Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The English teacher

In which we see a corrupt aristocrat administer a revolutionary lesson

The Felix

Chronicles, # 20

(adapted from the current edition of the ECF Reporter magazine)

It’s the fall of 1760, and Benjamin Franklin has done it again: the wily Pennsylvanian has convinced the British colonial administration to finance the first annual Society of American Pioneers Convention somewhere in America in 1762. Franklin has persuaded His Majesty’s government that an event like this is a desirable means to inter-colonial cooperation in commerce and military affairs in anticipation of the coming victory in the war with France. What he didn’t quite succeed is in getting a commitment to hold the convention in Philadelphia. There’s a lot at stake for the city that does play host to the event, including bragging rights, revenue from free-spending convention-goers, and a potential boost to the regional economy if the British government commits serious financial resources for postwar development.

Four cities are in the running to host the convention: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. All the New England colonies, naturally, are in Boston’s corner. The Southern colonies of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia are for Charleston. New York has the support of its colony and East Jersey; Philadelphia has the backing of Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Jersey. Representatives of each of these colonies will caucus and present a pitch on behalf of their city before a noted colonial administrator based in Albany. Your team’s job is to develop the best pitch you think will lead the convention being awarded to the city you represent.

That administrator’s name is Lord Damien Moretaker. Lord Moretaker is, to put it mildly, skeptical of this whole idea. He thinks of the colonists as ungrateful children, and the whole idea of a convention as an incredibly stupid waste of time and energy. But he needs to stay on the Prime Minister’s good side, so he’ll go along with all this nonsense. Just keep in mind that this is not a man who suffers fools gladly and probably would rather be in a London whorehouse than a stuffy meeting room in near Albany.

Lord Moretaker [that would be me, wearing a purple graduation gown and a mop for a wig, both of which have been procured from the performing arts department] bursts into the room. “All right then,” he intones in a loud but wan voice. “I am Moretaker. Now let’s get this hideous exercise behind us.”

The students, unprepared for such an abrupt entrance, are disoriented but amused. They take a moment to realize that Lord Moretaker is serious, and return to position in the clusters of desks around the room. “Boston?” He asks. “Where are the people who represent this pimple on the arse of the British Empire?” Uneasy laughter.

The reliable Susan is the group’s spokesperson. “We believe the conference should be held in Boston,” she says, “because Boston is the commercial capital of New England.”

“Well, that makes you a giant among pygmies,” Lord Moretaker observes. “My understanding is that Boston is declining in importance as an imperial port.”

“Well, yes,” she says tentatively, probably as much because this is news to her as much as grudgingly conceding the point. “But –”

Jason leaps to her rescue. “We have a wonderful education system in Boston, she notes. Maybe you’ve heard of Harvard University?”

“What in God’s name is a ‘university’?”

“I mean Harvard College.”

“That’s Harvard College, my Lord.” Snickers.

Harvard College, my Lord.”

“Well what has Hovel College got to do with anything?”

Susan has recovered. “Because we believe that our people should be educated – ”

Moretaker cuts her off. “Let me get this straight,” he says. “You believe that having a lot of educated people is a good thing?”

“Yes, my Lord,” says Lisa. “We believe people should be well informed. People should know what’s going on in the world and have their own ideas.”

“So every idiot is supposed to have an opinion? And this is why we should have this conference in Boston?” The other teams are greatly entertained to see these girls getting a hard time.

“Yes, my Lord.”

“How charming,” Moretaker says with a mirthless smile. “All right, then.” Moretaker turns away from this group and is about to speak when Lisa interrupts. “My Lord –”

Moretaker scowls. “I have a few more reasons why Boston should host the conference,” she begins.

“That’s enough,” Moretaker snaps.

“But –”

“That’s enough!” The class laughs at this flat rejection of a good student’s work. Lisa and her team look upon Moretaker with a combination of amusement and shock. (Will they credit for doing all that homework?)

New York,” Moretaker says. “Where’s New York?”

"Right here, my Lord," Joey replies on behalf of his group. He looks confident, even cocky: He’s picked up the rules of this particular game and he thinks he can win. “My Lord, we believe that New York will be an excellent location for the inter-colonial conference. First of all, New York has much better weather than Boston. Boston is wet and cold –”

“– while New York is a tropical paradise?” Moretaker asks sarcastically. “You’re going to have to do better than that, New York.”

“Well, My Lord, I believe we can. New York is surrounded by water on three sides, and has a very good deep water port.”

“Hmmm,” Moretaker says, absorbing this, apparently approvingly. “And what about the Dutch? Is New York still a Dutch-infested city?”

“Well yes, my Lord. Actually, New York is a very diverse city. We have many different kinds of people here who –”

“Oh it is, is it? And this diversity you describe is a good thing?”

“Well, yes.”

“Now I’ve heard everything,” Moretaker says, genuinely amused. “Thank you, New York.”

But Joey isn’t ready to give up yet. “Your brother, my Lord.”

“Edmund? What about him?”

“Well, we believe that New York is a city of opportunity, even for people with a drinking problem, and –”

“Who said anything about Edmund having a drinking problem?”

“Oh. No one. I’m sorry, my Lord. I only meant to say that we may be able to work out something for him and other veterans.” Joey’s voice trails off. His partner, Ben, is smilingly approvingly.

“Oh we will, will we?” Moretaker pauses to gaze inscrutably at Joey. “Thank you, New York. Philadelphia?”

“That’s us, my Lord,” Lisa says brightly. Her team makes a brisk presentation emphasizing Philadelphia’s dynamic growth and location in the middle of the North American colonies. It enjoys relatively good relations with Indians, and has a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Lord Moretaker is visibly bored, and becomes more so as the presentation proceeds. He yawns; he squirms in his chair. His head begins to bob noticeably. Lisa’s partner Katie makes some mention of Benjamin Franklin, and Moretaker suddenly perks up.

“Did you say Benjamin Franklin?”

“Yes, my Lord. As you may know, having an inter-colonial conference was his idea.”

“Oh I know, all right,” Moretaker responds irritably. “We all know about the positively marvelous Mr. Franklin. Let me ask you something. Is Mr. Franklin actively lobbying to for Philadelphia to be awarded this conference?”

Lisa looks confused. But she’s smart enough to adjust her script in light of the circumstances. “I’m not sure, my Lord.”

“Not sure, huh? Very well then. I think I’ve heard enough about Mr. Franklin. Charleston! Where’s Charleston?”

“We are Charleston,” says Nate. “My Lord, we’re in a really good location. Right near the Caribbean. We think you should hold your conference here.”

“I can assure you that this will not be my conference,” Moretaker replies.

