Why Do We Bowl?

Bowling Alone cover
Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam suggests that we act politically because of a shared trust and sense of community. Other political scientists (such as Benedict Anderson) believe that cultural cleavages are what drive us to act. Still others (Lipset, Almond, Verba) think that a shared tradition and shared cultural norms are what drive our political activity. These culturalist schools of political science all have merits and all can explain some past forms of political motivations.

Putnam’s idea of shared trust (“social capital”) and sense of community can explain a lot and is closely related to those who believe in a shared tradition and cultural norms as motivational factors. Read more “Why Do We Bowl?”

Brain Dead Conservatism

In The Washington Post, Steven Hayward lays out his argument that conservatism has become a brain-dead movement:

Consider the “tea party” phenomenon. Though authentic and laudatory, it is unfocused, lacking the connection to a concrete ideology that characterized the tax revolt of the 1970s, which was joined at the hip with insurgent supply-side economics. Meanwhile, the “birthers” have become the “grassy knollers” of the right; their obsession with Obama’s origins is reviving frivolous paranoia as the face of conservatism. (Does anyone really think that if evidence existed of Obama’s putative foreign birth, Hillary Rodham Clinton wouldn’t have found it 18 months ago?) Read more “Brain Dead Conservatism”

What We Call the News

This title stolen from JibJab’s song of the same title found here.

In talking about the information networks of the twenty-first century, one cannot omit the rise of the Internet and the revitalization of conversational media.

As lecturer Alex Whalen has told us, in the first era of the American newspaper, conversation was key; the back page of every newspaper was left blank for people to leave their comments. These newspapers were passed from person to person and the conversation was looked upon by the founders as vital to a republic.

Indeed, in the words of Jack Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist:

Thomas Jefferson… He advocated and supported a free press and yet Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. He was excoriated by the press. He was abused more by the press than Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon or anybody that we have had in recent times. Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. Excoriated. And he was human. He didn’t like it. He went nose to nose with a couple of editors in Philadelphia. He said to one Philadelphia paper: “Nothing in this paper is true, with the possible exception of the advertising, and I question that.” And yet that wise Thomas Jefferson, in a moment of truth, said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” After all he had been through, he was wise enough to understand. And there is no one here that has been through as much as Thomas Jefferson.

But now, with information almost instantly available to us from more sources than we have ever had available to us before, what effect will this conversation have?

For a little less than a century, we have been completely reliant on one-way media — television, newsreels, radio — that turn the general public into passive consumers of information.

Now, with tools like this blog and the newly-added comment sections on the websites of major news outlets, as well as online forums and Twitter, conversation is making news interactive again, much like in colonial times. Read more “What We Call the News”

Why Van Rompuy Might Be a Wise Choice After All

When the Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy was selected to become Europe’s very first “president” of sorts, all media were quick to characterize his election as the kind of compromise that is so typical of how the continent continues to handle its political future. Especially across the pond, newspapers were weary of the man. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal called him a step backward for Europe: with Van Rompuy at the top, the Americans seem to think, the union can never hope to claim its rightful stake in world politics.

Van Rompuy is something of a bore, that much even the greatest Europhile ought to admit. He was picked over the likes of Tony Blair because he is a conservative and a patient negotiator. Germany, France and especially the United Kingdom don’t care for a Brussels that dictates foreign policy to them: the larger states believe, for good reasons, that they’re quite able to look after their own interests overseas. Besides, Van Rompuy is known to oppose Turkey’s entry into the union: a position that Germany and France both share.

At the same time, whoever occupies the position of permanent chairman of the European Council (which is really all the “presidency” entails) must be able to satisfy the many smaller member states. Hence, the chairman had to come from such a smaller member state himself. Someone of a higher profile, like Blair, would never have been able to secure support in all countries on the continent — that is not even mentioning his initial support for the Iraq War which so many Europeans opposed.

Anita Kirpalani describes the “cautious choice” for Van Rompuy as a wise one therefore. In Newsweek she writes that with Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton, Europe “picked people who actually have a chance at fostering consensus,” especially on what to do with Afghanistan and Iraq. “What looks like timidity might just lead to a stronger Europe after all.”

David Cameron and the British Welfare State

The Conservative Party in Britain has never been a fan of anything that reeks of socialism. But with David Cameron, it takes on something of a new attitude toward it.

In a speech delivered earlier this month, party leader Cameron admitted that social policies enacted since the Second World War have benefited lots of people: inequality has decreased while access to education and health care is now near universal.

At the same time, people seem to feel less responsible for their own lives and because of that lack of responsibility, they are less inclined to contribute to society voluntarily. “As the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbors,” said Cameron.

Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society — and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

And change, of course, is not something the Conservative particularly cares for. The solution is not so simple as to diminish the role of the state, however. “Just because big government has undermined our society, it does not follow that retrenchment of the state will automatically trigger its revival.”

What Cameron wants is not big government but something he calls a “big society” in which everyone truly takes part. The state is still necessary to bring it about, though. “We must use the state to remake society,” he said.

In the first place, that implies a shift of power from London to local government. Cameron’s thinking is that if you grant people more responsibility, they will act more responsibly.

Compare that for a moment with what Margaret Thatcher said in 1977. “The economic success of the Western world is a product of its moral philosophy and practice. The economic results are better because the moral philosophy is superior,” declared the woman who would go on to lead the United Kingdom for more than a decade. “It is superior because it starts with the individual, with his uniqueness, his responsibility and his capacity to choose.”

Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose.

Cameron gives new meaning to this Thatcherist thinking by demanding that Britons be allowed to take charge of their own lives once again.

At the same time, he does set himself the task of fighting poverty and social inequality. “We need new answers now,” he said, “and they will only come from a bigger society, not bigger government.”

Wasn’t it also Thatcher who stated that there exists no such thing as “society” you might ask? “There are individual men and women and there are families,” she said in 1897. “And no government can do anything except through people and people must look after themselves first.” But, she added, “It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors.”

That’s something that might be contested but it isn’t all too different from what Cameron is saying these days.