“Chariots of Fire” and Thatcherism by mattsteinglass
August 20, 2010, 1:03 pm
Filed under: Film, Politics

The great Doug Pascover posted a hilarious takeoff of Blake’s “And did those feet, in ancient times…” after a post I did over at the Economist, which got me humming the tune of the hymn in the shower, which got me thinking about the opening sequence of “Chariots of Fire” in which that hymn is being sung over an aerial shot of green English fields (as I recall) that zooms in on an Oxford college, which got me reflecting on what an amazing movie “Chariots of Fire” was. The conflict is between the effortless upper-class British guy who trains with an amateur coach, as one does, and the striving Jewish guy who almost gets himself disqualified because (scandalously, for the 1920s or whenever) he hires a pro coach. Apparently he got confused and thought the point was to win. Anyway, the theme is traditional aristocratic amateurism versus upwardly-mobile immigrant commercial professionalism.

What I’d never thought about before was how well-suited that theme was to early-1980s Thatcherite Britain. Labour cast itself as the party of the working class, but if I understand it right, a lot of the energy of Thatcher’s Tories came from upwardly mobile uncouth plebes, many from immigrant backgrounds, who saw the rules and social-services structures that had been put in place by Labourite socialism as a straitjacket rather than a support net. Similarly, the upper-class runner in “Chariots of Fire” thinks of his amateur course as the less moneyed one, but of course in the real world only wealthy upper-class people have the time and connections to compete at the upper levels of sport as amateurs. When the aristocrats complain about the tawdry commercialism of this Jew who’s paying his trainer, they’re obviously also complaining about the threat this poses of upsetting and opening up their social structure. This seems to me to be suffused with themes that were circulating in Thatcher-era politics: which is really more egalitarian, a society of rules for the rich and subsidies for the poor that maintains clear class divisions, or a free-for-all society in which money can buy anything, peerages included, and everyone is constantly sinking or swimming?

The film also teases at a weird duality in Blake’s poem, which is the mixture of Hellenic and Hebraic themes. The “bow of burning gold” and “chariot of fire” Blake wants somebody to bring him seem pretty Hellenic and Apollonian. But the pretext of the poem is an apocryphal/hypothetical visit of the “holy lamb of God” to England and, ultimately, an intent to build Jerusalem there. There’s something very nice about the way this duality recurs in the conflict between the English aristocracy with its Hellenic sporting ideals (resurrecting the Olympics etc.) and the entrance of this Jewish aspirant who upsets the value structure. Historically, the interaction between the Greco-Roman and Hebraic worlds was pretty adversarial (Maccabees, Herod, etc.), but in the long run the fusion of their value systems in a thing called Christianity turned out to be of some significance.


Barack Obama as David Dinkins, Pt. 2 by mattsteinglass
June 15, 2010, 10:41 am
Filed under: Obama, Politics, US

I think I ought to at least explain what I’m thinking about with this comparison. It’s driven more by a subjective political sensation than by any grounded analysis, and it may actually be an utterly worthless comparison. I don’t know enough about Dinkins’s mayoralty to write a well-rounded post on this subject, even though I was living in New York City for its last two years, and voted for Ruth Messinger against Giuliani at the end of Dinkins’s term. But rather than do a quick shoddy job of web-surfing to try and pass myself off as knowing something about NYC politics during those years, I’d rather just describe the very sketchy shape of the comparison I was thinking about, and see whether those who do know a lot about NYC political history can set me straight.

David Dinkins was a universally respected politician widely seen as smart, competent and a good conciliator, if somewhat uninspiring. (There’s the first point of sharp dissimilarity with Obama.) He was congenial to white liberals, and brought along the black and hispanic votes largely out of solidarity. The simple prospect of having New York’s first black mayor generated a fair amount of voter enthusiasm.

