Retirement, Social Security, and Culture Wars

John Buell
Author of Evil Doers: Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics (NYU Press)

The current Social Security debate reflects one of the great paradoxes of US politics. Months after Social Security helped save the economy from complete collapse, the program suddenly became unaffordable. Conservatives of course, from the New Deal on, have despised this program. It is universal and has benefited not only the poor but most middle class citizens as well. Conservatives also suspect it’s a Trojan horse that might well encourage strengthening other universal programs, like health care or college education for all. Combating this strange and paradoxical attack, however, requires consideration of the culture as well as the economics of Social Security. Social Security is part of our broader cultural wars. Some of the most widely discussed “reforms” of the system reflect insensitivity toward or even disdain for the poor, for manual workers, and anyone who values leisure over our work and spend culture. 
The weakness of the economic case against Social Security is obvious and has been meticulously documented by Dean Baker. The cultural implications of the debate have received less attention. Over many years the trust fund has taken in more in taxation than it has paid in benefits. The surplus has been invested in government bonds and the government has used the funds for other purposes, including tax cuts for the rich. The rich in turn have used some of their money to buy stocks and government bonds. Workers have been prepaying for their own retirement. Indeed, since the cap on income taxed for retirement has been relatively low, the tax is regressive. No wonder Warren Buffett’s secretary pays a larger percentage of her income in taxes than does her boss. 
Now that the baby boomers are starting to retire, government may need to draw on the fund by cashing in its bonds and sending some of the proceeds to the folks who funded the bond purchases in the first place. But having made such a stink over profligate government as the cause of our economic woes, there are anguished demands to reign in the promises made to workers. The most discussed idea now seems to be an increase in age at which full retirement benefits become available. 
Mainstream media insist that demanding government meet its fiscal obligations to the Social Security trust fund may be unfair or unrealistic. But turn the tables around. What if a left-of-center government took power and said that in the light of its purported fiscal crisis it would be unfair or unrealistic for government to pay those wealthy bondholders the full principal on their bonds at maturity. I can already hear screams about the moral irresponsibility and dire consequences of such a default. 
And what is the cultural message in the reforms, aka default, citizens are being asked to accept? What is the big deal in being asked to retire at 67 instead of 65? Such a demand is hardly class neutral. I look at my own situation as compared to friends and acquaintances in this working class, waterfront community. One part- time lobsterman, nearing 65, survives by hauling wood, moving, storing and painting docks during the winter. He endures chronic back pain and has suffered a heart attack. Another electrician friend crawls around in attic enclosures I can’t imagine even being able to squeeze into. His pension decimated by the housing and financial meltdowns, he counts on Social Security as his one refuge. Now, however, convinced by the media that Social Security is bankrupt, he laments “I am never going to be able to retire.” 
I am sixty- five. I love the work I do, which includes writing op ed columns and books as well as teaching online college courses. I look forward to every day of work and have no intention of retiring as long as I can still breathe. I suspect Pete Peterson, the billionaire anti social security guru, feels the same way.
Despite all the talk of the US as a post industrial society nearly half of workers over age 58 work at jobs that are either physically demanding or involve difficult work conditions. And a disproportionate number of those depend most heavily on Social Security. They have every right to demand that government not welch on its obligation to them 
 Life expectancy has increased, but so has the economy’s overall productivity. More broadly, the great promise of capitalism from at least the 1950s has been the claim hard work, savings, and reinvestment would foster technological advance enabling more leisure. Citizens would then have the right to choose how the benefits of increased productivity should be allocated. 
The French still keep alive a part of the capitalist promise that is ridiculed or indefinitely deferred by elites in Europe and especially here in the US. Despite efforts by European and US media to portray public sector workers as greedy or unrealistic, the great majority of French citizens recognize that all workers have a cultural and economic stake in opposing President Sarkozy’s efforts to increase the retirement age for state employees. If Sarkozy succeeds, his actions, much like President Reagan’s attack on the air traffic controllers, will encourage broader attacks on the working class. Mark Weisbrodt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research argues: “It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable to expect that as life expectancy increases, workers should be able to spend more of their lives in retirement. And that is what most French citizens expect. They may not have seen all the arithmetic, but they grasp intuitively that as a country grows richer year after year, they should not have to spend more of their lives working.” 
Corporate capitalism, American style, has never been as simple, complete, and linear as its advocates imagine. Even its successes have opened up new rights claims its fundamentalist advocates disparage or deny. 
Leisure is an especially compelling claim, both for its own sake as a space for other transformational possibilities in our personal and collective lives. Both Pete Peterson and the electricians and boat hands that sustain his affluent life should have the right to leisure and a comfortable retirement. No expert commission should usurp this right.

