I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)

  1. Blogging
  2. American football
  3. Pizza
  4. Economics
  5. The color red
  6. History
  7. Desert landscapes
  8. The movie Lawrence of Arabia (combines 6 and 7)
  9. Writing
  10. The book A Confederacy of Dunces
  11. A good scary story.
  12. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas
  13. Political theory
  14. Hazelnut coffee
  15. Conspiracy theories
  16. Well-written, metered, rhyming satirical poetry.
  17. The number 17
  18. Thunderstorms
  19. Friendly political debates
  20. The sound of howling wind.
  21. The unutterable melancholy of a winter sunset in a farm field.
  22. Pretentious sentences like the one above.
  23. Knights of the Old Republic II
  24. Halloween
  25. The book 1984
  26. Niagara Falls
  27. The song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”
  28. Pumpkin-flavored cookies. coffee, cake etc.
  29. The book The King in Yellow
  30. Hats
  31. Chess
  32. Trivia competitions
  33. Numbered lists
  34. Mowing lawns
  35. The smell of fresh-cut grass
  36. Black licorice
  37. Beethoven’s 3rd,5th and 9th symphonies
  38. The color light blue.
  39. Exercise machines
  40. My iPad
  41. Feta cheese
  42. The movie Jane Got a Gun
  43. Etymologies
  44. Gregorian chants
  45. December 23rd
  46. The story “The Masque of the Red Death”
  47. Mozzarella sticks
  48. Leaves in Autumn
  49. Long drives in the country
  50. Fireworks
  51. The song “You Got Me Singin'”
  52. The book To Kill a Mockingbird
  53. Constitutional republics that derive their powers from the consent of the governed.
  54. Strategy games
  55. Puns
  56. Ice skating
  57. My Xbox One
  58. The smell of old books
  59. Hiking
  60. Tall buildings
  61. Bookstores
  62. Gloves
  63. Rational-legal authority, as defined by Max Weber
  64. Bagels with cream cheese
  65. The Olentangy river
  66. The movie The Omen
  67. Far Side comics
  68. Planescape: Torment
  69. The song “Barrytown”
  70. Reasonable estimates of the Keynesian multiplier
  71. Stories that turn cliches on their heads.
  72. Editing movies
  73. Really clever epigraphs
  74. The movie “Chinatown”
  75. Ice water
  76. Deus Ex
  77. Silly putty
  78. Swiss Army Knives
  79. Anagrams
  80. Wikipedia
  81. Radical new models for explaining politics.
  82. Weightlifting
  83. Lego
  84. Madden 17
  85. The song “The Saga Begins”
  86. Trigonometry
  87. Writing “ye” for “the”
  88. Well-made suits
  89. Popcorn
  90. Pasta
  91. The word “sesquipedalian”
  92. The movie Thor
  93. Blackjack
  94. The movie The English Patient
  95. Pretzels
  96. Cello music
  97. Bonfires
  98. The story “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
  99. Soaring rhetoric
  100. Astronomy
  101. Getting comments on my blog posts.

Joseph Epstein, writing in the WSJ, waxes nostalgic for the heyday of the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants:

Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren’t, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today’s new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided.

I recommend reading the whole article, but the cliffs notes version is this: WASPs used to run the country, but now they don’t and instead the country is run on a ‘meritocratic’ basis, meaning that people achieve high status through competition, not family background.  But the ‘meritocracy’ is producing selfish people who don’t care about the greater good, whereas the bygone WASP leaders had a sense of social responsibility.

There are a lot of things questionable things about Epstein’s argument. His criteria for who is and is not a WASP  is a bit weird.  His reasons for why the WASPs stopped running the country are murky.  Even his proof that the WASPs were better at running the country is shaky.

I will address that last issue first. His strongest evidence for the superiority of WASP governance is the claim that “The last unashamed WASP to live in the White House was Franklin Delano Roosevelt”.  (He claims the last WASP President was George H.W.  Bush, but he was apparently ashamed of it.)

Well, many historians would definitely agree that no President since FDR has done as good a job as he did.  But was that because he was a WASP?  And if so, what exactly was it that made the WASPs so good at it?

Is Epstein trying to say that Whites are better at running society? That’s going to be a rather controversial claim, but if that’s what he wanted to say, why didn’t he come out and say it, instead of dancing around the issue?

