30 December 2015

Social Alienation

(This is now my fifth post prompted by TNT's American Revolution-themed post-apocalyptic alien invasion family drama, Falling Skies.  I guess I've enjoyed writing about it.  This post is based on thoughts related to Ben Mason, the middle son.  More about the connection in a subsequent post.)

1.  In Division One of his great work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger sets out a phenomenology of human intersubjectivity.  "Phenomenology" in Heidegger's philosophy is an analysis of the way we experience and observe things: the experiential ground level on top of which all the relationships and distinctions of life are superimposed.  "Intersubjectivity" is just a fancy word for the fact that individual humans relate to each other as fellow persons, and (most importantly) communicate with each other, so that the interior life of each is known (to some extent) to others, and individuals live in a network of social relationships.

2.  Heidegger points out that much of our socialization happens in the context of an anonymous super-person, "das Man" (normally translated "the they", as in "they say"), which functions as a regulative idea about what is to be done or not done, what is expected, what is reasonable, etc.  Just as the orientation of a workshop toward a set of goals determines the significance and placement of tools in the workshop, and the understanding of behavior within the workshop, in a similar way our understanding of "das Man" determines the significance of different gestures and behaviors, and establishes a set of expectations surrounding ourselves and other people.

3.  This underlying sense of what "people" are like in general, or what "society" expects, or what "everyone" thinks, functions not as a discrete concept, but as a (generally unexamined) "horizon" which surrounds and frames our experiences of people, and guides our interpretation of them (including ourselves).

4.  The notion of "das Man" and the hermeneutical dimension of human intersubjectivity (or "being-with", as Heidegger calls it) — the way social expectations and regulative ideas about "people" affect communication and relationships — has generated a lot of philosophical and sociological literature.  Emmanuel Levinas famously sets up the whole notion of being-with against Heidegger and calls for an ethics of radical alterity, in which the personhood of others is allowed to remain distant without being subsumed under a horizon of (individual or communal) social expectations.  (Then again, maybe this isn't what Levinas is about — I never really understood what he was saying.)

5.  I mention all this stuff about phenomenology and intersubjectivity because I want to talk about an interesting aspect of human self-understanding.  I wrote something a few years ago:
The craftsman experiences the consumption and use of his produce as a kind of love: by loving what he has made, people indirectly love him (since his likeness is in the works of his art, however indirectly). It follows that commerce can be a kind of friendship.
There the connection between commerce and friendship was made by way of the analogy that exists between an artisan and the objects of his craft.  But there's a more obvious point to be made here, which is implied in Aristotle's notion of the "useful friendship".  In relationships of commercial exchange both parties perceive the actions of the other as somehow beneficial to themselves. Thus the relationship takes on the nature of a friendship, which is characterized by mutual goodwill.   This is always true, even if there is a lack of equity in the perceived benefit, and even when the goodwill is minimal.  The result is that, in a society dominated by commercial exchange, where economic relationships are the most universal and most widespread kind of social bond, those who have no place in that web of economic relationships, and do not participate in commercial exchange (whether through labor or trade), experience a kind of social alienation.

6.  If Heidegger is right about the way social expectations form a contextual horizon within which which we understand ourselves, others, and human relationships (and of course he is), this applies not just to manners and habits of communication, not even just to moral standards, but also to the construction of each person's understanding of himself, in relation to das Man.  A sense of worthlessness tends to infect people who are unemployed, regardless of their objective accomplishments or good habits, simply because of the way their understanding of personal worth relates to the network of economic relationships in which most people participate.  I believe new mothers sometimes struggle with this experience.  Participation in the network of commerce imparts value.  Removal from that network removes value.  These are not facts in themselves, but features of our self-understanding based on the common notion of "society" (das Man) against which we judge ourselves.

7.  One of the great moral themes of the past two centuries has been the Courage of the Outsider.  We love seeing figures who suffer because of their voluntary exclusion from the fold, for the sake of their own sense of mission or morality.  In the past two decades, a new theme has swept in, parallel and opposite: the rule that no one should need to be an outsider.  The conflict of these two closely held moral principles creates a cultural paradox: we want there to be courageous outsiders who flaunt social norms and expectations, but we want to eliminate the cultural resistance which makes outsiders courageous figures.  So we end up with a large number of people who treat flaunting cultural expectations as a hip identity trait, without real social cost, and therefore without any real moral distinction.