Constitution Worship and the Tea Party

Thomas Dumm
   Amherst College

Now that some of members of the Tea Party are actually charged with governing, it will be of some interest to see how their vision of the Constitution will play out. Many of these candidates insisted on a “return to the Constitution” as a plank in their platforms, and some are now proposing legislation that would require that any proposed law identify the specific Constitutional provisions that authorize the legislation being considered. 
But one only has to look back on the moment when Christine O’Donnell (R) interrogated Chris Coons (D) during the final Senate debate in Delaware on the doctrine of separation of church and state to realize that many of these candidates are relying on something other than the Constitution as interpreted for over two hundred and thirty years as their guidepost. You will recall that when Coons cited the doctrine of separation of church and state during that debate, O’Donnell challenged him, arguing that the First Amendment authorized no such thing, asking in a voice filled with incredulity for Coons to tell her where it said that. Coons mentioned the establishment clause, and the long history of its interpretation. O’Donnell, clearly flustered – the debate was at a law school and the audience couldn’t avoid reacting in disbelieving laughter at her questions – nonetheless acted as though she would be vindicated after the debate. Of course, she wasn’t. But what is more interesting is what she claimed justified her questions to Coons. In a statement she argued that Coons couldn’t show her the language that said there is to be “a wall of separation between church and state” in the First Amendment itself. Hence, she was justified in asking, and Coons, a lawyer of long experience, was the one who didn’t know what he was talking about.
There are more inconsistencies to be found in Tea Party arguments about the Constitution. Many Tea Party members think that certain amendments ought to be repealed, a position that is paradoxical for those who argue others are tampering with it. But it may be more interesting to see which parts of the Constitution they believe need amending. In forum after forum, these have been the 14th (revision) and the 16th and 17th (repeal). The latter two amendments provide for a national income tax and the direct election of senators. Both of these were the fruits of the Progressive era, deemed by Glenn Beck as the evil origin of our contemporary woes. The opposition to the income tax is fairly obvious. After all, it funds the overblown national government, and we are all taxed too much as is, in their view. The repeal of the 17th, while initially startling, indicates their great faith in state governments to provide for the interest of the people, as they are closer to understanding their needs.
But it has been the 14th Amendment that has captured their attention the most (John Boehner, incoming Speaker of the House and Tea Party sympathizer, has already suggested hearings). The 14th is in need of revision because in section one it says, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” This clause allows there to be “anchor babies,” children of undocumented residents who by birth are citizens. But it is also interesting to note something else about the 14th Amendment that has been attacked by Tea Partiers than birth citizenship, albeit much more obliquely, namely, the reaffirmation in the 14th Amendment of the rights of citizens of the United States to enjoy “the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States.” In other words, this is the clause that establishes the national government as the supreme final arbiter of the rights and duties of citizens, settling all prior argument regarding that question.
There has been an interesting silence on this clause, which is also to be found in section one of the 14th Amendment. That silence could be heard during the campaign when candidates trumpet the virtues of the 10th Amendment, which reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This amendment -- which provided the basis for Calhoun’s ante bellum argument for state nullification of national law -- was touted by many Tea Partiers as a necessary antidote to too much federal action. Indeed, as early as the debate concerning the national healthcare law, Tea Partiers have argued the unconstitutionality of the law on the basis of the 10th amendment.
Back in the 1950s this was what was known as the “states rights” argument, and was directly attached to the white southern resistance to the civil rights movement. Its resurrection now is less obviously racist, but as Jairus Victor Grove documents in his recent post in The Contemporary Condition, there does seem to be a greater toleration of racist arguments now than there was even two years ago.
All of this strange revisionism – ahistoricism mingled with mythic history -- is draped in reverence for the Constitution itself as a sacred document of a chosen people. The long history of Constitution worship fits quite well into the Tea Party agenda, and attaches it more closely to the Biblical fundamentalism of conservative, evangelical Christians, a key actor in the right-wing resonance machine.
The deepest irony is that one of the most famous advocates for Constitution worship was Abraham Lincoln, the agnostic who did more than any other single American in history to reshape the Constitution. The 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, the 14th amendment, which established national citizenship and insured due process, and the 15th Amendment, which put into the Constitution equal rights for the newly freed slaves, all were a direct result of the Civil War that he led and won. But here is what Lincoln argued as a young man, in his later to be famous address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, January 27, 1838. 

"Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; --let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap--let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;--let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars."
Constitution worship never had a greater advocate than Lincoln, who not only did more to rewrite it, but who also violated it more than any president until the second half of the 20th century.

