Archive for April, 2010

To Be Human

Last night was the Honors Spring Recognition Event and Awards Ceremony.   One thing that surprised me was not only that  I won the “Outstanding Teaching in the Honors Program” award, but that Jeff Lees and Nancy Varin, two of the most creatively thoughtful and hard working students I know, gave me such a kind introduction.   I know that sounds like blog bragging (“I won an award, nanana…”), but I mention it because it means a lot to me to have the respect of students whom I greatly respect (and expect to do great things).

The point of this post is not that.  Rather, Professor Matthew Freytag gave an interesting talk about the “western canon of philosophy.”   In his introduction he noted how, for the first time in history, the living outnumber the dead.   More humans are alive on planet earth now than have lived and died throughout the millennia.

Think about what that means in a very broad context.  Assuming that we do not decline in population due to some catastrophe in the coming centuries, we are literally “early humans.”   The number of people before us are few, the number who will come after us is massive.   Looked at in that light, and seeing the starvation, illness, war, and difficulties on this planet, we can at least take solace in the fact that we’re just starting to cope with these problems.   We live in the dark, dirty, and violent pre-history of humankind.

Not only that, but what it means to be human is becoming a universal rather than a local issue.  In the past being human was literally defined by the culture and traditions of a society.  The western notion of “individualism” —  that an individual can somehow decide as one person what values to hold and live by — was literally non-sense throughout much of recorded history.   Your values were passed on to by your culture, you had meaning only as part of a community or clan.

Thus being human meant something different to people across the globe.  Sure, we can say there have always been biological entities called humans, but that in and of itself says little.  Humans without contact with others do not survive.   Humans only learn from what they experience, and most of that is in a clear cultural context.    Think about political blogosheres on the left and the right.  They quite literally exist in different worlds.   They share the same physical world, but the meaning of life, politics and even being human is defined in starkly different terms.

So the question now becomes: is there a universal ideal of what it means to be human which transcends culture and tradition?   If so, how will we know we have it when we have it?

I suspect the answer to question one is no, but with a caveat.   Rather than there being a universal ideal of what it means to be human, I would argue there are universal ideals.   We can’t get to these through abstract philosophy or theory, however, since philosophy inherently places vast limits on human thought and reason.    The world is a lot more culturallymcomplex than any philosophical system can take into account.   So I’d answer the second question by saying we approach one of the possible ideal understandings of being human when the consequences  of the actions taken by people within that framework yield a society where people are free, at peace, and do not live off the exploitation of others.

And, to be sure, many political theories are meant to achieve that.   Two extreme theories, each resting fundamentally flawed premises, are those of communism and radical libertarianism.   The former sees the individual as unimportant with a focus on the community, the latter sees the community as meaningless, focusing on the individual.   Perhaps one of the greatest errors made by political thinkers is to see this dichotomy as an “either-or,” or, more fundamentally, to see “individual” and “community” as distinct and different concepts.

I would argue you can’t have a meaningful individual identity outside a community, and a community cannot exist without meaningful individual choices.    To the first proposition, one might point to someone who leaves a community and goes to live in the wild, becoming a hermit.   Surely the hermit has a meaningful identity, even if he lives alone.  But the hermit has already had an identity before leaving.   His or her ability to stay alive, make sense of the world, use a language, and hold core values come from the community left behind.

Sticking with our hermit, one could imagine individual contemplation in the wilderness leading to new ideas and a new sense of meaning.   This would be different than the community he or she left behind, but those community ideals would still have been the starting point, without which the new contemplation could not have been made.  Now, imagine this hermit entering a new society, with very different ideas and cultural beliefs.   She or he could join this new community.   That would require adopting the new society’s core norms and values, but the hermit would always be somewhat different than the rest because of his or her other life experiences.

Being human may entail, beyond the basic biological functions, participating in that social enterprise of  constructing meaning.    We are perhaps by nature builders of societies, inherently part of that which we are constructing.   That includes music, art, business, sport, and all aspects of life shared between humans.   We even construct the boundaries defining the line between individual and society.    The problem with communism and radical libertarianism is that those boundaries overly privilege one part of human existence at the expense of another.