“Well OK, Nate continues. "But we also want you to know that we are fully prepared to show you and your brother a really good time. The class laughs – apparently at both the idea and the fact that it’s Will who’s pitching it.

Moretaker shows no visible reaction. “After a pause, he asks: And what about the Negroes?”


“Yes, the Negroes. I hear they murder their masters in their beds.” More laughter.

“Oh no, My Lord. We have the Negroes under control. You and Edmund will have a really good time.”

“A good time,” Moretaker repeats. He turns suddenly to Joey. “New York, say a few words more about what you have in mind for my brother.”

Despite its unexpected arrival, Joey is ready for this opening. “Oh, there’s all kinds of things we can do. Programs for lots of veterans like Joey. Why, we can –”

“Yes of course, the veterans,” Moretaker interrupts. Excellent. All right then, he announces to the class. “After hearing your presentations I have made my decision. New York will host this conference, pending some final arrangements. You will be hearing from his majesty’s administrators for colonial affairs shortly. Now I am going to see if I can’t find me a half-decent glass of port in this reeking Dutch sinkhole of a village.” He departs without salutations.

I return to the room a moment later, sans costume, amid some smiles and a few mock scowls. “So, I ask, what did you learn?”

“I learned that Lord Moretaker is a real jerk,” Lisa says.

“A real arsehole,” Katie says, prompting laughter.

“Careful,” I say. “He might just hear you.”

“I couldn’t believe how corrupt he was,” Lisa says.

“Well, that’s the way a lot of people felt at the time about the British Empire, in the late eighteenth century” I reply. “That it was poorly run mostly by people who were in it only for themselves. Fortunately, we know that the world doesn’t work that way any longer.” Some smiles at that.

“Let me ask you something,” Susan says. “Was this whole thing decided from the very beginning? That the conference was going to go to whoever did the best job of bribery with Edmund?”

I smile. “Now that wouldn’t be fair, would it?” I reply. “See you tomorrow,” I say, pulling open the door.

Monday, April 27, 2009

2009 divided by '73

Year in the past; window on the present; portent of the future?

Even more than 35 years later, 1973 still casts a feverish glow. There are other years in U.S. history one could plausibly consider as tumultuous (the violent upheavals of 1676, 1776 and 1861 come to mind, as do those of 1968). But there's probably no year at the moment that has such a contrapuntal relationship to our current moment as 1973 does.

Certainly there's a string of specific events one can recite from 1973 that are consequential enough: the Paris Peace accords that officially ended U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. The Arab oil embargo and resulting energy crisis in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The Watergate hearings that would bring down Richard Nixon.

Other developments were more subtle, but at least as important in their long-term impact: 1973 was the year United States economy completed the process of going off the gold standard. It's the last year that mens' wages, adjusted for inflation, actually rose. And then there were the cultural landmarks that made a splash -- and generated rippling waves: The feminist manifesto Our Bodies, Our Selves. The gritty chic of Superfly. The willful nostalgia of American Graffiti. The sixties were over; but just what were the seventies?

Some recent works of popular culture focusing on the year 1973 suggest answers. Andreas Killen's 1973 Nervous Breakdown, which came out in paperback two years ago, is a series of case studies on social themes of the year. So, for example, he has a chapter on aviation that includes the economic problems of the industry, the uproar and fascination with hijackings, and the notoriety surrounding Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, all of which were prominent that year. Other chapters explore the economic crisis of New York coupled with the rise of the Sunbelt; the shifts and influence of Andy Warhol's work as he made a cultural transition from the sixties to the seventies, and the upheaval in gender roles both suggested and documented in the Loud family, "stars" of a PBS documentary series that prefigured the reality shows of our time.

Killen is particularly interested in the complex dialectic between an intensifying fascination with fame that he sees in the seventies, coupled with a equally strong fascination with surveillance, conspiracy, and secrecy. These tensions were apparent everywhere from the Nixon White House to radical fringe groups dedicated to overthrowing the government. Taken as a whole, Killen's book makes a persuasive case that in 1973 the United States was a nation on the edge, and that the social order as it was understood seemed illusory to left and right alike.

For some, this prospect of apocalypse was deeply frightening. For others, it was thrilling (both sides of which were discernible in the mania over UFOs in 1973). If you were a returning prisoner of war from Vietnam, the country you returned to was an alien planet. If you were a homosexual besotted with David Bowie, you might finally start to feel at home. I myself was a ten year-old child in 1973, in the middle of a thoroughly unremarkable childhood and largely oblivious to the outside world. Still, I can remember gas lines and television images -- and a father thoroughly disgusted by a liberal establishment he believed viewed firefighters like himself with contempt. I could sense that an old order was passing and a new one was emerging, right in the newfangled progressive classroom in which I was being taught.

This is why, after catching a few glimpses while waiting for my son to relinquish control of our television at the conclusion of Lost on Wednesday nights, I gradually found myself absorbed by the ABC series Life on Mars -- which, I'm very sorry to say, was canceled earlier this month. The series, adapted from the BBC program that ran in 2006-2008, was a hybrid between science fiction and a police procedural in which a detective played by Jason O'Mara is hit by a car in 2008 and wakes up in 1973. Each week O'Mara and a delightful cast that included Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli and Gretchen Mol solved a crime in New York City while O'Mara's character tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

One of the things that made Life on Mars so satisfying was the pitch-perfect sense of period detail in costume, music, and dialogue, which as often as not featured Imperioli behaving in off-handedly sexist ways that would get him fired in about twenty minutes if was half as bad today. The look of the show had a kind of sepia overlay that was nostalgic, and yet there was something fascinating and fresh about seeing the signature gestures of the era, like Mol's or Imperioli's hairstyles, or the white loafers Keitel's character wore. At the same time, there were also strange, even creepy overtones in the protagonist's sci-fi backstory that harkened back to Westworld and The Exorcist, two 1973 movies that captured the freakishly dark mood of the period.

And yet, though it really seemed that way to some at the time, American culture was not stretched to the breaking point in 1973. There was a retreat from the pervasive weirdness of that year by the mid-seventies, and the eventual triumph of a figure many at the time considered laughably retrograde: Ronald Reagan. If living and learning about 1973 has taught me anything, it's that the feeling of inevitability you can have in living at a particular moment is, more often than not, itself a historical artifact.

Viewed through the lens of 1973, the year 2009 is curiously bifurcated. The inauguration of Barack Obama has engendered a sense of hope in our government that was entirely missing in 1973 -- or, for that matter, 2005. At the same time, however, our long-term economic horizons seem as bleak as they did in the seventies, with consequences in other domains of American life likely to follow. From this vantage point, it almost seems like history is about to resume its course, that the last 36 years have been an interlude, a dream of the kind from which the character of Life on Mars keeps thinking he's about to awake. I hope I'm wrong. It gives me comfort to believe that I really might be.

