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26. “Welcome to Austin; don’t move here.”

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Sociologist Jonathan R. Wynn went live in the Guardian last week with piece coincident with the 29th annual SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas—in which he articulated the role festivals like SXSW play in urban infrastructure, as they replace previously staid (and spatially permanent) cultural institutions, all the while playing an increasingly major socioeconomic role, especially in terms of gentrification and symbolic impact. All of this draws on the research behind Wynn’s recent book Music/City, which considers the expansive and shifting roles played by these kind of festivals in contemporary urban and cultural life. In a brief excerpt from the Guardian piece below, he explores how previous mayor Will Wynn’s strategy of nurturing SXSW as a crucial part of the city’s downtown development played out of the course of several years:

There are direct and indirect costs and benefits to Wynn’s strategy. While Austin’s downtown has seen robust growth, its inner core has gentrified, homeownership has risen well above the city’s median income, and the city’s poor have moved to Austin’s outer ring.

Downtown condo, hotel and residential growth has boomed. When I returned to the Mohawk two years later, for example, I saw that the onetime dirt lot across the street had transformed into a 120-unit luxury apartment complex called The Beverly.

At the same time, musicians and other creatives feel they have become victims of the successes they played a part in. Musicians and venue owners claim they aren’t seeing the benefits of Austin’s boom. In 2011, the owner of Emo’s and co-owner of Antone’s – two downtown Austin standbys – felt the pressures of these changes, evoking the gentrification of New York’s East Village to claim his venues were priced out of the downtown core, telling Billboard: “We were going the way of CBGB.” Perhaps more vitally, Austin’s downtown has grown, but it has also become richer, and whiter. A team of sociologists from the University of Texas at Austin have tracked the multiple effects of these economic changes for those on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City.

Austin is the model of a Music City. As the mayors of cities like Phoenix, Portland, and Kansas City leave SXSW after their “secret” meeting on Stem-fueled (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math ) economic development, they should learn from Austin’s events-based cultural policy as well. Festivals can be the foundation of a low risk urban cultural policy with long-term rewards, including promoting arts education, developing local media, stimulating tourism development and crystallizing a city identity. But these urban cultural policies need to be held to a high standard. They must attract capital to a city while also maintaining an economic and symbolic responsibility to its local communities.

As the 29th SXSW kicks off this week, the Music City will be on full display, hitting both high notes and low. Festivals will increasingly be a part of our city culture. Just as the first SXSW was designed to be a showpiece for Austin talent, these large-scale events can and should maintain that commitment to their localities.

To read Wynn in full at the Guardian, click here.

To read more about Music/City, click here.

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27. David Hall on The Last Hurrah

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In timely coincidence with today’s primaries and the book’s return to print, The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor received some well-tailored praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Hall, writing in the Columbia Daily Herald,  who suggests we:

Take a breather from the daily pounding of politics and reflect: chaos, confusion, and gutter campaigning are not new. . . . Even today’s politics are not speeding away. We have survived travail through democracy. Good and thoughtful fiction lets us pause and reflect.

Honing in on The Last Hurrah, an almost-story adapted from the life of notorious Boston mayor James Michael Curley, he writes of the book’s foreboding about the nature of the relationship between media and politics:

Another poignant tale of American politics is The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor. Set in an old and mainline northeastern city, the novel examines the dying days of machine politics when largess held voters in sway. Frank Skeffington, 72, believes he is entitled to one more term. His political compass loses its bearing against a young, charismatic challenger, void of political experience but adorned with war medals and good looks. O’Connor’s 1956 novel was prescient in portraying the impact television would have on politics. While The Last Hurrah lacks the intellectual complexity of All the King’s Men, it raises good questions about how religion, ethnicity, class and economics foster into political alliance—questions still relevant starting even at the city and county level.

To read more about The Last Hurrah, click here.

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28. Sara Goldrick-Rab on #FAKETENURE

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Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of the forthcoming book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dreamwith a powerful piece at Medium on #FAKETENURE:

Driven by a desire to be a professor that worked for the public, I fought hard for tenure, earning it over a period of 7 years of 80-hour work weeks only slightly interrupted by the births of my two children. At several points, I tested the need for tenure — while still on the tenure-track, attempting to speak out and question the Boss. In response I received the sorts of threats and retaliation that affirmed, without a doubt, that tenure would be required to do my job effectively. But just 4 short years after I finally received it, tenure was taken from me.

I’m not alone. Tenure has been vanquished throughout the University of Wisconsin System. In its place is a savvy new #FakeTenure that fools even the most intelligent people into believing it is real. Except it is not. Following passage of #FakeTenure by the UW Regents later this week, firing me would be quite easy. All the Boss would have to do is decide that the Department of Educational Policy Studies no longer needs a scholar of higher education policy. This would be straightforward since there’s another department in the same school where faculty work in this general area. As I’m the only professor in EPS studying higher education policy, I could be dismissed. Done. Gone. That’s “program modification,” plain and simple.

Terrified sheep make lousy teachers, lousy scholars, and lousy colleagues. And today at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, thanks to #FakeTenure, I’m surrounded by terrified sheep. To be honest, commitments to the growing number of people whom I am responsible for (including my two children, but also my students and staff), put me at risk of becoming one of them.

To read Goldrick-Rab’s piece in full, click here.

To read more about Paying the Price (September 2016), click here.

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29. The Restless Clock at the THE

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Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock situates a new dialectic at the center of the life sciences, the role played by agency—simultaneously underscored, dismissed, banned, and advocated—in our relationships to nature and its mechanisms.

From a review at the Times Higher Ed:

The Restless Clock is a sweeping survey of the search for answers to the mystery of life. It begins with medieval automata – muttering mechanical Christs, devils rolling their eyes, cherubs “deliberately” aiming water jets at unsuspecting visitors who, in a still-mystical and religious era, half-believe that these contraptions are alive. Then come the Enlightenment android-builders and philosophers, Romantic poet-scientists, evolutionists, roboticists, geneticists, molecular biologists and more: a brilliant cast of thousands fills this encyclopedic account of the competing ideas that shaped the sciences of life and artificial intelligence.

Riskin writes with clarity and wit, and the breadth of her scholarship is breathtaking. In particular, she explores scientific theories that aimed for some built‑in “agency”, some active principle that allowed matter to move in a way that did not require a predesigned mechanism (which seemed to imply a divine designer). Her goal is to “re-open scientific possibilities” – to show that, while passive mechanism is the “winning” principle in science, the “losing” agency theories have also shaped the life sciences.

To read the review in full, click here.

To read more about The Restless Clock, click here.

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30. Free e-book for March: The Longevity Seekers

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Our free e-book for March is Ted Anton’s
The Longevity Seekers:
Science, Business, and the Fountain of Youth 

***

People have searched for the fountain of youth everywhere from Bimini to St. Augustine. But for a steadfast group of scientists, the secret to a long life lies elsewhere: in the lowly lab worm. By suppressing the function of just a few key genes, these scientists were able to lengthen worms’ lifespans up to tenfold, while also controlling the onset of many of the physical problems that beset old age. As the global population ages, the potential impact of this discovery on society is vast—as is the potential for profit.

