Tina K. Russell

August 31, 2009

American nihilism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:44 pm

David Brooks:

We in this country have a distinct sort of society. We Americans work longer hours than any other people on earth. We switch jobs much more frequently than Western Europeans or the Japanese. We have high marriage rates and high divorce rates. We move more, volunteer more and murder each other more.

Out of this dynamic but sometimes merciless culture, a distinct style of American capitalism has emerged. The American economy is flexible and productive. America’s G.D.P. per capita is nearly 50 percent higher than France’s. But the American system is also unforgiving. It produces its share of insecurity and misery.

This culture, this spirit, this system is not perfect, but it is our own. American voters welcome politicians who propose reforms that smooth the rough edges of the system. They do not welcome politicians and proposals that seek to contradict it. They do not welcome proposals that centralize power and substantially reduce individual choice. They resist proposals that put security above mobility and individual responsibility.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Great Gradualist – NYTimes.com.

Unfortunately, this is the essence of America, and what I want people to know when they stereotype us. We’re not lazy; we work too hard. We put too much stock in numbers, be they GDP, net worth, or our personal account balances as measures of our self-worth. We’re a nation hopped up on epinephrine, jumping from place to place, never enough time for our friends and our families. In fact, we idealize the person who never has enough time to relax, the jet-setter, the fast-track executive, the determined career woman. We never stop to think about what would actually make us happy; by that time, we’re retired, and firmly in the grip of old age. (We’re also in nursing homes by then, because we don’t have a concept of extended families.)

I find Brooks right and wrong in a lot of ways. He’s right in that he’s nailed down our problems, but he seems to idealize them. He speaks of our GDP per capita being higher than France as though GDP was ever meant to be a measure of well-being, or that GDP per capita, as an average measure, can ever be used to make generalizations about individuals (it can’t). We’re obsessed with these lifetime numbers, these scores, believing them to assess, somehow, how well we’ve done in life. It’s not only untrue, it’s dangerous.

Where Brooks is wrong is in assuming that Americans, by and large, are happy with this. I think most of us would be willing to let the government share some of our many burdens, so as long as they don’t start telling us what to do. I think the growth of the New Age movement, disgusting as I find it, shows a willingness to find meaning and wholeness beyond our boardrooms and bank accounts (though I don’t think squeezing an hour of yoga into all our other commitments really counts as enlightenment). I really do love America’s rambunctious, somewhat obnoxious culture; otherwise, I might not still be here. We just never seem to reflect on what we do well, our brilliant engineers and high-yield cultural exports, what we do poorly, such as our crumbling infrastructure or the miserable public educations we give our children, or what we need most, such as a sense of meaning independent of GDP or performance bonuses.

I love America, but we’re fundamentally broken, and instead of celebrating it we ought to get around to fixing it.

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July 12, 2009

Dignity, honor, and pride

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:57 pm

To the Editor:

David Brooks’s search for dignity is misplaced. Dignity, as a social device, didn’t survive World War II.

Yet, while the criteria may be different, there are people who possess that hard-to-define quality called “class,” which is a practical manifestation of kindness, respect for others, proper upbringing and the everyday application of the Golden Rule.

In his day, some derided the joke-telling Lincoln as undignified, yet no president had more class.

What should concern Mr. Brooks is the vanishing of personal honor, in government, business and family, which frees powerful men to cheat on their wives and their taxes, exploit workers, lie to voters and cheat stockholders and consumers with impunity.

Sheldon Bunin

Jackson Heights, Queens, July 7, 2009

via Letters – The Demise of Dignity in America – NYTimes.com.

Pride is your best friend and your worst enemy. At its best, pride forces you to have standards for yourself, to maintain what you’ve invested in so much. At its worst, pride is a sense of entitlement, a shamelessness that you justify with delusions of superiority.

There’s a Yu-Gi-Oh! manga story where Yugi faces the arrogant, cheating Bandit Keith (he of “In America!”), who refuses to play by the rules of the “Duelist Kingdom” island tournament because he’s not an official contestant. However, Keith plans to use his cheating ways to defeat enough players to force the judges to recognize him. In Keith’s mind, the island is a no-man’s-land where the rules don’t apply to him.

When Yugi defeats Keith fair and squire, Keith is dumbfounded. He thought his cheating strategies were perfect. Keith was too pig-headed to examine his own weaknesses before presuming victory.

So, Yugi gives him some advice. “Do you know what the rule of this island is?” he asks.

Keith huffs.

“A duelist’s pride,” Yugi says.

You wouldn’t think Keith’s worst vice was not having enough pride, and in a way, it was not. Keith had pride, but not the right kind.

