Congress’ Insult to Millennials

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We’ve all been having fun with government shutdown memes and government shutdown pick-up lines, but the consequences of Congress’ latest hiccup has hurt Americans across the country and will have much farther-reaching effects on young people than stopping us from going to the zoo.

Besides once again demonstrating Congressional incompetence, the government shutdown and debt ceiling debate has shown Congress’ current inability to govern for our future. As pushed by an American Progress report, failure to raise the debt ceiling would have the harshest effect on young Americans by severely affecting job markets, student loans, the housing market, and the economy overall. Even without the debt ceiling immediately hanging over our heads, the federal government cannot function indefinitely without substantial change. Putting off dealing with the bad policies will only add to the burden on young people that we are already struggling to bear.

On September 18, 2013, Congressman Aaron Schock (R-IL) and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) partnered with the Millennial Action Project to launch the Congressional Future Caucus, the first Congressional caucus led by Millennials, which aims to focus on developing long-term solutions to issues facing America’s next generation. Millennial involvement in politics through such steps may help to enhance young Americans’ voices in policies that affect our future, but organizations like the Future Caucus must not fade into the background like too many other congressional caucuses (ever heard of the Congressional Bourbon Caucus?). Furthermore, young people must make Congress understand that we are just as much to be reckoned with as our parents and grandparents. Congress may be losing Americans’, and the world’s, trust, but the solution is not to avoid civic engagement. For example, the youth vote empowered Obama to his presidency, yet Project Vote found that 21 million citizens under 30 did not vote in 2008. How much can the votes of millennials change elections this year, or in 2014, or 2016? 

On Voter Registration Day this year, Politics Club held a voter registration drive and updated the registration of over 100 students. Also, on October 3rd, Politics Club hosted a bake sale and raised over $100 in donations that will go to veterans in Portland whose benefits were affected by the government shutdown. The club is furthermore in the process of sending a letter to our Congressman Earl Blumenauer (OR-3) regarding LC students’ response to the shutdown, and will have a meeting next Tuesday at 5pm in JRHH 116, open to all students, for more political discussion.

In a National Journal article, Ron Fournier stated that “There will come a time when Millennials aren’t just mad as hell; they won’t take it anymore.” Millennials must show government that we will not stand for their partisan antics and I hope that time is now.

Welcome new school year!

And welcome new authors, viewers, commenters, and political issues that we all love to complain about. This blog began almost a year ago now to promote discussion surrounding the 2012 elections and politics more generally among L&C students and we’d love to for you to add your voice to the page. Just shoot me or the club a message or email to become an author or find out more about club events and meetings.

So what do you think about what the US should do about the conflict in Syria? How do you speculate upcoming elections will go? (It may not be an election year but there’s a lot of talk about the NYC mayoral race and Clinton 2016…) Will an immigration or gun-related bill (or any significant new piece of legislation really) ever reach Obama’s pen?

Let’s talk politics.

Akrasia

It’s been over three weeks since my last post on this blog. As a consequence, I would like to return to what has unfortunately become a familiar theme. There’s an old Greek word for this ancient phenomenon: akrasia—ancient because every person who has ever been born has had to grapple with this dilemma. ‘Akrasia’ means ‘weakness of will’ and applies to any instance when one faces a choice between a thing that one knows is good and another thing one knows is less good, but that one chooses anyways (a drug, a procrastination break, excessive amounts of cake…). If it’s the case that we always want what we think will be best for us, and always choose what we want, then it seems to make no sense why it is that we sometimes choose to do things that are not good for us, or choose not to do things that we want and think are important. I want to write a single blog post every week. Why am I sometimes not able to? Akrasia.

I would argue that this issue is at the root of nearly every major political problem, that natural human flakiness may in fact be the root of all evil. And here’s why: to participate in a society is to allow oneself to be dependent on other people, but there are very few people who one can actually fully depend on. As a result, the people who we trust to make decisions for us will often let us down—and we will often let ourselves down, the people who we should be able to trust most of all. If someone finds that the advantages to breaking a promise considerably outweigh the disadvantages of breaking it, then they will probably break it (and then feel bad about it later). A whole school of political thought has been founded on these principles: rational choice theory. Actors will tend to behave in ways so as to maximize whatever seems to be their personal advantage. A person might think that the institution of meat-eating is one of the greatest evils of our age, and eat meat regularly (because who can turn down a deliciously cooked steak?). Someone might think that everyone has a personal duty to try to prevent global warming, and then keep the heat on in the winter, and drive half a mile to the store because one doesn’t want to walk in the cold. Akrasia.