Maybe it’s the “Anglo-Saxon” bit of the equation?  Again, that’s going to be controversial, and it has the added problem of being more obscure.  People barely think about the distinction between “Anglo-Saxon” and, say, “Celtic” anymore, and so who is going to know the difference? And again, what is it about Anglo-Saxons that would lead to them being better leaders?

Or again, maybe it’s the “Protestant” bit. Max Weber wrote about “the Protestant ethic”, and how Protestant beliefs fueled the growth of  capitalism.   This actually seems like the most likely explanation for the purported dominance of the WASPs.  Accumulating a lot of money would certainly have been helpful to their success, and perhaps the religious underpinnings would explain the supposed selfless aspect of the WASP-run society.

But Epstein never advances any of these theories in that article. He just writes that the WASPs were better at running the country for some reason. But why?  He never explains.

Personally, I think that the whole WASP thing is a red herring that Epstein fell for.  The real phenomenon he is talking about is the transition from a society based on family heritage to one based on… what, exactly?

Throughout the article, Epstein keeps alluding to the dominance of the WASPs giving way to the “meritocracy.” This is a suspiciously squishy word, and I think it’s telling that he keeps using it.  It’s in keeping with the general vagueness of the article, but I think it’s important to briefly explain just how useless the word “meritocracy” is.

The idea of “meritocracy” is that status should be gained through merit. How could you possibly have a problem with that? You couldn’t–that’s just it; it’s one of those political terms that’s so generic nobody can disagree with it.

The top tier of any given society will always think it is a meritocracy. For instance, in the 1500s, the official line was that the King was the King and everyone else was a peasant because it had been so ordained by God.  And really, what could be more meritocratic than that?

As long as society has winners and losers, the winners will always think they got there by “merit” of some sort.  The nobility of past times didn’t go around saying “yes, some of the commoners really have more merit than we do, but we’re not a ‘meritocracy’, so we get to rule anyway.” They simply defined “merit” as “ancestry”.

The funny thing is, Epstein is attempting argue against the meritocracy, but he doesn’t really have the words for it.  One can’t argue against “meritocracy” as such, because that is tantamount to saying “I don’t want the best person for the job”.

I think a better word for what Epstein is attempting to talk about is “oligarchy”.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle had the idea that there were three “types” of constitutions (or governments): Royalty, Aristocracy and Constitutional Government. But of these three types, there were also perversions, these being Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy, respectively. (This handy chart on Wikipedia explains it.)

Note that in their “True” forms, these governments are supposed to work for the “common good”, but their “Perverted” forms work for the few at the expense of the many.  Basically, the phenomenon that Epstein is attempting to describe is the change from an aristocracy to an oligarchy.

I think this dichotomy makes far more sense, although I am still not convinced that it is actually true. And even if it is, Aristotle himself is a bit vague on why these things happen.  Assuming that this is even accurate, it still does not clarify anything.

Remember what I wrote earlier: the strongest evidence for Epstein’s thesis is that historians and political scientists widely agree that no President since FDR has done as good a job as he did.  Epstein seems to assume that this was because FDR was an “unashamed WASP”. But that is assuming too much, in my opinion.  Rather, we should simply ask: “why is it that none of the administrations that succeeded Roosevelt lived up to that standard?”

Image via Wikipedia

“Gentlemen, this is a football.”  Thus did the famous coach Vince Lombardi supposedly begin every first team meeting of the season, while holding up same.   The point being, you always start off with the basics. However, I don’t know about the AIFA; some of their players might be seeing a football for the first time.

The other day, somebody got to this blog by searching for the terms “how would max weber view american football”. I don’t know if he was even thinking of the same Max Weber I’m so fond of, but regardless, I thought to myself: “Heck, I would like to read that article.”  So, here is a cursory attempt at writing it.

Of course, it’s hard to figure out the answer without a Ouija board and some arcane black magic.  And even then, it would probably only be something simplistic like “the competitiveness reflects the Protestant ethic” or “the Browns are 6 and 10 this year, best case.”

I’m not too familiar with his most famous writings about religion; I’ve mostly studied Weber’s contributions to political thought. Long-time readers probably remember his three types of authority:

  1. Charismatic authority
  2. Traditional authority
  3. Legal authority

Well, I suppose he’d think that coaches like Rex Ryan and players like Tim Tebow have charismatic authority, whereas coaches like Belichick and players like Ray Lewis rely on a sort of traditional authority–they have enjoyed a lot of success, so people are supposed to automatically respect them.  The equivalent to Legal authority is, well, the referees and the commissioner. (As the Saints are discovering.)

