Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The Next Four Years: Agon or Agony?

The way I see it, we are poised before the alternatives of agon and agony.  Whatever the etymological connection between the terms, they can be construed in direct opposition.  Agon is the ancient Greek term for an athletic or artistic competition, such as their Olympic games and theatrical festivals, events which lay at the center of their political and religious culture.  Sacred competitions staged in honor of their gods.  To participate in an agon therefore had culturally productive value, whether one lost or not.  Both winners and losers served to elicit future blessings upon their communities.  Defeat in an agon was far from a tumble into the agony of defeat.  

Yet agon, especially more recently, also relates to the contentious production of ideas and policies.  Aesthetically, Harold Bloom (I know, I know, for those who know who he is) employs it to describe the struggle of a writer with his antecedents, the productive capacity of the anxious conflict with one’s influences.  But it can also be used to describe a productive political dialectic between opposing ideologies and their communities.  The agon, however, which is supposed to bring social benefit, as with the ancients, and spur creativity in art and letters, requires a basic respect for that against which one contends.  It unites competition and cooperation.

One of the most beautiful and compelling metaphors for discursive agon emerged from the contentious environment of England in the 1640s.  As England was riven with intense religious strife and a civil war that would give the term “revolution” a political connotation for the first time and include the trial and execution of King Charles I, John Milton published a pamphlet entitled Areopagitica: For the Liberty of Unlicensed PRINTING as part of a running debate in parliament over the freedom of the press.  Print capitalism in England, centered  around St. Paul’s Churchyard, was emerging from its infancy.  Calvinist Presbyterians, who dominated Parliament at the time, sought to control print by demanding that printers submit materials to censors for licensing prior to publication.  Though Milton largely supported their anti-Catholicism and proto-republicanism, he was horrified and opposed them with one of the most beautifully constructed political arguments of his, or of any day.  In the midst of the pamphlet, he addresses anxieties regarding heterogeneity and antagonism in the public sphere with a biblical image:

What some lament of, we rather should rejoyce at, should rather praise this pious forwardnes among men, to reassume the ill deputed care of their Religion into their own hands again. A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and som grain of charity might win all these diligences to joyn, and unite into one generall and brotherly search after Truth….  Yet these are the men cry’d out against for schismaticks and sectaries; as if, while the Temple of the Lord was building, some cutting, some squaring the marble, others hewing the cedars, there should be a sort of irrationall men who could not consider there must be many schisms and many dissections made in the quarry and in the timber, ere the house of God can be built. And when every stone is laid artfully together, it cannot be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world; neither can every peece of the building be of one form; nay rather the perfection consists in this, that out of many moderat varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportionall arises the goodly and the gracefull symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure. Let us therefore be more considerat builders, more wise in spirituall architecture, when great reformation is expected.

What we have seen in recent years is an absence of the requisite “little generous prudence” and lack of even “a little forbearance of one another” that precludes the “grain of charity” that would allow us to recognize our fellow participants in the edifying agon of civic debate.  And it is clear who bears the majority of the blame.  The violent rhetoric of the contemporary right, both in the media and among its voters and thus too often in our elected houses, “a sort of irrationall men” that ignores the necessity of competition.  These people demonize their fellow builders and would see the stonemasons turn their tools on the wood cutters so they become weapons and believe that the House may be built by annihilating their colleagues.  Instead of agon, we have agony.

The problem, I believe, is short term.  Either the GOP moderates in a fashion that will enable resumption of a more productive agon or it responds to those voices within it who see every defeat as demonstrating the necessity of more purity, more extremism, more commitment to eradicating those who cut from a different direction.  In the latter case, they will see more electoral marginalization.  In the long term, it should sort itself out.  The conservative movement will not commit suicide, but ultimately vindicate figures like David Frum.  Nor do I want to see us go forward without conservative thinkers, ideas, and challenges.  After all, I think the agon both necessary and sacred.  But the short term matters here.  Enduring agony for the next few cycles will produce lasting damage, not ultimately benign delay.  We have pressing challenges and must be able to address them.