This strange religiosity, as it has from the start, operates to prevent Americans from reasonably confronting serious dysfunctionalities in a governing document that was never designed for a country of this size and power. What helped forestall a serious reexamination of the Constitution in the past was what the Constitutional historian Robert Ackerman once referred to as “Constitutional moments,” when the constituent power of a mobilized majority would be able, either through explicit amendment, or more likely by creative reinterpretation, make this creaky machine last another few thousand miles, staying alive. But as Anthony Scalia, a member of both the old and new Gang of Five says, the Constitution is not a living but a dead document. Of course it is Scalia himself who has helped kill it. Contemporary Tea Partiers hope to keep it dead – it is impossible, it seems, to worship living things.
But it may also be the case that they are forcing us to look at a document that has failed in recent decades to produce anything resembling democratic governance. If this is the case, they may be bringing forth more conflict than even they imagine. For the idea of replacing what has increasingly been a Constitution reliant on a history of interpretation – however literal these readers have been – with a new document, would suggest that the there has either been a revolution or the completion of withdrawal of consent from above, as the neo-liberalism of today bleeds into the neo-feudalism of the future.

Organizing Victory: Why Economic Decline Is No Excuse For Broken Promises

Michelle Tokarczyk
   Goucher College
At the end of Capitalism: A Love Story Michael Moore depicts incidents of rebellion: workers taking over a factory, families refusing to vacate a foreclosed home, citizens marching on Wall Street. These sites of resistance remind and inspire viewers that despite the capitalism’s reach, when people recognize and assert their rights, they can (surprisingly) prevail. I write now as the president of a new AAUP chapter that has achieved a small, but noteworthy, victory.

For the past several years the Goucher College faculty has clashed with the administration. Each year was marked by another attempt by the administration to rein in faculty: a move to impose merit pay, an attempt to dismantle faculty legislation, the abolition of the academic dean position. Each of these moves reflects disregard for the academic principle of shared governance and suggests the imposition of a top-down corporate model.

While we had vigorous meetings in which a number of faculty members challenged the administration, the faculty as a whole exhibited a kind of false consciousness specific to academia. Academic institutions are often insular, and Goucher’s small size (1400 students and 173 faculty members) as well as its geography increase this insularity. Located less than ten miles from Baltimore and in the heart of a suburban business district, the campus’s lush 287-acres replete with deer and hiking trails have earned it the appellation of “the Goucher bubble.” Because Goucher is a teaching college with a 3-3 course load and heavy committee work, faculty members who want a professional life beyond the college must struggle to find time for scholarly activities. Many give up. As a result, Goucher’s status and one’s professional status are, for many faculty, inextricably linked.
Also, as my scholarship in working-class studies has indicated, faculty members are often from the middle and upper classes, where the idea of unions or professional advocacy organizations is an anathema. As good progressives, faculty will certainly support blue-collar unions, even teachers’ unions, but they will balk at the suggestion that “independent agents” with doctorates should organize to improve their working conditions.
The inertia of many colleagues was indeed discouraging for those of us who wanted to challenge the administration’s top-down model. However, as an activist friend of mine says, “your boss is your best organizer.” Finally, the administration went too far.
The 2008 recession hit Goucher as it did every higher education institution. After consulting with representatives from faculty leadership, the administration froze salaries for the 2009-2010 academic year. For the most part, faculty accepted this freeze as necessary. By the time contracts were drawn up, however, the administration decided that further cuts were necessary, and the college would reduce its contribution to its employees’ TIAA-CREF retirement accounts from 200% of employees’ minimum required contribution to 50% of this amount. Faculty contracts run from September to September; staff contracts, in contrast, run from July to July. Apparently, the administration did not want to compute the start dates for two sets of contracts. It implemented faculty cuts in July of 2009—in effect, cutting benefits we’d already earned.
The timing of these cuts infuriated faculty members more than the cuts themselves. To us, cutting the contributions in July and August of 2009 was a clear violation of our contracts. The administration disputed—and still disputes—that it was guilty of any contractual or ethical violation. Yet as I have explained to those outside academia, their action is comparable to hiring someone to work for $10 an hour and then on payday and saying you can afford only $5 an hour. An understood agreement is broken.
Representatives from the national AAUP came to a faculty meeting in June of 2009 and met with a few faculty members over the summer. In the fall of 2009 the Goucher College AAUP chapter was revived; our first task was to get restitution of the disputed TIAA-CREF funds.
Although we were skeptical of working with the administration, we decided to make one last attempt to resolve the matter internally before resorting to legal action. Ideally, we wanted to get the faculty at large—not just AAUP members—to endorse a demand letter. I presented the case at a faculty meeting, and a substantial majority of those present voted to send the letter to the president (with copies to the Chair of the Board of Trustees and college counsel). A few days later, the president indicated a willingness to meet with the faculty chair and chairs of relevant committees and reluctantly, the president of AAUP.
At one point during our first meeting the president stated that lawyers had said the college was not at fault, and that it would indeed have a good case, should it go to court. I responded that if we wanted to go to court, we’d go to court. The discussions proceeded.
Ultimately, the college agreed to return the disputed TIAA-CREF funds so long as 115 faculty members signed a statement acknowledging that the college had admitted no wrongdoing and that the faculty members would take no legal action. On the advice of the national AAUP, the Goucher College chapter decided to hire a lawyer to review the proposed agreement. Our chapter dues coupled with funds from the Maryland State Conference AAUP provided necessary funds. The only concern our lawyer had about the proposed agreement was the requirement that 115 faculty sign waivers. We met the waiver requirements. In the summer of 2010 the disputed funds were restored.
   The fall of 2010 has been the first in several years without a battle between the administration and the faculty. Perhaps this is coincidental, or perhaps the AAUP chapter has shifted the power dynamics by demonstrating to the administration that we will stand up to unilateral decisions. Perhaps we have shown the administration and some other faculty members that Goucher College is not an exceptional place, but an institution bound by the same rules and subject to the same pressures as other workplaces. Perhaps we are learning the power of organizing.