If this is the case, we are entering a new phase of human existence, when local cultures now interact and often conflict, and when there are enormous possibilities of what we might construct.   There is something comforting in that.   Yes, the problems and ugliness of this world is immense, but humanity is still in its  early days.   What is now seen as high tech modern dynamism will someday be viewed as the primitive, barbaric human pre-history.   By living each day, we’re contributing to whatever product emerges, even as we construct meaning for our own lives now.   And if that’s what being human is all about, that’s good enough for me.


Britain in Transition

A colleague posted something recently on Facebook about how Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Prime Minister candidate in Great Britain, studied a year at the University of Minnesota from 1989-90.   Nobody I’ve talked to can remember him, however.   I have a passage in my private journal of how at a get together to talk about a paper he was present, but I have no recollection of him.   To be sure, that year I had become “ABD” (All But Dissertation), having passed my three preliminary exams (each one eight hours long — International Relations, Foreign Policy, and West European Politics).  I was no longer taking seminars so I didn’t the same contact others would have had with him.  Still, I wish I could at least conjure up a memory.

The election taking place in Great Britain could be historic.   Britain has a parliamentary system, meaning that there is no President.   The head of Parliament also heads the executive branch of government.   To Americans this seems strange, as we associate “checks and balances” with governance.   In Britain there are quite literally no checks and balances.   The legislative and executive branches are one, with the Prime Minister atop each, while there is no judicial review or constitution.   Whatever Parliament passes becomes law.

Moreover, while nominally a bicameral system, the power rests in the House of Commons, as the House of Lords can only delay laws.   Thus Parliament can ban any kind of speech it wants, overnight nationalize health care (which it did in 1945) or overnight privatize large industries (which Thatcher did in 1979 – 80).   The power in the hands of the Prime Minister is immense due to party loyalty and the two party system.    A Prime Minister can be removed if the party rebels against him or her, but that is rare.

What keeps Britain within the confines of a functioning democracy without massive abuses of power is tradition and a political culture with clear rules — albeit normative rather than legal constraints.  When Margaret Thatcher won a vote to remain head of her party in 1990, a vote she fought hard to win, she nonetheless stepped down from office because the size of her victory was too small in light of British tradition.   Such a centralized system probably could not function in most places, but Britain proves that tradition and culture is a more powerful constraint than laws and constitutions.  (Theoretically the Monarchy could step in if Parliament broke treaties with the Monarchy, but that’s never been tested).

Yet Britain has never truly been a full two party system.   Third parties have been common, with the Liberal Democrats in various guises a continual rival to the big parties, Labour and the Conservatives.   Previously Labour had been the third party, but they replaced the Liberal Democrats as one of the top two after World War II when Clement Attlee led Labour to a victory over Winston Churchill and the conservatives.

The British have a “first past the post” system, with only one vote for each citizen: who should represent their district.   They do not vote directly on the Prime Minister’s position, that’s done in the House of Commons.   So if someone wants Nick Clegg to be Prime Minister, they must vote for the Liberal Democrat running in their district.    Districts are won when a candidate gets a plurality — simply more votes than anyone else.   Thus, even though the Liberal Democrats have often got decent percentages of the overall vote, they have not won many seats.   They might get 15% of the vote in a district, but almost always Labour or the Conservatives would get more.   That means in every election one single party has had a majority in the House of Commons, and has been able to govern.

Yet this time, the three parties are neck and neck, with the Liberal Democrats apparently in the lead.   What does this mean?   There are a few options:

1.  Could the Liberal Democrats supplant Labour or the Conservatives as one of the top two parties?   Perhaps they could do to Labour what Labour did to them over six decades ago?   Probably not — Labour has a lot of safe districts and core support.   The Conservatives at one point looked so weak one could have imagined them losing out, but they’ve had a resurgence under David Cameron.

2.   Will the Liberal Democrats gain enough seats to force a coalition government?  This is an intriguing possibility.   If the seats are split three ways, then the parties will have to negotiate to form a coalition government.   Since the Prime Minister would rely on support outside his party, that would limit the power of a Prime Minister in an unprecedented way.   Britain, always so stable, could have coalition crises or other events, a real challenge to its political culture.

