Category Archives: Politics

Monday’s Mtg: The Constitution – Not Democratic Enough or Too Democratic?

As befits a discussion group devoted to politics, philosophy, and other public issues, CivCon has done a lot of topics on the Constitution.  Oddly though, we have never looked explicitly at how democratic our founding document was and (as amended and interpreted) is. I phrased the topic as a normative question, since is begs the question of ought. It also might make for a livelier discussion and prompt us to make the political preferences behind our opinions more explicit.

I see more than one way to approach our pondering, too. We could focus more on the standard (but important) stuff, like looking at the basic structures and functions the Constitution sets up. As Jim Z. noted last week, the whole document is in some ways “rigged” against pure democracy; e.g., the Electoral College, two senators per state regardless of size, an unelected judiciary, vetoes and supermajorities requirements, etc. College students spend a lot of hours reading classic books on this topic, some of which are referenced in the links. We definitely should discuss why the Founders did this and whether it’s too little or too much democracy for the 21st century (or for our tastes).

A second approach would be to look at the Bill of Rights. These rights are fundamental to protecting democracy. Are they being enforced today as designed, and is that sufficiently democratic? I’m thinking campaign finance as free speech, curtailment of civil liberties in the War on Terror, and conservatives’ religious freedom initiative (bakeries and gay weddings) might come up in this part of the meeting.

Thirdly, we could take a strict result-oriented approach. How responsive is our national government to the will of the people? Whose interests does our constitutional system represent and who does it not listen to? Some big studies have tried to quantify that in recent years. Their conclusions are sobering.

Here are some guiding discussion questions and suggested readings/skimmings.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Was/Is: What are the major anti-democratic (or at least non-majoritarian) features of the Constitution?   Why did the Founders include them? What key components of democracy were left out and why?
    –>  Which of these have survived unchanged to today and why?
  2. Ought: What is “too much” or “too little” democracy? Upside/downside of both?
  3. Rights: Which rights (speech/religion, voting, property, etc.) matter the most? Are any rights under assault or overly-broad now?
  4. Results: How responsive is our constitutional system to the will of the people? Which people? Evidence?
    –>  Is un-accountability self-correcting via elections?
  5. Future: What are your biggest concerns about our constitutional democracy going forward?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Not democratic enough –

Bad consequences –

No, too MUCH democracy is our problem –

NEXT WEEK: Fascism, Part II – Is a global movement emerging?

Monday’s Mtg: Is An American Fascism Possible?

Fascism fearfulness is everywhere these days. Serious people are worried that the sudden rise of right-wing authoritarian political movements all over the democratic West may be more than ephemeral. A new era of extremist politics may be emerging, including fascism. I thought we would consider this proposition in two meetings. We will focus on the global rise of fascism/authoritarianism at our May 1st meeting (on May Day – ha, ha.) Monday’s meeting is about the rise of illiberal right-wing authoritarianism in the United States.

Many observers think worries that something resembling fascism could take hold in America are overblown. The public’s commitment to a democratic ethos is too strong. Our Constitutional system distributes power (checks and balances, civilian control of the military, and federalism) too widely, and civil society institutions are too resilient. It can’t happen here, they say, even with an authoritarian character like Donald Trump as president. Trump cannot destroy American democracy even if he wants to.

Maybe. Probably, even. But I look at the whole debate a little differently. I don’t see fascism is an all or nothing possibility. We don’t just have a choice of full-blown dictatorship or pluralistic liberal democracy. As we discussed last year regarding Russia’s crypto-fascist lurch, authoritarian systems and even fascisms vary widely in form and degree. Fascism takes on the characteristics of each country it infests: Anti-Semitic and revanchist in Germany, highly religious and anti-modern in Spain, kleptocratic and anti-Western in Russia.

Moreover, a descent into a more than we dreamed possible degree of authoritarianism doesn’t have to happen overnight, or due to one president’s election. Consider these (albeit debatable) points.

  • U.S. politics has always had authoritarian tendencies – and moments. We had 100 years of Jim Crow, brutal wartime crackdowns on dissent (like in WWI), state violence against striking workers, and Red Scares. Not fascism for everyone, certainly, but authoritarianism for some.
  • Large majorities of Americans express no confidence at all in the government or in conventional politics. President Trump was contemptuous of liberal democracy on the campaign trail and all but campaigned as a wannabe strongman. He got 46% of the vote and he’s president for the next four years.
  • A true far right-wing movement (“Alt-Right”) may become a permanent, influential wing of the GOP. To me, this is not a big stretch. I have long argued that the entire Republican Party has grown increasingly authoritarian over the last 10-20 years.
  • The middle class may further hollow out in the next decade or two, for reasons we have discussed before. If this happens, non-college educated Americans outside of the major cities will be hardest hit. They voted for Trump.
  • Fascism feeds off of emergencies and war. Think of our response to 9/11. How do you think Trump and his top advisors would react to a major terrorist attack or war threat?