8.  The fact that marginal or outsider status has become both a privileged moral position and a clarion call for the rectification of the injustice of being an outsider, has created an incentive for individuals and groups to identify themselves as marginal and exploit the moral high-ground for the achievement of their political/social aims.  This maneuver doesn't work for everyone, though, and here is an interesting point: in a culture that celebrates outsiders and considers outsider status unjust, the only people who can authentically inhabit the space of the post-Enlightenment Heroic Outsider (in its traditional form) are marginal figures who are not recognized as deserving marginal status.

There's more to be said on this topic, but I'd like to pause here for now.

A Certain Kind of Insanity

(A Character Sketch)

Simon had a hard time in college.  He spent part of his time cultivating academic ambitions, part of his time trying to distract himself from work by socializing, part of his time attempting to accommodate the peculiar intellectual habits of his peers, and find a way to be himself around them, part of his time bitter and angry, and much of his time exhausted.  He was exhausted from living so close to so many people his own age, from the difficulty of finding privacy, and from perpetually failing to complete his assignments for class.  He was bitter because he was convinced of his own intellectual inadequacy, and at the same time because he was convinced of the absurdity of the surrounding environment.

What were the dominant forces in Simon's life?  Loneliness, Ambition, and Despair.  But that's not all.  It's really hard to explain what was going on with Simon, because Simon was as much of a person as you or I, and had just as much self-awareness and just as much desire to be self-critical and reasonable and to find a good footing.  In this way, perhaps it is impossible to describe what Simon was like, what his interior life and personal orientation were in those years.  Too much like trying to draw the limits of a cloud as it billows through the sky.

But I want us to think about Simon's loneliness.  Simon had friends, to be sure.  He had people he talked to on a daily basis, from back home and at school, and he got along well with these people.  But even if he got along well with them, there was always a sense of separation from them— a sense that they were not really trustworthy, and could not really know him as he was.  This became a theme with Simon in those years, one that had not existed with him previously.  He was very much pre-occupied with being really known, possibly because he so meticulously regulated his own self-expression.

One of the things Simon talked about and thought about incessantly during his first years of college was the problem of being really known as a person, and the concomitant problem of being loved.  How is it possible to love someone as they really are, when who someone is is unavailable, because of their interiority. And Simon gradually became convinced that it was impossible to be known, and impossible to be loved, or to really love others, except in some mystical/transcendental way, based on a total suspension of judgment in the face of the unknown.  And that sort of love would hang on a kind of choice, a leap of faith, which happened beyond the bounds of reason or objective fact.  The more Simon thought about this set of issues, the more convinced he was that knowing other people was all based on a radical openness to the Other, and a blind choice based on faith and groundless good will.

Simon's loneliness stemmed from these two things: first a sense of ideological and intellectual separation from his peers, which made him uncomfortable being free with them, and created a certain degree of internal tension.  (The reasons for this sense of separation are too complicated to catalogue.)  Second, his peculiar understanding of intersubjectivity and the requirements for friendship.  It seemed impossible for Simon ever not to be alone, because he was manifestly alone in his college life with his peers, and because it seemed like any alternative to that was basically impossible.


I've been talking a lot about "morality" in fiction, and I even invented a term to describe a particular way of portraying "morality".  But there's a problem here: many people who might read this won't even know what I mean by the word.  Most people tend to think of morality as a set of rules about what isn't allowed.  Others tend to think of morality as a set of abstract rules that are applicable universally to human decision-making.  Both groups tend to think of moral deliberation as debate over the correct course of action in some hard case.  (The classic example of this is the Trolley Problem.)

"Morality" as I'm thinking of it (and I'm not alone in this) is much less about abstract universal rules (whether the Ten Commandments or the Principle of Utility) than habits of behavior, the regulation of emotions, and the ranking of priorities.  Morality is about what makes people good, and what makes people good isn't conformity to a set of abstract rules, but the perfection of their humanity.  So, what perfects humanity?  To put it vaguely, it's good habits, proper priorities, self-control, and observing justice in relation to others.

So when we talk about moral education in film, we're not talking about commendations of abstract rules, or portraits of difficult cases.  Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is a great illustration here.  The film provides a series of impossible alternatives and moral dilemmas for the characters to solve, but has virtually nothing to do with the practice of virtue.  In this way it manages to throw a spotlight on moral casuistry while teaching us next to nothing about the perfection of human nature or the cultivation of good habits.