If there is a coalition, the Liberal Democrats would be a likely part of it, since the Conservatives and Labour are more distant from each other ideologically.   Yet coalitions often defy such ideological logic.   Labour and the Tories (the Conservatives) might decide that Clegg is a short term phenomenon, and they can hold their position atop the system by forming a coalition together.  The danger in that is that this makes the Liberal Democrats the only opposition party, something likely to strengthen them.   Negotiations would be interesting.

3.   Will the Liberal Democrats force a change to a proportional representation system?   One thing they’ve always “threatened” is to change Britain’s age old electoral system to one of proportional representation, thereby giving third parties more of a chance to be part of a government.   This would likely make coalitions the norm rather than the exception, and end the stable dominance of whichever party wins a British election.   On the positive side, this seems to have a surer check on any abuse of power.   On the negative side, this is a breaking of British tradition, and many fear that if that tradition cracks, then the glue that holds Britain’s political culture together might be in danger.   Since they rely on tradition and culture for their stability, this could have fierce unintended consequences.

All of this is hard to predict.   Since individual races matter, depending on how the vote comes out a party might get a large chunk of the vote but very few seats.    Slight variations in vote totals can have an exaggerated impact on the final outcome.   It is possible that either Labour or the Conservatives will win outright and avoid a coalition (much more likely for the Conservatives to do so).   Despite the Liberal Democrat surge, they face problems in winning seats.   Still, at least from a political science perspective, this is a really fascinating election!

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United Airlines Gets a C+

Last year I gave effusive praise to Delta airlines for helping save the day on the Italy trip, both heading out there, and returning.    This year, United Airlines almost didn’t get a passing grade for the Chicago trip.

The flight out there was fine, but the problem was the trip home.   I met Jade at 6:15 (her hostel was only about five minutes from my hotel) and we took the blue line straight to O’Hare.   We got there plenty early, it seemed, and checked the board for our flight, finding out it left from terminal two.    We got there, but were told we could only check luggage in terminal one.   So we headed to terminal one, checked in and checked our luggage.   As we were heading back to terminal two, I realized that our gate was actually located in terminal one (they had changed departure terminals).   We quickly turned around and went back, and then had a delay as we went through security.   No problem, we got through, and then had to go all the way down to the end of the concourse, using quick people movers.   Our flight was at 8:13, with all the mix ups we still got there at 8:04.

Then, it got weird.   First, I tell the woman that we’re there for the Portland flight.   “Where were you,” she asks, and then ignoring our response turns and heads down the ramp.   She came back and mumbled something about someone from down there helping us, which left me a bit confused.   Then she disappeared.   I finally “found” her (she had gone to the other side of the counter and sat in the dark) and asked her if we were going to get on the flight.   She nervously said “no,” and that the guy would be up to help us.   She also muttered something about compensation.    Perhaps she had been shell shocked from too many complaints, or felt guilty for closing up the flight so early.    “OK,” I said, realizing she wasn’t going to help.

The guy came up and said matter of factly that the best we could get was stand by on the 2:09 flight.   When I asked, “shouldn’t we get priority since we were bumped…”  He snapped an interruption, “you weren’t bumped, you weren’t here!”  He then handed me our standby tickets.

OK, I have a firm rule not to argue with airport people, their lives are difficult dealing with angry travelers anyway.   So I bit my tongue, took the tickets, and went with Jade to find somewhere to sit down.    She has papers to work on, so she figured she could at least do that…until she realized she’d packed her power chord in luggage that assuredly had made it to the proper flight.    Her battery had about eight minutes left.   As I watched the flight leave the gate, I really found myself irritated with United.

First, we had just checked in.   They knew we were there.   We had luggage.    If we knew there was a risk that they’d replace us with stand by people, we’d have checked with someone to send word.    Second, even though their signs say “please be here ten minutes before departure,” it’s pretty crappy of them to replace people who just checked in with stand by people right at that moment.   We got there less than one minute late; an airline boosting of ‘friendly skies’ should be able to wait an extra minute or two.    And though the lady muttered something about compensation we weren’t offered a thing.