But the point here is that these ‘rational’ choices are less than rational, because the person will readily admit that if they just had a little bit more will-power, they would have behaved differently. And that’s what makes this uniquely (and universally) personal problem a uniquely political problem. It seems that it’s probably the case that people in politics will make what knowingly seems to them to be the wrong decision because they are either personally advantaged by it, or because they know that standing up for their beliefs will result in personal harm—very few people want to be martyrs.

And now I’d like to tie this back to a real discussion of contemporary politics. In the past, when I was on this theme, I compared personal akrasic compromise to the democratic compromises that were occuring in Egypt (with Mohamed Morsi). I asked the (potentially dangerous) question: is there something fundamental about anti-pluralistic religions that necessarily puts them at odds with democracy? If one had complete rule by the people, and the people chose Islam, then would that not be an Islamic Democracy? If the majority decided that minority viewpoints should be suppressed, does this ‘majority mandate’ confer moral legitimacy upon that government?

Of course not. It confers political legitimacy on the government, and possibly even legal legitimacy, but not moral legitimacy. Majoritarianism only guarantees the most ethical policies if the best decisions are actually those created by a mob. For democracy to work, majority rule must be tempered by a good Constitution—a Constitution that sometimes tells the majority that what they want is not what is best, and that has the authority to stop them. Just as discipline and an adherence to one’s commitments is the antidote to akrasia on the small scale, so a well-written Constitution and a means of enforcing its principles and tenets is the antidote to akrasia on the large scale.

A cottage industry has recently emerged amongst comparativist political scientists asking questions about the relationship between Islam and democracy in the middle east. Since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’, observers have had high hopes for democratization in two particular Islamic states: Egypt and Tunisia. In 2011, Tunisia had its first free elections after the overthrow of their leading autocrat, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. For their new president, the people of Tunisia elected a human rights activist, Moncef Marzouki. In 2012, the leading Ennahda party announced that it wouldn’t allow sharia to be the main source of legislation in the new Constitution, that the state would remain secular. The Constitution guarantees rights for women, and women hold more than 20% of all the parliamentary seats. While the state has declared Islam as its national religion, and while 98% of all Tunisians are Muslims, the country has a secular culture that encourages religious freedom. In terms of democratization, Tunisia seems to be doing pretty good. If Tunisia works as a case-study, then it would seem that Islam and democracy may in fact be compatible. Why does this seem like more of a question for Egypt? I would guess that it has something to do with Tunisia’s commitment to its new Constitution, and Egypt’s overhaul and redrafting of its new Constitution.

Akrasia on both the small and large scales results from a person or group of persons’s inability to fully commit themselves to their goals. The incongruence of the Constitution with the popular majority, or the individual with his/her personal projects leads the actors in question to sacrifice their difficult ideals for what is easier and more concrete, more immediately gratifying or less painful. What once seemed like a good idea now seems foolish or unrealistic.

But don’t get me wrong, sometimes there are good reasons to make these kinds of sacrifices. For example, while I feel that this blog is valuable and my promise to regularly write on it is important to me… I have four term papers to do—over 60 pages to write—and just one month to complete them. So this particular commitment will have to be broken, this goal dashed by the pragmatic realities of college life… I hope that other people will take over this blog from me… but I don’t expect it. And for saying to myself that I would write every week, and then failing to do it, I must confess that I feel (just a little bit) ashamed. But let’s end on a high note! If the goal is reasonable and appropriate for the person making it, and the person makes adherence to that goal a top priority, akrasia will never be a problem. And for nations that have the proper conditions for democracy, and that also want it, democratic culture will probably thrive! The only way we’ll get better is by challenging ourselves, and if we’re truly challenging ourselves, then we will sometimes fail. So… let us try spectacularly! And in doing so, we will learn what we are capable of… probably more than we originally thought.

My Relationship with Jon Stewart #Media

My Relationship with Jon Stewart

Argumentation (RHMS 221) with Professor Gantt religiously begins with a discussion of current events followed with a well intertwined, popular application of theory. The particular footage that has stood out to me the most has been an interview between Chris Wallace and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show in Wallace’s neck of the woods—the Fox News studio. The two men obviously were highly capable of talking well into the night and equally equipped at drawing an audience. Class continued to revolve around the application of presumptions and claims, specifically looking at Stewart and Wallace’s debate on the prevalence of (liberal vs. sensational) bias; a debate set

However, Chris Wallace brushes on an interesting point regarding The Daily Show’s identity. Wallace accuses Jon Stewart and The Daily Show of utilizing a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when presented with dispute and criticism of their journalistic standards. Wallace sees Stewart as hiding behind his comedic role and is in turn held unaccountable for his messaging. Stewart describes an empirical difference between himself and Wallace:

I’m a comedian first. My comedy is informed by an ideological background. There’s no question about that. But that’s not [my] primary motivating force. I’m not an activist. I’m a comedian.”