Friday, April 24, 2009

'The Future of Liberalism' is now

Political scientist Alan Wolfe embraces a frayed ideological label

Though you might think so given his support of causes like gay marriage or a single-payer health care system, don't call Alan Wolfe a progressive: He considers himself an unreconstructed liberal. Though he recognizes, even in the aftermath of Barack Obama's election to the presidency, that liberalism "implies unelectability and marginality," Wolfe thinks the image makeover embraced by some of the left is misguided. "'Progressive is the wrong term and the wrong turn," he explains. "By returning us to the days of Woodrow Wilson and others who once adopted the label, it would take liberals back to a political agenda convinced of its own moral superiority and too hostile to civil liberties to serve the needs of an open and dynamic society."

As this assertion implies, Wolfe bristles about as much at political correctness and other forms of ideological orthodoxy as he does evangelical conservatism. It's part of the achievement of this surprisingly sprightly book that he pulls you along on the strength of his temperament as much as the content of his argument.

But does Wolfe mean by the term "liberalism?" He gives three answers: it's a set of policy proposals (in which "as many people as possible have as much say as is feasible in the direction the lives will take"); a set of procedures (rooted in laws, rights, and elections); and a temperament (a disposition of openness and tolerance of dissent). There was a time when liberalism meant loosening the restrictive bonds of religious orthodoxy and government control. In the twentieth century, however, government emerged as the lever by which people's lives can be made better. Over time, religion has become less restrictive; the "free" market less so. Wolfe traces the emergence of this tradition in the Enlightenment -- figures like Immanuel Kant, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill loom large here, and a big part of the value of the book is in the way it limns the emergence of a coherent, if complex and at times ambivalent, intellectual tradition.

But not the only part. Wolfe, whose previous books include
One Nation, After All (1998), a research-rich study of public opinion, has the great virtue of writing with concrete clarity. So his tour of liberal philosophy is studded with trenchant critiques of libertarian conservatism like this: "You do not give people more control over their lives by reducing their real income, increasing their fears of unemployment, threatening to take away their health care, lowering how much income they receive relative to society's most well-off, allowing their talents to be overlooked for purely arbitrary reasons of race and gender, and making them more dependent in their last years." He responds to Robert Kagan's formulation of as the left-right divide in foreign policy as a matter of Mars versus Venus by asserting that it's more like Apollo versus Dionysius, with neocons as the ones drunk with Romantic dreams of imperial power. And
he revises Richard Weaver's famous 1948 right-wing manifesto Ideas Have Consequences by saying "ideas have some consequences, even important ones, but by themselves their influence is limited. Philosophers can help explain the world. They are unable to direct its course."

But Wolfe can also demonstrate a clear-eyed skepticism toward some of his allies on the left as well. On a subject like immigration, for example, he argues vigorously for relatively open borders. But he also asserts that "liberals should insist that openness is a two-way street"; he regards a multiculturalism as problematic for a liberal vision more appropriately rooted in democratic ideas than ethnic or racial identity. He is a stalwart defender of the welfare state, and believes that giving people economic entitlements no less than civil rights is an indispensable prerequisite for fostering a true spirit of independence. But he also believes that the liberal aversion to making moral judgments about private life can be as problematic as the conservative aversion to regulating public life. He asks, "If the state studiously avoids telling a teenager that promiscuous sexuality is a bad thing, how can it make the case that obligations to the poor and needy are a good thing?" Wolfe is particularly critical of militant secularists like Robert Dawkins and Steven Pinker, and in an arresting inversion of the conventional wisdom, argues that such sociobiologists have much in common with ostensible evangelical opponents like the late Jerry Falwell. Both, Wolfe asserts, have a deterministic view of human nature that allow little room for the sense of human agency that is the hallmark of liberalism -- and the engine powering many of the improvements in the quality of everyday life, from the ending of slavery to providing health care, over the course of the last two centuries.

At the core of Wolfe's affirmation of liberalism is the belief that it, more than any of its ideological competitors, has been best able to adapt to a condition of modernity that has grown out of the emergence of industrial capitalism. And the heart of modernity, Wolfe believes, is a powerful tendency toward social equality, which, he asserts, societies tend to embrace when they get the chance. On the right, conservatives, who don't much like equality, must nevertheless pay it lip service to achieve their objectives (typically by fostering a sense of populist resentment). On the left, socialists and progressives, who believe they know better than the population at large, try to sidestep equality through legal rulings and expertise they claim (not always wrongly, though often arrogantly) serves the interests of all. Wolfe notes that elitism is a characteristic vice of liberals as well, though it's one he believes can be held in check by a commitment to a commitment to liberal proceduralism that even its most bitter opponents instinctively embrace.

It's here, though, that one begins to have intimations of doubt. For one thing, observers across the political spectrum agree that inequality -- certainly economic equality -- has been growing in recent decades, a development which will almost certainly foster other kinds if it hasn't already. But even if one assumes that liberalism has proven itself to be a hardy survivor in the modern world, no regime lasts forever. As Wolfe himself notes, liberalism has many passionate enemies, but liberalism is by definition moderate and skeptical of fervor of almost any kind. That's why, he concludes, liberalism's "biggest challenge is to get liberals to once again
believe in liberalism." But as the religious dissidents so instrumental in the creation of modern liberalism well knew, one doesn't easily arrive at belief through exhortation. Ironically, Alan Wolfe gives us many reasons in this book to feel love and loyalty to a concept that has been very good to many of us for a long time. But his book may be more successful in allowing us to appreciate where we've been than where we're headed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The politics of Amelia Lorate

In which we see the possibilities, and limits, of a Progressive vision (21st century style)

The Felix Chronicles, # 19

The first day we talk about the Progressive Movement of a century ago, I provide an overview of its temperament: anxiety about industrial capitalism coupled with optimism about reforming it; evangelical fervor coupled with a fascination with scientific efficiency; an affirmation of democracy coupled with an urge for social control. On the second day we talk Progressivism, we walk through a series of primary source document excerpts taken from an A.P. American history exam.

Now, on this third day, I run a simulation to them get a grip on what I'm talking about by setting up a contemporary analogy for 2009. The students are presented with a bill written by Amelia Lorate, an ambitious young representative to the U.S. House of Representatives from the upper west side of Manhattan, that goes like this:

All high school graduates in the United States must give a year of service to their country by either joining the armed forces or doing some form of community service from a prescribed list of activities (one that includes tutoring poor children, working in a national park, and aiding senior citizens). Students will be paid minimum wage; those without parental support and/or health insurance are eligible for welfare and Medicaid. The program will be paid for with taxes on cigarettes, chocolate, beer, and gasoline.