Well, I knew I wasn’t going to scream at the employees, though it also irritated me that they gave us no sympathy.   We either got the nervous guilty lady who hid away, or the aloof abrupt man who scolded me for using the word “bumped.”  Last year when Delta told us we might have our group miss our Rome flight and spend a day at JFK, I was exceedingly friendly and understanding to the workers, and they kept me informed, apologized, and showed that they wanted to help.    It ended up working out, but either way I would have been very happy with Delta’s show of concern.   This time…well…I didn’t want to sit and wait to maybe get a stand by seat at 2:09, so I went back to the guy at the desk.

I showed no irritation, smiled, and asked about alternative flights.   He looked at his computer and said finally, “nothing confirmed today, it’s all stand by.”   When I said it doesn’t have to be direct, he said he’d checked every airline and every possibility.  “Wow,” I replied.   I then had a higher opinion of him, he was at least trying.   I asked about Boston, and he said he could get us through via Syracuse, on a flight that left at 9:03.   I looked dubiously at my watch, which said 8:30, realizing the Syracuse flight was in the other terminal.   How could we get through security on time?   “You’ll get there,” he said, “there’s a shuttle bus at gate nine.”    He gave us our tickets, telling us we’d have find our way to Portland from Boston ourselves.

The flights went fine.    Jade was convinced that the problem was not United but O’Hare — in her mind, it’s an evil airport (she’s had other misadventures there).   In Boston we took an Enterprise shuttle to get a car rental for about $80, and on a gloriously sunny day the drive back was good.   When by mistake I got on I-90 and said “I’m going to have to turn around,” Jade said, “I have faith that a way to turn around will appear.”   Two minutes later there was an interstate U-turn to effortlessly shift from going West to East.  I have never encountered one of those before.  I accused Jade of simply making it appear through thought power.

In all, the day wasn’t that bad — just longer than it was supposed to be in terms of travel.   Jade sent her boyfriend a text message from Portland so he’d have dinner ready for her, and I got back home to my family by 7:00.

Still, while I credit United with on time quality flights there and back, it left a sour taste in my mouth that they replaced us so quickly, offered us no compensation, and with no sympathy.   I thought these were supposed to be the friendly skies!  In the end, the desk attendant redeemed himself by getting us at least through to Boston.   At this point, based on my experience, I’d choose Delta over United for future flights (though Germany is going to be via British Airways).

But perhaps I’m wrong.   Perhaps that’s just travel in a world where high oil prices and extensive competition lead companies to overbook, fly packed planes, and cut staff.   Maybe the staff is just so harried they have put up a barrier that prevents customers from getting to them, but also makes it harder for them to show sympathy and caring.   Perhaps the signs should read Get to the flight ten minutes before departure or you will lose your seat! I still am amazed that less than an hour after check in nine minutes plus was too late.   I guess we just have to get used to the nature of air travel in this new era.


Unions in America

One of the papers in the panel I participated in today followed media coverage of the recent effort to pass ‘card check’ for union organization.   The presenter, Dr. Glenn Richardson, showed how despite the fact that there were numerous examples of abuse by management, including intimidation of those who favored unionizing, the discourse around the issue tended to be dominated by images of “union thugs” intimidating workers.

However,  while there was a lot of evidence of employer intimidation, there was no evidence of union intimidation, even in card check certifications.   Moreover, the right supported its favorite option, secret ballots, by wrapping it in the guise of fundamental American belief in the secret ballot as essential to democracy.   The problem, of course, is that while employers do lobby employees, often with one on one meetings, threats to shut down if the company unionizes and other forms of intimidation, the union doesn’t get the names of the people who will be voting, and cannot effectively communicate with them.   Therefore, its not truly a free election, it favors the employer.   He noted numerous examples of this happening, even as the ‘union thug’ narrative (for which there was really no evidence) stuck in the media discourse.

Anyone who has lived in or studied European economies will notice two stark differences between Europe and the US.   First, the US has a much larger gap between the wealthy and poor, with workers getting much less vacation time and fewer protections.   They can also much more easily be fired (often for things like supporting unionization).   Second, labor unions are extremely weak and irrelevant in the US compared to Europe.   White collar unions are very rare in the US, but extremely popular in Europe.