But this doesn’t tell us anything about the broader social phenomenon of football. Maybe Weber would note the similarity of the sport to religion.  After all, some fans follow it with the same zeal that people follow religions. They even collect artifacts and relics relating to the heroes of the sport.  And then, of course, there’s the ubiquitous Mr. Tebow. (I know I’m breaking my vow here. I’m sorry. But I promise you one thing: you will never see another blogger try as hard not to mention him as I will try the rest of the off-season.)

I once saw an NFL Films show about the Pittsburgh Steelers championship run in 2005.  It started off with this quasi-hymn or chant-like music that sounded religious and very eerie all at once. Imagine “Duel of the Fates“, only way creepier.  It seemed pretty serious for a bunch of football highlights.  But there are people who definitely see football as nearly as important. (Another Lombardi line, of which there are some variations: “All that matters is your God, your family and the Green Bay Packers”.)

Still, Weber studied religions as a way of highlighting differences in cultures and people’s philosophies.  The superficial resemblance of sports fanatics to religious fanatics is obviously more about the features of fanaticism than religion.  So we’re still at a dead end.

Let’s approach this from a different direction: we know that American football, though wildly popular in the United States, is not the number one sport in any other country. Perhaps the reasons for this are tied to “American exceptionalism”.  But this is more Tocqueville than it is Weber. (Where is that Ouija board?) And unfortunately, I cannot find much that Weber had to say about America.

So once again, I am frustrated.  I leave it to you, blogosphere and distinguished commenters, to sort this problem out.  What would Max Weber think of American football?

For Christmas this past year I received an amusing little book called Slinging Mud by Rosemarie Ostler that documents the history of political name-calling historical in U.S. Presidential elections. It begins with the 1824 campaigns of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson and runs through the 2008 election.

One example Ostler cites that I particularly like is from the 1896 election, when a New York Times editorial asked “Is [Democratic candidate William Jennings] Bryan Crazy?” In it, a psychiatrist claimed that Bryan’s speeches were evidence that he was insane. And, as Ostler notes, something similar would be done almost 70 years later to Barry Goldwater. There are other interesting stories in it too, all of which go to show that politics in this country have never been all that civil.

And yet, it still seems like things are different now. It’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly how, but most people feel like discourse is not as civil as it once was. Is this just misplaced nostalgia, or is there something more to it?

I think there’s a bit of a problem just now in that the period from the 1940s to the mid-1960s was, relatively speaking, an unusually mild period in politics. Part of it was the unity developed in World War II, and the optimism of emerging from the war and the Depression as one of the big superpowers. As this article by Heather Whipps puts it: “There was constant debate over policy between the two parties throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but always with an underlay of camaraderie, historians say.” However, I suspect that the reason for civility in the ’40s and ’50s  may have been simply that the parties were much closer together ideologically then.

The 1950s, in particular, were a rather boring time in politics. Maybe it was because Eisenhower was President for most of the decade, and nobody wanted to insult a war hero.  The only really interesting thing to do in politics then was hunt communists, but so many people in both parties got in on that act that it definitely deserves the stamp of “working together in the spirit of bipartisanship”. Matthew Yglesias once wrote that the partisanship of today is far preferable to the bipartisanship of the ’50s.

I once noted that the 1950s serve as an excellent political Rorschach test. Cosmopolitan liberals tend to laugh at the period as one of artificiality and ridiculous propaganda, whereas Nationalist conservatives tend to romanticize the decade as a time of wholesome family values and decency. And, as it happens, our politics at the time do suggest that the country was more united then… at least, among those whose voices could be heard.

Of course, it all changed in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Act, the sexual revolution, the counter-culture, the opposition to the Vietnam War, the “New Left” and so on. Politics got more polarized, less civil and much more exciting. And, as documented in the work of Rick Perlstein, among others, this state of affairs has persisted to the present day.

The alert reader may have thought of something curious about this. Specifically, why are the Republicans, who like the 1950s, the ones most associated with extremism and incivility, and the Democrats–excluding Yglesias–who mock the period the ones most eager for “consensus” and “bipartisanship”? Strange. This seems to demand further investigation.