With The Longevity Seekers, science writer Ted Anton takes readers inside this tale that began with worms and branched out to snare innovative minds from California to Crete, investments from big biotech, and endorsements from TV personalities like Oprah and Dr. Oz. Some of the research was remarkable, such as the discovery of an enzyme in humans that stops cells from aging. And some, like an oft-cited study touting the compound resveratrol, found in red wine—proved highly controversial, igniting a science war over truth, credit, and potential profit. As the pace of discovery accelerated, so too did powerful personal rivalries and public fascination, driven by the hope that a longer, healthier life was right around the corner. Anton has spent years interviewing and working with the scientists at the frontier of longevity science, and this book offers a behind-the-scenes look at the state-of-the-art research and the impact it might have on global public health, society, and even our friends and family.

With spectacular science and an unforgettable cast of characters, The Longevity Seekers has all the elements of a great story and sheds light on discoveries that could fundamentally reshape human life.
Download your copy here.
To read more about The Longevity Seekers, click here.

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31. The Book of Frogs

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Boing Boing recently profiled Tim Halliday’s The Book of FrogsA Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the Worldbut the real coup was a live link to sample pages, which showcase some of the majestically weird amphibians curated therein. You can see a handful of those images after the jump, but be sure to check out a glossy PDF of even more, via (full-size) additional samples posted to the book’s UCP site.

***

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To read more about The Book of Frogs, click here.

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32. Dave Hickey at Momus

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What follows below is a very brief excerpt from a feature-length interview with Dave Hickey, whose book 25 Women: Essays on Their Art published this fall, over at Momus.

***

Tell me about the timing. Why did you decide to produce 25 Women when you did?

I was putting together a book of what I considered to be my best essays about what I considered to be the best art. I got up to about ten or twelve essays and I realized that most of these essays were about the art of women artists, so I shifted my hand on the tiller. Also, I wanted to memorialize Marcia Tucker, so I did that. I thought it would be a kick.

You say in your introduction that it’s not “a fair book.” What do you mean by that? How would it look if it was fair? 

Well, there are lots of women artists whose work I like, about whom I never had a chance to write. Agnes Martin, Cindy Sherman, and Hannah Wilke come to mind. This was mostly in the seventies when men couldn’t write about women artists if a woman writer was available, and there always was. I also wrote some essays that weren’t salvageable, in my opinion, because the writing was not good. I have essays about Joan Snyder, Patricia Tillman, Helen Frankenthaler, and others that I really screwed up. Also I have written about some women artists whose work has changed so dramatically that what I had to say was irrelevant.

So the book is not fair, nor does it embody a singular theme about the plight of women artists. I’m like Donald Trump in that: I like winners. So the book is not about the plight of women artists in general. This is a flaw I cannot fix. The tenor of contemporary criticism is sociological, and since I am neither clairvoyant nor a sociologist, I have no insight into what is called the issue of “women’s identity.” I don’t understand women, but I don’t understand a lot of things. The rule today is that you can’t write about the art of women artists without having a foundational opinion of all women artists. I don’t have that.

To read the interview in full, click here.

To read more about 25 Women, click here.

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33. Sixteen for ’16: A primer for Bernie Sanders

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A free chapter from Sixteen for ’16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America
by Salvatore Babones (Policy Press)

***

Back in the good old days, that is to say the mid-1990s, taxpayers with annual incomes over $500,000 paid federal income taxes at an average effective rate of 30.4%. For 2012, the latest year for which data are available, the equivalent figure was 22.0%.

The much-ballyhooed January 1, 2013 tax deal that made the Bush-era tax cuts permanent for all except the very well-off will do little to reverse this trend: The deal that passed Congress only restores pre-Bush rates on the last few dollars of earned income, not on the majority of earned income, on corporate dividends, or on most investment gains.

Someone has had a very big tax cut in recent years, and the chances are that someone is not you. In the 1990s taxes on high incomes were already low by historical standards. Today, they are even lower. The super-rich are able to lower their taxes even further through a multitude of tax minimization and tax avoidance strategies.

The very tax system itself has in many ways been structured to meet the needs of the super-rich, resulting in a wide variety of situations in which people can multiply their fortunes without actually having to pay tax. In general, it is also much easier to hide income when most of your income comes from investments than when your income is reported on regular W-2 statements from your employer direct to the IRS.

Whatever our tax statistics say about the tax rates of the super-rich, we can be sure they are lower in reality. At the same time that their tax rates are going down, the annual incomes of highly paid Americans are going through the roof.

In the 1990s the average income of the top 0.1% of American taxpayers was around $3.6 million. In 2012 it was nearly $6.4 million.6 And yes, these figures have been adjusted for inflation. Thanks to the careful database work of Capital in the Twenty-First Century author Thomas Piketty and his colleagues, it is now relatively easy to track and compare the incomes of the top 1%, 0.1%, and 0.01%. The historical comparisons don’t make for pretty reading.

Forget the merely well-off 1%. In the 21st century the top 0.1% of American households have consistently taken home more than 10% of all the income in the country, up from 3% in the 1970s.7 And these figures only include realized income: that is to say, income booked and reported to the tax authorities. If you own a company that doubles in value but you don’t sell any shares, you don’t have any income. Ditto land, buildings, airplanes, yachts, artwork, coins, stamps, etc.

High inequality plus low taxes equals fiscal crisis. The rich are taking more and more money out of the economy, but they are not returning it in the form of taxes. The result is that the US government no longer has the resources it needs to properly govern the country. The country needs universal preschool, universal healthcare, and a massive government-sponsored jobs program. The country needs a complete renewal of its crumbling human and physical infrastructure. The country needs funds for everything from the cleanup of atomic waste in Hanford, Washington to improvements at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. And the country needs higher taxes on today’s higher incomes to pay for it all.

In 2010 the United States government collected a smaller proportion of the nation’s total national income in income taxes than at any time since 1950.8 That figure has since rebounded, but it is still well below the average from 1996-2001. Under current law the federal income tax take is projected to rise from the historic low of 6.1% in 2010 to 8.6% of national income in 2016. This is an improvement over recent years, but it is still far below the average of 9.5% for the years 1998-2001, the last time the federal government actually ran a budget surplus.

The top marginal tax rate on the highest incomes is now 39.6%, as it was in the 1990s. This is still a far cry from the 50% top tax bracket of the 1970s or the 70% top tax bracket of the 1960s, never mind the 91-92% top tax brackets of the 1950s.10 The return to 1990s levels is a good start, but the next President should push to go much farther back because the tax system has been moving in the wrong direction for a very long time. High incomes are much higher than they ever were and people with high incomes pay much less tax than at almost any time in our modern history. The result, unsurprisingly, has been the enormous concentration of income among a small, powerful elite documented by Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century but no less obvious for all to see.