So, yes, American democracy is very resilient. But it has failed us before, at least temporarily. Trump may be either too ideologically mushy or incompetent to be our Mussolini. (Or, I could just be all wrong about him.)  But, could he and the people who support him move the USA quite a distance along the continuum of authoritarianism?

It’s all worth discussing on a Monday, I think. I will have a brief opening that leaves us plenty of time for Civilized Conversation.

(A note on links: A million of them, so pick and choose. Except for link #1 and some Krugman I tried to find ones you are unlikely to have encountered.)

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Fascism and Trump –

Is U.S. democracy really at risk?

It’s not just about one man’s character –

Conservative Voices –

NEXT WEEK: Is the Constitution too democratic or not democratic enough?

Monday’s Mtg: The Jewish People – Religion, Ethnicity, Culture, or Nation?

Happy Passover! Monday’s Jewish holiday seems like a good night to pose Aaron’s topic question: What does it mean to be Jewish today? Aaron said that he wanted us to consider in particular how the two most dramatic and disruptive events of the 20th century changed Judaism and Jewish identity.

Of course, sharing historical events – no matter how harrowing or horrible – is not the only shaper of a people’s identity. We also could discuss what modern Judaism “is.” Is Jewishness a religion? In some ways no. As one of the links explains, the idea that Judaism is a “religion” like Methodism or Lutheranism is a modern notion. To my father’s father, being a Jew was who he was. Judaism wasn’t just a sect to which he belonged. Plus, in America, less than one-half of Jews say they believe in God.

Are Jews a nationality or ethnicity? They have no common language nor geographic origin and most of them don’t live in Israel. Israel’s Rabbinate defines who is a Jew pretty narrowly, too, and for the moment (changing it has been proposed) Israel is not formally a “Jewish state.” Is Jewishness its own culture? American Jews do tend to share common moral and political values, but not a lot of day-to-day cultural practices. Maybe we’re a People, whatever that means.

As a half-Jew on my father’s side I’m not sure what being Jewish means, either. It’s a great discussion idea, especially since we have a few Jewish (or perhaps, “Jewish”) group regulars.

Below are some optional readings on Jewish identity. The first ones are some analyses of survey results, so at least we have some idea of what American Jews think about their Jewishness. I added some think pieces on Jewish identity including several focused on the role of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel in Jewish identity.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK: Is an American Fascism Possible?

Monday’s Mtg: Is U.S. global leadership slipping away?

The chaos of the first 5 weeks of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy can’t continue indefinitely, can it?

It absolutely could, and for all the reasons people cite. Trump knows little about the world and nothing at all about U.S. foreign policy and he doesn’t seem inclined to learn. Key foreign affairs agencies like the State Department and the intelligence agencies are unstaffed and/or being marginalized. Trump keeps insulting foreign governments and contradicting long-established U.S. foreign policy positions. Then there’s the Russian influence scandal, his business conflicts of interest, etc. Oy.

Or, maybe this won’t happen. After a shakeout period we might end up with a more or less conventional and at least minimally stable conservative Republican foreign policy.  For good or ill. I think Trump’s instincts on foreign affairs – a bellicose nationalism – are a lot closer to today’s “centrist” GOP foreign policy canon than a lot of people are willing to admit. But YMMV.  Alternatively, maybe U.S. foreign policy is so strongly based on eternal and unchanging national interests (also for good or ill) that even Trump and his crew could not fundamentally alter it.

Still, I think it’s entirely appropriate to ask whether U.S. global leadership is at risk going forward, for two reasons. First, chaos aside Trump has proposed some real roll-the-dice policy stuff. I will go over some of his big ideas in my little opening presentation on Monday. Maybe U.S. foreign policy needed shaking up and/or a more nakedly self-interested and transactional approach.  But these proposals are huge departures from 60 years of post-WWII consensus, and a lot of people are worried they could cause or accelerate a decline in U.S. influence.

