Archive for category Research

European Union as a Model

For three years I have been running in place in terms of my research.   It’s not that I haven’t worked.  I’ve delved into new literature and even did some writing.    I’ve blogged about it here and here.   Yet somehow, despite lots of notes, books read and false starts, I’m left where I started – lots of ideas and ambitions, but no clear research strategy.

How do I restart my research?   My last publication was in 2009, when I shifted to this “new project.”   The final draft of my last major work, German Foreign Policy: Navigating a New Era, was sent to the publisher on April 3, 2003, the day my first son was born.     With young kids I purposefully cut back on research, but now I have a desire to write and produce but progress is elusive.

The problem is that I lacked a clear center.   The themes have been shifting- the changing nature of sovereignty, the impact of the communications revolution and social media, the profound challenge created by energy and environmental crises, the dysfunctional nature of economic policy throughout the industrialized world and the shift of power and influence from the West towards countries like China, India, and Brazil – whew!    How do I come up with a clear framework?   At times I think I have a track and then somehow it goes astray.

So I started to think.   What is the point of my research, why am I motivated to move away from examining German foreign policy?    The answer is because I feel myself lucky and intrigued to be living in an era of real crisis and transformation (the theme of this blog).   As a social scientist I find it fascinating to be on the planet at this time, watching as one era folds into another, bringing about profound change.

Watching the political discourse, its clear in the attacks on Obama that many people are lost in the 21st Century, trying to understand it through a 20th Century anachronistic lens

A motive of mine is to focus on what I see as the biggest barrier to successful navigation of this period of transition – old thinking.   Old thinking is everywhere!   When I see someone call Obama a “socialist” or a “Marxist,” I shake my head in amazement — can’t they see how obsolete looking at the world in those terms has become?   When people argue against globalization, talk as if a fossil fuel based economy is sustainable or speak of American power as if it still has the force it did in the last century, I realize “old thinking” dominates much of the political discourse.

That’s true in the US, but not so much in Europe.   I’m surprised by how Americans dismiss the European Union.   When the Eurocrisis started a couple years ago bloggers said things like ‘bye bye Euro’ and a few dismissed the possibility that the EU could survive.   I realized they were imagining people in the EU to be thinking about politics just like they were – with ‘old thinking.’  This is especially true from Great Britain and the US, the two former hegemonic powers where old thinking remains strongest.

E pluribus unum?

Yet within the EU, new thinking has already become entrenched.   The EU achieved the goals set by the Kyoto accords without harming their economy and are cutting ambitiously moving forward.   Germany plans to be off fossil fuels by 2050.   Military power is considered best used for humanitarian interventions sanctioned by the UN and not raw pursuit of national interest.  Sovereignty has already been replaced by subsidiarity, and globalization is taken as a matter of course.

That’s it – the European Union needs to be the center of the research.   All policies and issues connect, and it takes me back to a literature I know well and have been studying since the 80s – European integration!   Moreover, I think there needs to be some work done really stressing the revolutionary, positive and sustainable aspects of the EU at a time when people want to prematurely embrace its demise.   The fact the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize this year only adds to its relevance.

The Euro crisis opens the door to analyze the global economic crisis, its causes and the way out.  The EU’s strong focus on human rights, the environment and energy opens the door to address those issues, including the diversity between France’s embrace of nuclear energy to Germany’s (apparent) rejection of the same.    The diverging paths of the US and EU since the Iraq war, including questions about the future of NATO, open the door to discussing terrorism and the nature of war/conflict in this new era.   Issues involving Islam and the West are profound in Europe.   The whole package requires a new theoretical approach to politics, building on the neo-liberalism and identity theories of the 20th Century.

That necessarily includes the impact of the information revolution ranging from the internet to social media and beyond.  But with the EU as the core, I can now envision how it will fall into place, including how all the work I did the last three years is not for naught — I simply needed something to center it.   To find that I went back to my roots as an academic, a focus on Europe and the EU.   In fact, my concluding chapter in the book on German foreign policy has those very arguments which I can build upon.

Of course!  The answer has been in front of me all the time.   I thought I had to venture away from my specialization to look at media and change.   The key is to integrate these ideas into what I’ve already been doing.   Time to get writing!

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Learning from Germany

Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhardt deserved to celebrate Germany's Wirtschaftswunder

Das Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, is what Germans called the quick recovery of their economy after WWII.  After a horrible winter in 1946, Germans went to work to rebuild their country, getting off rationing even before the victorious French and British.    In the 1950’s Erhardt as Economics Minister  presided over the regeneration of the German economy as he pushed for rapid free market reforms, even surpassing the pace suggested by the allies.   Erhardt was Chancellor from 1963 to 1966 (replacing Adenauer, the first West German Chancellor who came to office in 1949), promoting both market economics and European economic unity.

Central was the concept of the Soziale Marktwirtschaft or social market economy.   In terms of economic theory this relates to the Freiburg school or Ordoliberalism.   Essentially the role of the state is to try to assure that the free market economy produces as close to possible the maximum amount it is capable of producing.   Ordoliberalism rejects the idea that markets can function ‘magically’ or efficiently without the state – the state has a key role to play.    This includes social welfare protections, collective bargaining, and state support of some industries.   However, it is a liberal theory, rejecting socialist planning and socialist goals.   The desired end result is not based on a theory of social justice or exploitation, but on having the market economy work as well as it possibly can.