People often gripe about how boring morally good characters are.  I've never understood this idea.  Perhaps it comes from the notion that moral goodness is primarily a negative characteristic: it describes almost exclusively the things someone does not do, the rules he does not break, etc., and beyond this perhaps it has a suffocating veneer of smiley humanitarian benevolence.  Granted, this idea is very unappealing.  But the real moral hero isn't a bland, "straight laced do-gooder", it's the person who dominates all his inclinations, confronts every situation with thoughtfulness and a readiness to suffer for what's right, and maintains equity in all his relationships according to their kind.  This sort of morality doesn't constrain, and isn't negative — it liberates, and it provides greater scope for the cultivation of the distinctive excellences of the individual by supplying him with all the power of a well-conditioned will and a patient mind.

29 December 2015

Morality and Falling Skies

(This is a continuation of last night's post on "moral realism", which was a continuation of Sunday's post on philosophical fiction and TV.)

Think about the 1950s morality play A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt.  Anyone who has read or seen this play, or seen the film version of it, should have a good sense of the story's moral: Be yourself, or you will find yourself incapable of being anyone at all. The principle could be framed in other ways, or identified along parallel lines, but it is roughly that.  The play is wonderfully written, with great characters and excellent lines.  But it is not an example of moral realism as I described it in my previous post.  Not because it isn't in many regards realistic (although I doubt that Bolt's existentialist ethic has much to do with St. Thomas More's way of thinking), but because it is contrived to hammer home a very specific moral message.  Now, this fact — the fact that A Man for All Seasons is a morality play — does not detract from its excellence, but it separates it from the genre I would like to discuss.


I began writing this series with the intention of talking about certain odd traits of TNT's post-apocalyptic alien invasion family drama Falling Skies.  The show aired from 2011 to 2015, the fifth and final season airing this past summer.  It tells the story of the "2nd Massachusetts", an improvised militia formed after the decimation of humanity by six-legged aliens and their military drones.  Specifically, the story centers on Tom Mason, a former BU American History professor, and his three sons: Matt, Ben, and Hal, who are respectively 7, 12, and 16 at the beginning of the series.

Before I say more, I should offer this disclaimer: Falling Skies is an enjoyable sci-fi family drama, with decent acting and decent writing.  It's not without its share of clichés, plot holes, and weak moments.  The last two seasons go down a strange path that makes the show much less interesting than it was at first.  But I personally found the show emotionally engaging and compelling enough to keep watching all the way through.  It's not brilliant TV, but it's better than average, and I think the concept of the show and the principles on which it seems to have been executed were solid.

One of the nice things about the show (from a sci-fi alien invasion perspective) is that it begins several months after the alien invasion, when the rubble has largely settled, so we aren't put through the tedium of watching people figure out what's going on or any of that.  By the time Falling Skies begins, the 2nd Mass. has an established chain of command, a doctor, methods of staying supplied, etc.  Furthermore, the fact that the aliens have such a strong upper hand reduces the military-tactical element of the show, and makes it less a command/strategy war room drama than it would be otherwise.  Tactics come up, and frequently, but they're mostly in the background, and focus on hiding, escaping, and winning small victories.

All of this allows Falling Skies to be a family/community drama.  It's primarily about the people, and most of all about the Masons, and (for the first three seasons at least) the writers do a good job of it.  I could run through a lot of the successes of the show, but what's most impressive to me is the way the Mason sons are written and performed.  Conservatives often complain about the absence of good fathers in mainstream media.  Tom Mason is an unusually good father (loving, honest, self-sacrificing, supportive, disciplined).  His sons are peculiar as well.  Each is assigned his stereotype at some point in the first season as the backstory emerges (lacrosse bro, super-nerd, youngest), but the types don't really pan out in terms of expected behavior.  Hal does not act like everyone's idea of a lacrosse bro.  He's obedient, loyal to his father, and reasonably soft-spoken.  He doesn't start strutting until later on in the show, and this seems to be more a function of overconfidence on account of military achievement than anything.

The youngest, Matt, has some fairly weak lines in the first season (he's too much the cute little kid wandering around among the adults), but the show's creators emphasize his maturation as the series progresses, and the actor playing Matt (Maxim Knight) develops impressively.  Matt's storyline is probably the best thing about the show's fourth season.  (Suddenly he has his own personality, interests, and commitments.)

Ben Mason (played by Connor Jessup), the middle son, also seems to me to have been a really well-drawn character.  I'm not sure whether it's because the character is somehow a reflection of Jessup's real-life personality, or whether he simply does a good job of it, but I've rarely seen teenage nerdiness portrayed so well in a TV show. Jessup masters the self-conscious deadpan and awkward (almost stilted) delivery typical of kids who have spent too much time in their own heads.  Better still, the writers don't chain Ben to the nerd stereotype, and stock characteristics are kept to a minimum (one reference to manga in the entire series, a couple of references to Ben being "smart", and one scene with him trading riddles with a friend).

