The traveling life

I’ve always been a homebody, paradoxically because I don’t like to feel trapped. I mostly hated family vacations growing up because I had no real control over what I did and when, and I also resented how often we were trapped at church with nothing to do. Getting a car heped, but what was really intoxicating was moving to Chicago and realizing that they had a system that could get me home at any time, with no car, without waiting for a ride, without having to stand awkwardly as the driver cleared stuff out of the seat, etc., etc. And when I was in grad school, trips were associated with either visiting home (hence the trappedness again) or attending conferences (mainly the AAR, meaning the constant humiliation of the job market) — and, above all, with a high degree of financial precarity. Traveling seemed like a good way to get money extracted from me in unlimited quantities. Overall, for many years I followed Socrates’s example, never leaving the city limits of Chicago (sometimes gerrymandering in Evanston since you could get there via the L).

Hence it’s somewhat surprising how big a part of my life traveling has become. Continue reading “The traveling life”

From the Silent Majority to the Silent Scream: On the Political Theology of Silence

[Note: This is a transcript of a keynote address I delivered this week as part of the Münster International Summer School (Topic: “Tacet ad Libitum! Towards a Poetics and Politics of Silence”), sponsored by the Graduate School Practices of Literature at the University of Münster.]

Continue reading “From the Silent Majority to the Silent Scream: On the Political Theology of Silence”

Clearing the decks

Yesterday I finished a draft of a chapter for an edited volume. I have asked a friend to look it over and will likely submit it in the next few days. Next week I will give a keynote address at a conference. And with that, I will have cleared my entire academic to-do list, at least in terms of fresh work. There will be various requests for revisions, copy-editing queries, etc., but the part that requires the most energy is done.

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Legality, Legitimacy, and Coups

Conservatives have always been the defenders of “law and order,” but in the postwar era, it was liberals and progressives who most trusted in the law. For the baby boomers who still dominate our public life, the Supreme Court — far from being the reactionary body it had been for most of American history and has now become again — was the guardian of our rights, issuing wise decisions grounded in tolerance and liberty. Overcoming generations of gridlock and obstruction, Congress endorsed those rulings with expansive legislation protecting civil liberties and voting rights. And both the legislative and executive worked together to manage the economy so that prosperity and opportunity would not come at the expense of worker or consumer safety or environmental degradation. There were pockets of backwardness, to be sure, and much work to do, but the unique resilience of American institutions guaranteed that the moral arc of the universe bent toward justice.

Even at the time, this was a fantasy, the product of Cold War propaganda. Continue reading “Legality, Legitimacy, and Coups”

What does a Democrat want?

In the wake of Trump’s Electoral College technicality, I wrote this post about the Democrats’ decision to treat Trump as a normal president as much as possible. My basic point was that they want to preserve institutional continuity for its own sake and are willing to pay a very high substantive price to avoid outright collapse. I have found this argument to be of continuing relevance over the last several years, as the fundamental deadlock of American political culture has not changed. But more recent events have left even the most cynical side of myself wondering what Democrats believe they’re doing.

Continue reading “What does a Democrat want?”

In brightest day….

When I was a kid, I collected comic books. As for many kids my age, Batman was the initial draw. Between the Adam West show (on constant reruns), the Tim Burton movie, and especially the excellent animated series, Batman was the most familiar and appealing character. And hence for me, the battle between Marvel and DC was over before it began: the one with Batman. My dad had been a Marvel fan growing up, but when pressed for DC options, he mentioned that he liked Green Lantern and Flash, especially when they teamed up. So one fine day, I picked up a copy of Green Lantern #4, an early installment in a newly relaunched title. I liked the idea of getting in on the ground floor, but what really grabbed me when I read — and repeatedly reread — this issue was a sense of history. Here was a hero who had seen enough and no longer wanted to be a hero. But despite his efforts to live as a carefree vagabond, he kept getting pulled back in — by his fellow members of the once-great Green Lantern Corps, by the last of the Guardians of the Universe, and specifically by a road trip he took many a year ago….