A User’s Guide to the New Racism

Jairus Victor Grove
   Co-Editor, The Contemporary Condition

The past few weeks have been very educational. Bill O’Reilly insisted that all Muslims are responsible for 9/11 only to be told that he should ‘moderate’ his remarks. A Move On activist was slammed against a curb for questioning Rand Paul’s integrity. Tea Bagger Judson Philips is openly campaigning against a Democratic candidates Muslim faith, and one of John Boener’s fellow Ohio Republicans vociferously defended spending his weekends imitating a Nazi SS Trooper. The Tea Party more generally has continued its open hostility towards Americans and migrants that are not Anglo-Saxon and apparently, and is not aware or not in support of the First Amendment.

   So here is what I have learned so far. Judson has carefully explained that all Muslims are dangerous because the Qu’ran approves of killing infidels (apparently Judson did not read the part of the Bible that says people should be stoned for mixing crops or taking the Lord’s name in vain and most of all for worshiping other gods). O’Reilly made the same defense of his comments on The View, arguing that it was a violent religion and that his statement was an ‘indisputable fact.’ O’Reilly demanded of a flustered Joy and Whoopie “what religion were the 9/11 attackers then?” suggesting that if 9/11 attackers were Muslims ergo all Muslims attacked us on 9/11. Barbara Walters promptly admonished her colleagues and calmly told O’Reilly he needed to refer to them as extremist Muslims. In the entire discussion that followed no one thought to ask why such tempers were flying over a moderate Muslim community center (not a mosque) when the United States was negotiating a massive and unprecedented arms transfer to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is Osama Bin Ladin’s country of origin and a state that champions intolerant and violent interpretations of Islam.
But we have heard this all before. The Right’s racism is unfounded and irrational. No one reading this post will change their minds about Islam simply because I point out that the Jewish and Christian Bible has just as many demands for violent punishment and killing. So is this just the rehearsed Left response? The Right does something offensive, those of us on the Left notice and bemoan it? I don’t think so. Something has changed. The Right and the particularly loud figureheads of the Tea Baggers are not just being ‘politically incorrect.’ They represent a new racism.
For those of you that like to kick it old school, don’t worry. The old racism has not gone anywhere. It will continue to find its expression in the arbitrary enforcement of drug and gun laws, the increasingly privatized prison-industrial-complex, and neoliberal bootstrapping narratives that blame the underclass for their near permanent state of despair. What is different and worth thinking about more is why these same modes of structural violence are not sufficient or to put it another way, are not satisfying for the Tea Bagger’s demographic. Fear, anger, insecurity, are not new to various classes of white voters that have felt for decades that they have been left behind by the promise of American prosperity and ignored by mainstream politics. So is the fever pitch of violence and vocal expression of heretofore unspeakable racism simply the result of the recent economic decline? Is the recent economic decline the tipping point for the downward trend of wages for the last twenty-five years or is there something else adding affective fuel to the fire?
I would suggest that what is going on here is exacerbated or enabled by the ‘near enemy’ of the 2008 derivatives debacle. However there are other major operators in the mix of the ascendent and increasingly normative racism expressed by Judson Phillips and Bill O’Reilly. The evangelical-neoliberal resonance machine that seemed so badly beaten in the 2008 election was merely bruised not bowed. In fact the hostility against non-white immigrants, Muslims, gays, liberals, scientists, academics etc is all too familiar to those of us who closely watched the Palin rallies during the last Presidential election. Is history simply repeating itself? Is it back from the dead like some kind of seasonally appropriate zombie? 
   No. Something has changed. What was publicly retracted, muffled, cut out of broadcasts, expressed only in ‘misspoken’ words (think George Allen’s Macaca comment) has found a public legitimacy that has crossed the thin line between word and deed. The assault of Lauren Valle is not likely to be an aberration. In Bill O’Reilly’s words, “Muslims attacked us on 9/11.” As cynical as I was of Bush’s plea to Americans to distinguish between terrorism and Islam, I have come to miss those days. It is no longer necessary to apologize for that conflation. In Judson’s case it can be your campaign platform. The return of the evangelical-neoliberal resonance machine has left behind its compassionate conservative voice and found a new militancy. To borrow one of neoliberalism’s favorite words, there is a fresh crop of violent entrepreneurs that make O’Reilly seem ‘mainstream.’ Therefore the possibility of a Tea Bagger caucus in the House of Representatives is not just irritating, it is dangerous. It means an audience of like-minded Congresspeople that believe in war. The cultural wars of the 80s and 90s were at best a low intensity conflict in comparison. Newt Gingrich and William Bennett may have been a preview of part of this resonance machine’s agenda but that tactics are being taken to a whole new level.