The question that confounds me is what we might do from our side.  President Obama was conciliatory to a fault in the opening of his first term.  And no matter what he offered them up front, the leaders on the right responded by disingenuously painting him as an extreme and uncompromising ideologue.  

Are our hands tied?  Is there any way to reach out in a grass roots manner?  Every survey suggests that the American people want more bi-partisan compromise.  This doesn’t, however, match voting patterns.  The best we get from the right is a string of false equivalences.  They argue that someone like Rachel Maddow is just as extreme and destructive as Rush Limbaugh, that Lawrence O’Donnell is a left wing Sean Hannity, that Debbie Wasserman-Shultz is as extreme and uncompromising as Michele Bachmann.  Al Sharpton = Allen West?  Really?

Is there anything we can do to prune the ‘y’ from our civic agony and return to a dynamic and productive agon?  How can we help to recast our partisan disavowals as “moderat varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes” and become “more considerat builders, more wise in spirituall” and in our cas in civic “architecture” so that we may indeed expect “great reformation.”

Romney’s other rhetorical atrocity: “Palestinians not wanting to see peace”

It’s a disgusting, borderline racist generalization and flies in the face of the reality of one of the most complex socio-political phenomena in the world.  For those of you who engage with people from the right in other fora, I think the following article from Peter Beinart, a writer with whom I often disagree, will prove quite helpful.  

It contains some useful links as well, such as one to data from Khalil Shikaki, the most internationally respected Palestinian pollster.  (Of course, beware that right-wingers, with their fascination with ‘guilt by association’ may point out that his brother, Fathi, was the founder of Islamic Jihad.  This has happened to me.  If one’s brother is a terrorist, one can’t possibly be a respected Political Scientist.  Because siblings always agree and always resemble one another.  Always.  Perfectly.  Since Cain and Abel.  Right?)

Anyway, as I said, the article is not only compelling and interesting and sympathetic to the world views of Moose on the subject (as I have witnessed it) it is also useful.

Swing voters, not partisans, are the bane of our system

I hate this point in the election cycle.  We measure every point in the polls in response to big shows like the conventions and (less so) the debates, and responses to economic indicators, external events (both substantial and not), and media narratives of all sorts.

I grant that there are thoughtful moderates and centrists, conscientiously engaged citizens who resist the way the two parties carve up the issues between them.  Fiscal conservatives who resist the fanatic narrowness and hypocritical parsing of Freedom and Liberty often grit their teeth and vote for democrats.  Social conservatives who have a well developed understanding of the necessary interplay of the private and public sectors, who care about poverty and the opportunity promised by public education and our duty to invest in our future often wince as they pull the GOP lever.  And there are those who simply resist deciding which way to compromise their principles and weigh signs of competence and potential in the candidates.  But they are the minority.

Let’s face it.  Most swing voters aren’t independent thinkers or sincere centrists.  They are reality television addicts.  Most people who switch their vote based on a convention acceptance speech, or a sigh in a debate, or a scary headline, or who Brian Williams thinks has the electoral advantage, are shallow idiots who commit little attention to what is at stake.  And most of the last 2 months of the election cycle is spent wooing them.   If you marry a guy that offers you the biggest bouquet of flowers, drives the flashiest car, takes you to the classiest restaurant, has the better eyes, cheekbones, and abs, you’re probably gonna cheat on him with someone else with other “optics” when you get bored.

I really think these people suck.  And our future lies in their hands.  Great that they showed up after the convention came off well.  Now we wait for them to wander off and hope enough of them are lazy enough to stay (the ones who ‘harden’ as voting day gets closer).