The concentration of income among a powerful elite may be very good for members of that elite, but it is bad for our society, bad for our democracy, and even bad for our economy. Socially, highly concentrated incomes undermine our national institutions and warp our way of life. For example, people who can afford to send their children to exclusive private schools cease to care for the health of public education, or they erect barriers to separate “their” public schools from everyone else’s public schools. Similarly, people who can afford the very best private healthcare care little about ensuring high-quality public healthcare. People who fly private jets care little about congestion at public airports. People who drink imported bottled water care little about the poisoning of rivers and underground aquifers. Enormous differences in income inevitably create enormous distances between people. The United States is starting to resemble the fractured societies of Africa and Latin America, where the rich live in ated “communities” with armed guards who enforce the exclusion of the lower classes—except to allow them entry as maids and gardeners.

These nefarious effects of inequality can already be seen in America’s sunbelt cities, where there are fine gradations of gated communities: armed guards for the super-rich, unarmed guards for the merely well- off, keypad security for the middle class, and on down the line to the unprotected poor. We should be ashamed, one and all.

Politically, highly concentrated incomes threaten the integrity of American democracy by fostering corruption of all kinds. When the income differences between regulators and the industries they regulate are small, we can count on regulators to look after our interests.

But when industry executives make two or three (or ten) times as much as regulators, it is almost impossible to prevent corruption. Even where there is no outright corruption, it is impossible for regulators to retain talented staff. People will take modest income cuts to work in secure public sector employment. They will not take massive income cuts. Those who do are often just doing a few years on the inside so they can better evade regulation when they go back to the private sector. When doing a few years on the inside includes serving in Congress merely as way to get a high-paying job as a lobbyist, we are in serious trouble.

Along with highly concentrated incomes come vote buying and voter suppression. When the stakes are so high, people will play dirty. No one knows how many local boards of one kind or another around the country have been captured by local economic interests, but the number must be very large.

Economically, highly concentrated incomes ensconce economic privilege, suppress intergenerational mobility, and can ultimately lead to the total breakdown of the free market as a system for effi driving production and consumption decisions. Privilege is perpetuated by excessive incomes because with enough money the advantages of wealth overpower any amount of talent and effort on the part of those who are born poor.

Nineteenth-century English novels were obsessed with inheritance and marriage because in that incredibly unequal society birth trumped everything else. Twenty-first-century America has now reached similar levels of income concentration among a powerful elite. To make this point graphically clear, a family with a billion-dollar fortune that does absolutely no planning to avoid the 40% tax on large estates and no paid work whatsoever can comfortably take out $15 million a year to live on (after taxes, adjusted for inflation) in perpetuity until the end of history—while still growing the estate. That’s how mind-bogglingly large a billion-dollar fortune is.

But probably the least recognized impact of high inequality on our economy is that it severely impairs the efficient operation of the free market itself. Market pricing is at its core a mechanism for rationing. The market directs limited resources to the places where they command the highest prices. The basic idea of rationing by price is that prices encourage people to carefully weigh their purchases against each other—in other words, to economize.

In an economy where everyone earns roughly the same income, rationing by price works just fine for most goods. People take care of their necessities first. Then they can choose whether to spend their extra money on eating out, taking vacations, renovating their homes, or saving up to buy something big like a boat. Because all of these goods are priced in the same currency, people can directly compare their values against each other. And if everyone has roughly the same amount of money to spend, market prices represent roughly the same values for different people. If you and I have the same income, a $20 restaurant meal means as much to me as it does to you.

Problems set in when incomes are very unequal. For people with extraordinarily high incomes, prices become meaningless. What does a $20 restaurant meal mean to someone who makes $20 million a year? Nothing.

The result is incredible waste as the market economy no longer forces people to economize. When rich people accumulate dozens of cars, maintain yachts they only use once a year, or have servants order fresh-cut flowers every day for houses they rarely visit, they are wasting resources that could be put to much better use by other people. Waste like this invalidates the foundational principle of modern economics: that the market maximizes the total utility of society.

That principle only holds if a dollar has the same meaning for you as it does for me. Highly concentrated incomes undermine the whole idea of the market as an economy—that is, as something that economizes. And that is the strongest argument for much higher taxes on higher incomes. There are many ways to reduce inequality, but the simplest and most efficient way is through taxation. The goal of income taxes should be to tilt the field so that earning an after-tax dollar means just as much to a CEO as to a fast food worker. That’s why a 90% marginal tax on incomes over a million dollars is entirely appropriate.

For a poor person who pays no income tax, a $20 restaurant meal costs $20. That person must make a real sacrifice to eat out. For a CEO with a 90% marginal tax rate, a $20 restaurant meal costs $200 in before-tax income. That may not be a huge sacrifice for someone who makes several million dollars a year, but it does change the equation. A CEO may not hesitate to eat out, but may hesitate to buy a private jet when flying business class will suffice.

To be sure, we need higher taxes on higher incomes to raise money for government. But we also need higher taxes on higher incomes just to make the economy work properly. That’s why the economy worked so much better in the high-tax 1950s and 1960s than it has since.

The ultimate goal of income taxes should be to make money as meaningful to a millionaire as it is to you or me. If we can’t quite get there in the next few years, we can certainly get closer than we are. One of President Obama’s most important accomplishments has been to set us on the path toward economic sanity by raising taxes on the highest incomes. The next President should build on this legacy—and in a big way.

***

Salvatore Babones is associate professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney.

To read more about Sixteen for ’16, click here.

 

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34. On personal liability: Better Bankers, Better Banks in the NYT

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A recent New York Times piece on the necessary culpability of bankers in bank misconduct builds on interviews with Claire A. Hill and Richard W. Painter, the authors of Better Bankers, Better Banks: Promoting Good Business through Contractual Commitmentwhich argues that it’s the bankers’ ability to hide behind their banks to dodge any personal stakes in the hefty fines, penalties, and legal fees levied by the government in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, or any forthcoming. And Hill and Painter have a plan for how to change that—make bankers personally liable. Here’s a bit from the NYT:

A different proposal comes in a new book by Claire A. Hill and Richard W. Painter, professors at the University of Minnesota Law School. In “Better Bankers, Better Banks,” they argue for making financial executives personally liable for a portion of any fines and fraud-based judgments a bank enters into, including legal settlements.

The professors call this covenant banking. And it looks a lot like the kind of personal liability that was a fact of life among the top Wall Street firms when they were private partnerships.

With their own money at risk, partners of Salomon Brothers, Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs were much more careful about their business dealings. When these firms became public companies funded more by outsiders’ money, that self-discipline diminished.

“In the old days, because a partnership paid the fine, it would all come out of the partners’ pockets,” Mr. Painter said in an interview. “We’re not going to roll back the clock, but what we can do is come up with a contractual agreement in the compensation package that mimics some of that structure.”

