Immediately after watching the second Obama – Romney debate, I, along with the majority of the viewers and commentators, concluded that Obama won. But as I collected my thoughts and wrote my initial response, I found that I had actually written a piece that was less about why Obama won, more about why Romney lost. I knew I had to write a follow up.
In the meanwhile, Roy Ben-Shai sent in a very different interpretation, which I thought was important to share. He thought that as the President won the battle of the moment, Barack Obama, the principled political leader who can make a difference, lost. While Romney didn’t win, the empty game of “politics as usual” did. I am not sure that I agree with his judgment, but I do see his point.
The quality of Obama’s rhetoric and argument is one of the four main reasons why I think that Obama has the potential to be a transformational president, which I analyzed fully in Reinventing Political Culture. Obama has actually battled against sound bite and cable news culture, and prevailed. But not last Thursday: Ben-Shai is right. Obama beat Romney not by playing the game of a strikingly different political leader, capable of making serious arguments in eloquent ways, establishing the fact that there is an alternative to the politics of slogans and empty rhetoric, but by beating Romney at his own game, dominating the stage, provoking with quick clipped attacks and defenses. The idealist in me is disappointed, but I must admit only a little.
Tough practical political struggle is necessary and not so evil. Democratic political persuasion can’t replicate the argument in a seminar room or a scientific journal. The rule of the people is not the rule of the professoriate and advanced graduate students, and it’s a good thing, keeping in mind the extreme foolishness of distinguished intellectuals cut off from the daily concerns of most people. Popular common sense helps avoid intellectual betrayals, untied . . .
Read more: Obama Wins?
I want to make sense of resistance, and more: to inform it and take part. This has been a central thread of my intellectual and political life.
My latest projects examining this have taken place in new and old forms, Deliberately Considered and my most recent book, Reinventing Political Culture. This Monday at 7pm, we are having a party for the book at The New School, 6 East 16th Street, Room 1103, the Wolff Conference Room, co-sponsored by the New School’s Sociology Department and its Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, my two primary intellectual homes. It will mostly be a party, with opportunities for guests to buy the book, at a discount, signed, if you like, but as we gather, my dear friend and colleague, Elzbieta Matynia, and I will also use the occasion to publicly discuss some of the implications of the Reinventing Political Culture, especially as it addresses two related questions. What scholarship can contribute to critical political life? And, what is a public sociology?
I hope the readers of Deliberately Considered who are in and around New York come to enjoy the party and take part in the discussion. The wonders of the Web allow for the circle of discussion to be much broader, for New Yorkers and for those who can’t make it on Monday.
Actually, the discussion started last Wednesday. Elzbieta and I met to talk about the book and the plans for the party over a delicious cappuccino at Taralluccci e Vino on 18th Street near Union Square. She was in a notable self-reflective mood. What is it that we do? How does it relate to what other more professionally oriented scholars do and to what those who are more involved in direct political action (in power and resisting the prevailing powers) do? She talked about some presentations she has coming up: one in a conference at Harvard on women and the Arab Spring, the title of her talk will be “Revolution and . . .
Read more: Making Sense of Resistance: An Invitation to a Book Party and Discussion
6 lectures, 4 days, 3 countries, 1 collaborative consultation, weekending with my grandson and his parents: my schedule for last ten days. I spoke with colleagues and students in Berlin at Humboldt University and the European College of the Liberal Arts, in Poland, as the Wroclaw Visiting Professor, and worked with my friend and colleague, Daniel Dayan, in Paris about a book we are planning on writing together. As a children’s classic I gave to my grandson summarizes: Busy Day, Busy People.
In Germany, the primary focus of discussion was my newest book, Reinventing Political Culture. In Wroclaw, the focus was on my previous book, The Politics of Small Things. I was there for the book launch of its Polish translation and to discuss with a group of students and colleagues the key theoretical chapter in it, “Theorizing the Kitchen Table and Beyond.” I spoke about the chapter in light of the uprisings, occupations, flash mobs and demonstrations in the past couple of years. In Paris, I talked with Daniel about our prospective new book, which would be a development of the themes I raised in my Wroclaw lecture.