But since Yglesias is one of the few exceptions, let’s examine his analysis a little more closely before we delve deeper. He cites a study that reports that

[I]n 1952 and then again in 1960 according to the National Election Survey just 50 percent of the public felt it could discern “any important differences in what the Republicans and Democrats stand for?” [sic] In 1966 that fell to forty percent. In 1992 by contrast, it went up to 60 percent and it was all the way up at 76 percent in 2004.

Striking a populist note, Yglesias says this change is a good thing:

A world in which the electorate is left perpetually baffled by the decisions they face and then the important issues are settled through arcane committee negotiations rather than on election day is just a means of empowering elites, not a path to better governance.

Well, this is true. Just because the people in power gets along doesn’t mean they’ll do good work–in fact, if they’re all good friends, I suppose they’re less likely to pressure each other to solve problems.

I like that Yglesias calls it “arcane committee negotiations”. How dull that sounds! But there’s an even better term for it: “rational-legal authority“. Yes, once again, it’s Max Weber’s world and we’re all just living in it. Rational-legal authority is by far the least interesting kind of authority. The hallmark of this kind of authority is “bureaucracy”, and nobody likes bureaucracies.

Of course, Weber also sees this as the most advanced form of authority, and he believed, according to Wikipedia, “that societies evolve from having mostly traditional and charismatic authorities to mostly rational and legal ones”. “Charismatic authorities” are much more interesting, though, than rational-legal ones. To quote Wiki again: “Charismatic authority almost always evolves in the context of boundaries set by traditional or rational (legal) authority, but by its nature tends to challenge this authority and is thus often seen as revolutionary.”

Keep that in mind, and then recall that television became more influential towards the end of this period. I hate quoting myself, but it’s fastest in this case:

[M]ass communication makes it much easier to “transmit” the charisma, and so, in the developed world at least, military coups have been replaced with charismatic leaders who sell themselves as appealing individuals to the populace at large… In some ways, then, it is not humans who have changed but rather our technology that has facilitated the charismatic domination by these individuals…

This is, I feel, a dangerous situation. The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.

I say it again and again: television and especially the internet multiply the power of charisma. But what does that have to do with polarization? Well, being interested in politics by a charismatic person involves much more passion than does a “rational-legal” system. Consequently, when charisma is in play, everything is much more emotionally charged.

So, should televisions and computers come with warning labels that say “this machine kills centrists“? People blame cable news and the internet for the rise in polarization and incivility and they’re totally justified. But I don’t believe it’s because these things intrinsically make people angrier; I think it’s because they have allowed charismatic authority to have way more power than it used to. Which is saying something, because it has been a force for thousands of years.

But hold a minute: there’s still something missing, I think. Even if my idea is completely true, why should that have changed what the parties themselves believed. Charismatic people usually embody a cause–they don’t go off and create their own causes. In other words, was it just the new-found power of charisma that caused the parties to change, or was another factor involved?

To be continued… in the meantime, here’s some interesting reading:

One of the things I have noticed in my reading about Otto von Bismarck–which is, let me emphasize, not at all thorough–is how much his style of politics reminds me of President Obama’s. He was a master of compromise, deal-making, and piecemeal political maneuvering. He was very pragmatic in his decision making, much as Obama is.

Politics nowadays are much less hospitable to this sort of thing than they were in Bismarck’s day. The motto of the Republican freshman class of 2010 was “No compromises.” There are fewer and fewer deal-makers in either executive or legislative capacities Such hard-line stances and theatricality are the hallmarks of politics today, and it is a small wonder; as I have said, such tactics favor the somewhat unpredictable charismatic authority of which Max Weber wrote. For instance, as described in a 1989 article by Peter Boyer:

The House, which limits the length of debate over legislation, has a rule allowing so-called special orders –permission to give lengthy speeches at the end of each legislative day. These have long been a means by which congressman could read into the Congressional Record various matters of importance to their constituents, usually matters of trivia. But [Newt] Gingrich, concerned less with the Record than with the potential television audience, [Emphasis mine] began to use special orders regularly as his platform for advancing ideas and, especially, for attacking the Democratic majority. 

At first, his approach gave the impression that he was a brave young crusader, taking on the opposition in heated floor encounters, but, in truth, most of his diatribes were delivered before a virtually empty House.