(To American readers who haven’t studied political philosophy:  liberalism here means a belief in limited government and a capitalist market economy — Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were ideological liberals.  The jargony use of liberal to mean leftist in the US is idiosyncratic to US politics!)

Even when the Social Democrats were in power from 1969 – 1983 and 1998 – 2005 they did not veer from the main components of Erhardt’s vision.   The Christian Democrats never embraced a more radical form of liberalism like what Thatcher brought Great Britain or Reagan brought the US, also remaining true to the social market economy.

Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt's economic policies were pragmatic rather than ideological and earned Germany the label "Modell Deutschland," the Social Democratic slogan for the 1976 election.

Right now Germany is out performing almost every major industrialized economy, except perhaps some of the Scandinavian states.

Think about what that means.   Here in the US pundits want to tell us that higher taxes, social welfare spending, and more regulation are all “job killers” that would destroy our economic recovery.   Yet the best performing states during this recession (and Germany’s record is solid for the entire post-war history) have far higher tax rates, more social welfare spending and more regulation than ours.   Indeed, thanks to the power of Germany’s Green party the environmental regulations in Germany are among the most extensive in the world.   Germany has met and gone beyond the Kyoto protocol goals.   The first lesson from Germany is not to believe the ideological punditry!

That doesn’t mean we should emulate Germany; US culture is different, as are our strengths and weaknesses.   Germany has also done some things Republicans would admire.   The two major parties – Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – agreed on a balanced budget amendment designed to assure that German debt doesn’t increase.   That sent a clear signal to bond markets and currency traders that the Euro’s anchor is secure.   Regardless of what happens on the periphery, the underlying value of the Euro will remain strong because the German economy is stable.

A second thing we should learn from Germany is the strength of pragmatism.    Pragmatism means avoiding ideological thinking in order to figure out the best way to solve a problem.   Moreover, pragmatism for Germans is rooted in principle – the idea that the social market economy reflects support for a free market economy that operates as best as possible, with the public interest protected.   That means all citizens should have a chance to succeed, and basics such as health care, education, pensions, job training and a decent standard of living are guaranteed.   It’s not an effort to equalize out comes — there are many extremely wealthy Germans — but to assure equal opportunity and a minimum standard of living.

This pragmatism means that the two parties share a deep set of principles that unite them.   As much as they disagree on various policies and programs, they know that its most important that Germany deal with problems through compromise and avoiding either an ideological lurch to the left (massive debt, redistribution and spending) or to the liberal right (deregulation, massive tax cuts, leaving the poor to their own devices).    Moreover, the social market economy is based in part on understanding the power of incentives — all policies from the tax code to social welfare programs should be structured in a way that does not create incentives to cheat the system or avoid work.   Germany’s balanced all this better than most advanced industrialized states.

It works.   It’s not perfect.  The budget contains inefficiencies, there have been recessions and economic problems, but looking at Germany’s economy today one can’t help but be impressed.   If it weren’t for Germany, the situation in Europe would be far bleaker.

Those reading this blog over the past couple years recall that I’ve started rather bold research programs involving the media, consumerism, and the construction of values.    These questions have intrigued me and helped guide my teaching.   But ultimately I found myself unable to push the research along, it was too daunting to really shift my focus.

Will my 2003 book finally get a sibling?

So I’m back to what I’ve published on, wrote my dissertation about, and remain keenly interested in: German politics, and by extension, the European Union.    My focus is going to be to write a book that gives an accessible history of German economic policy and the keys to on going success, and then investigate what we can learn from Germany’s experience.    Does Germany’s success mean we have to rethink the theoretical and ideological arguments so common from both the right and the left in the US?    Does Germany have the capacity to help guide the EU into a much brighter future?   Moreover, might this be a complete metamorphosis of Germany from a state that wanted to dominate Europe to one that embodies the best European values, building a European Union based on cooperation, markets, and values?  I’ll keep you informed of my progress!

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Inspired

About a year and a half ago I engaged on what would become a professionally frustrating though often personally rewarding new endeavor: a research project that moved away from my study of German foreign policy and took on the meaning and impact of the current information revolution on politics.

This has been a meandering journey in many ways, and I’m still barely out of the starting gate.  It took me into reading about consumerism, media history, a biography of Johannes Gutenberg, Walter Lippmann, Erich Fromm, Horkheimer and Adorno, numerous books on the financial crisis, and even some obscure thinkers like Rudolf Steiner, histories of the Roman Catholic church, the reformation, and psychologists like Freud and Jung.   Each step of the way I was inspired by a different aspect of the issues at hand, or often by suggestions from fellow bloggers (Steiner and Jung came that way, for example).

I have started numerous drafts, and even described my project in various blog entries, all of those starts later rendered obsolete as my thinking and reading progressed — or at times drifted — into new territory.  Now I feel I’m finally under way.