Their plan contains a crucial element, requiring the best-paid bankers in the company to be liable for a fine whether or not they were directly involved in the activities that generated it. Such a no-fault program, the professors argued, would motivate bankers not only to curb their own problematic tendencies but to be on the alert for colleagues’ misbehavior as well.

This would help instill a culture, the law professors wrote, “that discourages bad behavior and its underlying ethos, the competitive pursuit of narrow material gain.”

Putting such a covenant in place would also help eliminate the problem of banking regulators who become captured by the institutions they are supposed to police. “Those in the best position to choose conduct that is appropriate may not be regulators but, rather, bankers with a stake in the bank,” the professors wrote.

. . . . “We don’t take the position that this should only be about banks,” she said. “But banks can do huge damage, and we have seen this ethos in the industry that cries out for responsibility.”

To read more about Better Bankers, Better Banks, click here.

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35. Masters of Uncertainty on Thinking Allowed

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Click here to listen to author Phaedra Daipha’s recent appearance on the BBC 4’s Thinking Allowed. During her segment, Daipha delves into some of the extensive ethnographic fieldwork she performed at a northeastern office of the National Weather Bureau, which helped to generate her recent book Masters of Uncertainty: Weather Forecasters and the Quest for Ground Truth. In the book, Daipha argues that weather forecasting is a craft-based practice—and as neither artists nor scientists, its practitioners are closer to something like improvisational data-junkies, odd oracles for a labor of anticipation.

From the BBC’s synopsis:

Weather forecasting: Laurie Taylor explores a scientific art form rooted in unpredictability. He talks to Phaedra Daipha, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, who spent years immersing herself in a regional office of the National Weather Service in America. How do forecasters decide if a storm is to be described as severe or hazardous; or a day is breezy or brisk? Do they master uncertainty any better than other expert decision makers such as stockbrokers and poker players? Charged with the onerous responsibility of protecting the life and property of US citizens, how do they navigate the uncertain and chaotic nature of the atmosphere?

To read more about Masters of Uncertainty, click here.

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36. Norman Maclean and the Christian Tragedy

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The most recent issue of Commonweal includes “The River Runs On: Norman Maclean’s Christian Tragedies,” a long-form piece by Timothy B. Schilling, who goes on to read Maclean (expectedly, given the title) through both Christianity and tragedy—but most compellingly, through the author’s own often contradictory and ambivalent relationship to religion. You can read the piece in full here; a brief excerpt from Young Men and Fire that situates the Smokejumpers—first responders to the Mann Gulch fire of 1949, from which the book takes its name— in this context follows below.

Maclean tells us that most of the Smokejumpers believe in God. “You wouldn’t dare jump,” they say, “if it was empty out there.” But of the sixteen who descended to fight the fire, only three survived. What then—for them, for us—is the last word in this story? Does the Mann Gulch fire reveal the ultimate tragedy of all human experience? Or does it enjoin us to embrace the world’s faith traditions in looking for a life and a truth beyond death? As in A River Runs Through It, Maclean counters fatalism with Christian symbols and biblical allusions, including references to the Stations of the Cross, the Mass, Calvary, and the Book of Job. He also calls again on Psalm 23. But perhaps the most telling biblical reference in Young Men and Fire is the scorched deer included in the “Black Ghost” section. This image, reinforced in a photograph, calls to mind Psalm 42: “As a deer longs for running streams, so longs my soul for You, O God.” Here, as in Maclean’s earlier book, the river is a potential source of relief and rescue—not the Big Blackfoot this time, but the Missouri, sporadically “glaring” through the smoke and trees. The ambivalence is typical of both of his books and very much to Maclean’s point; it sharpens our sense of the tragedy without “answering” it in any definitive way.

To read more about Young Men and Fire, click here.

To read editorial director Alan Thomas’s essay on working with (the ghost of) Maclean, click here.

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37. Publishers Weekly on Patterns in Nature

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Advanced praise for Philip Ball’s forthcoming Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way It Does (April 2016),
from Publishers Weekly:

Acclaimed English science writer Ball (Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen) curates a visually striking, riotously colorful photographic display of the most dramatic examples of the “sheer splendor” of physical patterns in the natural world. He lightly ties the work together with snippets of scientific history, using bits of physics, chemistry, and mathematics to show that although patterns in living beings can offer clear, functional evolutionary advantages, the small set of design elements that we can see—symmetries, branching fractals, spirals, flowing swirls, spots, and stripes—come from a basic set of organizing properties of growth and equilibrium seeking. Ball ranges across the whole spectrum of creation—from the living to the nonliving, and from the macroscopic to the microscopic—for displays of nature’s patterned beauty. He finds symmetry in grains of pollen, drops of falling water, and owl’s eyes; fractals in leaf veins, lungs, and nebulae; spirals in seashells, sunflowers, and cyclones; and flow patterns in wood grain, flocks of birds, and dunes on Mars. This is formidable eye candy for the I-love-science crowd, sure to spark a sense of impressed wonder at the beauty of our universe and our ability to photograph it.

To read more about Patterns in Nature, click here.

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38. Andrew R. Highsmith on the crisis in Flint

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Below follows an excerpt from “Flint’s toxic water crisis was 50 years in the making,” Andrew R. Highsmith’s op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, which builds on the scholarship of his book Demolition Means ProgressFlint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American MetropolisRead his piece in full here.

***

As with so many environmental disasters, this one was preventable. Evidence suggests that the simple failure to use proper anti-corrosive agents led to the leaching of lead into the city’s water. It has also become apparent that the slow responses of local, state and federal officials to this crisis — as well as their penchant for obfuscation — prolonged the lead exposure.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Flint’s predicament is simply the result of government mismanagement. It’s also the product of a variety of larger structural problems that are much more difficult to untangle and remedy.

Over the past three-quarters of a century, waves of deindustrialization, disinvestment and depopulation eviscerated Flint’s tax base, making it all but impossible to improve — or even maintain — the city’s crumbling infrastructure. Flint — which once claimed 200,000 residents — now contains fewer than 100,000, nearly half impoverished, more than half African American. The economic prospects of locals are grim. After decades of plant closures and layoffs, GM’s workforce in the area, which once surpassed 80,000, is less than 10,000. The hemorrhaging of jobs has produced unemployment rates that routinely reach into the double digits. . . .

If there was ever a canary in Flint’s coal mine, it may have been Ailene Butler. When she stepped forward in 1966, she crystallized the tight connections between environmental inequality and social injustice. To be sure, much has changed since Butler sounded the alarm half a century ago. Whereas in the 1960s it was the encroachment of industrial plants upon black neighborhoods that fueled local resentment, Flint’s current water crisis stems in many ways from the absence of those plants — and the jobs, taxes, services and infrastructure they supported. Still, looking ahead at Flint’s uncertain future, Butler’s message seems more relevant than ever.

To read more about Demolition Means Progress, click here.

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39. Verdi’s Nabucco at the Lyric Opera

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Photo by: Ariel Uribe for the Chicago Maroon.

