Category Archives: politics

Right, Left, Right

Left....Right....Right Bird March (Ananth's)

Left....Right....Right Bird March (Ananth's)

Several weeks ago, I read an article reporting that Dick Cheney feared the rise of the Tea Party. The reason? Focusing on Rand Paul’s politics, the news story claimed that Paul was too conservative for Cheney. I tried the idea out for size. But deep inside, I suspected otherwise. Was it possible, instead, that Rand Paul might be too radical for conservative republicans, as we now know them?

Might not the Teaparty be too radical for conservative republicans?

At first, It was only an impression, inspired by books I had read years ago. Intrigued, I decided to revisit them. First up was Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, an elaborate story featuring classic Dickens characters that builds upon and derives its intrigue from people and events that traverse the shadowy backdrop of the French and English revolutions. Recalling a germane passage in the novel, I now sought it out.

Like most other Dickens novels, The Tale of Two Cities is a cliffhanger. So I read it transfixed until three in the morning, when I finally came across the key scene that I was looking for. You may recall it.



In this scene, the character Sydney Carton, who although he is about to take the hero, Darnay’s, place at the guillotine, is inspired by a vision of a peaceful Paris, a heaven on earth, in which many of the bloodthirsty revolutionaries–including the irrepressibly vengeful Madame Defarge–will share in his same fate. I wonder, is this what Dick Cheney had in mind?

 Day 152/365: Searching for Clues(from weboricam(

Day 152/365: Searching for Clues (from weboricam)

In search of more clues, I turned to historian Crane Briton‘s classic analysis, The Anatomy of a Revolution, a book I had first read while in graduate school at Columbia. Employing as his lens, the course a fever runs, Brinton compares the French, English, Russian, and American revolutions in terms of the following stages: precursor situations and events; the rise and rule of the moderates; the accession of the extremists; the reign of terror, and the thermidor reaction. It is uncanny how many parallels Brinton was able to draw, but even more so when we compare these parallels to our own situation today.


Consider, for example, the rumblings leading up to all of these revolutions. As Brinton notes, there was growing resistance to excessive taxation; increased outrage about injustices and inequality; a loss not only of government legitimacy but also of the rationale for government itself. While catalytic events may have set the revolutionaries into motion, the driving force that sustained them was a radical utopian vision–much like that held by Sydney Carton–of what a post revolutionary future might be like. Does it sound familiar?

To hear echos of these phrases today, one need only listen to the metaphysical tone that underlies much of the Tea Party rhetoric. As journalist J.M. Bernstein describes:

The seething anger that seems to be an indigenous aspect of the Tea Party movement arises, I think, at the very place where politics and metaphysics meet, where metaphysical sentiment becomes political belief. More than their political ideas, it is the anger of Tea Party members that is already reshaping our political landscape.

Look Homeward America

Look Homeward America

If you need further convincing, take a look at Bill Kauffman‘s Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals, a sympathetic, and somewhat nostalgic, perspective, which not only puts the Tea Party’s philosophy in perspective but also aligns it with some of the idealistic anarchism of the past.

Granted, Former Vice President Dick Cheney is not known for his academic erudition. But let’s take a leap of faith, and assume that he has read Dickens and Brinton in the past. Might he have good reason to be afraid of the Tea Party. I would think so. As the 17th/18th century revolutions show us, entrenched, traditional authorities have always sought to remain in power by reaching out to the moderates; the moderates have overtaken the traditional conservatives by reaching out to the radicals; whereas the radicals have toppled governments with the help of the mob. If the Republicans build their future political campaigns on the foundation of the new reactionary radicals, are the Tea Party gang likely to do otherwise?

The World Turned Upside Down

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

My mother was a fine artist, always painting, sculpting, or making woodcuts. Although she maintained a studio-like setup in our basement, she and her work always seemed to make their way upstairs, giving rise to a world of clutter.

Worse still, as a youngster, I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable: knock on our door and you would fine a handsome women, wearing her red plaid flannel work shirt atop a pair of well-worn jeans, a pencil behind her ear, and the remains of paint and printers ink lodged under her nails. If that wasn’t enough! Just consider what was, perhaps, my most embarrassing moment, when I brought a school friend home for lunch, only to find my mother “cooking” her etchings on the kitchen stove.