Our major thesis will be: the politics of small things + the media = political transformation. One possible transformation is the reinvention of political culture: changing the way people relate power and culture, challenging the bases of power, moving culture from inheritance to creativity, rewriting the story people tell themselves about themselves.
Daniel and I want to explain how the interactions between people, face to face, but especially virtual, mediated interactions, yield the possibility of large-scale social, political and cultural change. We will link his work as a student of semiotics and media, with mine as a student of micro-politics and political culture.
In Wroclaw I shared an outline of a part our project, in a very preliminary form. I reviewed my idea about the power of the politics of small things, the power of people meeting with shared principles, speaking and acting in each other’s presence, working in . . .
Read more: Mid-Atlantic Reflections: On the Road, The Politics of Small Things and Media
I am often accused of being an optimist. I write “accused” because I take it as a mistaken characterization. I think it suggests that I am naïve and unrealistic. And as it happens, I don’t think I am naïve or unrealistic, and don’t feel particularly optimistic. I actually have a rather dark view of the human prospect, one of the reasons I am more conservative than many of my friends and colleagues. That said, I do know why people think I am an optimist. It is because I understand my intellectual challenge to be to find the silver lining within the clouds, to try to find ways in which it may be possible (even if unlikely) to avoid the worst. Thus, my study of the politics of small things, which started with the proposition that after 9/11 “it hurts to think,” and also thus, my investigation in my new book of the possibility of “reinventing political culture,” showing that political culture is not only an inheritance that constrains possibility, but also one that provides resources for creativity and change.
In Reinventing Political Culture, I make two moves: I reinvent the concept of political culture and I study the practical project of reinventing political culture in different locations: Central Europe, the Middle East and North America. I plan to use the book to structure a deliberately considered debate early in the new year. At this year’s end, I thought I would highlight some past posts which examine the power of culture and the way I understand it pitted against the culture of power, which also exemplify the course we have taken this year at Deliberately Considered and a road we will explore next year.
First, there is the link between small things and the power of culture. In a small corner of Damascus we observed people creating an autonomous world for poetry. Clearly the present revolution there is not the result of such activity, though it did anticipate change. But I think such cultural work makes it more likely that the post authoritarian situation will . . .
Read more: Hope against Hopelessness for the New Year
There have been three distinct phases of Barack Obama’s presidency, thus far. There was the period when the President worked with the Democratic Party dominated Congress, the period when he attempted to work with the Republican Party dominated Congress, and the present period, with Obama fighting against the Republican Party dominated Congress and starting his re-election campaign. He has engaged in different tactics in each of these phases, geared to the prevailing political environment, but he has also revealed himself as being a political leader with a long-term strategy meant to change the environment, not simply adapt to it.
While most political coverage over the last three years has been focused on the tactics and the day-to-day ups and downs, serious assessment of the first term of the Obama presidency requires evaluation of the strategy, and its successes, failures and continued promise. President Obama is a principled politician with clear commitments, even if without a unifying simple ideology. He is a centrist, working to move the center to the left, trying to make the American Dream more inclusive and politics more civil, serious and participatory. He is working for a major political transformation, as I have explored carefully in my book, Reinventing Political Culture and have examined here at Deliberately Considered as well. In this post and in two future posts, I will review what we have learned about his attempt to move the political center to the left, specifically as it involves economic policies and social reform. I will review other dimensions of the Obama transformation in further posts as the Presidential election season develops.
Obama with Democrats:
Given the global crisis that greeted the new president, the economy was the initial focus of Obama and his administration. Even before he became president and then in the early days of . . .
Read more: President Barack Obama: Governing with Democrats
I am on the road from Gdansk. It’s been an intense few days. Last Tuesday, I joined the Occupy Wall Street demonstration for a bit. By Wednesday, I was in the Gdansk shipyards, where Solidarity confronted the Party State in 1980, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. I was interviewed for the Solidarity Video Archive, giving my account of the work I did with Solidarity and my understanding of the great labor movement. Immediately after which, I was taken to Gdansk University, where I gave my talk, this year’s Solidarity Lecture, “Reinventing Democratic Culture.” It opened the All About Freedom Festival. Over the weekend, I visited my family in Paris, and now I am flying over the Atlantic on my delayed flight to Newark, hoping I will get back to New York in time to teach my 4:00 class, The Politics of Everyday Life. It has been a packed week.