Full of “blood and thunder“—words for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco, an amalgamation of quasi-stories from the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Daniel coalesced around a love triangle, here revived for the first time since 1998. On the heels of its opening—the full run is from January 23 to February 12—UCP hosted a talk and dinner featuring a lecture “Nabucco and the Verdi Edition” by Francesco Ives. That Verdi Edition, The Works of Giuseppe Verdi, is the most comprehensive critical edition of the composer’s works. In addition to publishing its many volumes, the University of Chicago Press also hosts a website devoted to all aspects of the project, which you can visit here; to do justice to the scope and necessity of the Verdi Edition, here’s an excerpt from “Why a Critical Edition?” on that same site:

The need for a new edition of Verdi’s works is intimately tied to the history of earlier publications of the operas and other compositions. When Verdi completed the autograph orchestral manuscript of an opera, manuscript copies were made by the theater that commissioned the work or by his publisher (usually Casa Ricordi). These copies were used in performance, and most of the autograph scores became part of the Ricordi archives. Copies of the copies were made, and orchestral materials were extracted for performances. With the possible exception of his last operas, Otello and Falstaff, Verdi played no part whatever in preparing the printed scores: almost all printed editions of his works were prepared by Ricordi after Verdi’s death in 1901.

Predictably, these copying and printing practices have yielded vocal and orchestral parts that differ drastically from the autograph scores. Indeed, the problem of operas performed using unreliable parts and scores dates to Verdi’s own lifetime. After the premieres of Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata, for example, Verdi wrote to Ricordi on 24 October 1855: “I complain bitterly of the editions of my last operas, made with such little care, and filled with an infinite number of errors.”

Copyists and musicians who prepared these errant printed editions were not consciously falsifying Verdi’s text. They merely glossed over particularities of Verdi’s notation (e.g., the simultaneous use of different dynamic levels—“p” and “pp”, for instance) and altered details of his orchestration, which differed considerably from the style of Puccini, whose music dominated Italian opera when the printed editions of Verdi’s works were prepared. These editions, which in certain details drastically compromise the composer’s original text, are the scores that are used today, except where the critical edition has made reliable scores available.

The critical edition of the complete works of Verdi undertaken jointly by the University of Chicago Press and Casa Ricordi is finally correcting this situation.

To read more about The Works of Giuseppe Verdi, click here.

To visit the project’s website, click here.

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40. The Catharine Stimpson Prize for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship

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From our colleagues at Signs:

The University of Chicago Press and Signs are pleased to announce the competition for the 2017 Catharine Stimpson Prize for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship. Named in honor of the founding editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, the Catharine Stimpson Prize is designed to recognize excellence and innovation in the work of emerging feminist scholars.

The Catharine Stimpson Prize is awarded biennially to the best paper in an international competition. Leading feminist scholars from around the globe will select the winner. The prizewinning paper will be published in Signs, and the author will be provided an honorarium of $1,000. All papers submitted for the Stimpson Prize will be considered for peer review and possible publication in Signs.

Eligibility: Feminist scholars in the early years of their careers (fewer than seven years since receipt of the terminal degree) are invited to submit papers for the Stimpson Prize. Papers may be on any topic that falls under the broad rubric of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship. Submissions must be no longer than 10,000 words (including notes and references) and must conform to the guidelines for Signs contributors.

Deadline for Submissions: March 1, 2016.

Please submit papers online at http://signs.edmgr.com. Be sure to indicate submission for consideration for the Catharine Stimpson Prize. The honorarium will be awarded upon publication of the prizewinning article.

Papers may also be submitted by post to

The Catharine Stimpson Prize Selection Committee
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society
Northeastern University
360 Huntington Avenue
263 Holmes Hall
Boston, MA 02115

To visit the Signs site, click here.

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41. Free e-book for February: Outside the Gates of Eden

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Our free e-book for February:
Peter Bacon Hales’s Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now

Download your copy here.

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Exhilaration and anxiety, the yearning for community and the quest for identity: these shared, contradictory feelings course through Outside the Gates of Eden, Peter Bacon Hales’s ambitious and intoxicating new history of America from the atomic age to the virtual age.

Born under the shadow of the bomb, with little security but the cold comfort of duck-and-cover, the postwar generations lived through—and led—some of the most momentous changes in all of American history. Hales explores those decades through perceptive accounts of a succession of resonant moments, spaces, and artifacts of everyday life—drawing unexpected connections and tracing the intertwined undercurrents of promise and peril. From sharp analyses of newsreels of the first atomic bomb tests and the invention of a new ideal American life in Levittown; from the music emerging from the Brill Building and the Beach Boys, and a brilliant account of Bob Dylan’s transformations; from the painful failures of communes and the breathtaking utopian potential of the early days of the digital age, Hales reveals a nation, and a dream, in transition, as a new generation began to make its mark on the world it was inheriting.

Full of richly drawn set-pieces and countless stories of unforgettable moments, Outside the Gates of Eden is the most comprehensive account yet of the baby boomers, their parents, and their children, as seen through the places they built, the music and movies and shows they loved, and the battles they fought to define their nation, their culture, and their place in what remains a fragile and dangerous world.

To read more about Outside the Gates of Eden, click here.

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42. What is an Air Guitar?

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The University of Chicago Press: you’ve got the answer(s), we’ve got the question(s).

(And by questions, I mean Dave Hickey’s other books.)

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To read more about The Invisible Dragon, click here.

To read more about 25 Women: Essays on Their Art, click here.

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43. Jennifer Tyburczy on Sex Museums for Artforum

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Just a snippet from a fab piece by Jennifer Tyburczy for Artforum on the research informing her recent book Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display, which places the museum in its spatial, political, and sexual contexts, each imbricated by the other, as well as our notions of public and private. You can read more from her “500 Words” piece here.

***

The big surprise, though, was that as soon as I started to write about sex museums, they started to close. The latter part of my book is dedicated to an ethnography of these spaces. It was disconcerting when I would plan out a visit to Los Angeles to see an erotic museum that then closed mere months before I could make the trip. Part of the book became about the failure of these ventures, and I don’t mean in a Jack Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure kind of way. Ultimately, many of these museums could not provide what visitors wanted, which was a really raw experience with sex drawn from the archive and arranged in displays. A lot of the museums I discuss—whether in New York, Denmark, or Spain—had an ingrained idea of who their normative visitor was and where their threshold of shock was located. Without fail, they always set the bar too low. People wanted more! The demands of being a twenty-first-century museum taking on the onus to display sex overwhelmed a lot of the museum planners. Typically they censored themselves in some way that visitors noted. The heartening message here is that we shouldn’t assume that people will be shocked and turned off by displays of diverse sexual cultures and people. Museum visitors are smart and savvy, and ready and willing to have that experience. My work makes an argument for the emotional and sexual intelligence of a viewer.

To read more about Sex Museums, click here.