There was an initial first response in me that chalked up the comments of Tea Baggers as gaffs and enjoyable gaffs. There was a satisfaction in seeing people say what I knew they were thinking. Growing up in Texas there was always a difference in what could be said in the locker room, in protected social engagements, at church or at home, and what could be said in public. It was unmannered or unrefined to be too open about your superiority. Racist jokes, slurs, violent depictions of difference were shared openly amongst ‘friends’ and shared again in glances and unspoken behavior elsewhere.
So isn’t this better? Once in the free market place of ideas won’t these ignorant rednecks simply be humiliated by the voices of democratic reason? I don’t think so. While ‘covert’ racism and hostility are certainly not good, the expanding comfort zone where these ideas can find expression is cause for worry - not an opportunity for more debate. When issues like the significance of gay suicide or the legitimacy of racism become ‘debatable’ we have already ceded too much ground.
These ideas are toxic to even the deepest pluralism because they begin from the premise and emotional commitment that pluralism is the enemy. These discussion are not brought to forums such as CNN or The View for reasoned debate or invitational discussion. They are a provocation of war to sort friends and enemies.
As noble and recently defeated Republican House member Bob Inglis discovered after condemning Glen Beck’s racist remarks against President Obama, breaking rank carries immediate party consequences, and therefore electoral consequences. In the case of Inglis it was not crossing party leadership that lead to his downfall but engaging one of the resonance machine’s most terrifying entrepreneurs. Beck began referring to Inglis as ‘African-American’ to signal to his viewers that Inglis was a race traitor. A conservative Republican and self-described ‘proud Southerner’ Inglis said he could ‘feel’ the racist vitriol during the primary that lead to his landslide defeat by Tea Bagger Trey Gowdy. A 71% victory for Gowdy in a primary against an incumbent of his own party is unusual to say the least. What changed in Inglis’ platform? Was he found with a dead girl or a live boy? No. His crime was not standing idly by while racism blossomed in his party.
The Tea Baggers are not interlocutors. I have coached competitive college and high school debate for over a decade and just about the only thing that cannot be debated is whether your opponent has the right to speak or participate. Once argument becomes a prelude, bait, for the recording of black lists and the identification of ‘high value targets,’ the cynicism has become terminal. Politics has given way to war.
Does this mean the electoral process is dead? That all that is left is to take to the streets? Absolutely not, but if violent racism and homophobia become acceptable topics of reasoned debate then public reason is little more than a thin veneer of manners soon to give way to something much darker. Every opportunity must be seized to prevent electoral success, but even that, while necessary, will not be sufficient. The Left needs to engender a new militancy of its own. It cannot merely mimic the exclusionary tactics of the Right, we cannot simply grab out apiece of the hate pie. More militant pluralists must intervene at every level of practice from faculty meetings, media outlets, and bar discussions to set the terms of what is sayable and what is not. 
There is also the ‘near enemy’ to attend to. People have reason to feel insecure and afraid. Economic justice cannot be the democratic agenda only when it is convenient. The market will not save us and while I am the first to insist on pluralizing connections with those who would struggle with us, those committed to the neoliberal order of growth and the cruel austerity measures that are imposed on the most vulnerable when that system fails are not part of that coalition. In fact rather than looking to the ‘generous’ wings of the democratic party we are more likely to find opportunities for coalitions amongst those religious folk who are alienated by the new fury of the resonance machine then amongst those who would rather tolerate fascism than give up on market based solutions. These are fragile times and we cannot wait for a market miracle to turn down the heat on the pressure cooker. 