Worse, some of Trump’s most trusted advisors and perhaps Trump himself may have a genuinely radical vision for America’s global role. Steve Bannon, in particular, has been described as seeking a kind of global alliance of far right-wing Western political parties and governments. Call it “White Internationalism” united to oppose our “true” enemies, like China and Islam. That’s not going to happen, of course. But even trying to bring it about could quickly pole-axe trust in American leadership.

Second, the global system and our position at the apex of it were deemed fragile long before Donald Trump decided he would look good as president. We have talked before about the possibility of declining U.S. global influence and whether the entire 60 year-old global liberal democratic order that is at risk.  So, we have some good substance to cover.  Trump has in some ways enunciated a coherent worldview, plus we can revisit the declinism debate in light of our new chief executive.

Here are the usual broad discussion questions and some background readings.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Decline? Was a less U.S.-centric world order emerging before Trump’s rise? Why?
    –> Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
    –> What should we have been doing to stop it or shape it?
  2. Trump: How does he see our international problems and what solutions did he promise?
    –> What vision and theory of power are behind them?
    –> How accurate and how radical is it? à How committed/flexible is he on this stuff?
  3. Reaction: Will Congress, the bureaucracy, and the public support Trump’s ideas? How will the world react: Allies + adversaries?
  4. Results: What’s likely to be happen?  Will transnational alliances/loyalties be remixed?  Will global problems be neglected?
    –>  How will we know if U.S. leadership is less respected and our power reduced?
    –>   Any benefits to us from this?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Was global order at risk before Trump?

  • Yep, it’s dying.

Trump’s foreign policy vision –

Its Consequences –

Alternatives beyond the status quo ante –

NEXT WEEK: Economism: The misuses of “pop economics.”

Monday’s Mtg: What is religion’s proper role in U.S. politics?

We haven’t done a meeting on religion in a while, so I thought a topic on religion’s role in politics would make for a nice, wide-ranging discussion. It also gives us a partial reprieve from the constant bombardment of Trump Administration news.  (Partial because he is rolling out many policies that are favorites of the religious Right and that could alter the role of organized religion in politics in substantial ways.)

Obviously, for lots of reasons religion has always been very intimate with politics in the United States and is going to stay that way. Almost two-thirds of Americans say religion is either important or very important in their daily lives. By placing limits on any particular sect’s political power, the 1st Amendment arguably encourages healthy competition among religious POVs for political influence. Our high (until now!) immigration levels ensure religion stays popular and vibrant. Voters are going to keep rewarding politicians that affirm their piety and justify policies in religious terms, and people of faith will keep boldly organizing to see their values represented in politics.

Still, might this be changing in the 21st century? As you know secularism is on the rise, especially among young Americans. About one in five U.S. adults say religion is not important to them, a three-fold increase in just 20 years. Public support for explicitly faith-based politics/policies has been trending (very slowly) downward. The religious Right is not what it used to be, and the religious Left never seems to organize effectively.

On the other hand, religious conservatives are the foot soldiers of the Republican Party. They voted in droves for Donald Trump and are about to be rewarded handsomely for helping to put the GOP in complete control of the federal government and of 33 state governments. Trump’s outrages may be energizing religious progressives. They are especially outraged over his immigration policies and – maybe – they can unite to oppose the coming large cuts to the social safety net.

The following discussion questions are among the things we could discuss on Monday. I will start us off by summarizing the major changes Trump is making to appease the religious Right. Some are big deals. Then, we can debate any of my discussion questions or anything else related to the role religion does or should play in our political system.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Public: What role does religion play in forming Americans’ political beliefs and influencing their votes and political participation? à What role “should” it play? à Is religion’s influence over our politics waxing or waning?
  2. Partisans: How powerful and comparable are the religious Right and Left these days?
  3. Politicians & Policies: How big a role does religion play in politicians’ decision-making and policymaking?
  4. Issues: What are big current issues re
    1. Free exercise / religious liberty?
    2. Govt establishment of / support for religion?
    3. Discrimination against, for, or by religious Americans?
    4. Specific policy areas; e.g., repro rights, health care, immigration, education, foreign policy?
  5. Future: Will religion’s role in our politics decline or increase? Why/so what?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

The Public, religion, and politics –

Religious Right and Left movements –

Trump and hot issues –

NEXT WEEK: Is U.S. global leadership collapsing?

Monday’s Mtg: Should Democrats Cooperate With or Resist Trump?