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44. Jessa Crispin on St. Teresa and the Single Ladies for the NYT

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In addition to making an appearance in the “Briefly Noted” books section of the New Yorker, the Cheers equivalent of finding an empty chair between Norm and Cliff at the bar, this week Jessa Crispin, author of The Dead Ladies Project, published an opinion piece at the New York Times on singlehood and St. Teresa, riffing on her pilgrimage to Ávila, the saint’s town. Here’s a nugget of what’s waiting over at the NYT:

Five hundred years after St. Teresa, and there are still very few models for women of how to live outside of coupledom, whether that is the result of a choice or just bad luck. I can’t remember the last time I saw a television show or a film about a single woman, unless her single status was a problem to be solved or an illustration of how deeply damaged she was. This continues even as more and more women are staying single longer and longer.

I’ve been single for the most part going on 11 years now, and so I have heard every derogatory, patronizing, demeaning thing said about single women. “There has to be someone for you,” a married woman friend once said exasperatedly after I recounted another bad date. Implying, unconsciously, that there must be one man somewhere on the planet who could stand to be around me for more than a few days at a time.

And so it’s hard to get people to understand why a woman would ever choose to live a life alone. We no longer have to choose between being a brain and a body, but I can’t help but think that we lose something when we couple up, and maybe that thing is worth preserving. I pointed out to a different friend that it was the nuns who were the most socially engaged, working with the world’s most vulnerable. My friend, married, asked “as devil’s advocate” whether they were simply compensating for the lack of romantic love and children with their social concern. Yes, I said, maybe. “But we all have needs that aren’t met, and we’re all looking for substitutes.”

To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.

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45. The New York Times Magazine on Alice Goffman

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The controversy surrounding Alice Goffman’s On the Run is nothing new—the book’s appearance was met with both laudatory curiosity and defensive criticism, from within and outside academic sociology. On the Run offers an ethnographic account based on Goffman’s work in the field—and the field happens to be a mixed-income, West Philadelphia neighborhood, whose largely African American residents lived their lives under the persistence presence of the cops, whose pervasive policing left Goffman’s subjects, the members of her community, caught in a web of presumed criminality. The elephant(s) in the room: how does a privileged white woman engage in this kind of (often passé) participant-observer research without constantly self-checking her positionality? How can this type of book—and its more sensational elements—be true to the word? Who has permission to write about whom? And what happens when these questions leave the back-and-forth behind the closed doors of the academy and bring up very real suggestions about legal culpability, fabrication, and the politics of representation?

In a long-form piece for the New York Times Magazine, Gideon Lewis-Kraus assesses Goffman’s predicament and how her personal experiences shaped several of the more controversial aspects of the book’s account. All the while, he traces the book’s emergence during a crucial (and heated) moment for the history of sociology, when data-driven analysis has bumped the hybrid reportage/qualitative ethnography favored by Goffman into the margins of social science, and considers how the events following its publication played out in the media—and what all of this might mean for Goffman’s own future (and those of her subjects, neighbors, peers) and that of her discipline.

Following this excerpt, you can read the piece in full here.

***

But what her critics can’t imagine is that perhaps both of the accounts she has given are true at the same time — that this represents exactly the bridging of the social gap that so many observers find unbridgeable. From the immediate view of a participant, this was a manhunt; from the detached view of an observer, this was a ritual. The account in the book was that of Goffman the participant, who had become so enmeshed in this community that she felt the need for vengeance ‘‘in my bones.’’ The account Goffman provided in response to the felony accusation (which read as if dictated by a lawyer, which it might well have been) was written by Goffman the observer, the stranger to the community who can see that the reason these actors give for their behavior — revenge — is given by the powerless as an attempt to save face; that though this talk was important, it was talk all the same.

The problem of either-­or is one that is made perhaps inevitable by the metaphor of ‘‘immersion.’’ The anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom, who studies economic relationships, explained to me that it’s a metaphor her own field has long given up on. The metaphor asks us to imagine a researcher underwater — that is, imperiled, unreachable from above — who then returns to the sun and air, newly qualified to report on the darkness below because the experience has put a chill in her bones. This narrative of transformation is what strikes critics like Rios as so patronizing and self-­congratulatory. But Goffman herself never understood her work to be ‘‘immersive’’ in that way. The almost impossible challenge Goffman thus set before herself is the representation of both these views — of drive as manhunt and drive as ritual — in all their simultaneity.

Goffman could have covered herself by adding another paragraph of analysis, one that would have contextualized but also undercut the scene as the participants experienced it. Almost all of her early readers thought she should do that. It would have made her life easier. But she didn’t. This was a book about men whose entire lives — whose whole network of relationships — had been criminalized, and she did not hesitate to criminalize her own. She threw in her lot.

To read more about On the Run, click here.

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46. If the US economy is so good, why does it feel so bad?

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“If the US economy is so good, why does it feel so bad?”*
by Salvatore Babones

(*adapted from Sixteen for ’16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America, first published on the Policy Press Blog)

***

With a 2 percent annual growth rate, 5 percent unemployment, and zero inflation, the US economy is the envy of the world. Growth seems to be rising and unemployment seems to be falling, which means that most analysts expect an even better US economy in 2016. Throw in low gas prices and a strong dollar, and what’s not to like?

If the US economy is doing so well, why are ordinary people so unhappy with their own economic prospects?

The aggregate US economy may be growing but most people’s personal economies are not. Census Bureau data show that real per capita income is still below 2007 levels—despite six years of solid economic growth. And Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that despite today’s low unemployment rates the jobs still haven’t come back.

Back in 2006 the employment rate of the civilian population—the proportion of adults who had jobs—was over 63 percent. Allowing for people who are still in school, people who are retired, people who are disabled, and people who prefer not to work, that was just about everyone. When the economy is doing well, people who want jobs can get jobs.

Compare that with 2015. For all of 2015 to date the employment rate has been stuck below 60 percent. In fact, the employment rate has been not risen above 60 percent since the technical beginning of the “recovery” in June, 2009. Over the last six years, the economy has recovered. Employment has not.

The difference between the 63 percent employment rate of 2006 and the (well under) 60 percent employment rate of 2015 is roughly 7.5 million people. That’s the number of jobs missing in today’s roaring economy. Bringing today’s employment rate back up to 2006 levels would require the creation of more than 7.5 million new jobs.

What’s more, since the Global Financial Crisis there has been a shift from full-time to part-time employment. Some 2.5 million full-time jobs have disappeared, to be replaced by part-time employment. Assuming that people have basically the same preferences as they had before the recession hit, this means that the US economy is really short 10 million full-time jobs.

And remember, this is the economy at its best. The current “recovery” won’t last forever. It is already the fourth longest expansion of all time and about to overtake the World War II period to become the third longest. If the next recession hits while the economy is already 10 million jobs short of full employment, God help us.

The managers of the US economy don’t seem to be worried about this. On December 16, 2015 the Federal Reserve raised interest rates (albeit by a tiny amount) for the first time in seven years. The Fed expects that “economic activity will continue to expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will continue to strengthen.” In other words, the Fed expects more good news.