I’m not disappointed with how long this is taking me.   I am a full professor with tenure.   I do service and get good teaching evaluations.  I am not in a publish or perish environment, so the pressure to get something into a journal is minimal.    Ever since my book on German foreign policy was published in 2003 I’ve written a few chapters for books, did work on the scholarship of teaching, but have not been very prolific in terms of published research.   Part of that is because on the same day I finished my final revisions on my first book my first son was born — followed two years later by another.   The demands of teaching and parenthood made 2003 to 2006 a time frame with little time to do anything but get ready for classes and deal with the kids!

But as the kids started to get old enough not to require constant attention, I realize I had to make a choice.   Do I start trying to churn out articles on German politics or German foreign policy?   I thought of some book ideas to investigate post-unification German foreign policy more fully, perhaps comparing German and Canadian policy, or looking at the dynamics of efforts to create a common European foreign policy.    But I couldn’t get my heart into it.  Others were spending a lot more time on those issues, and I didn’t want to bury myself in German language documents to try to come up with another manuscript that spoke only to a specialized audience.

Instead I looked around at the housing bubble, consumerism, and then the economic crash.   I thought about how profound the current information revolution is, rivaling the advent of the printing press in its scope.   I co-taught classes with people from disciplines like Early Childhood Education, Art History, Music History, and Literature, adding to and complementing my Political Science background.   I realized we are living in an era of crisis and transformation, perhaps marking the end of politics as we’ve known it.  I also came to see that very few scholars are crossing disciplinary boundaries to try to come up with a multi-dimensional account of what is happening and what it means.    There are a lot of creative ideas out there, but I decided I wanted to try to do something big.   Rather than find safe publishable research topics, I’d go for something ambitious — an effort to come up with a multi-disciplinary understanding of what is happening in the world and what it means for the future.

If I fail, it is no big loss.   I’m learning and expanding my understanding of the world as much now as I was doing thirty years ago, and I’m doing so in areas outside of my specialty.  That in and of itself makes this worthwhile, I feel I’m becoming a better teacher with a broader understanding of the world than if I’d focused on Germany (though my German skills have deteriorated a bit!)   Unless the economic crisis closes down the University of Maine system, my job is pretty secure.  There is no down side for trying something ambitious, I risk little.   Perhaps colleagues will see I’m not publishing much and figure that since getting full Professor I’d decided to coast, but those who know me realize I’ve been possessed by an idea.

The upside is maybe I’ll publish something that will be meaningful and relevant to a broader audience.  Maybe this research will yield something important, maybe I can contribute through my work to trying to handle this period of change without the instability transformational eras usually entail.  And if not, again, I’m learning a lot and thinking through issues that take me in directions I never thought I’d go.

In the last month my thinking has coalesced around a specific project, with the thesis defined, the chapters laid out, and draft outlines being written.   My goal is to have a draft at the end of the summer that I can shop around to publishers (or perhaps get some colleagues to react and then work on a second draft by the end of the calendar year).  I see where this project is going, and I’m inspired.    I feel like I’m at the start of a project I was meant to undertake, that my experiences set me up for this particular kind of work at this point in time.

My blog postings may become more infrequent, or they may be motivated by what I’m writing about at a given point in time.    This blog, in fact, corresponds to when I started moving to this kind of project.  I had been keeping my own blog on the university server, brilliantly labeled “Scott’s blog” with no comments and minimal effort.  In May 2008 I started this blog, wanting to record my thoughts as this era unfolds, in part for my children to know what their dad was thinking as the world changed.   The title: “World in Motion:  Reflections on culture, politics, philosophy and world events during an era of crisis and transformation,” reflect that attitude.

So now, inspired, I jump into trying to bring this project together and work on a draft.   And even if I fall flat on my face and end up with a project no publisher wants, I’m going to enjoy the journey!

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The Nature of This Crisis

“Each time we bathe our reactions in artificial light
Each time we alter the focus to make the wrong move seem right”
– from “Stick it Out” by RUSH (lyrics Neil Peart), Counterparts LP, 1992

For all my posts on the economy, I’ve not spent a lot of time on the underlying cause of this crisis.   The true nature of the current crisis is far deeper in our culture than most people realize, and although it sounds alarmist, the US and perhaps western civilization in general may be on the verge of something akin to civilizational failure.

This is not due to outsiders.  Many point to China, Arab Muslims, India, or even Russia as doing things globally to undercut the US.   No, we can’t blame others.   This also is not due to nefarious insiders.   When Hitler rose to power he blamed socialists, internationalists and liberals, saying that these folk were betraying German values, internal traitors against a “real” Germany.   Jews were also a convenient scapegoat.   Some extremists on the far right use similar rhetoric against the left, with Hispanics replacing Jews as the “parasite” destroying the country from within.   No group inside the country is bringing us down.  This is also not due to Republicans or greedy corporations either.   Many on the left want to dismantle corporate America, and blame banks and business for greed and taking a far greater portion of the pie.  Yet blaming big money is wrong too.

The reality is that this crisis comes from how we think.  It is a cultural crisis, with its roots in the enlightenment.   It is also not a new flaw.   We can look back and see colonialism, bureaucratic socialism, fascism, world wars, and a Cold War where in which the world hung under threat of nuclear annihilation.