Leonardo had a good question last week. Is Monday’s topic on resisting Trump about how big D Democrats or small d democrats should do it? I kind of envisioned a “where to now” discussion of issues facing the Democratic Party. CivCon usually avoid partisan strategy topics, since cable news supplies plenty of it. But, I thought this one was too important to avoid.

Now Leo, I’m not so sure we should limit the scope. It’s not just Democrats anymore that peer out from the wreckage of Trump’s first month and see a genuine threat to our constitutional democracy. Maybe our topic – and Dems’ strategy in general – should be to focus on finding ways to rally all of the other small d Republicans and independents American institutions to stand together to restore a functioning govt and oppose Trump’s movements towards strongman rule. Even if you disagree with this characterization of our new President and worry that any effort to unite elites against him would itself endanger democracy, Democrats have pretty much united around a strategy of total resistance to Trump.

For CivCon, I think that leaves us with three big questions to mull over at this meeting. (Four, if you want to debate whether Trump really poses an existential threat to our democracy). First, who and what exactly should we be resisting; everything Trump says/does or just the damages democracy/checks ‘n balances stuff? If Democrat self-limit this way, will they find any allies in the GOP and in other institutions, like the Media, the courts and the bureaucracy? Would it be worth the costs?

Second, does any bigger-than-usual opposition extend to congressional Republicans and their entire agenda? Progressives think some of them endanger our democracy all by themselves by tilting the electoral system towards permanent one party rule: Restricting voting rights, removing all remaining restrictions on campaign finance, crippling labor unions, and welcoming authoritarian White nationalists into the fold. Maybe this is overblown. Yet, Democrats bitterly oppose it all, as well as GOP plans to transform practically every area of national policy, like taxes, immigration, health care, the social safety net, and education.

Third , how specifically can resistance be implemented and maintained? Where’s the plan, the decision makers, the priorities, the resources, etc.? A large-scale resistance has sprung up quickly. How can it be used to maximum benefit in the months and years ahead?  How can it translate into a revived Democratic Party?

My expertise is in federal-level policy and institutions, not activism. So, I will open our meeting with a few quick comments on where the opportunities will come in the near future (budget process, nominations, special elections, etc.) to stop or dilute the Trump/Republican agenda. Then, in discussion I hope to learn from our more activist-type members what they think The Plan is, and from our more conservative members.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Trump:
    1. Is he really so different as to merit total “resistance?”
    2. Do Dems have areas of agreement with him? If so, should they cooperate w/him, even if it normalizes him?
    3. Where should Democrats draw the line? Rhetoric? Personnel? Policy? Foreign policy? Anti-democratic actions?
  2. GOP:
    1. Resist to the max everything they do, like they did to Obama? Or, horse trade on highest priorities?
    2. What are those top priorities and which will resonate with the voters?
  3. Resisters: Who will do this resisting? Who’ll make the decisions? Federal versus state and local level Democrats.
  4. Resistance: What strategy and tactics might work? How can you plug into the movement/get involved?
  5. Pro-Trump/conservatives: How should your leaders respond to Dem “resistance” and how should you defend him/GOP?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Is there hope for Democrats?

Resistance –

Republican/conservative POVs –

NEXT WEEK: What is religion’s proper role in politics?

Monday’s Mtg: Have Elites Failed Us?

Several members of our Meetup group asked what I had in mind by “elites.” I deliberately left it undefined to make a point. Americans have some very different ways of defining the horrible, no good elite that everyone supposedly voted to overthrow. In fact, I think vast differences in the way we define our elites lay at the core of our political polarization even before we elected Donald Trump president.

Trump’s populism claims to be a call to arms to overthrow the “Washington establishment” and its collaborators here and abroad. As he said in his inaugural address (in between the talk of carnage and despair):

“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. “

Trump’s parasitic elite seems to be our national governing elite, the establishment politicians and the permanent “deep state” that they command. His Hellish vision of a collapsing America sold out by its own elite is pretty stark, that’s for sure.

But, how specific is it, and how accurate?  Who exactly are these quislings and what did they do, and to whom? Maybe history helps. When CivCon discussed modern American populism last June, I noted that populist movements everywhere share a basic characteristic. They identify some despicable, self-dealing elite that exploits the virtuous but powerless masses. The elite is not only privileged; it is unfairly privileged. The elite can be a real or imagined; Its victims all of “the people” or just a subset.