But that’s representative democracy for you.  It’s why I still hold on to that mystified belief that liberal arts education can produce a more critically engaged and civil electorate.  That’s my dogma.  At least I admit that it’s such.  Although, an Assistant Professor at MSU just released a study that uses neuroscience (MRI) to prove that critical study of Jane Austen really does make people smarter:…  

I’m not surprised.  Reading and discussing Austen always made me FEEL smarter.  But I still don’t think we have anyway of knowing how this affects citizenship.

Why the Period? A DNC week OPEN THREAD

I’ve been puzzled by something that might seem a bit silly for the past few weeks since the Obama campaign unveiled its new slogan


Why the period?  Isn’t the whole idea of going forward about continuing into the future?  The period, or “full-stop” as it’s called across the pond in a much more descriptive term that resists confusion with anything menstrual, puts a stop to motion.  And it’s not about slogan conventions.  Don’t remember any signs that read


Or for that matter


It’s just weird, and a bit of a buzz kill.  I want us to go FORWARD….  Going FORWARD. gets us nowhere fast.

Good luck to the Obama team this week.  Hope we leap-frog that full-stop right into a second term.  Here in the Eastern hemisphere, I won’t see much in real time.  I’ll watch clips in the morning.  Looking forward. to your responses and analyses.


Romney’s Taxes: He’s got until Sept. 1

No, not offering Mitt an ultimatum.  This is just an observation.  If, and only if, there’s really nothing catastrophically damaging in those returns, then he has roughly 3 weeks to maneuver their release so that they appear to be on his terms and not another instance of him being pushed around.  After that, if he releases them and they contain nothing particularly bad, he’ll just look stupid.  He spent valuable months in a critical stretch of his campaign playing defense needlessly.  How will he justify having done so?  It makes him look strategically incompetent.  How does this bode for his legislative of diplomatic strategies?

Government is to Business as…

SO it seem that the right wing has firmly established a perspective according to which Government/Public sector is opposed to Business/Private sector.   Republicans play on this misleading oversimplification all the time, mostly disingenuously.  None of them actually think that prosperity flourishes in Somalia.  The fact is that for us to prosper, there needs to be a healthy reciprocity.  Business needs Government to regulate its excesses, stabilize its fluctuations, maintain its infrastructure, and secure its resources and markets.  Government needs business to create wealth and opportunity, for technological innovation, and for funding through taxes.  So we now need to come up with a way of communicating this shorthand.

Government is to Business as Leagues and Umpires are to baseball.


Government is to Business as rhythm is to melody?  Or as canvass is to paint?

Whaddya think?  Let’s generate some corrective analogies.

You know who agrees with the Pres. about who built “that”?

According to Adam Gopnik, Adam Smith does:…

As I had occasion to write in a long piece on Smith’s thought a year or so ago, the notion of Adam Smith as an apostle of laissez-faire who would have recoiled in horror, or even narrowed his eyes in suspicion, at the idea that a healthy state precedes and oversees a truly free market is not merely a caricature of his actual thought-it is in many ways the direct reverse of what he said and argued for length and with great lucidity.

Why is it that progressives so frequently abdicate both our political and our intellectual history to those who want to turn everything in the past into a caricature that supports their anachronistic fantasies of a lost golden age and the wisdom that it produced and produced it, which is now obscured and abandoned and urinated on by progressives?

I mean, come on.  Are we so afraid of appearing to be arrogant elitists that we refuse to wear the mantle of the Constitution and quote political theorists while the right wing hammers Smith, Paine, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and others into their flattened out molds?  

Here’s the gauntlet Gopnik throws down:

It isn’t just that a free market can survive regulation; it’s that the free market is the product of regulation, regulation designed to protect the public from the kind of arrangement that, let’s say, allows people with undue influence on the government to have a lower tax rate than people who don’t. This makes Smith, as I wrote, a firm believer in public goods: his state has an obligation to build roads and schools, establish an army, build bridges and highways, and do all the other things necessary for a sane polity in which the market can function naturally. Everyone should pay for them, and the rich should always pay more than others. “The rich should contribute to the public expense not only in proportion to their revenue,” Smith writes, “but something more than in that proportion.” (He also thought, Mitt, that taxes should be paid with joy, as a contribution to the well-being of all.)