Christine O'Donnell and Jimmy McMillan Walk Into A Bar

Akim Reinhardt 
   Towson University

Christine O’Donnell is kind of like a knock-knock joke: the set-up doesn’t change, but there’s a seemingly endless variety of punch lines that can spring from it. Yesterday’s gaffe is the latest example. While debating in front of the faculty and students of a law school, no less, she became visibly flustered when her opponent pointed out that the 1st amendment stipulates “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” What’s sadly humorous is that the content of the 1st amendment to the United States Constitution seems to be news to a major party senatorial candidate just 2 weeks before the election. I say sadly humorous, because it’s not quite outright funny, like say the thought of her flying around town on a witch’s broomstick, or imagining her desperately trying to stave off the perils of masturbation. I mean, the recently departed Robert Byrd’s saliva stained grandstanding aside, I really do want all of our senators to have a reasonable familiarity with the Constitution. I don’t think that’s raising the bar of expectation too high.

   And then there is the new folk hero, born of the recent NY gubernatorial debate: Jimmy McMillan of The Rent Is 2 Damn High Party. The major candidates in that race are the son of former Governor Mario Cuomo (will Americans ever stop voting for famous families, be they Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes or Clintons?) and O’Donnell’s fellow Tea Partier, Carl Paladino, who, and I’m not kidding here, left the stage early so he could take a wiz. Seriously. But this debate, thankfully, was not closed off to everyone outside the established political duopoly. As the man who is claiming to have coined the term Demublicans and Repocrats (first in print last year, see the article I co-authored with Sociologist Heather Gautney of Fordham University entitled “The Imperial Coin” in Peace and Change), I really do think it is important that smaller political parties and independent candidates be allowed to legitimately participate in the political process, so much of which funnels through large media outlets.

   That brings us to Mr. McMillan, who joined Monsieurs Cuomo and Paladino and four other candidates on stage. That’s right, for this particular debate seven people shared a stage, ranging from the well informed and very serious Libertarian candidate Warren Redliche and Green candidate Howie Hawkins, all the way to Kristin Davis, former madame of the brothel where former Governor Elliot Spitzer became, well, a former governor (at least Ms. O’Donnell can take comfort in the fact that he wasn’t masturbating), whose main campaign tactic so far is making risque jokes.

   Mr. McMillan was somewhere in the middle, mixing serious issues with strange hair styling, talking about the problems of the economy while professing to be a karate expert, exuding a deadly serious tone as he subtly showed his Black Panther street cred by donning 2 black gloves. And to me he seems a lot like Christine O’Donnell.

What? What did you just say? Christine O’Donnell and Jimmy McMillan have something in common?

   Yes, I say, they do. And not in the obvious way, in the easy jokes people (including myself) make about them. Beyond the flaming bull’s eyes, they’re both speaking on behalf of people who feel like they’re on the outside looking in, whether it’s the overwhelmingly white Tea Party movement who loath many of the changes spinning around them, or the black permanent underclass that endures multi-generational poverty that no one else seems too broken up about. They have a lot in common because there are a lot of people in this country who are very, very unhappy with the status quo, who quite understandably believe that the two major parties represent that status quo, and who are looking for a voice to represent them. Chirstine O’Donnell and Jimmy McMillan are attempting to fill that void.
   Are either Christine O’Donnell or Jimmy McMillan the best qualified people to assume the political offices they’re seeking. Of course not. Not even close. Not by a long shot. I’m reasonably confident that almost any 18 year old high school valedictorian could do a much better job than either of them, truth be told. But do they deserve to be heard? You’d better believe it. Because they represent real people, citizens who are very pissed off. That O’Donnell has a major party candidacy and is now on the inside, while McMillan is a far off fringe candidate in a make-believe party who had only a few minutes in the spotlight, merely says something about the resources and successes of angry middle class whites as opposed to the resources and successes of angry lower class blacks.
   But what’s truly devastating is that even though both are the butt of jokes, and even though neither one of them has a real chance of winning their election, both of them are getting more attention than serious outsider candidates like Libertarian Redliche and Green Hawkins. Redliche and Hawkins are at extreme opposite ends of the political and economic spectrums, and you’d be pretty hard pressed to find anything they agree on. But I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that they agree on this: they’ve both studied the issues, they’re both dedicated to improving conditions for Americans, and neither one of them can get a fraction of the attention lavished on O’Donnell and now McMillan. Why? Because they’re both with small but serious parties that are currently marginalized yet represent potential threats to The Big Two, they’re both on the outside looking in, facing all the obstacles that the major parties throw in their way, and because neither one of them is willing to make themselves into the kind of a joke that the press loves because it helps them sell papers or TV and radio commercials or targeted website ads (Did you notice there are no ads here? There never will be). 

   And consequently, the real joke is on all of us.