I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable. 

Given my mother’s interest in art, one can understand why, as children, we spent a lot of time in museums, as well as browsing through the numerous art books that my mother collected. Whereas most parents spend a lot of time reading to their children, my mother spent much of our quality time sharing her thoughts about paintings and art.

The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

One of these paintings is still vivid in my mind–The World Turned Upside Down, painted by the Dutch Master Jan Steen sometime around 1669. Relating it to my own family life, and envisioning my world falling apart, I was horrified by it, so much so that the painting is still engraved in my memory. Of course, I now know that I needn’t have worried. As with most of Steen’s works, this painting not only characterized daily life in Holland; as importantly, it employed humor and allusions to proverbs, symbols, and myths so as to depict a moral parable. In fact, this particular painting became a trope in Dutch life, as burgers came to describe a lively, untidy home–such as the one I had been raised in–as a “Jan Steen Household.”  Still very young at the time, I was too innocent to appreciate the duality in Steen’s painting: I saw the chaos, but I failed to see the spirited activities that gave rise to it.

The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Revived during times of trial, this schematic of the world teetering on the edge of chaos has endured for centuries. Not surprisingly, it accompanied the revolutionary era, appearing first in England and then in the United States. (See Chris Hill, The World Turned Upside Down; radial ideas during the english revolution, Penguin Books 1991.) In 1643, for example, a broadside first published the English ballad The World Turned Upside Down, whereafter it was sung as a protest against Parliamentary policies, which sought to outlaw traditional Christmas Celebrations. Rumor has it, moreover, that American troops also played this tune during the American Revolution, when General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781.
The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Most recently, the author/journalist Melanie Phillips has borrowed on this theme, attributing todays absurdities–such as climate change, the war in Iraq, fraud, bank failures, etc.–to a world run amok. According to her, science has been overturned by ideology.
Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Having become far more cosmopolitan over the years, I can now see the world in complex terms. What to earlier generations was considered a world upside down, now looks to me like a phase transition. Fortunately, for me, growing up in a bohemian household has helped me to deal with ambiguity, such as is depicted in the paintings and tropes I have mentioned. Better still–although there is no paint or printers ink under my nails–the way of life I learned from my mother has prepared me to follow in her footsteps, and enjoy complexity to the fullest.

Ring Out The Old. . .

Happy New Year from Lake.Sider

Having made our New Year’s resolutions, my husband and I sat down to our New Year’s breakfast–eggs benedict–which Brock had specially prepared for the occasion.We held up our glasses, filled with champagne, and toasted the New Year: “Welcome Yule.”

While this is an annual event for us, I was struck on this occasion by the passage of time.

I was struck by the passage of time. 

The old song, “
Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New
,” came to mind, and hearing the words resound in my brain, I was taken aback. The tune goes like this:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Perhaps my surprise reflected my feelings about aging and the totality of life. For unlike Father Time, I am not prepared at my ripening age to take my leave as yet .  In this, I am reminded of my mother who–especially as she got older–would recite Lewis Carroll’s poem from Alice in Wonderland, “You Are Old Father Williams.”, as if to mock her fate and give herself permission to simply be herself.  As each day passes, I come to appreciate the poem’s significance–as well as my mother–more and more.

You are old, Father William’, the young man said,
   ‘And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head —
   Do you think, at your age, it is right?’

‘In my youth’, Father William replied to his son,
   ‘I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
   Why, I do it again and again.

Nonsense poems are no longer in vogue. So I wonder, what might my mother say, were she here today. How would she phrase her pleasure in being alive.? Assuming that she had read all about complex systems, she might have taken great pleasure referencing all the non-linearities that such systems afford. As well, she might have pointed to the works of Brian Arthur and Stuart Kauffman, recalling that life is full of synergies and increasing returns, And, of course, she would have mentioned fat tails–that is to say how the richer get richer, and the elders have more fun!
Dip's fat tail. by caysee

So before lifting my glass and having another sip of champagne, I will take a brief respite. The first thing I will do is to stand on my head. Then I will ride down the fat tail slide. Want to come along? All Aboard!