The enlightenment gave us a world view that allows us to interpret reality in whatever way suits our interest.    By positing reason and rational thought as the ideal, it gives us a tool to twist reality and construct meanings that justify what we do.  Colonialism is spreading civilization to the benefit of the “primitives.”    Bringing war and chaos to Iraq is ‘removing Saddam’ and “spreading democracy.”  Destroying indigenous cultures is “bringing them Christianity,” and living off cheap resources and labor from the third world is “using free trade to help them develop.”

We are very good at rationalizing things; we do it in politics and in every day life.    Should we cut taxes to the wealthiest when the gap between the rich and poor is at its greatest in 100 years?   Sure, some will say, it will help the economy and the poor will benefit.    And if there is a real danger, such as global warming — well, we’ll find a couple naysaying scientists and then use media and propaganda to make it seem like the deniers are brave critics against “big science.”   We are to believe that the vast majority of climate scientists are simply lying to ‘try to get grants.’   And on the left people rationalize increasing the scope and size of government programs, even though the economy is in recession and we have an unsustainable level of debt.

Yes, we are always able to rationalize what we want to believe.   There are enablers built into our society — bankers who sold and often pressured people to take subprime loans they really couldn’t afford, advertisers telling people “you deserve” this — go a little more in debt, this product is worth it.  Credit card companies pushed cheap easy credit on us, and the cultural insanity was defended by simply blaming those who lost out.   When the subprime mortgage goes bad or credit card debt buries someone, “well, they should have known better.”   Shifting blame allows us to keep alive arguments, beliefs and ideas that justify convenient cultural delusions.

We do this to ourselves all the time.   That is why we gain weight, rationalize mistreating or cheating on friends and family, purchase goods we don’t need, and produce massive amounts of trash even as we say something has to be done about pollution.   We also create cultural narratives to rationalize and make seem “normal” something which is anything but.  The narratives hypnotize, they are with us from birth, they speak to our basic desire to pursue our interests while avoiding cognitive dissonance in justifying the cost.  They are narcissistic and myopic, and our culture reflects that.

The enlightenment gave us the ability to create rational arguments by use of reason.  In science this, of course, allowed the development of new technologies and knowledge about the world.  But in culture and politics it is a dangerous capacity.  The problem is that reason needs to be grounded — there need to be core values and principles underlying the use of reason, otherwise it is literally sophistry — building arguments to justify whatever we want to justify.   And our sophists are more sophisticated than was the case in Socrate’s time!

Although colonialism was rationalized through a variety of discursive strategies (persuasively argued by David Spurr in Rhetoric of Empire), tradition, religion and custom were strong enough to keep the most negative forces in check.   Starting in the 20th century and aided by the rise of propaganda and mass media, our ability to create narratives to rationalize anything became unhinged.   Be it Communism, Nazism, Consumerism, Libertarianism, class warfare, interventionist foreign policies, or the recent rise in debt due to easy credit, we’ve learned to use reason like a drug — it can cause us to see as good and rational anything we feel like we want to believe or do.   Moreover, we don’t even know we’re doing it, we really think our arguments are correct!   It’s emotion that gives us that certainty, but we believe it is our rational thought.

That’s why we’re in such deep trouble.  It’s not primarily the economy, or militarism, culture wars, or anything else.  Unless we can find a way to ground reason and use it wisely, we’ll rationalize and see as good and necessary the very things which will bring down our civilization.    The key for individuals is to recognize and understand the danger, and try to resist the tempting self-serving justifications.   We can do that, though it takes practice.  For our culture, though, there needs to be a shift in values.   We won’t bring back traditional society, nor will religion play the same role it did in the past.  But somehow we have to find a way to humble the use of pure reason and rediscover values, principles, and ethics outside of using reason as a tool.   Reason can be used to rationalize any ethical belief, after all.

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Powerful Books

Every once in awhile I read a book that comes to help shape how I look at life, my research and society.   Three books stand out as especially influential in that regard, and each has something in common: the author’s perspective and interpretation of what is happening in the world is very similar to my own.    So I am drawn to those books not because they change how I think (I would be worried if one book could change a lifetime’s contemplations about reality), but they speak in new ways to my already existing understanding of the world, stretching or altering it in subtle but real ways.

The first was Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. The book crystallized for me how one can study and comprehend social reality through analyzing ideas and signified shared/understandings of reality,  without relying on beliefs on essential human nature or timeless modes of thought.   I read this book in 1987 (it was written in 1968).

The second was Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives us Meaning, a short but powerful expose on war from a war reporter who had been in just about every major battle zone from the early eighties to 2001.   His brilliant and cutting analysis brought home the importance of the human element in understanding world events, and changed how I teach political science and approach research.   I found this book at Barnes and Nobels in 2002 shortly after it was published and bought it out of curiosity.

Tuesday I read Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm, first published 62 years ago in 1948.   Fromm is part of the Frankfurt School, and through the work of Horkheimer and Adorno I’ve already found myself drawn to their form of critical theory.   This neo-Freudian approach and especially Fromm’s connection of social processes to psychology is something I find compelling, and represents a necessary link between abstract social theory (liberalism, Marxism, etc.) which often ignores or assumes the psychological component, and my desire to understand social transformation and change.   Social theory is very good at predicting constant behaviors, but when something essential changes (like  the Cold War ends or the economy collapses) once dependable theories start to fail.