We are all members of Lorate's committee and are debating whether to send it to the House floor. Lorate herself is missing because she has just gone into labor with twins. I'm the chair of the committee, and my leanings -- and my relationship with "Mel" -- are ambiguous (this gives me room to manipulate the discussion). So now it's time to get to work.

"Let me start with a non-binding vote," I say by way of starting the discussion. "We need a majority to pass, and two-thirds for any amendments. Can I just see by a show of hands how many of you are in favor of this bill?" I do a count and see that nine of twenty have raised their hands. Wow. Usually it's far less. "That's pretty good," I say. "Much higher than usual.Well, maybe we'll get get this thing passed quickly before there are too many questions. Can I see that show of hands again?"

It's obvious, without counting, that I have fewer hands now. Phew: I managed to sow a seed of doubt. For a second there I was afraid this thing would sail through and we'd have too much class time on our hands. "Nate, am I mistaken or have you changed your mind?"

"Well, yeah," he says. "I realized that maybe I need to hear more about this first."

"I don't," says Jason. "I hate the idea."

"Really, Jason? Why's that?"

"I don't think it's a good idea to force people to do this kind of work. Volunteering is one thing, and I'm all for it. But not requiring it."

"I think it's a great idea," Kim says. "There's lots of work to get done. And if we all had to do it, that would make it fair."

"I actually think we should all have to go in the army," Roy says.

"That's a terrible idea," Kim responds. "Some people don't believe in fighting."

"Wouldn't have to. There's all kinds of things you can do in the army. Build bridges. Provide security. Peacekeeping missions. Stuff like that. A lot of the other stuff you can do seems like fluff."

"Helping senior citizens is fluff?" Kim asks, incredulously.

"Yeah. Probably be a lot of busy work. And everybody would want to do it. No one would want to take on the hard work the way you would in the army."

Kim is still digesting her shock when Becky interrupts. "I'd want to be a pilot," she says.

"Well, you can forget about that," I say. "A year isn't enough time. Actually, you won't be able to do much more than peel potatoes in a year-long gig. But maybe the program would be a good recruiting device to get people like you to stay on, Becky." Becky frowns in mock disappointment, taking this in. Ellen nudges her and says something I can't hear.

"Why the tax on chocolate?" Mindy asks. "I love chocolate."

"Well, I think Lorate intends these to be 'sin' taxes," I explain. "Things like cigarettes, tax and chocolate are kind of optional, or at any rate, vices."

"Gas isn't really optional for some people," Sam points out.

"Well, no, but it would promote conservation."

"I still don't think we should tax chocolate," Mindy persists.

"Fine. Would you like to add an amendment to the bill? It will take a two-thirds majority -- that would be 14 people today -- but if you get it, we'll strip the chocolate tax from the plan."

"Yes, Mindy says. "I want the amendment."

"C'mon, Mindy," Samantha says. "This isn't going to work unless we're willing to do things we don't like."

"I still have a problem with the issue that Jason raised," Sam says.

"Not now, Sam. Right now we're debating Mindy's proposal. All in favor of the Schwartz amendment raise your hands," I say to chuckles at the use of Mindy's last name. Three hands go up.

"Sorry, Mindy, the Schwartz amendment is dead."

Mindy frowns. Then she brightens. "That's OK." I can't remember a time she's been so active in a discussion. I should talk about candy more often, I think to myself.

"I have another amendment," Ellen says.

"You do? What's that?"

"I don't think you should have to do this right after high school. Maybe you should be able to wait until after college. Then Becky could be a pilot."

"I don't think that's a great idea," Samantha says.

"Why not? If I was to do it later, I'd know more about what I want and could do a better job."

"It's not about you," Samantha replies. "It's about helping out people who need help. That doesn't really require lots of expertise. If you want to, you can do it again later."

"Yeah, well, that's my amendment. Can we vote on it?"

"Very well, then," I answer. "How many people are in favor of the Slater amendment?" Twelve hands go up. Becky's is not among them.

"Becky, why didn't you vote for the Slater amendment?" I ask. "It was proposed with you in mind!"

"I know. But if the Slater amendment passed" -- the smile on her face suggests ongoing amusement with this device of using students' last names -- "then the whole thing might pass. And I don't want that to happen."

Ellen and Kim cry out in unison: "Becky!"

"I see," I say admiringly. "So you're voting against what you consider a good amendment in order to kill a bad bill. Nice little piece of politics there, Becky."

"I can't believe her," Liza whispers with quiet disgust to Lisa. The antipathy seems to run deeper than this classroom exercise.

I turn back to Nate. "You said you needed a little more time to think about this. Do you have any more clarity now?"

"I dunno," Nate says, in a voice that suggests that he doesn't want to disappoint me, but can't quite bring himself to commit, either. "I'm thinking about the housing thing. What is the living situation going to be like? I mean, you can't get an apartment on minimum wage, can you?"

"Well, you'd probably live at home," I reply. "But I'll give you a little inside info here. Mel Lorate knows that people like your parents will worry about this. She's thinking that if her bill passes it will serve to drive the minimum wage up. But I think there would probably be some kind of YMCA dormitory situation."

"That would suck," Mark says.

"Would it be any worse than a college dorm?" Erica asks him by way of reply.

"Maybe not," Mark answers doubtfully.

"It could be a blast," Tom speculates. "I mean, you wouldn't be taking classes. No homework. You'd meet lots of new people."

Samantha looks at me with a wry smile, shakes her head and rolls her eyes. "Kids today," she seems to be saying.

"What the hell," Joey says. "Count me in."

"Me too," Alec says.

"You still on board, Roy?" I ask.

"Yeah," he replies. "Still not thrilled with the social work piece of it. But I'll vote in favor because I like the military service component."

"All right, all right," Mark says. "I'll do it."

Mark, Roy, Alec, Joey, Tom right there. Kim and Samantha have been in favor all along. That's seven there.

"We haven't heard from you, Beth," I say. She's startled, but only takes a second to compose herself. "Oh. Sorry. I've been in favor all along."

OK. That's eight. Three more would put the bill over the top in the committee. Not much time left in the class. I'm about to ask Lisa and Erica their dispositions, when I see Chris and Sam conducting a sidebar deliberation. "Hey you guys, what's going on over there?"

"Nothing," Chris says, looking guilty. Clearly, he's been AWOL for the whole class. But Sam seems perfectly composed, and that composure seems like a kind of defiance. "I'm sorry," he says. "But I just can't go along with this. It's just too, what's the word . . . coercive."

I calculate Sam is strong enough to be challenged directly. "You regard serving your country as coercive?"

"Yes. Yes I do."

"You don't think you have any obligation to a place that has allowed you to grow up in safety and prosperity?"

