The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture


Our Marriages of Choice

Ross uses a flamethrower to illuminate the too-clever aspects of Jacob Weisberg’s article on abortion and family values. I won’t fight that fight, but I will point out that any discussion pairing abortion – or “choice,” in the (terrible) parlance – and intact families raises some discomfiting questions.

It’s a great thing that the importance of intact two-parent families is now widely recognized, but the success of the family itself is in a weirder state that is not, I suspect, unrelated to the availability of abortion. The people who actually defer childbearing until marriage, and who then stay married, tend to be more highly educated and affluent – people who have had the luxury of waiting and playing the field and choosing prudently among possible mates, and then marrying for both love and compatibility. It would be instructive to know how many women in this cohort have had abortions. I’m not mustering this as an argument for abortion as a positive good, but if it’s a lot – it’s certainly not negligible – then what do we say about the relationship between abortion and family formation, at least where family formation is strongest? Either way, contemporary marriage, among this most successfully married cohort, represents a triumph of bourgeois volition. Maybe I’m a pessimist (I am), but I find it a little discomfiting that, in the present day, this traditional arrangement – in its happiest, most robust form – seems based upon a post-traditional mindset.

In search of hypocrisy, Weisberg overstates the contradictions. But contemporary marriage does seem to be in a strange state of tension, in which staying in a traditional marriage is aided by some critical distance from tradition.

Half-Baked Alaska

Laura McGann has written a really excellent primer on Alaska’s eccentric, corrupt politics for The American Prospect. As far as I can tell, Palin comes out looking clean as a whistle, though this conclusion is only reached begrudgingly.

Palin is a member of the same Republican Party as those ensnared in a corrupt web, but somehow she seems like a completely different political animal. Palin moved into the governor’s mansion in 2006 on a platform of reform and change, having developed a reputation as a whistleblower after calling out the chair of the state GOP and the state’s Republican attorney general on ethics grounds. The answers I received show a candidate who staked her political fortunes on her claims of being a maverick. But while she has avoided some of the worst entanglements of petroleum industry bribery, her fierce sense of family loyalty has landed her in her own hot water.

After noting that Palin challenged the powerful oil interests that dominate Alaska, McGann draws a slightly eccentric comparison between a corrupt oil baron and Palin’s minor-key version of “Troopergate.”

Palin’s problem, though, is not money. In fact, she raised taxes on oil companies in 2007. It was the first of such hikes in the state since 1989. Believe it or not, her troubles look more like Bill Allen’s — the Veco executive who pleaded guilty to bribing state officials. Allen has framed his actions as attempts to do the best thing for his family business. If bending — or breaking — the law was necessary to get the company ahead, he did it. For Allen, Veco and family were interchangeable. His devotion to both was the root of his problem and his downfall.

Palin’s devotion to her own family has landed her in trouble with the state Legislature. A special investigator is looking into whether Palin fired her public-safety commissioner when he wouldn’t oust a state trooper over a longtime family feud. The state trooper, Jim Wooten, was involved in a bitter divorce with Palin’s sister. He was admonished after the Palins filed official complaints, though not fired. Palin revisited the issue when she took office, the safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, claims. Though the full report is not due for three weeks, e-mails from Palin and a tape recording reveal that the governor at least pressured the commissioner to fire Wooten, after she previously denied having done so.

Palin has supposedly tried to stall the investigation, and McGann writes,

Palin’s stall is a serious step away from transparency in the direction of the state’s corrupt lawmakers. Considering her path to power, Palin should know that Alaskans’ toleration of corruption has seriously diminished.

But of course, there is a real and obvious distinction to be drawn between self-dealing financial deals and the Wooten case. As McGann notes earlier in the piece, Alaskan corruption is rooted in the state’s extraction economy — something Alaska has in common with, say, Nigeria, but not Norway. The Wooten case is something you’ll find in virtually any political environment. So the effort to draw these strands together seems like a stretch. This is not to say that the charges against Palin aren’t serious. Far from it. But it is important to note that the Wooten case does not imply that Palin is part of Alaska’s culture of corruption. Rather, it implies that she might have been overzealous in going after a state employee she knew to be an abusive lout — perhaps she should be punished for this somehow, but note how politically important it is to collapse these distinctions.

Josh Marshall insists at great length that the Wooten case reflects a dangerous abuse of power.

Eventually, Palin got fed up and fired Monegan from his job. (Palin claims, not credibly, that she fired Monegan over general differences in law enforcement priorities.) This is an important point. Wooten never got fired. To the best of my knowledge, he’s is still on the job. The central bad act was firing the state’s top police official because he refused to bend to political pressure from the governor and her family to fire a public employee against whom the governor was pursuing a vendetta — whether the vendetta was justified or not.