My last blog entry, Changes, asserts that the new media is generating an information revolution that will have as profound an impact on politics and society as did the rise of the printing press, which destroyed the medieval order and made modernity possible.   Where this is going, and how we might avoid chaotic and even violent change is a very difficult question, especially if our theories and ideologies are rooted in an era that is passing. We don’t have the tools to understand the new era coming.

I believe that elements of these three books will help guide my research.   How can we understand what is happening, and is it possible to avoid the chaos and violence which often accompanies fundamental social change?    The Berger and Luckmann book opens up the ability to de-naturalize the existing order and not see it as “normal.”  Humans very easily see their own culture as natural and far more coherent and consistent than it is.   All cultures have morphed and collapsed, the elders often horrified by what the youth are constructing.   To study this, we have to avoid the bias of seeing what we’ve experienced as “normal” and something almost certain to continue (or which normatively should continue), or as resulting from some fundamental human nature.

From Hedges I keep my focus on not just abstract theory or aggregations of outcomes, but on what things mean to individual humans, how life experiences are affected by change.    Hedges focused on war, but economic factors, cultural change, and all of what is happening hass very real and profound impacts on the daily lives of average people.   Hedges ended his book talking about Freud and the instincts of Thanatos and Eros, which is a good segue into Fromm.

Fromm essentially argues that modernity has increased negative freedom (freedom from), but by pushing back tradition, religion, and community — the old ties that bound one with the natural and social worlds — has created isolation and a sense of powerlessness.    Modernity produced the first true individual, but the cost of that was to strip people of meanings and senses of identity that gave comfort to existence.  People respond in different ways, but often try to escape this freedom and the anxiety of individuation by embracing authoritarianism, destructiveness, or dehumanizing conformity to social expectations.

I’ll write more on Fromm’s specific arguments soon.  However what I find intriguing is that these problems, which he ties to among other things the rise of fascism, essentially show how people are driven by psychology to irrationally embrace demagogues and ideologies out of fear.  It’s not just propaganda or evil manipulative leaders (or advertisers), but a consequence of the psychological dilemmas the modern age has fostered.   By pushing aside religion and tradition we’ve freed ourselves from past superstitions, but have not yet achieved the capacity to fully actualize positive freedom in a way that allows the development of a truly liberated and content individual.

Suffice it to say my project is moving in ways not anticipated last year, and starting to come together as meshing media studies, social constructivism and political psychology.    Given that my specialization is German politics and international relations, I’m finding this journey into new directions intellectually stimulating and, well, exciting!

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Chicago

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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Blogs and other Media

Those few who read my blog regularly have probably noticed I’ve had a reduced number of posts lately.  I’ve been putting together a paper for a conference coming up in Chicago, working on presentations, and expanding my research project.  Now that I take it to the next level, I’d appreciate advice.

This research project will likely occupy the next four or five years of my life, and is a major shift away from European/German foreign policy.   My goal is to study the impact of the media — all forms of media — on American political culture.   While I’ve done press analysis before (involving German newspapers), the field of media studies and the impact of media on culture is a change of direction for me.   The motives come from recent teachings (particularly “Children and War,” and “Consumerism, Politics and Values”), and my own read on the state of US and global politics.

The information revolution we’ve been experiencing for half a century is changing everything.     I’ve had a plethora of posts on consumerism, one of the main cultural consequences of the rise of technological modernism.  I’ve also posted a lot about the impact of modern materialism on the quest for value and meaning in life.   The fact these themes are so dominant in my blog reflects my own curiosity and fascination with how dramatically the world is changing.

Luckily, I am not a university which is focused on teaching over publication.   It isn’t necessary to spew out journal articles and books.   In fact, a good teacher here primarily needs to  show continued academic activity.   So there is no pressure for me to stick to my specialty and churn out articles just to pad my CV.  I can focus on what I want, and take my time.   I also want this to be my theory, one I craft and an argument I make, borrowing from others, but creating my own synthesis.   This research will be my statement about the world in which I find myself, my attempt to leave a mark.   As such, it’ll take time, and I’m sure I’ll explore many dimensions as I work on this.

The theory behind the research is straight forward, but controversial.  It borrows heavily from Gramscian cultural theory, the Frankfurt school, and American pragmatism.   (Posts related to the research project here).   In essence, humans live in a socially constructed reality.   By reality here I mean social reality.   If I flip my middle finger at you, that physical reality may be true wherever you find yourself.  But it’s meaning, the impact it has, the way it might get you in trouble or punched in the face — those are aspects of the social reality of that act.

So this deals with meanings, ideas, shared and contested beliefs about the world.   Some beliefs are so widespread that they become seen as conventional wisdom, the “way things naturally are.”  For a long time that included owning people from “inferior races” as slaves, preventing women from working or voting, etc.  At the time, those practices were normal, questioned only by the fringe.    We have a set of culturally shared beliefs about the world which give us a sense of how the world is.   When we see or hear something, it’s meaning is understood not through some unbiased capacity of the mind to determine the essence of a thing, but by the social meanings and understandings we’ve acquired during our lives on this planet.