Aside from the Masons as characters (and I should mention that Noah Wyle does a good job as Tom Mason, as does Moon Bloodgood, who plays the regimental doctor), the other odd thing about this show is the extent to which the writers simply portray the behavior and developing necessities of the group without moral comment.  There's something weird about all these pre-teens walking around with assault rifles, and something weirder about the fact that the writers barely even touch the question in dialogue, and when they do so they do it only very mildly.  The ethics of killing captured aliens is not questioned.  In one scene an alien is interrogated while being tortured, and the writers don't give the slightest clue that we should question this behavior.  In any other show I would expect characters to ruminate over the sentience and personhood of the aliens, and think about their rights, or to fret at length about the implications of allowing children to bear arms.  Not here.  What a relief!  In a show like this any attempt to handle such questions would risk coming across as both trite and aggressively moralistic, and transforming itself into a series of disconnected morality plays.


What makes Falling Skies enjoyable?
—The emotional connection to the characters.

Are the characters performed well?
—What does that mean?  What would it mean for a character to be well or poorly performed?

A character is performed well when the facts given in script and setting are synthesized well by the actor into a plausible whole with reasonable affect, delivery, and body language.  Does the actor make it easy to think of the character as a real person?

(Side note: sometimes if the character is foreign to the sensibilities of the viewer, the character will be hard to believe.  Characters are familiar when they're real or similar to real people, or when they embody familiar character types from fictions.)

So, back to the original question: Why is Falling Skies so enjoyable?  
—Because the character drama appeals to me.

What about it?  
—The story is about familial love and shows people in adverse conditions struggling together for what they need.  Additionally, the personalities are not, on the whole, overladen with moral defects.

There's also Ben Mason, who (despite, or perhaps because of, the stiff acting and weird delivery) represents something I see in myself.  The nerdy stereotype is great and well-executed, and I like the dispassionate loner-ness.  There's a lot of potential for sadness, self-loathing and despair in the character, but Ben appears not to experience it.  The combination of unique personal strengths, lack of shame, and nerdiness.

What else do I like about Falling Skies?  
—The show stands for good things — loyalty, courage, obedience, honesty, discipline, filial and civic piety, justice, etc.  And it is structured in such a way that these virtues are never corrupted or called into question.  (Compare to the average WB drama during the age of 7th Heaven, where everyone begins wholesome and innocent, and ends up mired in vice and basically terrible.)  The Masons never "break bad".  They never become wicked.  To the end, the main cast is motivated by piety and love.

So, is the appeal of the show really about love and virtue?  
Yeah, it seems like it — love, virtue, and personal identification with the characters.  Kind of interesting, no?  But then, what else could you really ask for in a family/community drama of that variety?

Good point.

28 December 2015

Moral Realism in Fiction

(This is a continuation of yesterday's post on TV and philosophical fiction.)

The term "moral realism" is normally (I think) used in contrast to "moral subjectivism".  In this sense, moral realism is a view which holds that moral truths are objectively real and independent of any particular person's frame of mind, whereas moral subjectivism hangs the reality of morality on the contingencies of this or that person's understanding and context.

In this post I will be using "moral realism" in a different way, unrelated to the realism/subjectivism distinction, and instead derived from the use of the word "realism" in literary criticism, where it refers to narratives which attempt to portray personalities and events with the complexity and incongruities of ordinary life, instead of weaving worlds out of simplistic tropes or ideal types.  (Note that the use of tropes and types is not necessarily bad, but makes for a different kind of fiction.)

Moral realism as I use it here has to do first of all with the way a narrative portrays the moral dimension of events and personalities (i.e. the aspects related to habits of decision making, right and justice, courage and perseverance, honesty, humility and self-control), and the way the portrayal of this moral dimension of things directs the viewer's understanding of their nature and significance.  Specifically, moral realism is a characteristic of narratives which deal directly with that moral dimension of things, but in such a way that the reader or viewer is not directly given an abstract principle of behavior (whether through the use of contrived plots or narratorial comment), but allowed to see different habits, virtuous and vicious, at work in people, and to abstract for himself whatever moral principles he discovers in the narrative.