Blogging in the Interstices

Interstice by gregory lee

Interstice by gregory lee

I have been thinking about interstices a lot these days–that is, ever since one of the Chinese students in my Networks and International Development Class protested that, given institutional lock-in, reforms could never come about in China. I gently begged to disagree. As I told her, and as we had discussed in class, in a networked society, small changes in any one part of the system can have major ramifications throughout. As important, by focusing on these small changes in the interstices of a social order, reformers could remain under the radar, and thereby circumvent the powers that be. The key for those of us who want to bring about change today is to identify the most promising interstices.

The key for those of us who want to bring about change today is to identify the most promising interstices.

Somewhat skeptical, the student persisted, asking for examples. So I provided an account of how the rise of cities in the Middle Ages helped to undermine the European feudal order (Braudel 1992).

It so happened that I was well prepared for the task, having listened only a few days before to a lecture on tape by Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz, in the series Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal, which was sponsored by The Teaching Company. As the lecturer had pointed out, although late Medieval cities originally emerged as an off-shoot of feudal land holders, they eventually took on a new, and transformative, life of their own.

Middle age alley by Vincent Giraud

Middle age alley by Vincent Giraud

In fact, with the rise of commerce and the city merchants that promoted it, Europe was never the same. This new merchant society, which was based on the accumulation of wealth and industrial performance, gave rise to a new class–the bourgeoise–as well as new institutions –such as the guilds– that sought not only to restrict the powers of the nobility but also to extend the social order outside of the parameters of the feudal world itself.

Where are the critical interstices in our global society today? Recent events in Iran provide a clue. Just as, during the Middle Ages, cities went relatively unnoticed as they developed the commercial resources that allowed them to overturn the prevailing social order, so today Iranian hackers have managed to develop the kinds of net-savvy skills required to create a protest movement in an interstitial, virtual space, making it possible for them to outwit a very powerful and seemingly entrenched regime. As described by Murad Ahmed, writing in The Times Online, June 18, 2009:

It has come as a surprise to many, not least to Iran’s regime, just how effectively the country’s young population has been able to articulate and organize [an] opposition protest on the web. New technologies have turned yesterday’s flashmob into today’s political rally. With elements of the Iranian mobile phone system disabled, the internet has become the organizing medium for the opposition and Facebook and Twitter the tools of choice to communicate and organize dissent.

Further contemplating the notion of interstices, I see a new link between some of the ideas that we discuss in my Networks and International Development class and those that we focus on in my class on The Networked Economy. In the latter, we read Ron Burt, and discuss the resources gained by an organization when it develops structural autonomy by bridging structural holes (that is, the gaps in social structure). With the recent events in Iran in mind, it seems that Burt’s notion of structural autonomy is also apropos for describing that situation. For it would appear that the interstices that I speak of in my development class are non other than Burt’s structural holes where– with a little bit of strategic networking–formidable resources and power can be cultivated.

A Double Header in New York

courtesy of yodababy 26

courtesy of yodababy 26

As an ardent childhood fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers–one, in fact, who paid her dollar to keep the team in Brooklyn–it is perhaps natural that I viewed my recent trip to New York as a double header.

Fortunately, I was able to preface my participation in the Columbia University Conference, Changing Dynamics of Public Controversies, with a visit to my grand daughter Sophie’s kindergarten class, where the students were celebrating her 6th birthday. To my surprise, I discovered an interesting connection between the two events.  It was a link that–as it turned out–relates to norms.

I discovered an interesting connection between the two events–a link that relates to norms. 

Sophie’s class room is not only cozy and comfortable, it is also flush with excitement, enthusiasm, and riotous color–all of which is mirrored in the artwork and projects displayed in every nook and cranny.

Red a la Kindergarten (courtesy of Fun Monitor)

Red a la Kindergarten (courtesy of Fun Monitor)

Thinking of my own experience with graduate students, I marveled at Sophie’s teacher’s ability to keep all of these somewhat hyper children consistently and cooperatively engaged while moving seamlessly from one set of activities to the next.   First there were art projects, then a general gathering with the children assembled on a bright rug at the front of the class, where I had the pleasure of reading to them.  Returning to their tables,  the children sang happy birthday; ate cupcakes topped with multi-colored icing, and played with their wind-up party favors.   Before orderly lining up to go home, they had one last chance to expel their energy, dancing together on the rug.