Up until recently, those meanings came from religion and tradition.  Then came the enlightenment and the goal of liberating ourselves from tradition, and learning how to see reality as rationally and objectively as possible.   This had a double effect on socialization.  First, it weakened greatly the way family, religion and tradition socialize us.   Second, the rise of mass media took the place of tradition, as I described last month. That included psychology (we are driven by our passions more than reason), the media (the media manipulates emotion), the importance of cultural discourse.  I won’t repeat what I wrote in that post, except to note that media socialization may be the most dramatic change in politics in the modern era, starting when the media was used by folk like Mussolini and Goebbels to grab power.    Moreover, it also could be the greatest threat to American democracy.

So far, I’ve focused on the discourse of war and economic policy as covered in popular newspapers and newsweeklies.  But I need to expand this to look at blogs, other media, things like satire (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert), news networks with an obvious bias (FOX, MSNBC), talk radio, and the like.

Alas, time is not unlimited, at least not for me in this lifetime, and the resources available at a small teaching college are meager.  I currently have a good undergraduate research assistant, but that could change.   So I have to find a selection of blogs I can print out archives to capture various time frames, access to archives of talk radio shows, or video clips that can easily be accessed for news media.   Any suggestions about other media — facebook, twitter, etc. — will also be appreciated.

Subject matter already includes the two big issues of war/foreign policy and the economy, where people arguably held false perceptions of the US and its role in the world, not seeing the disasters on the horizon.   I also am considering examining current issues (where data collection is easier) such as the health care debate, global climate change, and the tea party movement.   I need a variety from all sides of an issue, yet with time constraints, I will have to choose what I want to focus upon.

More later on this project (probably blog posts now and then for the coming years).   But please comment or e-mail me suggestions.    Suggestions on material for the theory behind this approach are also welcome, especially from other fields like psychology or media studies.   It’s exciting to dig into a new project, and wherever this goes, I’m sure I’ll learn a lot moving forward!   Ultimately, that’s what matters to me most.

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William James and Walter Lippmann

As my on line course ends and my research sabbatical begins, as I delve into a project which is both exciting and intimidating.  I made the decision not to stick with German foreign policy or the European Union for my next research project, and instead focus on my current interest: why are we in the industrialized West in the predicament that we are in?

The predicament is multifaceted, and my research won’t touch all of it.  It includes militarism and warfare, degradation of the environment, hyper-materialism, high levels of depression and anxiety, consumerism, and a desire for ‘something for nothing,’ as if being in the world entitled us to luxury and security.   It shows itself everywhere from greed on Wall Street to desire for the government to protect us from everything.   It’s crass capitalism and stifling socialism.  It’s amusement park religion and cold atheism.

A core assumption I make is that reality, being a social construction, reflects how we think.   Our thoughts guide our acts, our acts create our world.   That is true at an individual level, and it is true at a societal level.   Moreover, at each level there are shallow and deep ways to think about it.  “Positive thinking” at the individual level is often shallow, and used as a way to “make yourself wealthy” or “get what you want through creative visualization.”  There the effort isn’t really to reflect on life, but to delude oneself.   The deeper way to think about it means to question values and anxieties and find a true positivism, one where values rather than external conditions provide meaning.   At a cultural level the pop approach is politics — Obama will bring change, Bush will keep us safe, etc.  The pop politics approach is superficial, and generally does not solve the deeper societal problems any more than happy thoughts will send money pouring our way (and even if it does, that money will probably only yield an unquenchable desire for more).

If our cultural “way of thinking” is warped, why is that so?   One possible answer is to look at the general way of thinking we’ve embraced — enlightenment style rationality.   Do we simply worship reason and science, yielding a materialist approach to life that defies true value reflection?   Perhaps.   But then again, the famous atheist Denis Diederot saw reason and rationality as having an ethical core — if we are responsible for our world, not God, then don’t we have a responsibility for doing what is necessary to have the world we want?

Perhaps it’s reason combined with something else.   Thinking theoretically about this, my first glance was at the Frankfurt school, and the work of Adorno and Horkheimer.   They were German Jews who managed to escape before the war, and were horrified by what their country had embraced.   How could the center of culture and enlightenment philosophy so wholeheartedly embrace the essence of anti-rationality, fascism?   The enlightenment was supposed to be about liberation, why did it go wrong?   Their argument was complex, but what I got from it was this: the enlightenment itself does not provide a true sense of what to value.  There are no first principles that give you a clear answer, and thus the discourse is inherently open to interpretation.  In that realm the powerful — those who control political parties, the media, and of course advertising — are able to manipulate people to think a particular way.   Instead of liberation, there is a new form of enslavement, albeit at least in capitalist societies, a kind of gilded cage.

