Monthly Archives: February 2004

Helen Vendler

Because she’s one of my favorite critics, I just read Vendler’s new book, Coming of Age as a Poet (Harvard, 2003). It’s a study of the first mature and fully successful verse of four major poets: Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Plath. Vendler argues that poets change their themes, topics, and messages during their careers, but they often achieve a stable poetic personality in their twenties. From their first “perfect” poem to the end of their careers, they retain a hard-won combination of: certain formal and stylistic habits (including characteristic diction); physical and historical milieux that they typically describe; major symbolic references; characters or types of characters whom they include in their verse; and some sort of (at least implicit) cosmology.

Vendler touches on problems of “existential” importance: for example, whether Sylvia Plath’s extreme pessimism can be valid, and whether Plath is morally blameworthy for it. She defends strong aesthetic judgments on the basis of an implicit theory of poetry. She treats any excellent poem as the difficult and worthy achievement of a deliberate artist, which means that she links her aesthetic judgments to judgments about character (and an implied theory of the good life). Vendler’s own writing is dense, careful, perceptive, and concerned with vital matters–not just poems, but the topics that they wrestle with. She works with the even more concentrated, complex, and passionate words of four major poets. The combination of her acuity and theirs is very challenging. I kept thinking, “Why don’t I have a coherent style and world-view? Why can’t I read with this degree of care and accuracy?” Like a good sermon, Coming of Age as a Poet is an exhortation to try harder, be tougher, do better–not necessarily as a poet, but as a person.

“social capital”: political and apolitical

Robert Putnam is mainly famous for reviving the concept of “social capital.” As he measures it, social capital is the aggregate of certain habits and attitudes that individuals possess–especially trust for other people and membership in groups.

There are two main interpretations of social capital theory. The political interpretation says that people deliberately develop organizations and networks in order to solve public problems. Trust is a by-product of this work; it is also something that people deliberately enhance by developing personal relationships and by raising children as members of communities. It is good to develop social capital because it enhances a community’s capacity to solve problems in the future.

The apolitical interpretation assumes that social capital goes up or down because of large social forces and trends, such as suburbanization, the work environment, and exposure to television. (TV makes people less trusting and less sociable.) The reason we should care–according to this interpretation–is that social capital correlates with mental health, longevity, and good educational outcomes. Therefore, if we can, we should tinker with big institutions to increase social capital.

Although these two theories reflect different values, there are also empirical differences. It is either true or false that people can create social capital through deliberate action at the local level. I’m optimistic that they can, but I’m not sure how strong the evidence is.

the press and respect (Part II)

If reporters showed more respect for democratic institutions (see yesterday’s post), they might also think about “balance” in a different way. Journalistic “balance” usually means quoting an equal number of people on both sides of an issue–an approach that’s sometimes mindless or even misleading. But if reporters and editors tried to respect public institutions, they might ask instead:

  • Are we providing the right balance between campaign news and other news about issues and government? After all, campaigns do not necessarily affect many parts of the government, let alone other public institutions–nor are they the only opportunities for citizens to influence the system. What about (for example) the federal administrative agencies, which are enormously powerful, largely immune to changes in party control, and yet subject to citizens’ influence?
  • Do we balance scandalous news and news about the day-to-day work of public institutions? Or do we only tell the public about certain federal and state agencies, political leaders, and major nonprofits when they are accused of misbehavior?
  • Do we offer the right balance between news about powerful leaders and news about ordinary Americans who address public problems?
  • Do we give an accurate impression of the balance of power among the branches of government; among local, state, and federal governments; between the public and the private sectors; and between the United States and global institutions? Or do we focus unduly on the US presidency, partly because it is glamorous and easy to cover?
  • the press and respect for democracy

    Jay Rosen has posted a brilliant and comprehensive essay about the poverty of political coverage in America. He ends with a long list of proposals for different attitudes and methods that reporters might adopt. Along similar lines, I’ve been asking myself, “What would happen if reporters showed more respect for our democratic institutions?”