Moreover, Right and Left populist movements in U.S. history usually pick a different elite to resent and not quite the same “We, the people” to champion. Left-wing populism’s villain is concentrated private power, like the Robber Barons and their trusts or today’s giant corporations and the 1% that help them rig the game for plutocracy’s sake. Its victims are everybody else (well, except people of color, until recently), but especially the lower classes and the poor. In contrast, right-wing populism has tended to see a conspiracy of both the top and the bottom against the middle. Its corrupt overlords are government insiders helping an undeserving underclass and/or foreigners redistribute wealth and cultural prestige away from hard-working real Americans.

I’m not trying to dismiss this whole topic nor one side’s POV. Quite the contrary. I feel confident in saying that elites have failed the country, as do large majorities of Americans in poll after poll going back years. But, I am pretty knowledgeable about this stuff. I believe I can connect our country’s worst problems to specific failures by the people with all of the power and influence. I picked this topic so we can explore why just about everyone else thinks the same – even though they seem t disagree about who the elites are and what they are doing wrong and why.

We have plenty to talk about on Monday.  Here are some discussion ideas and readings.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Who are America’s elites? Are there multiple elites with different interests and power sources, such as…
    1. Economic class versus social/cultural elites.
    2. Racial and ethnic elites?
    3. Educated and regional/cosmopolitan elites.
  2. Do our elites perpetuate power unfairly, or are they a meritocracy?
  3. Why is everybody so mad at elites? Do Americans agree on who to be mad at and why?
  4. Are elites indeed responsible for the mess we are in? Why?
  5. Is Trump just scapegoating? What should/could be done to reduce the power of American elites?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

 

NEXT WEEK: A change of pace – What’s going right in the USA these days?

Monday’s Mtg: What Will Be President Trump’s Priorities?

How can we possibly predict what kind of president Donald Trump will be? He may not know. His inaugural address did prove one thing that no one should still have been doubting: Trump meant everything he said on the campaign trail. He wants to be a transformative president or at least to be seen as one. It was not performance art or reality TV. It was him all along.

Beyond that, though, divining his main priorities is tricky. Supposedly, VP Pence and others have a large list of specific to-dos for the President to accomplish on Day 1, by Day 100, and beyond. But, they are being very secretive about the details. Partly that’s to build the suspense and drama. But I think it’s mainly by design. In the next month expect to see a blitzkrieg of executive orders and legislation. The showy, popular ones will suck up all of the media attention and shield the many highly unpopular decisions from public scrutiny. (But not from Civilized Conversation’s scrutiny.)

Other factors conspire to make it even harder to guess what Trump really wants. He is such a bizarre character: Mercurial, narcissistic, quick to lie. He has no idea what government does or how it’s organized or functions. His Administration barely exists yet and the few appointments he has made add up to no coherent governing strategy. It’s tempting to look at how Trump will govern as an exercise in abnormal psychology.

But, that would be a big mistake, IMO.  He’s the president now.  He has (or will have) an entire Administration and a GOP Congress.  I think if we look at the many available clues, we can get a pretty good idea of what the new president’s main policy priorities will be and what his governing style will look like. Possibilities include:

  1. Chaos: Trump keeps acting like he’s been acting and we have no president for all practical purposes. The congressional GOP runs the government.
  2. Conventional: Trump leads, but helps the Republican Congress implement almost its entire long-dreamt-of policy agenda. Trump takes the credit/blame. Despite the inaugural address, this is the odds-on favorite  to me.
  3. Hyper-Nationalism / White Nationalism: Something brand new: Trump remakes the GOP in his image and pursues a true right-wing populist agenda. Some mix of genuine help for working people at home (except for internal “enemies”) and hyper-nationalism abroad (aimed at external – mainly Islamic and Chinese – enemies).

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I think talking about broad-brush priorities is a good place to start with any new administration, even this one. What does President Trump really want to accomplish, in terms of both policy and politics, and whose agenda will it be?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Trump: During and since the campaign, what did he promise re a “vision” for America, for its government, and for himself as its leader?
  2. Congress: What are the GOP’s top priorities? Will they really pursue a radical downsizing of govt?
  3. Public: Which promises do Trump supporters most care about?
  4. Differences: How will big differences between 1, 2, 3 be resolved? Whose priorities will prevail?
  5. Personnel: Clues based on cabinet/sub-cabinet appointments.
  6. Personal: Trump’s authoritarian personality, impulsive nature, belief in his own genius? à Corrupt influences: The role in setting priorities of Trump family members, biz interests, cronies, Putin, etc.
  7. Top 5: Okay, what’s your guess on Trump Administration’s top priorities?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

What type of president will Trump be?-

Trump’s policy agenda –

NEXT WEEK: “Turkey – The Future or the End of Modern Islamism”

Monday”s Mtg: How Important Is White Male Privilege?

