Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

When It Rains . . . The Sun

For years, now, my mother has given me, each holiday season, a subscription to The Sun. I accept this kindness ambivalently; although it sometimes contains worthy writing, it is often overrun with the overwrought confessional that is the staple of new age / post-hippy (hippy lite?) writing. With an exception or two, I don't even like really high-brow memoir. There's something so fundamentally self-indulgent about the form. I prefer the imagined life qua unabashedly imagined to the imagined life with a pretense to non-fiction -- for all of our lives, ultimately, are imagined, even unto ourselves. The Sun often reads a bit too much like a diary sampler; aesthetically, it leaves me wanting. And the whole concept sometimes makes me sad.

[BASICALLY CONTEMPORANEOUS UPDATE: I recognize, of course, that many of the weblogs I like and recommend, not to mention (at least sometimes, as in the post to follow) my own weblog, are memoiristic. To the objection one might rise to the surface contradiction this suggests, I have two responses: 1) Bite me. I never said I wasn't self-indulgent. 2) It's different somehow when taken in small doses. At least for me as a reader. Hopefully for you as well, if like me you object to long-form memoir. And if you're here as other than a first time reader, then evidently you don't have too much of a problem with the whole thing. And anyway, I'll bet I could find a writer of romance novels who doesn't read them for leisure. Sometimes, often perhaps, what we create and what we consume bear little resemblance to each other.]

That said, its black and white photography often is exquisite, and its cover feature, usually involving an interview with some far left character of modest interest, can sometime be informative. Similarly, I find within its pages the occasionally interesting article on eastern philosophy, which I might as well accept in this adumbrated form since I never get around to taking it by the horns.

Last night, I cleaned my desk, and found buried under bank statements and pay stubs and arts flyers two issues of The Sun I'd failed to read. This is unusual; usually within a day or two of their arrival, I spend the obligatory hour or so surfing through like a hog absently nosing for truffles, and set the issue aside. Tonight, upon deciding that I would stay in, I picked up the first to hand of these two issues.

Best. Issue. Ever. I don't even know where to begin I was so pleased. So in order . . .

First, the lead story is an interview (excerpts only) with Michael Shellenberger, young progressive activist associated with George Lakoff, co-founder of the New Apollo Project, an organization seeking, as the interviewer puts it, "a major federal investment in clean energyt and energy efficiency with the long term goal of achieving freedom from oil dependence and creating three million good new jobs," and co-founder also of the Business Ethics Campaign, which is pursuing Wal-Mart for its abyssmal labor and environmental practices.

In the interview, Schellenberger discusses a familiar complaint with uncommon eloquence: that the left has foundered because its policy vision, such as it is, resolves itself into a suspension of various complaints articulated as such, an endless fusillade of condemnations and doomsday prophecies arising from specific ills, and a "laundry list" of discrete answers to same. Contrast this, he suggests, with the right, which spent two decades formulating a coherent vision and a script from which its proponents rarely deviate in any material degree. Much as Josh Marshall and others have suggested, what the left needs, Schellenberger suggests, is a unified vision that recognizes that one might simultaneously serve the environment, business interests, and labor interests, all while serving the American economy and improving lives everywhere. Standing in the way of this vision, however, are factionalized progressives each defending his own turf against other progressives with undue zeal; united we stand, etc. He does a better job of articulating his critique and describing his vision than I can, so I'll let him speak:

Polonsky: When I hear "Apollo Project," I think of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. How do you get people to make the conceptual connection between the first Apollo Porject and the New Apollo Project? [Sorry for the softball question, which is as integrity-compromising as the gratuitous capitalization of "New" --MOP]

Shellenberger: Both are visions of what our country can accomplish. The first Apollo Project put a man on the moon. This new project is a chance to make America energy-independent. Plus, it's a job-creation strategy. Instead of simply being against offshore drilling and against free trade, which gives Americans the impression that progressives are universally negative, we can be for what the United States does better than any other country in the world: we invent things. Invention and reinvention are defining aspects of our national identity and our culture of aspiration. We can't compete on lowest wages or cheapest natural resources, but we can invent. We can create whole new industries.

Polonsky: The auto industry, for example?

Shellenberger: You name it. The interstate highway system in the 1950's. The railroads after the Civil War. These are projects that led to the growth of industries. They had some very negative consequences, too; don't get me wrong. But the point is that the private sector couldn't have achieved these things on its own; it needed the federal government to play an important leadership role. Apollo wants to do more than inspire a set of policies -- we want to define what it means to be American. Progressives need to help people imagine more ambitiously what we can do together. American liberals today are stuck defending government programs that are, in some cases, more than half a century old. We need to reinvent progressive politics by reinventing a strategic role for government that unites Americans and transcends interest group politics.

I grant that in isolation, this looks suspiciously like pablum, but it's more than that, a reading will reveal. The most amusing part is the pricetag for a diverse set of initiatives designed to bring all of this together: $30 billion. The Apollo mission cost something like that in 1960's dollars; now, with a federal deficit approaching $500 billion, it's pocket change, relatively speaking. More:

Right now our government is chronically underinvesting in new technologies because of an ideology that says government can do nothing right. Bush just slashed the budget of the National Science Foundation. It's outrageous. To say that the federal government shouldn't play a role in stimulating invention betrays a complete ignorance of American history. Should we not have built the railroads? Should we not have invested in microchips? Should we not have created the Internet? It's ridiculous, but that's what we're fighting against: the notion that we should no longer invest our common assets.

The rhetoric of the Right says that the government is alien from the people, that it's a foreign entity that is occupying us. That's a dangerous distirubing idea, because it concentrates power in self-interested private entities -- namely, corporations. As much corruption as there is with Halliburton and the rest, we still elect our government. We are our government. We do not live under a dictatorship. Our government is there to represent the public interest. Apollo emerged from the notion that the government ought to reach out and work with corporations and labor unions and environmental groups and make a grand New Deal, so to speak.

Polonsky: And a lot of people have signed on to that notion.

Shellenberger: Yes, but we've also designed Apollo in a way that conventionally-thinking Democrats don't really get. John Kerry and company haven't really picked it up and run with it because they see the world in terms of separate issue categories: one box for foreign policy, one box for the economy, and one box for energy independence. Apollo breats out of these boxes by telling a stroy about America's past and future. Too many Democrats are stuck in abstract, single-issue categories that mean little to American voters.

Perhaps most tellingly, from here (the interview, evidently, was conducted before election day) Shellenberger goes on to wax relatively indifferent about the outcome of the presidential election, "[b]ecause even if Democrats win, it would only reinforce the belief that what they're doing is basically right, and I think what they're doing is basically wrong."

I really can't do this justice. You should glance at the article, and spend considerably more time at the Breakthrough Institute and reading Shellenberger's controversial white paper, The Death of Environmentalism: Global-Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World.

Still with me? Good, 'cause there's more.

I also strongly recommend Jamie Berger's memoir (I know; but for this I make an exception), "Peep Show." I can't say why, but it's really well-written, has its share of irony, and just generally deals with some interesting issues of sexuality (outside the usual run of sex roles of which we've all grown a little tired) in an incisive, candid, and credible way.

So, to sum up, Bravo, February 2005 issue of The Sun! Good stuff.


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