"Well, I'll pay taxes, won't I?"

All eyes are suddenly upon us.

"And that's sufficient?"

"Yes. I think it is."

"And if I was to call you a spoiled brat who thinks he can buy his way out of obligation, what would you say?"

He smiles. "I'd say you're right about that. But not about making me do this program.That's not what freedom means."

I nod with pursed lips. This is not Sam's most attractive moment, but I find myself admiring his candor and clarity. I think he may have accomplished something today, if not for himself than maybe some of his classmates. I look up abruptly. "So I think it's time for another vote. This one is binding. All in favor of the Lorate bill?"

The eight heads I counted raise their hands. So do Alec, Lisa, Mindy, and Liza. That's twelve. "The Lorate bill has been passed by the committee," I announce. "We will recommend it for passage on House floor. I think President Obama will sign it. Thank you, everybody."

"Whoo Hoo!" says Joey. "This is a great day for democracy." Nate punches him on the arm. Joey hits him back.

"Glad you think so, Joey. Let me ask the rest of you: What did you get out of today's session?"

"That the Progressives were jerks," Nate says, still fighting off Joey. "A bunch of control freaks."

"I kinda liked their idealism," Beth says, now over her spell of distraction. "You can see how it would be hard to get something like this done. But the Progressives did a lot."

"Well, they had the times on their side," I note. "That made a big difference. Actually, I think the times may be changing even as we speak. This is the first time in all the years I've been doing this that the bill actually got passed on the committee like this. Usually we just talk it to death. Or, if it does get through, it's got stuff like the Schwartz or Slater amendments."

"Well, I guess it just goes to show, Mr. Cullen," Samantha says puckishly. "What can I say? We're better people."

"Must be."

"Spoken like a true Progressive," Sam says to Samantha with a smile as he closes his laptop and points at the clock. "I'm outta here."

Monday, April 20, 2009

Takin' care of business

In which we see the rest room is really a very busy place

The Felix Chronicles, # 18

I have a few minutes between classes in room 211, and take the opportunity to go upstairs to the main reception area of the school for a quick pit stop. I want to grab a cup of coffee from the machine in the faculty lounge, but first branch off to the faculty men's room. It's small -- two urinals, two stalls, and a sink -- but convenient, and the only one reserved solely for faculty use.

When I enter, I find Hal, my colleague in the English department, drying his hands with a paper towel.
We've been working on trying to team-teach a course. "Hey. Glad I ran into you," he says. "I finally had that meeting with Diane and Rafe, and I've got them on board with our course for next year. Can you make the pitch at Wednesday's curriculum meeting?"

"Sure," I say, making a mental note to draft a memo. "But have you cleared it with Tom?" I ask, referring to the head of his department.

"Yeah. Tom is on board."
Hal crumples a paper towel and tosses it successfully into the wastepaper basket. Tall and largely bald, I sometimes imagine Hal as a high school basketball player with a nickname of "Stork," though I have no idea whether he ever actually played the game. It's just something I like to think. "After we run the department gauntlet, then it will be on to the parents and students to see if, when we build it, they will come. Then all we have to do is actually design and teach the course!"

"Piece of cake," I say as I saddle up to the urinal, beginning to worry about actually having to do this course. I hear the friction of Hal's shoes on the tile floor as he heads for the door. "Hey Fred," I hear him say, the colleague who has apparently entered behind me.

"Hey Hal," he says as he pulls up beside me. "How ya doing,” he says to me as Hal exits.

“Okay Fred, how ’bout you?”

“So did I hear that you're good to go on that English/History course?”

"Well, we're making progress, anyway."

"Good for you. But there is something I've been meaning to ask you."


"Back in the joint department meeting last month, you said that you were comfortable with the idea that the class would not proceed chronologically, because you don't think kids actually learn history that way."

"That's right."

"And I do remember you saying things like that at different points in the last few years. I remember you saying that a kid might learn American history one year, take an elective in European history the next, and then do ancient Rome or Chinese history after that."

“That's right. I take exactly that approach in my Biography elective,” I tell him. “We move from Genghis Khan to a Maine midwife to Jesus Christ, because the curriculum is driven around questions rather than topics or chronology."

"I get that. And it makes a lot of sense to me. But I also remember you telling me that the 10th grade US history survey still makes a lot of sense as a chronological course, as one key course a student will have for sure that actually does proceed in such a fashion and provide a foundation for whatever else may follow."

“Well, yes, I do remember saying that," I acknowledge.

"So what changed?"

I step back and pull up my zipper. I don't really have a good answer for him. "I guess I'm thinking it's just time to be doing something new." Left unanswered is whether I'm referring to the school curriculum, my own inner restlessness, or both.

“Well, more power to ya. I didn't ask at the meeting because I didn't want to pour more fat on the fire. I myself am reasonably satisfied with the course as it is, so I don't anticipate any big changes. But I'll be curious to see how it works out for you."

"Thanks, Fred,” I say as I take my own turn with the sink. I'll be glad to hear what you think."

"Oh -- one other thing," he says. "I saw you were reading that Amy Chua book on Empire. Any good?"

"Not bad. I think the Charles Maier book Among Empires is better."

"Could ya send me the complete titles of both? I'd like to order them on Amazon."

"Sure, Fred."
I make another mental note as I grab a paper towel after washing my hands. I shoot; it hits the rim of the wastepaper basket and spills over to the side. "There goes the soft-drink endorsement," I say to myself as I dunk it in, dodge Fred, and head for the door, thinking about that cup of coffee.

But I have to step back as Raphael pushes the door just as I'm about to open it. “Jim, I'm glad I ran into you," he says, repeating Hal’s greeting. He suddenly modulates his voice, as deans so often do, though unnecessarily in this particular setting. "What can you tell me about our friend Louis? I saw your e-mail to his mom from a few days ago."

“I'm afraid no news is bad news. Even when he's there, he's not there, if you know what I mean."

“It's not just you,” Rafe tells me. “He's having trouble in all his classes. Mom tells me that she's adjusted the medication, but that was a couple weeks ago now and I'm not hearing of any improvement. If things don't improve by the break, I'm going to have to raise the question about whether Louis really belongs here." Fred makes a silent gesture of greeting to Rafe as he glides by us.

“Sorry to hear that," I say. "Truth is, he's been a little warmer to me since I sent an e-mail home explaining that I like him, but fear that I'm going to have to fail him. Yesterday on his way out he smiled at me on his way out, as if to tell me it’s nothing personal.”

“That's the problem," Rafe says sadly. “After a certain point, it really isn't. And he's getting real close. Anyway, thanks for your help.”