More Akim Reinhardt at

Chiarismo: Or, Luminosity in Dark Times

Davide Panagia
Trent University

This past summer’s “Il Chiarismo” (pronounced “Kiarismo”) exhibit in Milan, Italy (at Palazzo Reale; June 16 – September 5, 2010) presented the work of some of the principal figures of a painterly movement that lasted all of five years, between 1930 and 1935. The “Chiaristi” were mainly associated with Milan’s Brera Academy, one of Italy’s premiere fine arts institutes and also the home of one of Milan’s most extensive and stunning picture galleries. Curated by Elena Pontiggia, the exhibit brought into full view some of the more significant Chiarismo works, and especially those of the artist Francesco De Rochhi (1902-1978). 
But it’s not De Rocchi’s paintings that I want to discuss. While on the whole compelling, his works seem to me to remain trapped in a mannered romanticism that dreams of an escape from realism – but doesn’t quite make it. 
One painting at the exhibit, however, stood out amongst the other masterworks: “The Church of Fossacaprara” (“La Chiesa di Fossacaprara, 1934). 
   This work belongs to De Rocchi’s contemporary Goliardo Padova (1909-1979), a lesser-known figure of the Chiarismo movement. In contrast to De Rocchi’s works, Padova’s Chiarismo is realism all the way down – but it is a non-representational realism that plays with the tensions between light and line that are some of the basic elements of the medium of painting. 
Meaning “clearness” in the sense of “brightness” – but also (as we shall soon note) in the sense of “clearing” – the characteristics of Chiarismo lie in painting the luminosity of light through the use of attenuated colors so as to express “a fusion of light with form and color” as De Amicis, one critic of the period, describes it. Elena Pontiggia’s essay that accompanies the exhibit’s catalog recounts how the basic technique of Chiarismo is that of mimicking fresco murals by applying paint on a moist, white-washed canvas; humidity and white paint that were (and are) the characteristics of the city of Milan itself, surrounded as it often is by a moist but intense light due to Milan’s location at the foothills of the Alps and at the beginning of the great Po River valley that is the agricultural heartland of Italy. Another characteristic of Chiarismo that Pontiggia notes: the complete disappearance of mythological subjects that were the dominant themes of much Italian painting in the early part of the twentieth century, and the taking up of portraiture, landscape, and still life motifs in their stead. 
But as the Padova painting above makes evident, there is a third characteristic to Chiarismo that has remained impervious to critics and commentators alike: namely, the committed effort to elide or dissolve the boundedness of lines through the painting of luminosity. Here space and light collide and irradiate one another. Notice how Padova has to thicken his strokes in order to show that the church has columns that support it, that it is a structure that can actually stand up. Neo-classical painting would have given much more weight to the support of architectural structures than Padova’s Chiarismo ever does. This, because emphasizing support is no longer the objective of Padova’s paintings. Luminosity has no (needs no) support, though it projects a weightiness of its own. By this I mean that the clash between light and line characteristic of Padova’s Chiarismo period defeats the demand to anchor his figures or his structures in anything that looks and feels like a traditional grounding support. I might push the point further: his depiction of luminosity ultimately reduces the painted line to a barely visible trace: it is there, it is not overcome, but it is not central or primary either. 
Notice also the contrast between the smoothness of the church’s fa├žade, the fluidity of the street and sky, and the almost flaccid but certainly frail erection that is the bell tower. It seems clearly detached from the church and as such loses all sense of support and structure. [Having visited that church several times, I can attest to the fact that this portrayal is entirely an invention of the artist.] Within Italian cityscape imaginaries, the bell tower has a long history of prominence as both grounding a city’s source of time and as an omen used to warn away evil spirits. Here, any pretense to structural magnanimity has been completely elided. 
Padova, I should add briefly, was also a member of the Brera Academy until he was sent to an internment camp during the Fascist regime. Upon his return, after the war, he suffered a period of intense depression and though emerging from it with some wonderful works, he never revisited Chiarismo. Thankfully, however, I managed to track down some other examples of his Chiarismo period. 
“Strada Bassa” (Lower Road) is stunning and I would consider it one of the masterworks of Chiarismo. It depicts a typical landscape scene outside of Padova’s home town, Casalmaggiore, located some 150 kilometers (80 miles) south of Milan, on the shores of the Po River. The road is, in fact, one of the many winding footpaths that meander along the river.
Goliardo Padova, Strada Bassa (1934, private collection) 