The result has  been a massive shift of wealth from workers to business owners and stock holders, including a loss in relative wealth by white collar workers.   Without unions standing up for workers, they are increasingly unable to fight for better pay and working conditions.   In fact, when things go bad, like GM needing a bailout, often the unions get blamed for bad decisions from executives.   Given that so much damage was done by the collapse of the financial sector due to unregulated derivative trading, blaming unions seems obscene.

Why has America turned hostile to unions?   I think it’s a mixture of both discourse dominance by those hostile to unions, and the ability of high debt and cheap imports to keep workers believing unions aren’t needed.

The discourse control is obvious.   To disclose my clear bias, I am campus local President of AFUM, a union affiliated with the NEA (and Maine Education Association).   That means I am part of a rather powerful white collar union.   I do not agree with every position the NEA takes, but recognize that it works hard to protect educators.   Moreover, our dues cannot go to fund NEA political action, to support that we have to make separate contributions.

Because there has been corruption in unions (as in every major organization) and at times union deals have seemed to render extremely high salaries in times of plenty, unions get painted as “thuggish” corrupt organizations whose demands can destroy industries.   Unions are thus considered enemies of capitalism and markets, even though the idea of workers organizing to negotiate with employers is not anti-capitalist in any sense of the world.   These images are created with anecdotes and images of unions being power hungry and greedy.

The reality is far from that.  My union, for instance, just signed a two year contract with no salary increases for the first time ever.   The University system basically showed its books, worked with the union, and convinced us that it was really impossible at this time to afford raises.   Together, the system and the faculty want to show that we are working to keep education costs down and help solve the states’ financial difficulties.  In the airline industry, auto industry and everywhere unions are, there is a long history of even taking very large cuts in salary to protect the long term business.   Unions don’t do that if they don’t believe the cuts are truly necessary — but no one wants the jobs to be lost.

The people with the real power in the relationship are the employers.   Often they convince low paid clerical workers that their interests are with management.   White collar workers want to see themselves as above the grunt on the industry floor, so even though they’re really just doing glorified grunt work with a white collar, they view themselves as superior.   Thus the pay differential between upper management and so called low management is immense.   Without union protection, no one is fighting for better benefits, standing up for employees who have a grievance against management, and working to make sure that when profits are high, a fair share goes to the workers, not just the big shots.

The second point is that this discourse was sustained in part by a massive growth of cheap goods and people living in credit and appreciating home values.  This was an illusion, but it helped reduce dissatisfaction people had with their pay.   With unemployment low, most people had jobs and could be convinced that unionizing would be risky.

But the lack of unionization has contributed to the massive gap between rich and poor, one that makes the US almost seem to be more like a third world nation in the distribution of income than an advanced industrialized state.   I did a good two hour “urban walk” in downtown Chicago this evening, noting the stark differences between the ornate buildings and numerous homeless and poor shuffling around asking for spare change.   The real victims, though, are the working poor who toil with little pay, and often no insurance benefits or guaranteed vacation.

Some justify this by saying that’s what the market result is.  The Europeans are lazy to have five weeks paid vacation.   Bullshit.    You can darn well bet that those who really make out well in our system can get five weeks vacation easily, and spend it traveling and enjoying a fine lifestyle.   The market created this vast maldistribution of wealth only because it could be dominated by and manipulated by those with the wealth and control of both jobs and political messaging.

Stronger unions would be a market friendly way to address this.   It wouldn’t be welfare or socialism, but a way to give workers a stronger voice, to have a chance to really investigate how much a company can afford to pay, and reduce the vast discrepancies between management and worker pay.   It can forge a partnership between management and worker, whose destinies both benefit when a company does well.  Stronger unions would help us get through this time of economic hardship while trying to prevent the worker from bearing too much of the cost.

It’s not going to happen.   The discourse is fully entrenched in the “unions as corrupt thugs wanting to destroy business” narrative.   Unions are easily demonized, and few politicians see a lot of advantage in praising them publicly.    When unions want fair pay for workers, they are accused of class warfare.   Few accuse the big CEOs who get fired and collect tens of millions on the way out of class warfare.   But whose work really earned all that money?   Unions could bring about a fairer negotiation to help capitalism work better, and also show how “free trade” with countries that use virtual slave labor may make it appear we get cheap stuff, but that this is just exploiting foreign workers and weakening the position of American workers.