Wallace debates what Stewart precisely aspires to be—pointing to him as an aspiring political activist.

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*Enter the audience*

Stewart sees himself as a comedian; yet what about the audience? The Wallace-Stewart debate is heavily concerned with the aspirations and desires of Stewart and Wallace as microcosms for mainstream media than the role of the audience. Is his self-identity more important than how his audience identifies him? What is my relationship to Jon Stewart, and how does that act as an example of audience perception? Do I see him as an authoritative voice? Do I make exceptions on journalistic standards which I shouldn’t be?

Admittedly, I learn from The Daily Show. It is with initial reservation that I say that—no one wants to admit to Comedy Central expanding their horizon. However, the sheer capacity of a multi-million dollar studio allows for far more extensive news gathering and analysis than a college student could ever dedicate to headlines. The 14 writers that compose the staff represent untold hours of research and digestion of news. An unknown number of interns add to this expansive process. The person-power represented in The Daily Show inherently makes it a more knowledgeable and well versed source than myself. Yet does knowledge equate to authority or activism in my eyes?

Selection bias is the process through which these tiresome hours develop into a half-hour production—bringing the role of Jon Stewart into question.

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What makes The Daily Show such a favorite among young audiences is the Jon Stewart-brand humor that cuts through noise generated by other mediums. The Pew Research Center found that a vast majority of viewers are under 30, and that 43% of viewers elect to watch for the entertainment value. The same study reported 10% watch for its news headlines and another 2% for their in-depth reporting. This would support a comedian-first approach by the viewers of The Daily Show.

Have I ever steered you wrong?” This adage may explain why viewers are able to see Stewart in his comedic role. An older Pew Research Center study (2006) found that The Daily Show viewers were consistently more informed than other network news stations, finding that 54% fell in the “high knowledge” category as opposed to 34% of viewers of morning network shows. Note that this study measures viewers’ general knowledge, and is not review of accuracy of material presented in The Daily Show. However, the presumed knowledge of the audience could represent a general attitude towards The Daily Show of acceptance and depressed skepticism.

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Personally, I find that Jon Stewart embodies a role of saliency. In personal experiences most Daily Show fans convey a deep sense of admiration and respect for Jon Stewart. I suspect that these feelings on Stewart inadvertently raise him to an authoritarian position. Viewers who tend to identify with Stewart do so through variety of ways: with his humor and comedic repertoire, intelligent insight through clever analysis, knowledge and reputation as a source, as well as his ability to vent on systemic issues closely associated with youthful frustration. Stewart’s ability to establish identity with an audience encourages them to both; (a) place greater trust in him, and (b) be influenced by the philosophy of Stewart. Through segments, interviews, commentary, story building, and many other “fake news” techniques grounded in Stewart’s comedic genius The Daily Show awards saliency towards current events for select fans.

I draw distinctions between Wallace’s “activist” label and an agent who inspire saliency for his viewers. I understand an activist as one who acts procedurally and aims to generate systemic change via organizational and grassroots-pressure. Stewart, alternatively, aims to influence the attitude and insight of his audience rather than motivating and directing action. (These distinctions are open to wide criticism, and I would be curious if readers agree, disagree, or find such a distinction irrelevant.)

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Lastly—I argue that Jon Stewart’s reported Summer-time hiatus from The Daily Show in favor of film begs a complex reading of his role. Evidently, Stewart is continuing to determine and evolve his niche in modern civil discourse. Having focused on audience entertainment for so long, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has become dependent on audience perception. Stewart’s drive to explore other media, such as a movie, may serve as a means of shaking the confines fabricated by the audience and an appropriate reaction to such external influences.

Sam Cooper

Class of 2014, Political Science Major

*P.S. The author offers his sincere apologies for not posting sooner—this post took on a course of its own and required a great deal of cutting, refocus and reconsideration. Unfortunately (?), unanswered and unaddressed questions may motivate a Part 2, or perhaps inspire an analysis in other realms of Stewart’s “fake news” (Boy—that is quite a loaded label).