How, I wondered to myself, did Sophie’s teacher orchestrate this ensemble? Certainly her knowledge of, and empathy with, the children was key. But the children also did their part. They were following established norms, which were listed prominently on the classroom wall. Having committed to these few simple rules, each child was able to demonstrate his or her individuality, while working together as a group.  

My day and a half visit with my grandkids was far too short.  But it was full of special moments. By far the best was the interaction between Ben and Sophie in which they negotiated their behavior with respect to one another. Clearly, they had a common idea of what it meant to be  good. final_img_35341

“Sophie,” said 8-year old Ben, “I am going to be nice to you today because it is your birthday,” “Ben,” Sophie responded: “I am going to be good today because it’s my birthday.”

Taking my leave, and driving into New York, my thoughts shifted from my childhood in New Jersey to my graduate days at Columbia University. Advancing down the Henry Hudson Parkway, and turning onto 125th Street and Broadway (a recurrent scene in my dreams) I felt like a student again, full of anticipation and excitement for the day’s events. Above all, I wanted to hear what Bruno Latour and Jochai Benkler had to say, not only to the audience, but also-and especially–to one other. Both speakers are featured in my classes, and the students from my Networked Economy class were waiting for a full report.

The conference focused on the question of whether and where effective public controversies will likely be aired, given the recent decline of the newspaper industry and the journalism profession. Participants were concerned lest, in the absence of robust newspapers, the public will lack the knowledge and wherewithal to foster societal norms much less hold the government accountable to them. Dean Nicholas Lemann of Columbia University’s School of Journalism and Paul Starr from Princeton University laid out the problem, while Bruno Latour and Jochai Benkler spoke to it.

Bruno Latour dismissed the problem, as it was defined. Echoing Walter Lippman‘s notion of the phantom public, he contended that neither the public–nor for that matter society–exist in reality. As Latour claims, there really is no social stuff–that is to say, norms–out there.  (See, for an in-depth discussion, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory 1995.) Instead, as Latour describes it, actors assemble sporadically when specific issues arise. Lacking in-depth knowledge, the public should not engage in the resolution of issues but rather  act like lighthouses, signaling their existence to policy actors.

In contrast, Jochai Benkler’s remarks were premised on the existence of norms.   As he described, using today’s digital technologies, individuals have a far greater opportunity to generate a public  than they did in the past. Digital technologies not only allow them to  gain greater access to knowledge; they can also employ these technologies to act on that knowledge is conjunction with others.  However, this collaboration is only possible, given the existence of norms such as trust and reciprocity, which sustain a gift economy.

Riding home on Amtrak, I reflected about the issue of norms, especially Latour’s assertion that they are ephemeral.  Questioning his perspective, I asked myself: Have I had not just witnessed their actual existence in my grand daughter’s classroom?  Moreover, have I not seen how norms are negotiated in the interchange between my two grandchildren Sophie and Ben?   As importantly, have I not witnessed via the current  financial crisis what happens when a society–in the name of deregulation–has renounced its norms?  These experiences lead me to believe that what is needed today is not only an economic stimulus “package”, but also–and more importantly-normative guidelines about how the American people’s monies should be spent.

How Utterly Absurd!

Trying to interpret the political and economic events of the last few weeks, I am reminded of my German classes, in which I struggled to decode German texts that were written in the style of the theatre of the absurd.

Trying to interpret the political and economic events of the last few weeks, I am reminded of my German classes, in which I struggled to decode German texts that were written in the style of the theatre of the absurd. Although many of the first playwriters to work in this genre stemmed from France, and drew upon the existentialist philosophy of Albert Camus, the full range of such authors eventually extended across Europe and the United States. They included playwriters such as Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Edward Albee, and Frederic Durrenmatt, among others.