More good news for whom? As analyses from the Financial Times show, banks are increasingly parking their money at the Fed, not lending it out to businesses and consumers. Along with the Fed’s increase in lending rates (from 0 to 0.25 percent) came an increase in the interest rate the Fed pays banks on their own deposits at the Fed (from 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent).

For the last six years banks have parked trillions of dollars of excess funds in their accounts at the Federal Reserve. After all, they can earn 0.25 percent risk-free by borrowing money from the Fed and placing it directly in their own accounts at the Fed. Banks now hold some $2.5 trillion in excess reserves in these accounts. Those holdings give banks collectively an extra $6 billion in annual risk-free profits.

Before the Global Financial Crisis, US banks held virtually $0 in excess reserves in their Federal Reserve accounts.

What we see today is a US economy that is great for banks, great for bankers, and not so great for ordinary workers. Employment rates are down, employment hours are down, and wages are down. Bank profits are up, up, up to record levels. It’s no wonder that ordinary people are not as optimistic as the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

In the end, the Fed can’t fix the problems of the US economy. The Fed can help the banks (and the bankers who serve on its boards) but it can’t make companies hire more people. Only government can do that, and the US government has shown no willingness to create jobs in this recession, or even in this century.

The US government should be borrowing that cheap Fed money and using it to put people to work. Education, healthcare, and infrastructure could all absorb millions of workers to do jobs that desperately need to be done. President Obama should make this clear to Congress and put people to work. Fixing the jobs crisis can’t wait for the next president—or the next recession. It is already long overdue.

Salvatore Babones is associate professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney. His new book Sixteen for ’16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America is the first book in the Policy Press Shorts series. For more information about the policies proposed in Sixteen for ’16, click here.

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47. Sandra M. Gustafson on the 2016 State of the Union address

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“The Four Questions” by Sandra M. Gustafson

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On January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered the State of the Union address known as the “Four Freedoms” speech. Then recently elected to an unprecedented third presidential term, Roosevelt had run on a platform that included the promise to “not send American boys into any foreign wars.” In the days leading up to his speech, Nazi Germany had begun a bombing campaign on the coal port at Cardiff, Wales, and the Roosevelt administration had announced the Liberty Ship Program to build freighters for the war effort. A few days after the address, thousands of Jews were killed in a pogrom in Bucharest, Romania, and over the next several weeks, anti-Jewish measures spread across Eastern Europe.

This was the state of things that prompted Roosevelt to articulate “four essential human freedoms” as a basis for a secure world: freedom of expression; freedom of religion; freedom from want, which, he explained, “translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world”; and freedom from fear, focusing on dramatic reductions in armaments to eliminate the possibility of wars of aggression. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Four Freedoms became a touchstone for American foreign policy. Memorialized in a famous series of Norman Rockwell paintings, they were later incorporated into the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

The broad acceptance of the Four Freedoms does not mean that they provoked no dissent. Roosevelt’s call for freedom of expression and freedom of religion were largely uncontroversial, but his appeal for freedom from want and fear were received as partisan gambits intended to bolster the New Deal and advance a Democratic program. In later years, freedom from want came to define Roosevelt’s domestic agenda, notably when he called for a “Second Bill of Rights” to include employment, health care, housing, and education in his 1944 State of the Union address.

In the 2016 State of the Union last Tuesday, President Barack Obama presented the American people with four questions that resonate in some striking ways with Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. The form of this State of the Union address, whose difference from the typical “laundry list” speech was much emphasized, offers a model for the kind of renewed citizenship that the President seeks to promote—one whose sources I trace in Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic. Rather than tell the nation what to do, or explicitly articulate national values as Roosevelt did, Obama has attempted to frame a discussion around the core questions that have animated his presidency.

Obama’s experience as a law professor, well-versed in the Socratic method, was clearly evident when he offered these four questions for discussion and debate:

First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?

Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us—especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?

Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?

And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?

Capacious, timely questions, they offer important frames for discussion during this election year.

Three of Obama’s four questions arise from lack of consensus around the ideas of freedom from want and fear. This connection is clearest in the first question, where the phrase “opportunity and security” uses Latinate words to restate the absence of “want” (from Old English) and “fear” (from Old Norse by way of Middle English). Opportunity and security are words that emphasize process, and so they are well suited to inquiry. Underlying the question, “How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?” is the assumption that there is general agreement that “everyone” should be given “a fair shot.” This framing invites discussion of whether the means to that end is a Second Bill of Rights, or some other set of policies. The President did not call for these values to be reconsidered but rather he sought to shore up an established consensus—one based on the wide popularity of Social Security, the New Deal program with the most sustained impact, and the success of later federal programs, including Medicare.

The second and third questions—involving technology and world leadership—highlight some of the most significant differences between Roosevelt’s day and our own. There is a striking gap between Roosevelt’s call for disarmament to create a world free from fear and the race to develop nuclear weapons that was already underway when he spoke. After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, nuclear weapons quickly emerged as the iconic representation of how science and technology did not just serve humanity—they also threatened its extinction. Climate change now has even greater symbolic force in this regard. Obama’s exhortation to figure out how to “make technology work for us, and not against us” speaks directly to the challenge of harnessing modern forms of power that compromise human agency, including the capacity for effective governance. The excruciatingly slow response by world leaders to the climate change crisis highlights how technology threatens to overwhelm human capacities for response.

Implicit in the third question is the same focus on directing events, rather than having them direct us: How can American leadership be effective while relying less on the military? Obama described his controversial foreign policy as offering “a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power. It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.” He also evoked the “power of example,” particularly in connection with the need to resist Islamophobia, and he quoted Pope Francis’s remarks on tolerance in his speech to Congress last September, when the Pope said that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”

Even as he extended Roosevelt’s freedom of religion to Muslims, President Obama largely ignored the way some groups—including many that are Catholic— have challenged his domestic policies on gay marriage and access to birth control and abortion as violations of their religious freedom. The closest he came to this theme was a reference to persistent disagreements over the Affordable Care Act, which are driven in no small part by provisions for women’s reproductive health. How does religious tolerance coexist with women’s agency and independence? Freedom of religion, largely uncontroversial in Roosevelt’s day, has become a source of profound conflict over social policy.

The fourth and final question—How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?—returns to a signature theme of the Obama presidency: the need to create a more constructive, less divisive politics. This theme has been a touchstone of his State of the Union addresses over the years, and it is one that he began to develop very early in his national career. As has been widely remarked, Obama came to national prominence in 2004 with a speech to the Democratic National Convention emphasizing commonalities: not blue states or red states, but United States. The focus on unity took on new dimensions in his March 2008 speech “A More Perfect Union,” which he began with the words “We the People”—a phrase that he used again in this State of the Union address. He went on to note that “Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together, and that’s how we might perfect our Union.” There is consensus about ends, he insisted again: “The future we want—all of us want—opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids, all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.”