    There’s a big debate about whether reporters are too solicitous, or too critical, of various major figures, especially the President of the United States. But that’s not what I mean. In fact, to respect democratic institutions might mean paying less attention to individuals and their motives and fortunes. For example, who cares whether George W. Bush supports the anti-gay-marriage amendment in order to appease his conservative base, as the Times explains in its front page “news analysis” today? (By the way, we can’t know his motives, and the only people who possibly have insight are Administration insiders, who aren’t trustworthy sources.) Imagine, instead, that the Times explained that a struggle between majoritarian institutions and courts has arisen because the fourteenth amendment requires “equal protection under the law,” yet many voters see marriage as a sacrament that can only apply to heterosexual couples. Citizens need to wrestle with what the fourteenth amendment means and how it can coexist with one-person, one-vote. Respectful coverage might demonstrate that this is not an easy issue–not for those of us who strongly favor gay marriage but also believe in democracy; not for those who oppose gay marriage but also believe in equality. Hence those decision-makers in Washington are not just playing games for political advantage. They are in a tough spot morally and they are doing their jobs.

    The 14th amendment is a “civic ed” kind of issue–perhaps too dry and procedural. But respect for democratic institutions would mean more frequent and illuminating coverage of a wide range of organizations: not just courts and the Congress, but also unions, evangelical churches that are politically engaged, state legislatures, military units, regulatory agencies, community meetings. It would mean attending and observing these institutions day-to-day, not just when a scandal is unfolding.

    Ralph Nader, 1934-2000

    Ralph Nader was a major figure. Along with John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, he was one of the leaders in a reform movement that reached its apogee around 1974. It was in many ways a revival of the Progressive movement exemplified by Louis Brandeis and Robert M. La Follette a half century earlier. All of the many groups that Nader founded and inspired had the following features:

  • They fought for general or public interests. It is absolutely fine for groups of Americans to advocate in their own interests. In fact, we will never achieve justice unless the poor and marginal defend themselves effectively. However, there is also an important category of issues that affect everyone, although they are not at the top of anyone’s list of priorities. Consequently, people don’t mobilize on these issues, and small special interests often have their way. Around 1912 and again around 1974, there was a groundswell of concern about those general-interest questions. Nader is associated with three issue areas above all: the environment, consumer protection, and good government. Everyone lives in the natural environment, everyone buys consumer goods, and everyone benefits from a responsive, efficient, transparent government. These were perfect topics for public-interest politics.
  • They were independent of parties, governments, and funders. Although they were not deeply hostile to the political system, they were relentlessly non-partisan and kept all official institutions at an equal distance.
  • They believed in the power of information. Brandeis had said that there is no better disenfectant than sunlight, but it was Nader’s generation that won the Freedom of Information Act, open meeting laws, campaign finance disclosure, and public hearings for congressional committees. Nader and his allies collected previously private information and put it before the public, hoping and expecting that citizens would demand changes.
  • Their core constituents were highly educated, older, White Americans, most often from mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations. However, Nader and his allies brought these constituents into coalitions with poor people, immigrants, and people of color.
  • The progressive revival spurred by Nixon’s malfeasance faltered by the later Carter years. It turned out that information was not enough; politics also requires motivation and organization. Far from motivating masses of people, the reforms of the 70s tended to undermine institutions (such as parties) that have the capacity to mobilize large numbers of people. Public Citizen and Common Cause pioneered a type of organization that provided relatively little for ordinary members to do beyond writing checks. Their heavy use of scientific studies and lawsuits helped to professionalize citizenship and reduce the role of ordinary people.

    The reformers’ incessant attacks on regulators for being “captured” by special interests may have fed the anti-regulatory movement of Ronald Reagan. Finally, business lobbies learned to use the new political methods pioneered by Nader and Gardner in their own interests. They too could issue expert studies, organize petition drives, raise money via direct mail, and ask candidates to complete questionnaires. The public-interest style of politics increasingly served Nader’s enemies better than his friends.

    Ralph Nader himself had entered the history books by 2000, but by then he had changed American politics more than many presidents. Some of his reforms were counter-productive or soon outlived their usefulness; but all were well-intentioned and many strengthened our democracy.