You Will Know Me By My Mediocrity

As I have already noted on this blog, I’m not the brightest bulb in the pack.  In fact, I’m quite mediocre compared to most of my graduate student colleagues and many of my students.  Part of that mediocrity, it occurred to me yesterday, stems from my upbringing.  Unlike many of my students and some of my friends, I am not the first person in my family to graduate from college.  My dad went to university, as did his parents–one went to Stanford and the other to Berkeley, for pete’s sake.  So the fact that I am now pursuing a PhD is hardly remarkable.  And despite my family’s collegiate history, I also did not grow up in a notably intellectual household.  The TV was always on; my mom listened to oldies, not NPR; the first “opera” I went to was actually Phantom of the Opera.  As I moved through the stages of academia, I came to know more and more people whose youth was spent in much more sophisticated environments–hosting guests in the parlor, going to the theatre (note the spelling), finding stacks of The New Yorker instead of Sports Illustrated in the bathroom, etc..

This particular life path has contributed to my mediocrity.  Unlike first-in-family students, I am not driven by a sense of family pride and purpose, the sort of relentless I’m-going-to-show-the-world-what-my-family-can-do motivation that I see in some of my friends and students.  I also don’t have the pressure of expectations that might come from growing up in an intellectual household; no one will be disappointed if I never publish a book or get a university job.  And so I float along, knowing that my family has given me every opportunity possible, but not entirely sure what I should do with those opportunities.

And that’s why I’m so frustrated: because I lack the imagination and creativity to do something remarkable with the freedom and opportunities I’ve been given.  I’m not constrained by family poverty or family expectations; I’m constrained by my own dullness.  That’s the source of my mediocrity, and I’m not sure how or whether I can get past that.

At the end of the day, of course, it’s not some earth-shattering problem.  I do my work, walk my dog, love my spouse: life is good.  Most of the time, that’s enough for me.

Defending Myself to Clinton Supporters

Next week, I’ll be having dinner with dear friends of mine, one of whom is a rabid active Clinton supporter.  I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain why I’m rooting for Obama.  This post by Ari Kelman over at The Edge of the American West is a pretty damn good start, especially this bit:

And make no mistake, as we choose a Democratic nominee for the presidential election, we also very likely are choosing a leader of the party. We have to ask ourselves, will we allow the Clintons to continue to dominate the Democratic Party? They have, for years, steered it to the center. Recently, they seem to be veering further to the right. And if that’s the direction they’ve chosen in the primary, what can we expect during what promises to be a difficult general election campaign?

There it is.  That’s maybe the biggest reason I want Obama to win: because I want to be able to support the Democratic Party in the future.  I’m a lefty, and I voted for Nader in 2000–yeah, that’s right; fuck you, too–because I couldn’t hold my nose and vote for a party that had chosen a middle course between wimpy-centrism and the Evil Right.  With Obama, we get a shot at a Democratic Party in which there’s room for the Left; with Clinton and all the machinery and baggage that she has chosen to bring with her, it’ll be more of the same fence-fucking centrism.  And I just can’t take it anymore.

I probably won’t say all of that over dinner, of course.  Might cause indigestion.

New Strategy: Advertise My Reading

In an effort to actually get through some of my reading, I’m going to try what aspiring marathoners are supposed to do: tell people.  The idea is that if you tell people you’re going to run a marathon, you’ll feel accountable to those people–“Hey, how’s that marathon training going?”  Or something like that.  Maybe it’ll work for me; I also hope that I’ll get some feedback on what other people think of what I’m reading.  So: today’s list.

  1. Brad Delong’s review of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State
  2. From Crooked Timber, Henry’s thoughts on Scott’s book
  3. The Nation‘s 7 April 2008 issue on the New Deal
  4. Spencer Ackerman’s TAP article on “The Obama Doctrine”
  5. Thomas Edsall’s 1991 Atlantic Monthly article “Race”

Things I’m Getting Pissy About

I’ve noticed that I’m getting increasingly pissy as the years go by.  Of course, this is more or less fine by me; I sometimes dream of being a grumpy old person sitting in a rocking chair on my porch, shooting the neighbor kids with a pellet gun.  But in the here and now, I’m just complaining and grumbling a lot (not nearly as fun as shooting neighbor kids, I imagine).  A couple things of late:

1) Long blog posts.  I’ve noticed this at DailyKos, especially, and some other places I like to frequent.   4,000 word-long blog posts?  Are you fucking kidding me?  Dude, I have a stack of books that reaches to the ceiling, and I’m expected to know them inside and out for my preliminary exams.  And even without that required reading, there’s a ton of other stuff by actually important people that I should be reading–you know, Eric Hobsbawm or E.H. Carr or Jane Jacobs.  4,000 word posts ain’t going to work for me–or many other people, I’d imagine.  Learn to write more efficiently, for shit’s sake.

2) Undergraduate employees in service jobs.  Was I really that stupid as an undergraduate?  They seem to be trained to not listen and give bullshit answers to questions that they don’t understand, then get all indignant about having to work a minimum-wage job.  Yeah, working sucks, which is why you’re in college and will hopefully get a better job once you’re out.  But for now, you’ve got dick for experience and training, and a bad attitude to boot.  Now get over it and get me my fucking hamburger.