“No problem," I say as he makes his own trip to the urinal. Now officially late for class, I nevertheless do not want to return to 211 without that cup of coffee. I turn into the faculty lounge, where I find Fred in front of the coffee dispenser, pouring cream into a paper cup of tea. “Maybe we should just put your desk in there in one of the stalls," he jokes. “Seems to be the place where you conduct all your business.”

Friday, April 17, 2009

Weak Tea

Tax protesters draw a faulty analogy with the legacy of the American Revolution

British Prime Minister Lord North had reason to feel satisfied with himself: He had two big problems on his hands, and a solution that he believed would address both. One headache was the East India company, which was beset by financial problems and was appealing to the government to save it from bankruptcy (you might think of it as the AIG of its day). The other was the fractiousness of Great Britain's North American colonies, which were making all kinds of trouble over new taxes imposed in the decade following the Seven Years War (1756-63), taxes which the colonists said were unfair because they had no representation in Parliament. A number of these taxes had been repealed in response to colonial pressure -- which included highly successful boycotts of British goods -- but the North administration believed it was important to affirm the principle of finding some way to assert its control over the colonies in a way that would not stiffen their resistance.

The solution was premium tea. The East India company was awash with it -- which, meant, in effect, that the British government was awash with it. North's idea was to sell the tea to the Americans at a steep discount (think $5 cartons of cigarettes, or $25 iPods). The catch, if you could even call it that, was that some portion of the price of those smokes or tunes was actually a tax. Surely, Lord North reasoned (despite some voices that warned him otherwise), the Americans would not be so foolish and spiteful to reject a very good deal.

Of course, he was wrong: for many of the colonists, a principle was at stake. Some of those colonists felt so passionately, in fact, that when ships of tea arrived in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston in late 1773, opposition was strong enough that if forced agents for the company to resign, for the ships to turn back, or both. In Boston, however, Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson insisted that the ship there be allowed to deliver its cargo. Before that could happen, however, a group of hooligans who jokingly disguised themselves as savages (a.k.a. Native Americans), raided the ship and tossed the cargo into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. As we all know, this event became sarcastically known as the Boston Tea Party, and the imperial crackdown that followed led directly to the American Revolution.

And it is this memory of the Boston Tea Party that hundreds of thousands of protesters in hundreds of cities invoked at their to "TEA parties" ("tea" as an acroynm for "Taxed Enough Already") on Wednesday, also known as "Tax Day," since it was the deadline to file returns with the Internal Revenue Service. These people saw themselves as upholding a venerable American tradition, since the founding of the nation was rooted in a tax revolt. "A revolution is brewing," reads the slogan on the national organization's web site.

Yet the analogy they invoke is flawed at best. For one thing, the Boston Tea Party was not about taxation, per se, but rather taxation without representation -- something which, whatever our unhappiness with replaceable officials, citizens of this government currently have. Moreover, it was never about the
amount the colonists were taxed; in fact, in the face of Crown efforts to pay the salaries of judicial officials, colonial legislatures insisted that they, not the British government back in London, underwrite those costs. This meant, in effect, that they wanted to tax themselves.

These niceties would surely be rejected by those who protested this week. Their main point, which is understandable, is that they're upset by the scale of recent government spending, in particular government spending on failed corporations, especially the banks that triggered the recent global financial crisis. But if that's the case, there's a good case to be made that their protests should be staged outside the headquarters of insurance companies, stock brokerages, and other enterprises. Still, if such people went on to insist that the government is finally responsible for what it does on behalf of the people, some of us still have to wonder why Tax Day should be the time to take their stand, particularly given the fact that in the short term taxes are going down for most people and the government's current plans involve raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans who have benefited the most from the privilige of living here in a time of growing economic inequality. There are no new taxes of the kind that triggered the original Boston Tea Party. No one, of course, likes paying taxes. But surely willingness to pay for the many good things our government does is more patriotic than a protest with patriotic trappings that suggests that taxes are the problem rather than a potential solution.

Again, though: there's probably little point in trying to make such an argument to people who Governor Rick Perry of Texas suggested plausibly regard secession from the Union as the most appropriate response to their frustration. It falls instead to the rest of us to remember that the words of Abraham Lincoln, who was wrote that "the legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people what they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities." Lincoln considered things like roads to fall into this category. He would surely regard things like health insurance to fall under it too, especially given the evident inability of the private sector, individually or collectively, to provide it communally on a local or national level. The Tea Party protesters might have forgotten which of their parents receive Medicare, or how many of them drove to their protests on Interstate highways, visited national parks, collected unemployment insurance or attended state universities. It is this tradition of representative government no less than that represented by the Boston Tea Party that forms the core of our national identity. For the moment, at least, Barack Obama is no Lord North. Let's keep our powder dry.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

(Transatlantic) travels with Charlie

In which we see the Tramp get dated

The Felix Chronicles, # 17

The Immigrant (1917), a short film starring Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp, has just ended. I eject the DVD and turn on the lights. "So what did you think?" I ask the room of squinting students.

"Oh it was great," Alec says.

"Well, what did you like about it?"

Mark jumps in. "I loved the bit about the fish," he says. "When you first see Charlie Chaplin on the boat coming to America, it looks like he's retching, which is funny enough. And then you see him come in with that fish. Which then proceeds to almost bite the other immigrant's nose off."

"I liked the way he ran circles around that waiter," Joey says. "Great slapstick."

"That's the thing, though," Kim says, more reflectively than Joey, Mark, or Alec."It was all so carefully put together. It was like when the boat was rocking -- or
looked like it was rocking. That was really him looking tippy, wasn't it?"

"That's right. He created the illusion of rocking through his movement. Chaplin didn't so much act as he did choreograph his humor. Actually, he did it all -- writing, performing, editing, the whole nine yards. It was really all very complicated."

"He would shoot tons of footage," Sam says. He's a film buff who did his research essay on John Ford westerns. "I'd never seen this one. I love
Modern Times."

"Well that came a good deal later," I say. "But you're right about his perfectionism. But even by this point, Chaplin had enough clout in the movie business to do things his own way."

"That's the thing," Kim says. "We talked yesterday about how early movies were just a few minutes long, and were like these little novelties. You know, the rushing train, that kind of thing. But he's really telling a story here. I mean there's the whole immigration thing. Plus it's a love story of the kind we see all the time now."

"Yeah, well, as love stories go, it's not exactly
Titanic," Susan observes.

"It can't be," Kim replies. "It's a silent movie. Still, he manages to get the idea across."

"Actually, you make an important point, Kim. You're right that a lot of early movies were sensational -- it was, in effect, the special effects that brought people to them. But the real novelty here is that Chaplin is depicting the kind of experience that a lot of people actually had lived. You know how it is, you're watching a movie and you suddenly say to yourself 'Look! There's Union Square Park!
I've been there!' Or 'I love that hotel!'" I see a clutch of nodding heads. "But can you imagine what it must have been like for these immigrants to see their experience represented up there on a screen? The very ordinariness of it must have been thrilling. Even the cliched plot."