Alongside Adorno and Horkheimer (along with a dose of neo-Freudian thought) I looked at the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Communist jailed by Mussolini between the wars in Italy.   Gramsci realized that Marx had made fundamental errors, most importantly his ignorance of culture and politics.  For Gramsci, the fascists won because they had created a ‘hegemonic discourse’ that defined reality in ways that seemed to be “the way things are ” and “common sense” to the masses.   In short, the discourse constructed their understanding of self-interest and meaning, thus making it seem natural for laborers to support the fascists, even as their income declined and the business class blossomed.  I find this connection between the Frankfurt School and Gramsci relatively compelling.   It avoids the “hypodermic” model of media studies which says the media simply injects ideas into the public, for a broader sense of a socially constructed discourse, wherein people have their understandings of reality subtly manipulated in order to serve the needs of the elite, governmental or business — capitalist or socialist.

Yet for a long time I could not figure out how to find a way out of this.  Adorno ended up simply turning to the arts as his solace, while Gramsci’s idea of creating an ‘alternative discourse’ seemed uncompelling.   That simply would be to create a battle of discourses or narratives fought out on the political realm — people would remain manipualted, but they might be manipulated by side “X” rather than side “Y.”

Lately I’ve realized that while the Europeans have defined the problem well, American philosophers may have the best take on the answer, developed in a uniquely American philosophy, pragmatism.  In fact, pragmatism may be the American philosophy, sharing many roots with the more exotic Nietzschean perspectivism and Foucaultian post-modernism, but avoiding a slip into the abstract world of philosophical naval gazing and arguing over how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin.  Instead, pragmatism provides a means of coping with the issues of values and social communication.

James was a physician turned philosopher, who was often mistrusted by the philosophical elite because he spoke in ways that every day folk could understand.  He thought philosophy was useless if it could only be understood by a small cadre of well educated elite.   His pragmatism and cosmopolitianism reflected a fundamentally open mind — he would look at every claim and statement fairly, assessing its worth and core values.   Yet in so doing he did not give up his own capacity to hold positions with fierce conviction, standing on his beliefs with as much strength as a dogmatist.  He could accept that he might be wrong, and yet still fight for what he held true.

Lippmann (who I’ve written about before) was a student of James and others at Harvard, but found the ivory tower world a bit too boring, and went into the action-packed world of journalism.   Lippmann was critical of propaganda and media manipulation (though he worked during the war making propaganda for the US government), and shared James’ cosmopolitanism and belief in open-mindedness and open communication.  That pragmatic approach evades the “enlightenment” desire to find a “true” system of ethics or values based on some kind of rational argument.   Rather than seeking ultimate truth, one compares ideas and examines results, and makes a pragmatic choice about what works in the world.

However, that kind of process requires thought and is time consuming.   Politics as a product for the masses, political campaigns run on slogans and competing narratives works against the kind of thoughtful approach people like James and Lippmann promoted.   Ideological jihad is the antithesis of pragmatism.  So I feel like part of my research is to both define how the media operates to construct discourses (hegemonic or competing), how this manipulates, and to critique this from a pragmatic perspective.

So at least I feel like the research has theoretical (if not yet methodological) direction.  That direction may change, but for now, it’s underway…

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Cygnus X-1

The work goes on as we build our clearing in the back woods (with play house for the kids, a fire pit, and some benches), and install our drainage system, which has expanded to reshaping our whole lawn with massive amounts of sand and soil.    So my blogging has been more sparse, made worse by the fact I pushed my shovel against my hand all day doing something to my nerves.  My hand has been numb and tingly the last couple days, with some bits of intense pain.   It makes it difficult to type.   Yet I’ve also been reading and thinking about my research project, particularly a book Adorno’s Positive Dialectic by Yvonne Sherratt.

Adorno’s critique of the enlightenment is one I find both convincing and similar to general tone to my thinking in recent years.   I appreciate that Sherratt’s book is as easy to understand and follow as Adorno’s writing is difficult.   Since my research will focus on political science (probably looking at the twin failings of the US in recent years – overuse of military power and decades of economically unsustainable policy), I have neither the time nor the desire to wade deep into Adorno’s whole philosophical system.   Moreover, Adorno came from the generation where academia was a place for the elite, all of whom would share a vast knowledge of the classics and main themes of western history.   My generation is fragmented into disciplines that are often so cut off from things outside their subject matter that the metaphor of not being able to see the forest for the trees is especially accurate.

I really think it’s time to take a step back, intellectually, and see our current condition in the context of a 2500 year history of western thought and culture.    Adorno is known as one of those who throw cold water into the face of Enlightenment optimism, a Jewish-German philosopher who had flee Nazism.   He and Max Horkheimer argued in Dialectic of Enlightenment that enlightenment thinking was in part the cause of the rise of Nazism.   I believe it also can be seen as a cause of the growth of militarism in US foreign policy, and thirty years of utterly unsustainable economic and ecological practices.

Yet Adorno is not the first to grapple with this sort of problem.  Plato and Socrates responded to the Sophists who had taken Greek Enlightenment thought to an extreme, where at least some Sophists argued that reason can used to support whatever subjective desires a person might have.   Plato turned to idealism and the notion of the “Forms” to try to argue for a transcendent truth.   The Fidiests such as Bayle and Pascal, at the dawn of the Age of Reason in the 17th Century, recognized that reason and rational thought could only be used as a means, but would not provide ends (e.g., you can’t use reason to figure out morality or true meaning in life).    They thought the solution was faith in God, and rejection of reason for anything but daily problem solving.