Choose My Seminar

I need help.  In many ways, of course, but specifically: I need help selecting a seminar to take this term.  Here are the choices:

1) Political theory/sociology/philosophy on the public sphere.  The alleged reading list: Aristotle, Arendt, Dewey, Foucault, Habermas, D. Harvey, A. Negri, more.  Yeah, I’m sure we’ll get to all that.

2) A poli-sci course on Kant’s Practical Philosophy. Additional readings from Arendt, Rawls, etc.

3) An econ course on world economic history since 1800.  Readings by Pomeranz, Alan M. Taylor, M. Edelstein, D. Rodrik, M. Obstfeld, and lots, lots, lots more.


History Through Pop: Spoon’s “Don’t Make Me a Target” and Dick-Swinging Foreign Policy

Spoon‘s 2007 Album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is a fine record with some great tracks–“You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “The Underdog” among them.  There’s also “Don’t Make Me a Target,” which has a nice little shuffle-along guitar riff as well as these poignant lyrics:

Here come the man from the stars
we don’t know why he go so far
and keep on marching along
beating his drum

Clubs and sticks and bats and balls
for nuclear dicks with dialect drawls
they come from a parking lot town
where nothing lives in the sun

Don’t make me a target (3x)
When you reach back in his mind
feels like he’s breaking the law
There’s something back there he got
that nobody knows

He never claimed to say what he says
He smells like the inside of closets and stairs-
The kind where nobody goes

Don’t make me a target…

It seems pretty clear that this song is about Bush Jr.–the shock at seeing him in the presidency (“the man from the stars / don’t know why he go so far”), his “dialect drawls,” his supporters from the suburbs and strip malls (“parking lot town”), the administration’s constant lies (“He never claimed to say what he says”), and, of course, Bush’s constant war-mongering (“marching along / beating his drum / clubs and sticks and bats and balls”).  Leave it to some folks from Bush’s home state (at least, until Spoon’s Britt Daniels moved to Portland) to drive home the point (see also Jim Hightower, the Dixie Chicks, and the great Molly Ivins, may she rest in peace).  And any song about Bush is about history, as in what-a-historical-fuck-up-this-presidency-has-been sort of history.

But there’s more here, and it’s loaded into the phrase “nuclear dicks.”  This calls to mind Robert Dean’s Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy, in which Dean connects American foreign policy (up to Vietnam) to a hyperventilating, testosterone-dripping masculinity that permeated the White House beginning sometime in FDR’s administration.  Dean argues that the context of the masculine imperial brotherhood consisted of both prescriptive and proscriptive elements.  A particular set of experiences crafted the ideal member of the imperial brotherhood: family money; a private prep-school and then Ivy League education; and volunteer military experience, preferably in an elite group (like Kennedy’s torpedo boat adventures).  These ideas of what a man should be were coupled with rules of what a man should not be: homosexual, effete, and/or weak, along with the usual rejection of all things smacking of socialism.  This proscriptive element was reinforced and institutionalized during the Red and Lavender Scares, when conservatives jealous of power and liberals worried of losing it both acted to purge the federal government of anyone tainted by “homosexual tendencies,” directly or indirectly.  Dean argues that these proscriptive purges, along with the prescriptive construction of ideal masculinity, produced the arrogance and ignorance of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations vis-á-vis Cuba (Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, etc.) and Vietnam.  Top administration officials reaffirmed their masculinity through aggressive foreign policy, blinded to any possibilities (such as that suggested by George Ball) that ran counter to the masculine narrative that the imperial brotherhood had so carefully constructed and followed.  Dean insists that his narrative is meant to portray only the context within which decisions about the Vietnam War took place, but his argument often bleeds into a causal explanation.  Dean “imperial impulse that animated Vietnam policymaking” (235) and “the personal attributes…valued by the imperial brotherhood meant conformity to Cold War orthodoxy and willingness to direct acts of violence against unseen foreigners” (202), indicating that the masculine ideal caused (“animated”) the Vietnam War, rather than just set the context for it.  Dean doesn’t quite pull this part of the argument off, I think, relying on gender-dynamics-cause-history assumptions that I’ve never quite bought into.

That said, there is a good argument to be made that realpolitik is characterized by overt masculinity, and I wonder if it’s to do with the senselessness of the particular foreign policy in question.  The Cold War was certainly permeated by masculine swagger (“I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh.  I cut his pecker off.” — the immortal words of LBJ), as is the current War on Terror (Bush’s flightsuit package, for instance).  In both cases, the enemy is an illusive product of imagination–the black-suited Communists roaming the jungles of Vietnam, poised to rip apart the fabric of the American economic system; or “terror”–not even an ideology, by the way, but a tactic or, at most, a strategy–which has been used as the justification for wars against mountain militiamen in Afghanistan and the professional army of Iraq.  Perhaps, then, it is in the most futile and silly foreign policy that we see the most excessive masculinity–when presidents use military force not to protect democracy or even valuable markets, but to be Big Men.  And the United States gets made a target, all so that little men with dialect drawls can swing their nuclear dicks.