"I like the way that Chaplin kinda symbolizes the little guy," Tom observes.

"Absolutely. You know, there's one other thing I realized from watching this movie again," I say. "Remember yesterday when I noted that film is great for immigrants because it's silent? I backtracked a bit because Sam pointed out that there were title cards, as we saw today. But it occurred to me as we did that going to the movies might well have been a way for some immigrants to begin to learn English. They might see a word or phrase on the screen, followed by an image and say "Aha! So that
pesce he's holding is called the 'fish.'"

I'm about to go on when I see that Ellen has a sour look on her face. "What is it, Ellen? You don't like fish?"

"No, I love fish," she says. "I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. I found this movie
incredibly boring."

"Can you tell me why?"

"Well it was all so predictable. I mean, the love story was so lame. And the humor just didn't seem that funny to me. It's like he made every gesture a few times."

"That's because he had to!" Sam says. "Don't you see? It was part of the rhythm of the film!"

understand that," Ellen replies, condescending to Sam's condescension. "I just didn't find it that funny, that's all. It was so slow."

Susan comes to her aid. "I have to agree with Ellen," she says. "I mean, I understand this is great art for its time, that it's an important piece of history and all that, but that doesn't mean I love to watch it."

"It's like beer," Alec says. Tastes bad the first time you try it, but then you get the hang of it." Lots of laughter at that.

"Alec's got a point," I say, pausing, with some ongoing chuckles at the suggestion I'm endorsing his point about alcohol consumption. "But so do Ellen and Susan. Nobody
has to love Charlie Chaplin. And while lots and lots of people did in 1917, that doesn't mean everybody did back then, either. Joey called it slapstick, which is basically right, though I think of Chaplin as far more balletic than, say, Jim Carrey" (some smiles at the thought)."I love slapstick. My wife hates it. I suspect it might be a boy thing to some degree -- there's always an undercurrent of violence in seeing someone get whacked with a 2 X 4."

"Exactly," Susan says.

"But I also want to point out that Susan and Ellen's reaction is itself a kind of historical artifact. I think of it as a kind of post-MTV thing." I see a couple quizzical looks. "I can remember a time when sound bites on the evening news would run on for like thirty whole seconds," I say. "That's an eternity now. It's all snippets. Ever since the eighties, the whole
Miami Vice thing" -- I realize these kids have no idea what I'm talking about. "Anyway, we have a different sensibility about these things."

"Well, I still loved it," Alec says. "People always talk about Charlie Chaplin. Now I see why."

"The man was a genius," Sam agrees.

"Well, it is a remarkable thing when a work of art from a hundred years ago still has the power to move some of the people some of the time," I aver. "Kind of miraculous, really. Whether we like it or not, so much of what we do is ephemeral, so when something really seems to both embody and transcend a moment, it is kind of special."

"What does 'ephemeral' mean?" Lisa asks.

"Temporary," I say, looking at the clock. "Like high school."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Springsteen: Records of infidelity

You can hear evidence of tension in the Springsteen / Scialfa marriage on the couple's recent albums. But what are we to make of it?

I was attentive to what Patti Scialfa would have to say when I first popped her new CD Play It as It Lays into my car CD player two years ago, in part because I knew her last album, 23rd Street Lullaby (2004), was avowedly autobiographical. One could hardly accuse her of being elliptical in opening the latter record with "Looking for Elvis": her husband's lifelong fascination with Presley is well-known to anyone even vaguely familiar with Springsteen's work. So it's hard not to hear her addressing him, or to imagine that she would ever think we wouldn't, when she sings:

So where are you now
With all those illusions

Fallen dreams and charity

If faith restores you
And truth delivers
Then don't tell me that I'm standing

When I'm on my knees

Once you get beyond a sense of voyeurism here, you can see the value of the song, not simply in Scialfa expressing a woman's side in a relationship with a very public figure -- Springsteen's persona of optimism and hope seems less impressive in private -- but also in reminding us that our heroes are three-dimensional people who can lie to themselves no less than others.

That a woman would feel trapped by her husband's demons is not exactly a shocking notion in any relationship, let alone a larger-than-life Springsteen marriage. But three tracks later, in "Play Around,"Scialfa goes beyond the kind of struggle that can characterize even a healthy union to raise the specter of infidelity:

You've got all the toys
That money can buy
Still you come to me like a little boy
So unsatisfied
I'm not casting any stones
Don't want apologies
You can play around
But don't you play around me

There's more than one way of reading these words, among them a woman warning a man not to deceive her, as well as one suggesting that he
can deceive her as long as she doesn't have to know about it. Either way, the point here is not to see "Play Around" as a smoking gun for marital infidelity; for all we know; this is a conversation inside a fictional character's head. But that Scailfa would imagine it and literally record it certainly conveys an emotional truth, a decision made to tell this particular story instead of others that might have taken its place on the finite space of a compact disk. There's a lot of bravery and even dignity in this degree of self-revelation, however ambigous. But the value of the song is less about whether or not Patti Scialfa is right or realistic to imply that having an affair is acceptable as long as she doesn't know about it than how a listener decides he or she might react to a similar situation. (This kind of logic she depicts here was once perceived as widespread and even acceptable before the women's movement; insofar as it persists it's typically underground, which is precisely why it's revealing here.)

Springsteen, for his part, is generally less directly revealing than Scialfa, but has not exactly been secretive at conveying at least some aspects of his inner life in recent records. Much has been said in the commentary surrounding
Magic (2007) and this year's Working on a Dream about a return to the pop sound that characterized earlier Springsteen records. Less has been said about the content of these records. I've loved listening to songs like "You'll Be Coming Down," "I'll Work for Your Love" and "Queen in the Supermarket" (this last one generating some scorn among fans for its over-the-top sentimentality), which work aesthetically as self-contained slices of contemporary life. But I have found myself wondering why a married father of three, on the verge of senior citizen discounts, chose to write and release love songs in which his protagonists romantically address heartbreakers, barmaids, and check-out girls respectively. It's a question I've posed, until now to myself, less out of a desire to make moral judgments than to wonder what Springsteen is trying to convey about the stretch of psychic road he's traveling -- paying attention to which, as he and his fans have long understood, has been the great source of power and appeal in his now legendary bond with his audience.