It’s always easy, Smith knew, to provoke a cycle of exploitation, rage, and revolution; that’s what most of history has been. What’s hard is to replace it with one of “mildness”-of public decency, progressive reform, and shared prosperity. You couldn’t have a free market unless you had all the institutions of trust in place that only a sovereign state can guarantee. (If you want to know what capitalism looks like without those institutions, think of words like “Russia,” “oligarchs,” and “kleptocracy.”) Everything we mean by a free market depends on a functioning, sympathetic state-a state rooted not in selfish individualism but in a social sympathy so broadly articulated and institutionalized that every man is confident that he can make an honest deal with his fellow man.

So the view that the President was articulating the other day in the “that” speech wasn’t even a mild and “acceptable” form of social democratic reproach; it was the root foundational view of the free market as its greatest apostle imagined it. So don’t apologize, Mr. President, and don’t explain. Say it again! What you were articulating were the principles on which the free market, and with it this republic, is built. And that … is … that.

Bam!!!  Right there for everyone to read…if you read the New Yorker.  

We’ve got to lay our own claims to tradition and demonstrate how our progressive narratives express their affiliation with authoritative sources.  And we’ve got to do it in much more popular venues than the New Yorker and American Prospect and The Nation and even The New York Times.

Another Mid-Summer Strummer Rant!

Why are we pursuing the question of Romney’s involvement with Bain while he was running the Winter Olympics?  The question we should be pushing regards the degree to which he was running and/or profiting from Bain’s outsourcing of American jobs while LOBBYING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT FOR OVER $300 MILLION WORTH OF OUR TAX DOLLARS TO PROP UP THE OLYMPICS?

If he’s such a private market whiz, why couldn’t he do this without soaking the tax payers?  In the end, he didn’t save the Olympics…WE DID!!!…while he was profiting from the company he owned shipping US jobs overseas.  Either he was involved at Bain, or he was clamping his eyes shut while keeping his hand wide open.  And then funneling public money to pad his resume as the savior of the Olympic games.

Of course, there is one thing for which he deserves credit.  He transformed the credit he took for the Olympics into political capital that he then employed to provide Massachusetts with health care.

If this jackass is elected, I’m leaving the country.  Oh, wait, I’m already leaving the country.

In the mean time, I want the press to start pressing him for specifics.  How exactly will his experience help him spur job growth?  Is he going to close his eyes while someone he hires ships jobs overseas?  Is he going to lobby the federal government for tax money?  Obviously not.  He can’t pass health care as Obama already did it and he’s committed himself to repealing it.  Or is he going to repeal it and replace it with a Massachusetts type plan, essentially a maneuver to seize credit for what we already have?  Is he then going to repeal Social Security in order to replace it with a Social Security program?  Maybe he can repeal the Declaration of Independence in order to declare our independence from Great Britain himself.

Do independent voters really believe he’ll be able to convince his fellow anti-patriotic plutocrats to shoulder the risk involved in investing in a sputtering economy?  

And in the mean time, let’s stop all this talk about “running the Olympics” when the more accurate description of what he did was lobby for the Olympics.

Here, I’ll formulate the question for everyone:  In 2000, was Mitt Romney running Bain or simply profiting from its outsourcing of jobs while lobbying the federal government for over $300 million of our tax dollars to pad his resume for his run for Governor of Massachusetts?

