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Day April 10, 2005

Book #22: Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division

Not much to say about MacLeod’s The Cassini Division, other than the fact that it was good fun, and made a five hour flight to Newark go fairly quickly. This is another in a series of novels about technological “singularity,” which is either popular among authors of speculative fiction nowadays, or I must gravitate towards that subset of books (probably both). The book did feature an interesting first-person perspective from a society where true community “socialism” was ingrained for several hundred years, and depicts their horror in encountering a group who still practiced an advanced laissez-faire capitalism. Hilarious…

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? (Book #21)

Frank’s book, What’s The Matter With Kansas:  How Conservatives Won the Heart of America is the best description I’ve yet read of the "conservative" victory in American politics.  Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s Right Nation is the more scholarly, detatched of the two books, but the latter lacks a deep understanding of the internal dynamics of the radical right’s approach to linking culture and politics.  As nominal outsiders, Micklethwait and Wooldridge understand the overall shape of American conservatism, but not how it feels to those who have been swept up by it over the last thirty years.   The brilliance of Frank’s book is that one is led to understand cultural conservatism at the gut level, through the eyes of those who have converted Kansas politics from the moderate Republicanism of the pre-Reagan days into the hellfire and brimstone cultural politics of today. 

And what I read scared the hell out of me…though perhaps not in the way the Kansans portrayed in Frank’s book would prefer.  The picture confirms what we all suspected about the contemporary conservative moment:  a strong group norm of "fighting cultural decay" through restoration of "traditional values" creates activism for electing candidates who then make little political progress on cultural issues, but quietly and thoroughly push an economic agenda which hits hardest in those communities who most strongly support the conservative values movement. 

Frank describes how modern cultural conservatism functions as a perpetual-motion machine for energizing the grassroots to achieve an ecnomic transition which directly harms its own supporters:

American conservatism depends for its continued dominance and even for its very existence on people never making certain mental connections about the world, connections that until recently were treated as obvious or self-evident everywhere on the planet.  For example, the connection between mass culture, most of which conservatives hate, and laissez-faire capitalism, which they adore without reservations.  Or between the small towns they profess to love and the market forces that are slowly grinding those small towns back into the red-state dust – which forces they praise in the most exalted terms (p.248).

This is pretty scary stuff.  Social and economic inequality is on the rise in the United States, principally because of the economic policies tied to the rise of the conservative movement.  This inequality threatens the ability of communities to block their own exploitation, the ability of individuals to take advantage of opportunities (given that one’s economic starting point is a strong predictor of eventual mobility and success), and because the disadvantaged have fewer options for education, the ability of individuals and groups to understand how we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess. 

I’d like to be optimistic.  Frank doesn’t, however, give one much leeway for optimism, at least with respect to Kansas itself.  The conservative movement rolls onward in Kansas, because:

As a social system, the backlash works.  The two adversaries feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis:  one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one.  This arrangement should be the envy of every ruling class in the world.  Not only can it be pushed much, much further, but it is fairly certain that it will be so pushed.  All of the incentives point that way, as do the never-examined cultural requirements of modern capitalism.  Why shouldn’t our culture just get worse and worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?

Progressives need to wake up to the picture Frank paints of mainstream conservative America, because we have focused exclusively on identity politics for far too long; economics was taken off the table by both parties, who largely agree on a free-market laissez-faire agenda.  Progressives need to be the voice within the mainstream which articulates the interaction between the politics of culture, and the politics of money; our goal must be to break the automatic connection between cultural conservatism and the sub-rosa economic agenda which harms the middle class and working poor.

Tasting notes

OK, am catching up on a few posts. A bunch of us had our regular monthly tasting recently, and by random chance it turned out to be a terrific lineup of wines (i.e., we didn’t coordinate with each other).

The list of wines is below, with highlights in bold. No real notes right now — am sitting in the Newark airport so I don’t have my notes.

  • Ramonet 1995 Caillerets (good)
  • Moulin Touchais 1959 Anjou (not what it should be)
  • Dauvissat 1986 Forests (excellent)
  • Dauvissat 1987 Preuses (corked)
  • Dauvissat 1988 Preuses (excellent)
  • Ramonet 1986 Morgeots (painfully incredible – wine of the night)
  • Coche Dury 1991 Meursault AOC (good)
  • Gagnard 2000 Criots-Batard (good)
  • Trimbach 1992 Clos Saint Hune (terrific – right where it should be)
  • Felsina 1993 Fontalloro (excellent)
  • Chateau Le Gay 1989 Pomerol (good)
  • Mont Olivet 1990 Cuvee Papet (terrific)
  • Vieux Telegraphe 1986 (superb and holding up well)
  • Dujac Morey-Saint-Denis 1997 1er cru (decent)
  • Engel 1986 Roulets (corked)
  • Tardieu-Laurent 1996 V.V. CdP (decent)
  • Andre Passat 1976 Cote Rotie (Jaboulet) (terrific esp. given age)

The white wines blew us all away, and by the time we hit the (still terrific) reds, it was all kind of gratuitous.