**P.S.S. Follow the Lewis & Clark Politics Club Twitter handle! @LC_Politics! Event, meeting, and club details will be further developing! Aiming to provide twitter-sphere commentary. Look for Facebook activity as well!

***P.S.S.S. Contact me for interest in any Poly Sci socials! 

Panel on the State (and culture) of Academic Writing

A fat year ago, we lost one of our best political science professors to the writing center. There’s no real story about that, there were no fights, there was no drama, he didn’t quit, he wasn’t fired. From what I understand, he just didn’t meet all of the expected requirements for the tenure track—one of which was a publishing requirement—designed to ensure that our teachers are experts, and that in addition to teaching, they bring prestige back to our school. At one point, I asked him why he had not just banged out more articles so that he could meet that particular requirement. Every one of his students could tell you that he’s no slacker, and whenever it came to writing he gave us the most helpful detailed comments and criticisms on how we could improve our papers. His answer was interesting: the kind of writing that is required for the kind of political theory that he does is not the kind of writing that can be easily done on top of a full-time teaching job without compromising the integrity of one’s teaching. The institutional incentives of contemporary academic life make it nearly impossible for professors to both write in this older way and also fulfill one’s duties as a teacher, and as a consequence, these more traditional forms of writing are dying and being replaced. And few people even realize that something great is being lost. Director of the writing center, John Holzwarth, has organized a panel on this evolving trend: “On the Walls of Our Caves: A Panel on Academic Writing.”

This is a topic that concerns all of us. Since the age of the internet, there have been a multitude of books and articles about how the way in which we read has changed. From reading the great books of the past, one can see that the way we write has changed as well. Writing tends to be more succinct today, less wordy. Academic writing tries to be narrow and scientific, spending thirty pages to make a very small point, a point that one can often glean from the abstract or introduction. The papers tend to be dry, and the attempt to say something new often supersedes the aim to say something important. Essayists have been replaced by obscurantists. People have become afraid to ask big questions.

There may be important and very good reasons for why this is the case, the contemporary academic methodology may have ample justification. But so far, it seems to have been immune from serious challenge. We are taught to write in a certain way without being told that there are alternatives, and we are told that this particular form of writing is superior without being given the reasons for and against it. The way we write informs the way we think, and the way we think determines how we act. To change the norms of writing is to change a culture. To deliberately change one’s writing style is to change an individual. I think that this will be a very important and interesting panel (with some very sharp professors on it), and hope that many students and faculty will choose to attend. Wednesday, March 6th. 7:30pm. Miller 105.

Section Five: Dead or Alive?

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear a case called Shelby County v. Holder. The case will examine the validity of Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, and because the Court is currently dominated by conservatives, liberals worry that the VRA might essentially be gutted if/when the Court finds Section Five unconstitutional. Section Five has a long legal history, dating back to the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s. The purpose of the VRA as a whole was to outlaw discriminatory voting practices that were used to disenfranchise or dilute the vote of African Americans. Section Five of the act required that any district with a history of racial voting discrimination must first attain approval (“preclearance”) from the Department of Justice before making any legislative changes that affect voting. As a consequence, any voting scheme that has the purpose or effect (measured by the non-retrogression principle) of discriminating against racial minorities can be rejected by the DOJ.

Practically speaking, this very rarely happens. Since the landmark case Allen v. State Board of Education (when the court decided that any structural change to an aspect of elections can be subject to preclearance), the section five claims that have been brought to court exploded. Since that case (1969), there have been over 2300 claims subjected to preclearance. Of those claims, less than 2% have been denied. When we discussed this case in our Election Law class, our professor said that this fact can be evaluated in two ways:

1. This is a watchdog with no teeth; the preclearance requirement is essentially pointless.

2. Alternatively, it’s a deterrent. People won’t try to pull the same tricks anymore, because they know that they can’t get away with it.

At worst, Section Five has apparently done nothing bad. At best, Section Five has helped tremendously in the struggle to give racial minorities adequate representation in the democratic process. So how could the Court rule that Section Five is unconstitutional? They’ll deny that Section Five has done nothing bad.

The argument is that Section Five places an unjustifiable burden on the states, and thereby compromises our system of federalism. The preclearance requirement presumes that states are guilty of racist behavior before they’ve had a chance to show that they’re not. The days of literacy tests and other racist disenfranchisement schemes are behind us, and to assume that Southern States will continue such shenanigans is only justified if evidence can be shown that the South is particularly deserving of the extra regulation. If this evidence cannot be shown, then the regulations should apply either to all states or to none. After all, Section 2 does most of the work in the VRA, so if Section 5 is truly unnecessary, it ought to be disposed of.