The President acknowledged substantive differences and structural barriers—many of them related to the outsize role of money, the consequences of gerrymandering, and the distorting effects of fragmented and conflict-driven news media—and called for trust building, compromise, and active citizenship. Cynicism and skepticism are easy, he observed. Real change is hard and requires what he called “our better selves,” echoing Abraham Lincoln’s evocation of “the better angels of our nature.”

For the last seven years, the national conversation that Obama had hoped to pursue about the appropriate roles for the private and public sectors has been overwhelmed by the cultural issues that he mostly wanted to sidestep. It was this post-Cold War conversation about economic models that he thought might bring Democrats and Republicans to the table. Instead, it earned him the label “neoliberal” from his party’s left wing, while the Republicans gave him the back of their collective hand. Meanwhile, identity politics has been resurgent on both the right and the left: there has not been such intense focus on matters of identity since the early 1990s.

Has the President succeeded in articulating the grounds of a new consensus that will permit “rational, constructive debates” about the four questions of economic justice, technological change, national security and global peacebuilding, and effective citizenship? There was a clear suggestion that a change in tone will require a shift in attitude—akin to what newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a return to “sunny ways” (ways that Michelle Obama evoked with a marigold-colored dress).

Religious rhetoric runs through the President’s address. On two occasions he invoked a spirit of “unarmed truth and unconditional love,” a phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize address. These words amplify the President’s message and introduce a spiritual dimension to his vision, with the aim of creating a sense of common purpose. Like his rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service for the victims of the Charlestown shootings last June, these moments from the speech may help to bridge the religious divide and allow for the President’s consensus-building project to proceed. By presenting these questions now, and by infusing them with this spiritual element, he hopes to shape the 2016 campaign—and his legacy.

***

Sandra M. Gustafson is associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic and Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America.

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48. WJT Mitchell on Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur

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From WJT Mitchell’s review of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, live at the LA Review of Books:

The Pet Collector reminds us of the most fundamental role of language: the ability to name things, and by doing so, to make them belong to us, and we to them. (The naming of and “dominion over” animals are central to Adam’s role in the Garden of Eden.) But the Collector doesn’t just take possession of his adopted family of animals; in his excessive abundance of attachments, he is clearly also possessed, and appears to be a fearful hoarder of living things. Arlo, by contrast, only needs his one companion, Spot, and he is comfortable with letting Spot go when he finds a human family to join at the conclusion of the film.

All this reeks of what anthropologists used to call totemism, the adoption of natural things (animals and plants) as kinfolk and symbols of kinship in so-called primitive cultures. The problem is that dinosaurs were unknown to primitive cultures; they are a thoroughly modern discovery, never named, classified, or adopted until the British paleontologist Richard Owen proclaimed their existence in 1843. Could it be that modern cultures need totemism too? Freud’s Totem and Taboo argued that totemism was obsolete in the modern world, while taboos still abound. But he failed to consider the possibility of a distinctively modern totemism, in which the animal counterpart and companion to the human species is an extinct family of prehistoric animals discoverable only by modern science. Dinosaurs provide the perfect Darwinian allegory for the human race — namely, the possible (or should we say highly probable) prospect that human beings could wind up just like them — extinct. That, it seems to me, is the best explanation of the strange array of contradictory attitudes toward dinosaurs as popular icons. They are friends and companions, on the one hand, and feared enemies, on the other. They are ferocious wild animals and domestic pets, vicious predators and peaceful vegetarians. In short, they are a mirror of all the varieties of our own human species, distributed across a genus of extinct animals that exist only in the realms of unbridled imagination and biological science — a perfectly modern combination.

To read the review in full at LARB, click here.

For more information about Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur, click here.

 

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49. The Party Decides on The Brian Lehrer Show

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The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform is having quite a week—and quite an election season, in general. The book was adopted early by Nate Silver at his FiveThirtyEight blog, which led to explorations of its hypothesis here and here, and most recently here: where Silver posits the book as the most “misunderstood” of the 2016 primary season.

The point of Silver’s statement rests on whether or not a Trump nomination would destroy the Republican Party. The book’s argument is that party elites—unelected insiders—control who ultimately ends up nominated at the convention, and that decision is made many months before the primary campaign season even begins. Was anyone but Trump the nominee (say Marco Rubio, or even Jeb Bush), then The Party Decides had it right all along; if Republicans put forward DT, then it may be less a sign that the statistically supported data of the book is incorrect, and more a case of the possible dissolution of the Grand Old Party.

In the meantime, you can hear more about the book and what a Trump nomination might signify on today’s episode of The Brian Lehrer Show below:

To read more about The Party Decides, click here.

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50. “Anthropology’s Storyteller-Shaman-Sorcerer”

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From a recent review of Michael Taussig’s The Corn Wolf at Pop Matters:

Taussig’s work is the sort of bewilderingly beautiful prose (one is often tempted to call it poetry) that’s able to operate on multiple intellectual levels. The first essay in the collection, “The Corn Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts”, immerses the reader fully and mercilessly in the style. It opens with a poor graduate student realizing that writing up their fieldwork is the most difficult and important task of graduate school, and also the one thing graduate school teaches you nothing about. Fieldwork and writing; “they are both rich, ripe, secret-society-type shenanigans. Could it be that both are based on impossible-to-define talents, intuitions, tricks, and fears?”

No wonder many careerist academics dislike him.

Of course the essay isn’t so much about graduate writing as about his own writing, and about the act of writing—the magical act of writing—itself.

For example, Taussig considers anthropology’s treatment of magic and shamanic sorcery: “Pulling the wool over one’s eyes is a simpler way of putting it… What we have generally done in anthropology is really pretty amazing in this regard, piggybacking on their magic and on their conjuring—their tricks—so as to come up with explanations that seem nonmagical and free of trickery.”

This seemingly nonmagical academic form of writing—or mode of production, as he calls it—is what he refers to as ‘agribusiness writing’: “Agribusiness writing is what we find throughout the university and everyone knows it when they don’t see it.” Against it he pitches the idea of ‘apotropaic writing’, a magic that connives with the prosaic to produce a counter-magic of its own.

When anthropologists demystify shamanic sorcery, for instance, the ‘wolfing’ moves of apotropaic magic would reveal the sorcery implicit in the act of the ‘scientific’ anthropologist’s recasting of shamanism. Indeed, the fact that the wonder and magic of the everyday world has been demystified by science is a sort of magical transformation itself. Is this how we re-enchant the world? By the use of story-telling and writing to re-position what seems like the boring, unmagical workaday world of everyday capitalist drudgery and expose it as the magical sleight-of-hand and tricksterism that it is? “I have long felt that agribusiness writing is more magical than magic ever could be and that what is required is to counter the purported realism of agribusiness writing with apotropaic writing as countermagic, apotropaic from the ancient Greek meaning the use of magic to protect one from harmful magic.”

To read more about The Corn Wolf, click here.

To read the Pop Matters review in full, click here.

 

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