Waiting for Godot (courtesy of Roger Cummiskey's photostream)

Waiting for Godot (courtesy of Roger Cummiskey

What constituted them as a group was their shared belief that the world–as it appeared in the wake of the Second World War–was meaningless. Mirroring this perspective, they used the tools of irony and absurdity to make their case theatrically.

While studying German, the absurdist play that impressed me most–and the one that readily comes to mind today–was Romulus the Great, written by the Swiss playwright Frederick Durrenmatt. Described as a non-historic, historical comedy, Romulus der Grosse takes place in the last year of the Roman Empire, when Rome was being overrun by the Ostrogoths–germanic barbarians from the north (476 A.D.). The chief protagonist, the Emperor Romulus, is portrayed as being disinterested and passive in the face of on-coming disaster, preferring to cater to the needs of his chickens rather than the needs of his citizens. Thus, when the leader of the invading troops offered to spare Rome in exchange for the hand of Romulus’ daughter, the Emperor turned down the proposal with alacrity. As his family and colleagues call upon Romulus to take action against the barbarians, he refuses, instead staving the Ostrogoths off with plucked gold leaves from his crown. His wife, daughter, and key members of his entourage flee on a ship, only to die at sea in a raging storm. Romulus, the only survivor, remains in Rome, steadfast in his passivity. How absurd!

Romulus Der Grosse (courtesy of Toni Birrer)

Romulus Der Grosse (courtesy of Toni Birrer)

Reading this play, I was grateful when my German Professor–whose name, unfortunately, I cannot recall–provided some meaning to this meaninglessness. As he pointed out, all of Durrenmatt’s plays and short stories are based on an anti-hero–that is a person who, while appearing to be a cad, or mad, has some redeeming graces. As interpreted by Durrenmatt, Romulus is just such a person; presenting himself as unpatriotic, unsympathetic, diffident and disinterested throughout most of the play, Romulus is no fool. Believing the Roman Empire to be decadent, corrupt, and out of touch with its changing environment, he looks to his invading neighbors (who wear pants as opposed to robes) to bring modernity to Rome.

Reckoning with recent current events, which are so out of the ordinary, I wonder: Could President Bush be an anti-hero, much like Romulus? If so, what might be his redeeming graces?

Could President Bush be an anit-hero, much like Romulus? If so, what might be his redeeming graces? 

I can assure you, I am no fan of President Bush, often questioning throughout his administration whether he really had his wits about him. But, then again, I do not think he is mentally deficient. What might make him an anti-hero? Well, as the Washington Post reports in its story Bush’s Shifting Ideology: 2nd Term Markedly Different From 1st. (Saturday, September 20, 2008, p. A 1), President Bush–much like Durrenmatt’s Romulus–appears to have recognized the need for change when faced with disastrous and radically different circumstances. Accordingly–absurd as it might seem–contrary to everything that Conservative Republicans hold dear, Bush has proposed an economic rescue plan that entails the government takeover of some of the Nation’s largest and most influential financial firms, at a cost that surpasses the budget of the Pentagon. Moreover, just as Romulus’ cohorts were befuddled by his behavior, and urged him to take a stand on behalf of the empire, many Republicans today are perplexed by the lame duck president’s suddenly taking a stance so at odds with their entrenched ideology. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga) characterized the situation:

We have now launched big-government Republicanism. If we saw France do this, Italy do this, we would have thought it was crazy. We would have had pious speaches about the folly of bureaucrats running businesses. (Washington Post, September 20, 2008, p. A10)

Of course, the case of Romulus and Bush are by no means parallel in every detail. Romulus strives to bring about change by destroying the empire; whereas Bush is trying to save the country by challenging the Republican ideology. For me, what makes Bush a potential anti-hero is that, much as in ancient Rome, despite all the incentives to fall back on simplifying ideological cliches, which appeal to the voting public, President Bush–of all people–has finally acknowledged that the world is just not that simple.

Students often ask me how the literature that we read in class relates to the real world that they inhabit. Sometimes it is difficult to explain–so I say, just wait and you will see. For it is only now, some forty years later, that I can appreciate how much my German Professor, and his interpretation of Durrenmatt, has meant to me.