It's certainly the case that Springsteen has often written songs that lie outside his personal experience -- whole albums like
The Ghost of Tom Joad as well as new songs like "Outlaw Pete" are recent examples. But the songs I refer to here -- the wistful "Girls in their Summer Clothes," notwithstanding its unreliable narrator, is palpably another -- are marked by a kind of deeply personal interior acuity that has always been an important component in Springsteen's work. Exhibit A in this regard, of course, is Tunnel of Love. No one who listened carefully to "Two Faces," "One Step Up" or "Brilliant Disguise" on that record in 1987 could have been surprised to learn of Springsteen's divorce from his first wife Julianne Phillips two years later.

Now Springsteen's marital life is generating headlines again amid recent reports that he has been named in a divorce suit. In response, Springsteen has reaffirmed a 2006 statement he made amid similar accusations, asserting that his marriage "remains as strong as the day we were married." (I'll resist the urge to deconstruct that.) Actually, for what it's worth, I'm inclined to believe his assertion that he's committed to making his marriage work, less because I'm a devoted fan than on the basis of "Kingdom of Days," a poignant, decidedly middle-aged reflection on a long term relationship. In that song, Springsteen depicts vivid, obviously longstanding tensions --

I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you I do/
You whisper "Then prove it, then prove it, then prove it to me baby blue"

-- as well as an earned appreciation that a shared life brings:

And I count my blessings that you're mine for always
We laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays . . . .

Is this Springsteen's last word on the subject? Probably not. Do I assume on the basis of what I'm inferring here that I understand the whole truth about Springsteen, Scialfa, their marriage, or their body of work? Certainly not. But I do know I'm not alone in believing that the whole point of being a Bruce Springsteen fan has been trying to make sense of, and learn from, his experience. As much as he might rue it at the moment, we're hardly going to stop now. I consider Springsteen a great man. The news of the last few days is a pointed reminder that a great man remains a mere mortal. I hope that for his and his family's sake he works it all out. And that when he does, he conveys what he's figured out in any way he chooses. After all, I'm blessed with a marriage of my own. And I can use all the help I can get.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Where's Daddy?

The search for a new mythology of fatherhood

Once upon a time, we thought we knew what it meant to be a father: dads supported the family, typically by going outside the home in order to protect and sustain it (this was the post-1850, post-industrialization, version of the story). This responsibility was the basis of the respect and authority fathers were presumed to command. Of course, not all fathers actually met these responsibilities; some could not, some would not. But whether or not they did, this was the standard both fathers and non-fathers had to live with -- and die with. It could be questioned, but no one thought it could be changed in such a way that any alterations could be thought of as "normal" in any broad or long-term way.

One group of people who were unhappy with this version of the story (though not necessarily the only ones) were those who we have come to know -- and know themselves, beginning almost exactly a hundred years ago -- as feminists. Feminists had a panoply of objections to this story. One obvious objection was the sometimes cavernous gap between the ideal and reality. Another was the way that the ideal itself generated its own problems in terms of saddling people with roles that could feel arbitrary, unnecessary, or simply oppressive.

These objections to the traditional story of fatherhood were part of a larger critique of gender relations that fell under the broad term of "patriarchy." Feminists didn't invent the word, but they gave it a set of valences and a sense of a focused analysis it never had before. And, as part of an ongoing struggle that remains ongoing, they explained that the gender status quo is just that: a mutable set of ideas and circumstances that could, in fact, be changed, resulting in laws (like those granting the right to vote) that ratified those changes.
This challenge to the status quo has become a drama, a story, in its own right, and gained momentum and legitimacy as structural changes in society have resulted in a world where men are not the only ones to work outside the home or earn wages, and men are in fact no longer considered indispensable for raising children -- or sperm donation aside (perhaps a temporary obstacle?), for conceiving them.

Opponents of the traditional version of fatherhood have managed to articulate another version of the story, and while it is not quite as clearly chiseled as the old one, it nevertheless has discernible contours, the essence of which is a notion of fathers as partners in an egalitarian process of raising emancipated children. It is no longer remarkable -- or, at least, it is no longer supposed to be remarkable -- to have Dads who cook, vacuum, change diapers, and function as stay-at-home parents while their spouses or partners (gender-neutral terms are preferable) serve as primary wage-earners. Notwithstanding the fact that this scenario remains exceptional, its social legitimacy is nevertheless an amazing accomplishment. Mythologies -- defined here as widely shared about notions about the way the world should work -- are perhaps the most elusive and yet durable products of a civilization.

Sometimes the feminists who managed to imagine this counter-narrative express dismay and exhaustion at just how hard it has been to bring it to life. They note, correctly, the old story has a powerful grip, and that the new one has failed to gain a secure purchase among father and non-father alike. And they note that the transmission of their story has resulted in sometimes ferocious opposition, opposition that is at times entirely out of proportion to what is, after all, only a story.

Actually, as many of them know, the story they have told is not only powerful, but has gained widespread acceptance even among people who might once have been skeptics. (Sometimes, this acceptance has ironic implications, as many fathers have used the feminist critique of patriarchy for self-indulgent ends. If fatherhood is about anything, we all understand, it is not about self-indulgence, whatever else it may be about.) Relatively few people accept the old version of patriarchy in its entirety, and even some of those who say they do cloak that allegiance in the public square or betray it in private.

Yet as many women and men are beginning to understand, the problem with the new story is not so much what it says but what it doesn't. The vision of fatherhood it seems to offer -- a vision of partnership in which gender roles (as opposed to sexual roles) are interchangeable -- lacks the vitality that can command the kind of loyalty that the old one, for better or worse, always has. One of the complexities feminism has struggled with is the messy reality that women tend to want to be recognized simultaneously both with and without regard to gender; they grapple with feminisms of difference as well as equality. Many men want this too, however vague or contradictory their desires.

One striking recent manifestation of this inchoate longing are the string of recent "bromance" movies that focus on intra-gender male relationships and the difficulties men have in navigating contemporary social life. The troubling implication of so many of these movies is that the only alternative to the cosmopolitan vision of heterosexual partnership -- an alternative that is inevitably temporary -- appears to be a kind of arrested development in which sexual men act as gendered boys. The notion of fatherhood is literally laughable (sometimes embodied in secondary characters or failed fathers of the protagonist), and like those eighteenth and nineteenth century novels for women that ended with marriage, these stories are almost invariably ones in which fatherhood is something that takes place offstage.

It seems like there is a space, a gap, for people -- scholars and artists, men and women -- who might ransack the historical closet and imagine a compelling ensemble of fatherhood that both accepts the realities of post-industrial capitalism, feminism, and the need for a sense of parenting truly rooted in a masculine vision. The fact that we live in a time when reproduction has been untethered from sex has done little to lessen the cultural importance of motherhood. Is it possible can find a way to keep a specifically male notion of fatherhood from becoming extinct? We've deconstructed patriarchy; is it possible to reconstruct a daddy we can live with?

Responses to this query are especially welcome.