that's wrong with the world by appealing to the nefarious and non-existent liberal elite. Allegedly, the liberal elite is so powerful that the backlash conservatives can never vanquish it. Even when the Republicans control all branches of government, they still blame the mythical all-pervasive cabal for everything. This self-sealing belief system provides an endlessly renewable excuse for a culture war stalemate.

The truth is that Republicans are the elite. Their working class cred is phony. George W. Bush is the privileged son of an American political dynasty. He had an easy war, an Ivy League education, and endless bailouts from his fathers' big business buddies. He has an estate in Texas. The media call it a ranch with a straight face, even though he's afraid of horses and he has to borrow his neighbors' cattle for photo ops. Somehow, the Republican message machine managed to trick people into believing that George W. Bush was more authentically macho than John Kerry, a decorated war hero.

Frank emphasizes that the Republican deception goes beyond myth-making. Kansas politicians like Sam Brownback are case studies in backlash bait-and-switch. Brownback and his BC confederates campaign on culture war issues, but they seldom follow through. The backlash has been campaigning on "values" for decades and winning. But what do they have to show for it? Abortion remains legal, the constitutional ban on gay marriage is languishing, the media continue to churn out the "filth" that fuels the backlash.

All this time, the BC-ers have been governing like robber barons--undermining unions, threatening Social Security, and killing rural Americans in a fraudulent war.

Bush's nomination of John Roberts for the Supreme Court is a classic cultural bait-and-switch. During the 2004 election, Republicans across America fired up the base with the promise of a socially conservative Supreme Court. Then, when push came to shove, Bush nominated a slick corporate lawyer whose positions on social issues are murky* but whose allegiance to big money is unequivocal.

*At least by the standards of the Rapture Right.

Guns, Germs, Steel, and TV

Guns, Germs, and Steel
Lions Television, London, for National Geographic Television and Films, Washington, DC.
Three one-hour episodes. On PBS, Monday evenings, 11 to 25 July 2005.

The TV adaptation of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel has already attracted considerable attention online. I still haven't seen the PBS series, but I am an admirer of the source material. Earlier this year, I argued against some prevalent misconceptions about Guns Germs and Steel.

The best review I've seen so far is by Michael Balter, contributing correspondent for Science.

Balter's primary criticism of the series is that it ignores criticism of Diamond's work. If so, PBS is doing the public a major disservice. Even Diamond's admirers readily admit that his theories are far-reaching and controversial. It would be a mistake to present his views as if they reflected the settled consensus of the archaeological and anthropological community.

Like many reviewers, Balter objects to the television show's portrayal of Yali, the New Guinea tribesman whose penetrating question inspires Diamond to write GG&S:

Yali, whom the biologist "met on a beach," asks him, "Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?" In the book, Diamond explains that Yali was a "remarkable local politician," but in the film we are told nothing about Yali or who he was. Instead, an actor playing Yali looms before the camera intoning what Diamond calls "Yali's question," which Diamond will spend the ensuing years trying to answer. Here, the film makes its first misstep: In fact, Yali was the charismatic leader of an indigenous post-World War II movement in New Guinea, sometimes called the cargo cult, that sought to acquire more European goods [readers wanting to know more can consult anthropologist Peter Lawrence's Road Belong Cargo (3)].

I'm disappointed to hear that. In the book Diamond is very clear that Yali is not only a promising local politician, but also a personal friend. Yali's question arises during an intense intellectual exchange between equals. Making Yali into a generic New Guinea tribesman cheapens Diamond's reply by exemplifying the very arrogance that Diamond resists. One of the most appealing aspects of GG&S is Diamond's obvious respect his field informants. Diamond's book was the first time I'd read an anthropologist write about hunter gatherers as friends and coworkers, instead of as specimens under glass.

I'm grateful to Balter for succinctly addressing one of the most prevalent misconceptions about GG&S:

Diamond's thesis is one of the most widely discussed big ideas of recent years, and deservedly so. For one thing, it is an explicitly anti-racist explanation for social and economic inequalities on a global level, an explanation that dispenses with subtle and not-so-subtle assumptions about the inherent superiority of Europeans and their descendants.

Meanwhile, back in the blogosphere PZ Myers is pleased with episode 1, and Brad DeLong savages the Diamond-bashers at Savage Minds.