But this is the problem for the case. Chief Justice Roberts uses the analogy of an elephant whistle: “I’ve got this whistle that keeps away elephants. How do I know it’s working,” he jokes rhetorically… “See any elephants?” How can you prove that a deterrent is actually addressing a problem? You remove it, and face of one two consequences. Either there’s no problem. Or there is.

Is Our Liberal Education Failing Us?

A couple weeks ago, political scientist Peter Berkowitz published an op-ed on RealClearPolitics called “10 Ways Liberal Education Fails Students—and Society”. In the piece, he argues that in order to have a healthy and well-functioning liberal democracy, it is essential that liberal arts colleges do their job properly: “to transmit knowledge and teach students to think for themselves,” and in the process foster a deep intellectual integrity “which involves respecting facts, honoring evidence, vigorously exploring arguments, and cherishing the inevitable and illuminating diversity of opinion in a free society.” According to Berkowitz, this is not happening, and society is suffering as a consequence.

I don’t want to do a summary of the article, but I would like to comment on some of the main points. For those who are interested, I suggest going through it (it’s short), and asking whether any or all of the charges against the current liberal arts model are true. While I can only speak as a student of Lewis and Clark College, I think that it is still possible to acquire the liberal education that Berkowitz laments the loss of, and I think that (at least in some departments at our school), the professors do an admirable job of providing just that.

The most troubling accusation that Berkowitz makes is that liberal arts schools produce students with uniform opinions who unquestioningly embrace the left-leaning dogmas of the day. This is not an uncommon criticism from people who lean right politically. It is common knowledge that most students and professors tend to fall down left of center. But Berkowitz argues that this should be a concern for liberals in particular—for tolerance and diversity are liberal values, and arguably many liberal colleges do not have them.

Democracy requires a diversity of viewpoints in order to function properly. In science, if scientists fail to explore (and test) competing hypotheses, they fall short of aquiring accurate knowledge. In capitalist economic systems, if there is no competition, we will typically get market failure. In short, it seems that many of our institutions mirror and reinforce one another… that science, capitalism, and democracy, perhaps all depend on similar norms for their proper functioning. And yet, if we want to foster this kind of diversity in our social institutions, it seems perhaps most important to have it in our educational institutions: diversity of ideas.

How do we get this diversity? Arguably, one of the best ways of getting it is by reading from what is called the “Western Canon”: the Greeks, Shakespeare, Dante, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Marx, Newton, etc. We have inherited much of what we currently believe today from these texts, and often forget that they disagreed–sometimes extremely–with one another, and provided plausible alternatives to questions that are still being asked (or at least should be). The idea is that by taking seriously the ideas of the past, one might come to question the prevailing ideologies of the present. Through this questioning, one might find that one disagrees with much of what one originally took for granted upon entering college. Or contrarily, one might find one’s original beliefs confirmed, but have better reasons for holding them. In more recent years, there has ironically been a “liberal” backlash against these books that have contributed so fruitfully to the development and maintenance of liberalism. They have been criticized as being dated, irrelevant, written by “dead white men” rather than racial minorities or women. These criticisms miss the point, for it is the ideas themselves that are important, not the identities of the authors who wrote them, nor the trivial fact that people today may disagree. Ideas are not wrong merely because people no longer believe them. And in that sense, I think that Berkowitz may be right. Affirmative action policies can create the illusion of diversity on a campus that in fact has none, at least if what we are talking about is “intellectual” diversity, which should be the most important kind of diversity in an environment that is supposed to care most about freeing the individual mind.

I mentioned that we have departments at Lewis and Clark that definitely deliver what I see to be the proper kind of “liberal” education. In my experience, our political science and philosophy departments have both been very good, and I’m sure that they are not the only ones. Lest there be any confusion, I just want to make clear: when I say “liberal” I do not mean “right-wing”. I am not saying that the political science or philosophy departments provide a conservative counterpoint to our comfortable leftist presumptions. Rather, the liberal education that one finds in our philosophy or political science departments can be described as fostering a kind of intellectual humility, the notions that common sense is frequently wrong, that ideas need to be carefully scrutinized before one accepts them, that presumptions are a kind of laziness, that feelings are not a foundation for knowledge and that unreflective partisanship weakens rather than strengthens democracy.

In sum, for students who want it and seek it out, the traditional liberal arts education is not dead. Because there exist professors who themselves possess the intellectual integrity that a liberal education cultivates, the liberal arts continue (at least in some places) to flourish.