Calling out people for being clueless about privilege – usually their White, male privilege – is common these days. Doing so often provokes puzzlement and/or an angry if not furious response, which leads to a frustrated counter-response. Dialogue, much less actually learning something about oneself or society, becomes impossible.

But, understanding what is and is not meant by “check your privilege” is important, whether or not you think there is much to it.  Arguably, disagreement about who is privileged today and who has a right to feel aggrieved was one of the biggest factors in Donald Trump’s shocking from reality TV star to the President-elect. Based on my reading and personal experience, I think that Trump’s election was, well, personal to White American men in a way no other election result in my lifetime has been. A lot of people are saying that this man became president out of nowhere represents either a –

  • Restoration of a White, male-dominated social order, or an
  • Angry reaction to the false accusations of racism and of White, male privilege.

Tough stuff. Aaron L. suggested that Civilized Conversation might be one of the few venues in which people could discuss this awkward topic in a reasonably productive way. Certainly, we can try.

I think the key to civility on this topic is understanding what the assertion of White privilege (and gender privilege) means and what it does not mean. The articles below, especially the first two, explain the term. Spoiler and key point: Crying “privilege” is not an accusation of racist intent or of a personal failing of character. It’s an observation about one’s relative place in a social order, and the advantages (big and small, lifelong and day-to-day) that some people have because of it and others don’t have.

My idea for our meeting is ambitious. I hope we can explore what White, male, privilege means to people that use the term, and what it means to people that feel so offended by its use. We also can get into the actual evidence that White male privilege still is a potent force in our society and the implications for public policy and personal behavior.

We should have a new topic list of Feb – May to hand out on Monday, thanks to Rich and Aaron (The Elder, not Aaron L., Son of Bruce) . It will be Trumptastic.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

What is “White male privilege?”

Evidence and Rebuttals –

Trump and White male privilege –

NEXT WEEK:   President Trump’s Priorities.

Monday’s Mtg: What does “cultural literacy” mean?

Sometimes my topic ideas are not too well thought out. This one came out of several articles I read recently (in the links) that argued we should revive the idea of a shared American cultural literacy.  Cultural literacy is the common knowledge necessary for good citizenship and mutual understanding in a society. Promoting it would involve our educational system focusing on teaching young people a certain set of facts and concepts about history and civics/government, art and literature, religion, geography, and so forth. Adoption of the Common Core and other educational standards spurred this renewed debate over the merits of a common cultural literacy, as have rapid shifts in American demographics, the rise of social media, and other factors. I thought it would be a nice break from our polarizing political topics.

Oopsie.

It’s not just that the cultural revanchist Donald Trump got elected president by promising to speak for (some) Americans that feel culturally disrespected and to restore a decidedly pale-hued lost national greatness. I had forgotten that the concept of cultural literacy was controversial when it was first introduced in a book by a British American academic in 1987. Some progressives opposed the idea flat out, arguing that anything that smacked of a state-sanctioned list of approved cultural knowledge would be more oppressive than instructive. Conservatives, already up in arms over the rise of multiculturalism and historical revisionism, pushed back.

We got a taste of how this conflict still rages a few weeks ago when we discussed what U.S. school children should be taught about history.  I am sure that any movement to revive cultural literacy in today’s political climate would get sucked right into the culture wars.

Complicating cultural literacy further is the way we share cultural information (and values and resentments) these days via social media. Maybe cultural norms and changes get transmitted faster or more efficiently. Maybe it’s liberating and promote tolerance. Ha, ha. As those of us that have lost Facebook friends over Trump’s election can attest, the Internet also Balkanizes culture (especially resentments).

Given all of these crosscurrents, I’m not sure yet how Civilized Conversation should approach the idea of a 21st century American cultural literacy. Ponder these discussion questions and I will see you on Monday.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is “cultural knowledge?” Whose culture / what knowledge? Can cultural values be separated from mere facts?
  2. What is cultural literacy and why did Hirsh argue its importance? Why the furious opposition and ardent defenders?
  3. Is there really a big conflict between cultural diversity and common cultural literacy?
  4. Are the ways we transmit cultural values and knowledge changing nd does it matter?
  5. What principles do you think should guide search for common cultural info/concepts/values? Who should decide?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Nov 28):  How do progressives interpret the Constitution?