To be sure, I do prefer the German and Scandinavian notion of unions as partners with business rather than the British and often traditional American idea of them as adversaries.   The goal is to help make markets function justly, not to destroy them or hurt business.   However, I suspect the anti-union rhetoric will not go away any time soon.


Satire on the Left, Talk Radio on the Right

One question that came up at one of the panels today at the Midwest Political Science Association conference here in Chicago is why is it that the left does satire so well (Stewart, Colbert, etc.) while the right does not.   Or as one person put it, why is Dennis Miller so lonely?  Conversely, why does the right do talk radio so well, while the left does not?

Each of these are forms of political entertainment.   Satire, to be sure, is by its nature not only anti-establishment, but disruptive of conventional perspectives.   It looks for hypocrisy, contradictions, and absurdities not just from individuals, but within the very fabric of society.   That would suggest a progressive bent — by its nature it’s pushing the boundaries, questioning authority, and making fun of what society holds to be proper and true.    There is an irreverence there which requires a bit of rebelliousness, something contrary to core values of conservatism, which aims to protect societal norms.

Talk radio, on the other hand, has a more evangelical flair.   When Glenn Beck says that God is giving him a plan and tells people that the country as we know it is being transformed into  something contrary to American values, there’s an urgency there.   This isn’t just politics, this is akin to a crusade, an ideological jihad.  You don’t get ironic and funny if you think the country’s core values are under assault, you become committed.   Comedy seems frivolous.

To be sure, talk radio can be funny.   Beck has his jokes, and Limbaugh often engages in satire, exhibiting a type of bravado (“talent on loan from God”) which has its own wit and humor.   Whereas Beck seems certain he’s fighting the fight from God, Limbaugh seems to understand he’s doing a shtick, and despite his claims, doesn’t take himself so seriously.    But it’s still cutting political monologue, vicious attacks against Liberals, and assertions of ideological certitude.   Hannity, Beck, Limbaugh and the others belittle the left in an often insulting and misleading fashion.

On its face, satire may seem far superior to three hours of radio bombast, but there might be a core similarity at play.   Satire works in part by making the audience feel superior.  When Jon Stewart rips Fox news from hypocrisy, or juxtaposes Cheney quotes from 2003 and 2006 to show him hypocritical on Iraq, the viewer feels like “their” side is the side of reason and honesty.   Republicans look as bad in Stewart/Colbert land as Democrats look in Limbaugh/Hannity world.

And of course conservatives who revel in talk radio are certain that they are on the side of truth, and that Democrats are just driven by emotion or weak thinking.   Ironically, talk radio Meisters like Beck and Limbaugh are masters of emotional manipulation.   You don’t get audiences by intellectual connections, you get it by getting listeners riled up.   You get them mad about Obama, angry about health care, and fearful that they are losing their country.    But in both satire and talk radio, the listeners (or viewers) feel superior, their political leanings are vindicated.   How on earth can those liberals (or conservatives) not see the obvious failings of their perspective?

Still, back to the question.   Why does satire work for the left, and talk radio for the right?   Is there something psychologically different about liberals and conservatives?   Liberals tend to say that they believe more in reason, rational thought, and improving society.  To them, conservatives are fearful (of enemies, change, gays, and whatever) and thus prone to like tough talk and bombast.  Conservatives dislike weakness and see the world as fundamentally dangerous, according that argument and thus enjoy the tough style of talk radio appeals.

Conservatives, however, accuse liberals of being out of touch with reality.   They believe too much in ‘good will’ and that enemies can be rationally persuaded not to do things like engage in terror attacks.  To conservatives, talk radio is a break from the  dull indoctrinating din of “meanstream” media.    It is real Americana speaking through,  standing up against a growing government taking more money and exerting more control over our daily lives.   To them liberal satire is cute but petty.   Sure, Jon Stewart may cherry pick quotes and incidents, then use funny ways to mock FOX, Jim Cramer, or Republicans, but it’s not serious.   Liberals who think such things really speak to the complexities of America’s problems and vulnerabilities are, in conservative eyes, naive.