It is a true dialectic, reason and rational thought distrusts sentiment and emotion.   Thus it stands opposed to movements such as 19th century romanticism (which also responded to the ‘coldness’ of objective, rational thought), and rejects tradition and religion.   It has been part of western thought since the Greeks.   As I work through these books, think of my research project, and contemplate this ‘world in motion,’ the cultural, political and social turmoil of the early 21st century, I think the problem is clear: can we find  away to balance the need for meaning that comes from the heart, and the need for understanding that comes from the head?

Can this be done without sacrificing the ideals of rational enlightenment thought, and avoiding simple appeals to tradition or organizezd religion?   How does this connect with our current problems as a country and even a civilization?   Those thoughts are on my mind as the summer moves on…

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Ignorance

Tomorrow is a lot of travel — to Portland and back (1.5 hours each way) to bring my mom and niece to the airport as their stay ends, and then a few hours later to Boston and back (3.5 hours each way) to get Natasha’s brother and his son, who are flying in from Russia.

This week we spent two glorious days on Mt. Desert Island, staying in Bar Harbor and doing a quick tour of Acadia National Park.  The highlight was the lobster “tour” cruise.   It was perfect for Ryan and Dana, as they could see lobster traps being hauled in, the lobsters (and crabs) that had been caught, and could hold lobsters, star fish, sea cucumbers and other ocean life.  Ryan even got to drive the boat for awhile.   We swam at Sand Beach, hiked down Cadillac Mountain (Ryan’s first “real” hike — even if it was all down hill!), had a picnic, collected sea shells, and stayed in a hotel.   When the others were shopping at gift shops (not a favorite activity of mine), the boys and I played at a playground near the Bar Harbor YMCA, meeting some interesting people, including a woman from Russia (now living in Kazahkstan) who is vacationing with her husband, mother in law and two children (ages 3 and 6 mo.)

Alas, nerd that I am, I was thinking constantly about my next research project, and about a grant application I’m working on with others.  At one point of time to reflect while overlooking typical Acadia beauty, I realized that my research project is coalescing around the question that has hounded me since I was a child: why is the world the way it is?   What is the good life — how should I live?   Why do I seem to have a natural faith in the world, that all is somehow as it must be, and in all it’s good?

That natural faith is not something everyone shares; indeed, many people mock it, or have a strong natural pessimism.   Yet it is a part of me — I’m not sure why.

In some ways, we are like the ancient Greeks.  Myths and tradition formed their identity, but soon they discovered rational thought, and freed their minds from simply following past behavior.  They were the first known humanists, questioning their mythology and developing what at first was a liberal/critical relativism — sophism.   The sophists argued that there is no knowable truth, only human interpretations and perspectives on truth.  This form of skeptical relativism is both liberating and debasing.   It breaks one out of the hold of past traditions and religious beliefs, but cultivates a sense that all that matters is the self, and ones’ own fortunes.  The Sophists moved from a kind of liberal open mindedness to a base drive for individual success and opportunism.   Greek society became corrupt, and ultimately fell.

Socrates attacked Sophism and its moral relativism, giving an interesting take on the skepticism that drove sophist relativism.  He was skeptical too, but also skeptical of skepticism.   He (mostly through Plato and his writings) professed pure ignorance, tore apart every convention, and like the sophists seemed to show that there is no knowable truth — except one.  Unlike the sophists, he embraced the truth of our ignorance.

The Sophists took skepticism to a kind of selfish pragmatism.  If truth can’t be known, then anything goes — there is nothing holding you back.  Do what you want, as you want — as long as you can get away with it (and the Sophists will show you how), then it doesn’t matter.  Socrates took it to a different place.  If this skepticism leads one to recognize that we are truly ignorant (true wisdom), then one doesn’t assume that since we can’t figure out the truth then there isn’t one.

Have we really progressed since then?  Isn’t modern enlightenment thought up through post-modernism simply a replay of the Greek enlightenment through Sophism?   Isn’t modern humanism falling to the same pitfalls into which Greek humanism, and later Roman humanism fell?   And isn’t Socrates’ answer still valid — we can either cling to a faith (religious or secular — secular faith is ideology), say that nothing matters and anything goes, or admit ignorance?

And if we take the path of admitting ignorance, doesn’t that open up the possibility of the spiritual, the intuitional/emotional, the empathetic, and the artistic?  Doesn’t that suggest, in fact, that the rational might need to be balanced by sentiment?   Doesn’t analysis need to be balanced by art?   Does not the scientist need the poet?

Yet how do we find this balance?  How has the lack of balance led to our wars and economic crises?  Can we go somewhere other than blind faith (whether to religion or ideology) or secular humanism (nothing matters and what if it did, as John Cougar Mellencamp asked)?

Obviously, that’s a big question — far too big for a political scientist at a small rural Maine college to tackle in a research project.  Yet it’s the question that’s driven me in my life, and I must pursue it.

And speaking of  “driven,” given the amount of driving I need to do tomorrow, I’d best end this post now.

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