So do the politics of Weber’s “legal authority” give way to “charismatic authority”. (Frankly, though, Gingrich is not very charismatic. But he thinks he is.)

 The pragmatism, compromise and negotiation aspects of politics are not very interesting to people today, and so they do not pay attention to them, and so politicians do not emphasize them. Of course, it was not interesting to people in Bismarck’s time, either, but there was no medium like television to bias things in favor of the charismatic. Thus, people’s judgments were based more on who accomplished what.

It is also the case that Bismarck functioned in a very different political environment than does Obama. It was not a democratic state, and Bismarck was himself was fairly hostile to democracy. The pool of people who could elect or appoint Bismarck to things was far smaller than the same is for Obama. Yet, the art of politics as practiced by both men seems to me to be very similar. Bismarck may have been accountable only to the Kaiser, whereas Obama is accountable to the entire U.S. voting population, but in terms of what they each had to do to keep their employers happy, they use much the same techniques of statesmanship.

What’s interesting about Obama is that he is also a very charismatic man, but still seems to have a very calculating and realistic mind. This is a very rare quality, as most charismatic politicians rely purely on their instincts, their passion, for their power, and as such seem like “loose cannons” to all those not taken in by their personalities. Sarah Palin is an example of this.

Another way of combining charisma and technocratic maneuvering is simply to have one person specialize in the former and one in the latter running on the same ticket. This was basically what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did. Bush provided the charismatic “everyman” charm to get elected, Cheney provided the political know-how to accomplish their ideological goals once in office.

Such a method is effective, or at least, it would have been effective if their ideology itself had been more sound. As it was, it paved, the way for six years of Republican dominance. (After the 2006 election, they lost  much of their ability to implement their agenda.) 

The point is that Obama is actually, in a sense, a much older style of politician than we ordinarily see, even though he appears to rely on his charisma for his appeal. And obviously, Obama is very different ideologically and morally from Bismarck. I am addressing only his technique as a statesman here.

Lastly, I want to remind readers again that I am only an amateur historian, and therefore may be mistaken about things. If I have made any error or debatable assertion, please tell me in the comments. Benjamin Disraeli and William Thomson are both claimed to have said: “The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.” I write these posts mainly in the hope that a blog post is the second or third best way.

This past September 26 was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Kennedy/Nixon debate in the 1960 Presidential Campaign. It is famous for being the first televised Presidential debate, and subsequently as an example of the influence television could have on a campaign.

Everyone knows the story: Nixon looked haggard and ill, Kennedy looked fit and healthy. Some say that Kennedy’s appearance in that debate was what won him the election. I feel that is only partially true–what helped Kennedy here was not just his good looks, but mainly his charisma, which was now being shown to a wider audience than in any previous election.

In fact, to me, this debate marks the moment when, because of television, charisma emerged as the most powerful force in U.S. politics. Nixon represented what Max Weber called “Legal Domination“, whereas Kennedy represented “Charismatic Domination“. My view is that Kennedy’s victory demonstrated that television had now enabled charismatic domination to come to the fore.

The real question, I guess, is: was this a good thing or a bad thing?

Interesting piece by Charles Oakland at Conservatives4Palin about Sarah Palin’s charisma. More specifically, it’s an examination of just what charisma is and why Palin appears to have it. I am, of course, delighted to see other people discussing the phenomenon of charisma, as I have done so myself very often on this blog.

It’s piece worth reading, in my opinion, regardless of your views on either Sarah Palin or Mr. Oakland.* Putting the political aspects of the thing aside, it is a very interesting read, and touches on many of the same points I have in my ongoing blogging about charisma.

Having said all that, I have to confess that I’m shocked that one could write such a long article on the nature of charisma and not mention the work of Max Weber, who is probably the primary reason we have the word charisma today. But quite apart from that, Weber’s writings are indispensable for understanding the concept of charisma. As he described it, charisma is:

“…a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which one is “set apart” from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These as such are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as divine in origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” 

No question, the religious origins of the word are indeed important, and Oakland is surely right to discuss it. But Weber has studied the implications of charisma with particular regard to politics, and therefore it is surely worth mentioning his efforts in an examination of a political figure’s charisma.

*For those readers who really don’t enjoy reading words of extreme adoration for Sarah Palin, you only have to read the article from the passage beginning: “As some readers know, my interests also include languages and biblical studies….”