So perhaps liberal/progressives have a distaste for bombast and talk radio because its style of belittling others and playing to emotion runs against their world view.   Perhaps conservatives can’t make satire funny because it seems to trivialize issues in their eyes.   Or maybe it’s literally that conservatives so believe they are defending their world from leftist dangers that they have to be serious, while liberals are more willing to break with the past and undertake new policies to reshape the polity.  Satire is a way to show absurdities in the way things are done.

Fox tried a Stewart like show (“the Half Hour News Hour”) and it failed.  Liberals tried talk radio (Air America) and it failed.   So I ask again, why can the left do satire but not talk radio, and why can the right do talk radio but not satire?



Greetings from the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago.  Wednesday we had a very smooth trip to Chicago and the Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting.  This  conference is huge, with literally thousands of participants.  And while I love life in rural Maine, it’s nice to be a big city again, especially one like Chicago which has both friendly people and a beautiful downtown.

My task Wednesday evening was to read four papers which I am to discuss at a panel tomorrow.   This papers are outside my comfort zone, in that they are focused on media and communication studies.   One of them does take an approach very close to mine, with an emphasis on Gramsci and Stuart Hall, as well as psychology, but the others cite a literature I am only starting to become familiar with.    Though I have blogged about my change in research focus from German/European politics to an analysis of the US media, this is my first professional foray into that sub-field.   As such, it feels fresh, and I am thoroughly enjoying the papers I will discuss tomorrow.

One looks at the rise of Twitter, and its impact on politics, another on how teaching about media and politics has to change, another explores theoretical challenges to looking at new media, and the last analyzes the press to find a right wing bias in the “objective” reporting of welfare reform and other issues.   It’s closest to my approach, looking at framing and the nature of the reporting (e.g., reports focus on issues as political conflicts between elites, rather than getting in the merits of the issues).    When I first was asked to be a chair/discussant for this group, I thought about saying no — am I ready to critique colleagues who have been in this sub-field for years?   But two reasons pushed me to yes.  First, having been a section chair, I know how hard it is to get discussants.   I wanted to make my section chair’s life easier rather than more difficult.  Second, I thought that I could both learn a lot and come at the papers with a different perspective.

I’m excited about this new research path in part because things are in such a state of flux there isn’t a lot of good research that explores how media change is effecting politics.   Looking at blogs, the tea party movement and the like (I told my research assistant, who is co-presenting the paper here, that her task this summer would be to research facebook and politics), it’s a new world out there.   Gone is the elite/establishment “objective” perspective put forth by the big three networks and major news dailies.   Gone as well is the emphasis on professional reporting and thorough fact checking.    Now its about speed, gossip, rumor and emotion.   Blogs tend to speak to a particular audience, riddled with personal attacks of both politicians on the ‘other side’ and those who venture to their blog with a different perspective.   What does this all mean?

As much as it is obvious to anyone who has experienced how the world looks from a different perspective (in my case a European/German perspective vs. an American one), we all have biased interpretations of reality.  We don’t objectively see the world as it is, we interpret reality, politics, and even core values through prisms of beliefs and understandings about the world, acquired from life experience.   More than ever before these prisms are shaped by the media, thereby helping define how people see/understand the world.   So if the mass media are undergoing dramatic change, then politics cannot help but be fundamentally transformed as well.

So tea partiers twitter, Obama raises record money with a cyber campaign, the political pendulum shows a capacity to shift more wildly than ever before, and young people especially get used to all knowledge at their fingertips right away.   When I don’t know the answer to a question the first thing that comes out of my seven year old’s mouth is “google it!”  I had to explain to him that as vast as google is, it cannot tell me how cars will look in fifty years!

Unfortunately, I’m somewhat pessimistic about these changes, though a long term goal of the research will be to propose ways that this powerful media tool can be used to expand critical discussion rather than simply promote emotion-laden narratives.   This reflects the “libertarian education” goal of Paulo Friere, though applied more broadly.

But for now, I’m looking forward to this conference, the panels, and moving forward in this new research direction.

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Volcanic Ash?

In May I’m part of a travel course to some of my favorite world cities: Vienna, Munich and Berlin.   Yet even as we send payments for train tickets, air fare, and prepay for rooms in the hostels, the headlines scream about how travel to and throughout Europe is threatened by…a volcano.   I’ve planned and executed six travel courses before — five to Italy, one to Germany.   Some took place during January, when I had real concerns about snow storms preventing us from reaching Boston for the flight.  I never thought we’d need to be concerned about a volcano!