However, that enthusiasm was not attached to a strong agenda, and once in office, like any Democrat in New York City (or anywhere else), Dinkins found himself tied down like Gulliver to a million tiny cross-cutting interest groups and points of ideological dogma, not to mention Democrats’ habitual enthusiasm for circular firing squads. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, a Democrat in Gracie Mansion was immobilized. He couldn’t cross the teachers. He couldn’t cross the school boards. He couldn’t cross the sanitation workers’ or transit workers’ unions. He couldn’t override the delicate sensibilities of neighborhood historical preservation boards and other NIMBY-enforcing associations. He tried to bring the city a grudging racial peace, after the years of Bernard Goetz and Howard Beach and “wilding” (which may or may not ever have taken place). But he proved unable to tame the tensions that flared during the Crown Heights riots. And he had the bad luck to preside over a vicious recession that gave the city an air of defeat.

Meanwhile, Dinkins never really got the benefit of the doubt from the conservative white neighborhoods of Queens and Staten Island, who had become accustomed to a white, ethnic image of New York under Ed Koch. They treated his mayoralty as though they were living under enemy occupation, as a betrayal of their image of what New York-ness was. New York, to them, was not Spike Lee or Run-DMC. New York was Woody Allen and Frank Sinatra. They heard Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic” speech as a repudiation of the melting-pot ethic that underpinned their own narratives of immigrant Americanization.

So the first chance they got, they put somebody into office who brought back Ed Koch’s accent, but with a more punitive attitude. And while much of what Rudy Giulani accomplished was due to luck (the strong economy, the continuation of the fall in violent crime that began under Dinkins), the overwhelming sensation was that a Republican with the backing of the police, Wall Street, and the yuppie elite could generate momentum in overwhelmingly Democratic New York that no Democrat ever could. This political sensation has continued under Bloomberg.

In many ways, this comparison reveals how little Dinkins has in common with Obama. The racial politics of 2008-10 are very different from those of the early ’90s. Identity politics is dead. Sister Souljah has no army. Barack Obama himself personifies an easy grace with mixed racial identity that renders the mosaic-vs-melting-pot debates of 1990 antique. 2008 in America, unlike 1989 in New York, was a moment of remarkably low racial tension. New York elected a black mayor in 1989 in part because it needed a racial peacemaker; America was able to elect a black president in 2008 in large measure because racial conflict was not on the immediate agenda.

Then, of course, there’s Obama himself. He is inspirational. He has a style all his own. He is a personality, a celebrity. He can be electrifying on television. He’s an analytical thinker and a manager with a professorial gift for expressing complex processes in clear, conversational terms. Dinkins was none of these.

The similarity lies in the sense that Obama was swept into office on a wave of personal enthusiasm insufficiently attached to an agenda, and that he’s now bogging down in a characteristically Democratic muck of dissension and squabbling. My anxiety is that Obama, like Dinkins, is a cool, friendly conciliator who was elected by a deeply divided community in the hope that he could bring it together. But both of them have been smacked with insurmountable economic problems that have denied them the resources they need to make reconciliation work. And as the community relapses into vicious squabbling, it blames the conciliator for its own failures. That’s the mess I’m afraid Obama may get stuck in.

Add: I realize I’ve failed to communicate here that Barack Obama has in fact accomplished an immense amount in his first year and a half in office. Passing national health-care…is enough for a president to retire on. Financial reform, once passed, will be a major accomplishment; we’ll have to see how good the bill is. And, of course, we have an economy that’s in some kind of recovery, due in no small part to the ARRA, and whatever else you want to say about Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, at no time in the past 2 years have I gone to an ATM machine and found that I can’t withdraw money because the global financial system has ceased to exist. This was not a foregone conclusion. Obama has had, objectively, a very accomplished 18 months. But we’re running into a sense of the doldrums this summer, and that’s what prompted the comparison. Again, it may well be a very bad analogy.