The Church of The Grand Old Tea Party

This year, the 4th of July, our “Independence Day,”  felt a little different.  It felt less celebratory.  There are certainly many contributing reasons for this.  But one of them is certainly an awareness of how entrenched our divisions are.  Despite occasional pronouncements to the contrary by leading national political figures, their pious affirmations of the essential unity of all Americans, political opponents in the current era treat each other as threats and enemies much more than contending interlocutors within a civil society.  And so, I found myself sidling up to a friend at a holiday gathering and asking something like: So, how are you doing now that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court stabbed Freedom in the genitals, hiked up his august judicial robes and shat directly into the hearts of our founders, and jabbed his middle finger into the eye of Divine Providence itself?  And as he laughed, it was clear to both of us that my satiric hyperbole was likely less extreme in expression than the sincere expostulations and scribblings of many of our fellow citizens.  

How do we engage with Americans who see us as enemies of Freedom itself, as a conspiracy to undo what they understand to be the work of our founders?  How do we pursue better policies and civic harmony, and do we reform our political processes when we are viewed as demonic opponents of their Church of ‘Freedom’?  Just as innumerable people throughout history have branded others as radical evil in the name of Christ and Christian love without consideration of the foundational teachings they supposedly champion, we now face a party dominated by a constituency that brands us as radical evil in the name of America and American freedom without any real consideration of their history and functions.  In both cases, communities have lost sight of the fact that their institutions and ideologies are the means and not the ends, conflating them in terrifying self-justification.  One says: “If you disagree with me, you oppose Christ, Love, humanity and its salvation.”  The other says: “If you disagree with me, you oppose America, Freedom, humanity and its salvation.”

Musical Moose: Strum’s Song of Songs Project

So I’m finally ready to share more widely.  This diary will contain 4 demos with lyrics after the project description.  So if you just want to listen, please skip ahead.  And the very last of them was done just last night and is probably the strongest.

These are from an inclusive setting of the biblical Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim) in the original biblical Hebrew. The lyrics are approximately 2500 years old. Traditionally attributed to King Solomon, who lived a few centuries earlier than that, the book’s superscription can be translated either as attribution or dedication. Accordingly, it has also been called the Song of Solomon. The Latin version is known as Canticum Canticorum, which also serves as the title of Giovanni Palestrina’s amazing setting of selections of the Latin lyrics. For over two millennia, these lyrics have informed both Jewish and Christian liturgy and theology, though there is no explicit theological content. Indeed, it is largely a collection of erotic lyrics loosely united by theme and imagery. Some Jewish communities chant it on the eve of the Sabbath and it is widely chanted ritually in synagogues on the intermediate Sabbath of Passover. Rabbinic interpretations have employed its verses to express ideas about the erotic relationship between God and Israel and to illustrate points about the Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation at Sinai, the dedication of the Tabernacle, the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Israel’s exilic situation in the diaspora. Rabbi Aqiva declares in Mishna Yadayim: All of the writings are holy, the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies. Christian exegetes and theologians have drawn upon these lyrics to express the relationship between Christ and the Church, Christ and the individual soul, and marian theology as well.

By rendering the book inclusively, without editorial rearrangement or comment, without excerpting or omitting anything, my song cycle leaves all of these interpretive opportunities open. It can simply be apprehended as some of the oldest recorded erotic poetry, or as part of this or that theological or historiographic tradition. Oddly, my research has not turned up another version that does this in any language (though one may yet appear out of some as yet untroubled archive) outside of traditional cantillation. I omit nothing, though words and phrases are repeated to fill out metrical lines and to serve as choruses for the 18 songs into which I have re-divided the 8 traditional chapter divisions. On a very few occasions, a lyric may be introduced just slightly out of order when interweaving lines in counterpoint. The lyrics are assigned to a male soloist, female soloist, and male and female choruses according to grammatical and narrative cues in the text.

The instrumentation will eventually include a mix of western and middle eastern instruments, especially an oud, traditional percussion, drum kit, possibly some electronic beats, reed, violin and perhaps accordion/harmonium. I’ve composed the entire thing from guitar riffs, but some of that may need to be trimmed or subordinated as other instruments are incorporated into the arrangements. The current demos are sketches to be filled out.