The volcano, located near Iceland, is called Eyjafjallajokull and has been erupting on and off since March.   Due to winds and the height of the ash most flights from Europe to the US and within Europe were canceled last weekend.  British Airways estimates loses at $25 – $30 million a day, with some believing the airline industry as a whole is losing $200 million a day.   Due to winds there have been some openings, and tomorrow a wind shift might clear some of the major airports which have been closed (like Charles De Gaulle in Paris, and the London airports), but no one knows how long the erruption will last, and how much ash will yet be spewed into the atmosphere.   Some ash has hit the east coast of North America, canceling even some far eastern Canadian domestic flights.

The US estimates there are 40,000 US citizens stranded in Great Britain alone, but all over Europe the impact has been felt.  President Obama even had to cancel his planned attendance at the funeral for the Polish President who was killed in a plane crash caused by a more usual suspect: horrible fog.   Most world leaders ended up missing that funeral, though the Russian President made it — which was important symbolically.

The Financial Times reports that the danger has been exaggerated by flawed computer models.   Test flights by European airlines through areas off limits to passenger travel have not shown damage to engines, making many believe that the European authorities were too quick to make extensive travel bans.    Yet without clear knowledge of what is safe and not safe, officials tend towards caution.   What would be the response if they eased up travel and one or more planes crashed? As bad as missing a trip would be, I certainly don’t want to risk having the engines fail on the plane!

What is interesting about this is how nature — a volcano located in the north Atlantic — can cause so much havoc in our globalized world economy.   Airlines, already dealing with rising oil prices, run quite literally on a tight schedule.  It used to be that customer service meant it made sense to have more flight seats open than people flying in order to assure people would find a schedule suiting them.   Over the years increased competition and higher costs have led to models that try to assure that as many flights as possible are booked full.   That means fewer flights — and more headaches trying to help tens of thousands of passengers get to where they want to go once the skies actually clear.

Not only does this affect airlines and tourism, but also shipping.   Companies are used to the capacity to send things overnight to and from Europe, and while freight generally is sent by ship, important documents and urgently needed materials go by air.   Individual travelers are also being hurt, especially those who can ill afford an extra week or so in foreign parts.   They not only lose income from lost work, but have to pay for hotels and food.    If this continues, who knows the long term consequences.

Yet this kind of event also should bring some perspective.   When we do the travel courses, we tell students one thing: don’t get frustrated or angry when things go wrong.   Travel is always like that, a flight is canceled, a museum closed when you expect it to be open, a train is late, etc.  So many times I’ve been in airports and seen business people and tourists angry, shouting at airline workers because their plans have been thrown asunder by mechanical problems or nature.   That only increases the level of frustration, and doesn’t solve the problem.   Watching that, I’ve made a point to be as understanding and friendly as possible in all circumstances — something which came in handy during our last trip.

When things go wrong traveling, you just have to go with it.  Tell yourself you’ll have a story, realize it’s a unique experience, and recognize that in most cases the inconveniences and problems are small when looked at in perspective.   Find fun in the situation if possible, joke, and know that things will get better.    I think sometimes people react to the stress of plans going awry with the instinctive human response we had back when saber tooth tigers attacked — adrenaline, worry, anger!   It’s important to take a minute, get perspective, and recognize that all the complaining and anger in the world won’t change the situation.

As we tell students, if you are good at travel, you’ll likely be good at life.   That capacity to roll with the changes when things go awry is the best way to reduce or avoid stress, and to stay alert for new, unexpected opportunities.    Most of the time the things that drive people crazy are ridiculously unimportant, no matter what it seems like at the time.    This “ash event” is forcing more people to confront the fact that the world doesn’t always adhere to our plans and hopes — and that’s OK.   We make it work out anyway.

So next month if we’re at the airport in Boston and are informed that our British Airways flight to Vienna via London has been canceled due to volcanic ash we’ll just have to figure something out.  Still, I really am looking forward to a Melange with Sachertorte, and strolling the grounds of Schloss Schoenbrunn.

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