This is interesting. In an otherwise fairly detailed post, we’re never told exactly why Palin’s claim is “not credible.” Considering that Wooten was never fired — an obvious sign of a quid pro quo — you have to wonder if Palin did sincerely believe that there was a better candidate for the job.

For what it’s worth, I see nothing wrong with investigating this further — it clearly helps the McCain-Palin ticket politically, but that’s not why: Palin should give some accounting of why Monegan was fired. I’ll bet she had a good reason. Having made one error in judgment — raising the issue of Wooten’s employment in the first place — is no reason to make another, namely keeping Monegan in the job if he was not up to the task in Palin’s considered judgment.

Household Kates

I was very apprehensive about seeing Peter Hinton’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. First of all, I had seen his Dutchess of Malfi and part of his Swanne trilogy, and I rather dreaded a black-leather Shrew. Then I heard he was setting it in period, and working all kinds of Elizabethan “stuff” into the show – and I worried for other reasons. The Swanne, after all, was a nine-hour three-play monster of a work, and that was only after cutting down from about fifteen hours. So was I in for a three-hour Shrew stuffed with directorial conceits?

To a considerable extent, yes. But I liked it in spite of it all.

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a caveat and/or a confession

I may be breaking a promise here, but . . .

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. My mother worked in a bank; my father worked in the trucking business when he wasn’t in prison; my grandmother took care of me most of the time. No one in my extended family, on both sides, had ever attended college. My parents seemed to think that my inclination to continue beyond my high school graduation was slightly peculiar, and while they didn’t actually object they made it clear that they weren’t going to do anything to help me out — if indeed they could have done anything, which I doubt. We didn’t have much spare cash.

They did let me live in their house, though, which I needed to do, since all the money I made working in a local bookstore went to pay tuition at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, the nearest and cheapest place for me to go to school. I worked twenty-four hours a week during term, while taking a full load of classes, and full-time during all the vacations. Even at this less-than-elite school I wasn’t a very good student, partly because of my schedule, partly because I didn’t really know why I was in college in the first place.

Eventually I met a young woman whom I fell in love with; thanks to her influence I became a Christian, of the evangelical variety. And one of the most dramatic changes my conversion brought about in my life was this: I began to think of my mind as a gift, and a gift that required cultivation — what Christians call “stewardship.” For the first time in my life I began to take intellectual life seriously, I began to work at getting smarter and gaining knowledge. And as a result I found a direction for my life; I found a calling.

All this to make one point: when people who write from a position of privilege and cultural authority make fun of an accent from the hinterlands, or mock the mediocrity of someone’s education, or describe Christianity as a kind of death of the mind — well, I tend to have another perspective on all of those matters. It is that perspective that shapes many of my reactions to what I read in newspapers and magazines. I have sympathy for public figures who are treated that way, even if they are, for example, politicians whom I’m not going to vote for.

One could call my sympathy a function of prejudice in the conventional, pejorative sense of that word; one could also call it prejudice in the Burkean sense, that is, actual knowledge derived from the experience of belonging to some “little platoons.” I could say that it all depends on how you look at it, but of course I don’t believe that, so I won’t say it.

¡Fuenteovejuna lo hizo!

I’ve been hoping for some time that Stratford would attend to a serious gap in their production history: the complete absence of works from the Spanish Golden Age. This year, the omission has been rectified. Had I my druthers, I would have opted for something by Calderon, but I was neither surprised nor disappointed that for their first outing, Stratford opted for what is probably the most famous Spanish play of the Golden Age, and a play of great cultural significance in Spanish history: Fuente Ovejuna, The Sheep’s Spring.

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Anthropocentric Environmentalism

Freddie deBoer, TAS combox Hall of Famer and proprietor of L’Hôte, has written an insightful and extremely sensical essay on the kind of Green that recognizes our truly human priorities, instead of worshipping the misleading and romantic abstraction of Nature. This topic is very near and dear to my heart, and reading Freddie on it will automatically make you a better person.

Kaki King

I’m a little obsessed with Kaki King, in part because she is my age. I’ve only seen her once, at SXSW, and I was struck by (a) her amazing guitar-playing and beautiful voice but also (b) by her incredible physical presence. She’s quite small, smaller than me I think, yet she has this really fearsome aspect, and she somehow takes up a lot of room. Perhaps this sounds to you like a euphemism for, “I find her extremely beautiful,” which is certainly true to an extent, but I also wonder — how is it that we were both infants at roughly the same time, yet she is this Crazy Being and I’m me?

Which is to say, you should listen to this Kaki King/Mountain Goats collaboration, hosted by the good people at Stereogum.