February 7, 2009

Partisanship

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:46 pm

David Brooks:

Op-Ed Columnist – The Gang System – NYTimes.com
Barack Obama is not initiating events (he’s had surprisingly little influence on the stimulus bills’ evolution). But circumstances now present him with a precedent-setting moment of decision. Does he embrace the Gang System and try to use it to create a new style of politics? Or does he remain an orthodox Democrat, deferring to the Old Bulls on legislation, enforcing party discipline and trying to pick off a Republican or two here and there to pass laws?

The liberals already are mobilizing against the Moderate Gangs. On Thursday, the liberal interest groups were intensively lobbying against the stimulus cuts. But there’s no way that Obama, who spent two years campaigning on postpartisan politics, can reject the single biggest manifestation of postpartisanship in the country today. If he does that, his credibility will be shot.

I really, really hate this idea, that it is somehow virtuous to compromise in every situation, at the exact midpoint of what each side is requesting. There’s no thought involved; you just declare yourself a moderate, step back, and feel righteous. It makes no allowance for the fact that, in a polarized political world, the center is itself subjective because it’s determined by the poles. It’s especially frustrating to those who support one side or the other, because the feeling is that you haven’t even looked at our ideas; you’ve just tarred us as “partisan,” dismissed us as “the liberals” or “the conservatives.”

It also perpetuates an irritating stalemate in American politics, where the party of good government and the party of small government compromise with a big government that doesn’t work. It’s everywhere in the government we have (and possibly deserve); it’s what you get with a longstanding mentality of “starve the beast.” If liberals aren’t willing to confront that head-on, then we aren’t worth our salt in politics. If conservatives were unwilling to defend their beliefs, I’m not sure why they would be in politics, either.

I’m also irritated whenever I hear the word “post-partisan.” I voted for Barack Obama largely because I saw shades of the Wellstone model of politics in him (after all, they both came from academia and mastered grassroots organizing). In the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s method (described in The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, not to be confused with Paul Krugman’s book of a similar name), you don’t give up your principles; you hold strongly to them, but you also reach across the aisle to find where your strong beliefs intersect with others’, even those of your supposed ideological archenemies. Wellstone hopped from coffee shop to coffee shop both to campaign and to get feedback on what his potential constituents wanted; what he found was that people who identified as strongly liberal, strongly conservative, or anywhere in between were still mainly concerned with the same issues, like good schools and healthcare. If you get beyond those labels, you can get a lot more done.

So, to hear that the only way Barack Obama can get past the partisan gridlock of Washington is to abandon his principles makes my blood boil. We’ve suffered through decades of conservatives absolutely convinced in the most radical solutions to every problem, and liberals struggling to compromise and giving themselves a raw deal. Barack Obama can and should do what he feels is right, what is in his best judgment, exercising the faith we placed in him through election.

The difference between this and the Bush era needs to be listening and careful consideration. Barack Obama needs to communicate with Republicans, get their input, and address their concerns just as he must do with Democrats. He must treat them equally as governing partners in a system of checks and balances, and as duly elected representatives of their constituencies. He must respect their experience and value their opinion.

Congressional roll calls are a childish way of measuring this, however. If not a single Republican voted for the stimulus in the House, perhaps they were exercising their right not to agree with the President in the end. That is their right, and it doesn’t mean the President is dismissing their concerns, nor does it mean the bill isn’t better for their input. It certainly doesn’t mean we should hold our political process hostage, watering down the bill until the numbers look more “post-partisan.” Sometimes that merely means devoid of strong ideas.

Our political process works through vigorous debate, and it’s for good reason that nothing mandates that everyone agree. In addition, in some situations, a compromise can be worse than either original proposal. Bipartisanship and cooperation are worthy goals. Post-partisanship, silencing the voices of all those who have strength in their convictions, is not.

January 28, 2009

Who are you?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:55 pm

David Brooks:

What Life Asks of Us – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com
In 2005, Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. [Political scientist Hugh] Heclo cites his speech as an example of how people talk when they are defined by their devotion to an institution:

“I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases.”

Sandberg motioned to those inducted before him, “These guys sitting up here did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It’s disrespectful to them, to you and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up.

“Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect … . If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game … did what they were supposed to do, and I did what I was supposed to do.”

That is really wonderful. It reminds me of the philosophy of ubuntu, that “I am what I am because of what we all are.” If you live only for yourself, you’re just a sack of meat sliding towards death. If you learn to live for yourself and those around you, you can be part of something much more amazing and gratifying.

I don’t think I’m there yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

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