Unpacking my thoughts is a challenge. A new social movement is developing in the U.S., with potentially great impact. In Poland, a new generation is confronting the Solidarity legacy, trying to appreciate the accomplishments, while also needing to address new problems. Yesterday’s elections in France and especially in Poland were important. Yet, just as important for what was not on the ballot as for what was. Everywhere, there seems to be a political – society agitation and disconnect, with the politics of small things potentially contributing to a necessary reinvention of democratic culture.
I have many thoughts and will need more time to put them into a clear perspective. Here, just a start. I have a sense that things are connected: not falling apart, rather, coming together.
In the U.S., the central ideal of equality has been compromised in the last thirty years. From being a country with more equal . . .
Read more: Things Come Together: Occupy Wall Street, Solidarity, Elections and Khodorkovsky
Although I mostly teach graduate students, I teach one course a year in the liberal arts college of the New School, Eugene Lang College. In my course this year, we have been closely reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, freely discussing his topic, the American democratic experience. My goal for the class is to go back and forth, between close reading and informed discussion.
Of the two volumes in Tocqueville’s classic, I enjoy most reading and discussing Volume 2, which is more a critical examination of the promise and perils of democracy and its culture, less about the institutional arrangements and inventive practices of the Americans, which Tocqueville celebrated and which is the focus of Volume 1 of his masterpiece. But this year, Volume 1 has become especially interesting to me. I hope for the students also.
I have taught the course many times. The way it develops always depends upon what’s going on in the world, who is in the class, and how they connect their lives with the challenges of Tocqueville. We don’t read Tocqueville for his insights and predictions about the details of American life, judging what he got right, what he got wrong. Rather, we try to figure out how his approach to the problems of democracy can help us critically understand our world and his, democracy in America back then and now.
Assigning the Constitution
This semester, indeed, for the past two weeks, the course has taken an interesting turn. As we have been reading Tocqueville on the American system of government, political associations and freedom of the press, i.e. Volume 1, Parts 1 and 2, I felt the need to assign an additional shorter reading, The Constitution of the United States of America. I did this not because I feared that the students hadn’t yet read this central document in the story of democracy in America and beyond (they had), but because I judged that it was time to re-read the text, to note what is in it and what is not, to critically appraise the use of the document as a confirmation of the . . .
Read more: The Constitution and American Political Debate
In my previous research, I’ve examined how local arts movements can have a big impact on regional politics.
There was an interesting article in The New York Times last Sunday about a poetry salon in Damascus, Syria. It reminded me of the theater movement I studied in Poland in the 1970s. Both the theater movement and the poetry salon are examples of constituted free zones in repressive societies. I think they demonstrate the possibility of re-inventing political culture, the possibility of reformulating the relationship between the culture of power and the power of culture.
The secret police are present at Bayt al-Qasid, the House of Poetry, in Damascus today, The Times reports, but it is also a place where innovative poetry is read, including by poets in exile, politically daring ideas are discussed, a world of alternative sensibility is created. Not the star poets of the sixties, but young unknowns predominate. The point is not political agitation nor to showcase celebrity, but the creation of a special place for reading, performance and discussion of the new and challenging. The article quotes a patron about a recent reading. “‘In a culture that loathes dialogue,’ the evening represented something different, said Mr. Sawah, the editor of a poetry Web site. ‘What is tackled here,’ he said, ‘would never be approached elsewhere.’”
Cynics would say that the Polish theater and the Syrian salon are safety valve mechanism, through which the young and the marginal can let off steam, as a repressive political culture prevails. But in Poland, the safety valve overturned the official culture, even before the collapse of the Communist regime, as I explained in my book Beyond Glasnost: the Post Totalitarian Mind.
I don’t want to assert that this happy ending is always the result of such cultural work. Clearly, it’s not. But I do want to underscore that the very existence of an alternative sensibility in a repressive context changes the nature of the social order. Poland was not simply a repressive country then, and Syria is not simply repressive now. They . . .
Read more: In Syria: Poetry Salon Provides Release, Freedom