   Strada Bassa puts on display a realism emphasized (in this case) by the lines that designate the path. The foliage that brushes upwards from each side of the road also give the lines of the road presence and definition. But notice how that presence is not at all authoritative or commanding, almost as if line here is complicit with the lightness of luminosity. Another noteworthy point: the road leads no where, as do the lines of the road. In fact, they disappear behind an outcrop of bush. The viewer is looking at the road from an angle away from the path, and therefore she or he is not directed by the path’s lines. In other words, light and line work together to make the painting feel as flat and as two dimensional as possible. And this feeling of two-dimensional flatness is accomplished despite the road’s apparent three dimensionality. What Padova offers us here, in no uncertain terms, is a line on a surface; but it is a line that does not trace or bind a territory. At the very most, it hints at a trace that cannot (once again) support the weight of the painting. Rather, the entirety of the painting is supported by its luminosity rather than its sculptural traces. 
I’ve certainly not said enough about these two works, or about the relationship between line and luminosity. Indeed, in light of such works, one’s imagination is sparked to consider how our contemporary egalitarian ambitions are grounded in a genealogy of line and light, of partition and appearance; and here I’m thinking especially of Rousseau’s famous “this is mine” and his acts of partition that trace a line in the dirt to designate property and hence inequality. Nor have I hinted at the contemporaneity of these paintings, despite their not being a part of our contemporary condition: the disappearance of line in the face of Chiarismo’s luminosity resonates family resemblances with our own commitments to line and light, or position and spectacle, in an age of new media corporatism. 
By stating this, I don’t mean to suggest that Padova’s Chiarismo paintings are political objects that we might turn to in order to solve our own political woes; there is nothing that I have found which would license such instrumentalizations of his aesthetic ambitions in that way. However, I do want to suggest that the aesthetic features of such works carry with them the possibility of political insight on the contemporaneity of our own valorizations of the relationship between luminosity and line. In this regard, one only has to consider the number of lines we draw every day – or, indeed, that we encounter and acknowledge every day – and their indexical role in making the world (and ourselves) intelligible to others. It’s almost as if for us, in our contemporary condition, lines are solid objects that work only and exclusively as indices of clarity and boundedness: a ‘clear line of thought’, or ‘a definite line in the sand’, and so forth. 
Rather than clarity, Padova’s Chiarismo offers irradiancy and clearing. Perhaps I might better state my point this way: the meeting of line and light in Padova’s Chiarismo works irradiates the territoriality of line, clearing the way for things, peoples, and events to appear; and it is the appearing, rather than the intelligibility, of things, peoples, and events that these paintings give weight to. Irradiancy and clearing (both terms that adequately capture the somatic sense of “Chiarismo”) are thus the modes through which appearances are sensed and through which we encounter the world in all its immediate finitude – this, without the demand or expectation of intelligibility. 
I haven’t mentioned two further things worth raising regarding these two masterworks of Chiarismo. The first is a point that the French theorist, Michel Foucault, had noted in his lectures on Manet’s paintings (1971) and that I also find available in Padova’s Chiarismo works: namely, the fact that though there are places where the viewer may stand and view these works, the tensions between luminosity and line characteristic of Chiarismo canvases makes it so that there is no one place where the viewer must stand in order to look at them. In this regard, the sense of flatness of these works places them in direct contrast to classical painting, with its normative systems of lines, perspectives, and vanishing points. In those lectures Foucault calls such works of art “picture-objects.” 
The second point worth raising is the white elephant in my discussion of Padova’s Chiarismo paintings: 1930s Milan was a time of heightened attention to line, contrast, and shading, the major formal elements that accompanied Fascism’s return to a neo-classical, sculptural form. Indeed, between Futurism and Fascist Neo-Classicism, there was little room for imagining light in terms other than bounded line – that is, light must illuminate in such a way as to draw outlines of contrast between, say, the ripples of a male statue’s muscles, or the lines of an industrious worker’s face, or the athleticism of the human form in its tense exertions.
Mosaic at Rome’s Foro Italico indoor swimming pool.

Chiarismo’s luminosity, I want to say, is a direct challenge to a Futurist hyper-fancy as well as to the Fascist commitment to the illuminated line as contrast, shading, and sculptural outline.
Goliardo Padova, The Discus Thrower (1934, private collection)

As we can see by comparing the Mussolini-commissioned mosaic of Rome’s Foro Italico (a.k.a. “Il Foro di Mussolini”, designed and created during the 1930s) and Padova’s “Discus Thrower” (also of his Chiarismo period, though one of my least favorite), for Padova any pretense to flights of fancy give way to a luminescent realism characteristic of the light and landscape of the Po River valley. Indeed, what is dramatic about Padova’s Chiarismo canvases is how fancy seems to have as little of a role to play as possible in the making of his paintings.
   I might, then, wish to call Padova’s Chiarismo a non-representational realism, however oxymoronic or even contradictory that may sound. A visit to the region on a hot summer’s day, however, will testify to the accuracy of my contradiction. The light bouncing off of the Po River’s humid haze make the lines of the landscape luminescent to the point of evanescence; that is, weightless or better yet, groundless. And this is perhaps Goliardo Padova’s short-lived achievement in the face of the contending artistic practices of Fascist Italy. Namely, his portrayal of a robust groundlessness through the realism of an irradiating luminosity that faces up to a looming, dark light.