The unifying theory of 21st-century catastrophes by mattsteinglass
June 5, 2010, 1:20 pm
Filed under: Economics, Liberalism, Politics, Uncategorized

DAVID LEONHARDT is among my favourite writers, and when my RSS reader showed me that this weekend he got a slot in the New York Times Magazine to talk about “What the oil spill and the financial crisis have in common,” I got all excited. Then I read it, and it’s…pretty good. Leonhardt’s premise is that what the Deepwater Horizon blowout has in common with the global financial crisis is heedlessness of tail-end risk. Black swans, an unwillingness to take seriously the consequences of very low-probability, very high-damage eventualities, and all that. And this is certainly true. As Leonhardt writes, BP executives had never seen an oil rig blow up, so they didn’t really believe it could happen, just as Ben Bernanke didn’t really believe a nationwide real-estate crash could happen.

But this isn’t the main theme the two events have in common. The main theme they have in common is much simpler than that, and has more moral valence. And it’s the main theme not just for the oil blowout and the financial crisis but for the Katrina disaster and the Enron collapse and the Chinese melanin milk scandal and an extraordinary array of scandals, disasters and tragedies so far this century. The main theme they have in common is regulatory failure. The regulations weren’t strong enough, and the regulators didn’t do their jobs. Oil companies were allowed to self-certify, and MMS inspectors let them hand in their own inspection reports in pencil, then traced over them in pen * approved their design changes within five minutes with  no real review. Non-bank financial institutions escaped regulations that had been written to cover banks, and when SEC inspectors were sent in to banks to monitor suspicious debt-hiding activities they spent their time downloading porn. Dyke safety standards established by the Corps of Engineers were inadequate, and officials at FEMA were incompetent. And, obviously, the people’s elected representatives chiefly clamoured for weaker regulations and tried to stop regulators when they did attempt to enforce the rules.

We may not be heading towards an End of History, but Hegel was right that sometimes there’s such a thing as a weltgeist that moves directionally from decade to decade, and what we’re seeing here is comeuppance (or, as Hegel would put it, the antithesis) for the deregulatory exuberance of the 1980s and 1990s. Leonhardt concentrates on the unfortunate human tendency to discount the highly unlikely. This is certainly a factor, but as advice, it’s only partially useful. If the lesson of the catastrophes of the noughties is to pay attention to tail-end risk, then we should all be running around building nuclear fallout shelters and working out deflection strategies for massive asteroid strikes. And that’s not going to happen. (Though in the case of climate change, one of Leonhardt’s examples, it is useful: we should be paying more attention to the risk that global temperature rise by 2100 will be near the catastrophic 6-degree-celsius high-end estimate, not the merely awful 2-degree median estimate.) But I don’t think that is the main lesson. The main lesson is simpler and more concrete: government regulations need to be more restrictive, regulators need to be more aggressive, better-paid, and more powerful, and they need to stop people and corporations more often from doing things that may be profitable but pose unacceptable risks to the public. We had this theory for a while that economic self-interest would prove sufficient disincentive to foolish risk-taking. But now the Gulf of Mexico is on fire, so I’m afraid we need to go back to the old-fashioned system with the rules and the monitors carrying sticks. Sorry.

* It turns out this probably isn’t true. The Interior Dept. Inspector General’s Report says there were reports with pencil that were then traced over in pen, but it’s likely that the inspectors themselves filled them out in pencil for convenience in case of corrections, and they couldn’t find any evidence that any had been filled out by the oil company. They had apparently heard a rumor that this had happened, but couldn’t substantiate it.

Take off the green sunglasses by mattsteinglass
June 4, 2010, 7:45 am
Filed under: Politics, US, World

Ezra Klein went to China for a week or so and found himself unable to comprehend why anyone back in Washington cared whether the Obama administration had offered a job to Joe Sestak to keep him from running in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. This is one of the things that happens when you go abroad for awhile: the idiotic, trivial, meaningless and confused partisan pseudo-arguments taking place in your country of origin reveal themselves in even greater idiotic, trivial, meaningless and confused partisanship. I left the United States 11 years ago, and basically very little that’s taken place there in the past decade makes any sense to me at all.

Wonder-working power by mattsteinglass
May 29, 2010, 4:12 am
Filed under: Liberalism, Politics, Uncategorized

Proposed: The discussion of Elena Kagan’s undergraduate thesis on the history of socialism in New York City from 1900-33 is dog-whistle politics for the progressive left.