I was absolutely hooked. I needed to know everything. Continue reading “In brightest day….”

The profit surcharge

One of the oddities of American society is that in most cases you never know what something is going to cost until you are actually charged. The prices marked on the items on the shelves and on the restaurant menus are never exactly what you are going to wind up having to pay. The reason is that sales tax is only added into the cost when you complete your transaction. Growing up, this felt completely natural, if annoying, because it kept me from planning out exact change in advance. The first time I visited a country where the tax was already incorporated into the listed price, I couldn’t believe we would do it differently.

The reason, of course, is ideological: they only add in the tax later so that you feel that the tax is an extra imposition. Every American has to deal with a slow grind of daily annoyance at sales taxes, and any increase in taxes is immediately visible. Obviously this measure didn’t cause the US’s pathological tax-phobia — the very rationale for the Revolutionary War was largely to avoid taxes — but it certainly helps reinforce and reproduce it on the level of everyday practice.

On the level of policy design, it’s a minor feat of evil genius. And I think that left politicians should push to imitate it by proposing that profit margins be treated the same. The price on the shelf or on the menu should include the costs of production, distribution, and marketing. Only when you get to the cash register is the profit margin added onto the price. We get to know how much of our purchase price is going to fund public goods — why shouldn’t we also learn how much of it is enriching stockholders?

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The bugbear of consistency

This morning I wrote a review of Carlo Salzani’s excellent new book Agamben and the Animal, which is a kind of critical rewriting of The Open, more explicitly grounding it in Agamben’s previous work and more directly engaging with animal studies scholarship, in order to find the Entwicklungsfähigkeit of his admittedly limited and anthropocentric approach to non-human animal life. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in any of the topics addressed.

One issue that Carlo’s book brings up is the question of consistency and continuity in Agamben’s work. Most Agamben scholars maintain, almost axiomatically, that Agamben’s work is remarkably consistent and continuous. Quarrelsome person that I am, I went so far as to write an entire book arguing that his project evolves and changes over time. Ultimately it may not be very important for interpreting or applying his ideas — certainly I’m not arguing there’s some kind of radical break where he explicitly renounces earlier work. And admittedly, one point the continuists have in their favor is the fact that it’s clearly very important to Agamben himself to see his own work as consistent and continuous. After completing the Homo Sacer project, for instance, he very explicitly returned to earlier themes and even dug up some unpublished (or, in the case of Taste, underpublicized) writings from very early in his career. When I interviewed him in preparation for my book, he gave me a great line that I have quoted at every opportunity: when he reads his older work, he notices that his more recent concepts were somehow already present there, but “I didn’t know it at the time.”

Continue reading “The bugbear of consistency”

The Evangelical Mind

[Note: This essay first appeared in n+1 issue 35: Savior Complex (Fall 2019). I thank the editors for permission to republish it here in an open-access format, given its sadly perennial relevance to our political life.]

WHAT IS AN EVANGELICAL? On a superficial level, this should not be a difficult question. Evangelicals have played an outsize role in American public life for decades. They were at the forefront of the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s, when self-appointed evangelical leaders like Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition led the struggle against everything from video game violence and rap lyrics to gay marriage. They were crucial to the governing coalition of George W. Bush, himself a “born-again” Christian whose administration accelerated the trend toward delivering social services through faith-based nonprofits. Though their influence on Republican politics was briefly overshadowed in the Obama years by the less explicitly religious Tea Party movement, evangelicals have reemerged as the most loyal supporters of another popular vote–losing Republican President—this time, decidedly not one of their number, although Trump’s selection of the evangelical Mike Pence as his running mate nodded to the group’s kingmaking power.

Despite its apparent coordination and consistent program, evangelicalism seems to elude firm definition. Continue reading “The Evangelical Mind”