The struggle against epistemic closure by mattsteinglass
May 12, 2010, 9:06 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Politics, Uncategorized

The late great David Halberstam had a line in, I think, a commencement address a few years back about how journalists had to remember to be grateful at all times that people basically pay them to find stuff out. In general this is true. Anyway, it’s also part of our responsibility to fight against the natural personal tendency to restrict your sources of news to people with similar views to your own.To that end, I’ve put National Review Online in my RSS reader and am trying to keep up with their take on things. This evening, I was treated to this opening paragraph by Tony Blankley.

This country is divided into three parts concerning national politics. About a third think President Obama is moving in the right direction; many of them are impatient for the president to be bolder with his leftist agenda. Somewhere in the vicinity of 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans are shocked and appalled at the nation’s rush toward bankruptcy, socialism, fundamental transformation of our way of life, and the permanent weakening and impoverishing of America. And some 15 percent to 30 percent are quite concerned about the current state of the country but see no imminent crisis and think that with some substantial adjustments, President Obama’s efforts may end up being useful. (The foregoing numbers are merely my subjective judgment, not based on any particular poll.)

Oh for the love of Christ. Shut up! Wait, scratch that. I’m grateful to be a journalist and have the privilege of getting paid to find stuff out, even if what I’m finding out is that the function of the National Review Online is in large part to pay third-rate cranks to whinge, carp and make things up.

Transparency in legislatures fails in US, Vietnam by mattsteinglass

Igor Volsky notes that the failure of the health-care reform summit to produce a substantive compromise shows why you don’t want C-SPAN cameras in the room when politicians are trying to do a deal. Transparency, he writes, “is overrated.” (Matthew Yglesias concurs.) This insight is also, interestingly, illustrated in the design of Vietnam’s new National Assembly building, currently under construction opposite the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Vietnam National Assembly design, courtesy Flickr E8 club

Vietnam National Assembly design, courtesy Flickr E8 club

The building is designed by the German firm GMP. When I spoke to the firm’s Hanoi office last year, they explained that the central hall, with its glass ground-level lookthrough towards the skylit circular central chamber where the deputies meet in session, had been influenced by Norman Foster’s renovation of the Reichstag in Berlin.

Reichstag dome, photo Björn Laczay

Reichstag dome, photo Björn Laczay

The Foster design was commissioned in 1992 in the aftermath of the reunification of Germany, and the concept was to exemplify the transparency of democratic governance in contrast to Communist opacity. From the dome, spectators can look down into the Bundestag’s chamber and watch the delegates debating. But the GMP architects told me that when they presented similar ideas in Vietnam, they found that while government liked the idea of transparency visually, National Assembly delegates didn’t actually want to have people be able to see from the street while they were in session. So the skylit central core of the new building descends to a closed inner cylinder housing a main assembly hall whose interior isn’t actually visible through the street-level glass facade. Rather a nice metaphor for false transparency.

The funny thing, though, is that the old Soviet-era building they tore down to build the new one was actually extremely informal and physically transparent. Once you got clearance to enter the area, as press or whatever, you entered the main building and stood in side hallways that had only  a low waist-level concrete wall and pillars separating you from the main assembly hall where the deputies sat. You were basically in the same space as them, though they’d sometimes draw heavy velvet curtains while proceedings were underway. In a clunky informal concrete Soviet-style way, it was very “transparent”; I remember my news assistant once spotted former Communist Party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu walking out of the chamber and just walked up and chatted with him. I have a feeling nothing of this sort will be likely in the new building, which will have lots of glass but where access for the public and press will likely be better segregated from the deputies and government officials themselves. Similarly, you need all kinds of clearances to attend briefings at US government institutions, whereas in Vietnam pretty much anyone could walk in off the street and attend one of the Foreign Ministry’s useless press conferences.

Formal “transparency”, in other words, often leads to substantive opacity, while informal “closed” systems can often be relatively open and easygoing if you can figure out a way to get in that front door, which often isn’t as hard as you’d think.