Someone might be asking here: What's the difference between moral realism and ordinary realism?  If a given piece of fiction is realist, won't it be "morally realist" as well?  Realism has different flavors depending on which aspects of ordinary life are most scrupulously preserved in the story.  So, for example, it is possible to have realistic science fiction, which carefully traces out the implications on political life and technology of one or two minor changes in reality.  (Stanislaw Lem's sci-fi tends to be realistic in this way.)  Obviously in this case, certain aspects of reality are not preserved.  Other realist fiction will exhibit little concern for psychodynamics but cover strategic problems in great detail, or engineering, or — name your topic of interest.  Moral realism doesn't require any other variety of realism, just the faithful portrayal of realistic human habits and behaviors in their moral dimension, while preserving the complexity and contingency of ordinary life, without delivering a ready-made "moral of the story".

(As I write, I'm thinking this through.)

Two dimensions of moral realism then:
1. Realism in the portrayal of human moral behaviors and habits.
2. Refraining from delivering a readymade moral lesson or abstract principle in the story.

What are the advantages of this kind of storytelling?
1.  If moral instruction happens through the story, the instruction will have a high degree of authenticity — i.e., it will be based on a legitimate intuition of human nature and the good, instantiated in definite individuals, as opposed to vague and abstract norms.

2. The greater the degree of moral complexity a story possesses, the more a reader/viewer can take away from it.  If a story has a single moral, and the reader/viewer already understands the moral, the story becomes superfluous.  But if the story has no single moral, but simply aims to capture human behavior as it actually is, it can become a fruitful object of extended consideration.

3.  The construction of a narrative around a particular moral principle tends to deflate the reality of the narrative, thereby making the presentation of the principle in question less compelling.

27 December 2015

The "TV Show of Ideas"

The "novel of ideas" is a literary genre with a lot of great members.  Novels like The Brothers Karamazov, The Magic Mountain, War and Peace, The First Circle, etc. all fit the type: the characters and plot are bound up with a high level struggle for understanding, with the result that these novels end up providing as much of a philosophical education as some of the great treatises and dialogues written since Socrates.

There are also, obviously, "films of ideas".  Some of them approach philosophical fiction like Dostoevsky, and include characters wrestling with themselves and each other in dialogue about moral and metaphysical dilemmas.  (Ingmar Bergman sticks out in my mind as the best representative of this group.)  Other philosophical films use science fiction to take some feature or problem of ordinary life to an extreme, so that we can consider it more clearly.  (Of the innumerable examples, two that occur to me at random are Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Ari Folman's The Congress.)  Even more common is the ordinary drama which includes moments of principled reflection or crises of choice in order give the plot a sense of weight and significance.  (Peter Parker has his token line, "With great power comes great responsibility."  Many movies include canned speeches by the hero-leader about freedom and justice and sacrifice.)

People have a natural appetite for philosophical fiction, inasmuch as stories about ideas are one of the few accessible ways the person who has not studied philosophy (and how many Americans have?) can discover principles with which to understand the world.  Writers like adding elements of the philosophical into their stories, because they offer another way to bind together plots and create compelling themes.  Of course, this is often done poorly, and so we frequently end up with "The Movie of Clichéd Ideas" and "The Film of Aggressive Moralizing".  When done poorly, the results are generally worse than they would have been without any attempts at principle or profundity, since hollow truisms and philosophical cliches end up sounding like nonsense, even when they're true.  (Though a dramatic score with lots of brass can cover this up.)

There are fewer examples of "TV Shows of Ideas".  The two that stick out in my mind are Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, many episodes of which are simply sketches meant to pose a moral quandary to the viewer, or impress upon him some civic virtue.  I like philosophy, and I think philosophical reflection is very good, but good serial dramas tend to hang more on character development than anything else, and they tend to lack long-term storylines of sufficient complexity and coherence to support a grand exploration of a set of philosophical issues.  The result is that TV shows which attempt to go philosophical will either end up with discrete episodes or multi-episode arcs that hammer home some random intellectual point (before moving on) like Star Trek, or a single theme (or set of themes) will be drilled into the viewer with such bland intensity that they end up becoming clichés by the end of the series.

The X-Files is a good example of the latter.  On an intellectual level, the show deals mainly with the conflict between two standards of belief: Scully is the empiricist; Mulder is the man of conviction.  Scully doubts; Mulder believes.  In general it's an interesting tension and it serves the show well.  However, after a few seasons, Scully's unwavering skepticism and Mulder's (always correct) conspiracy theoires have become such a mainstay for the show's writers (who always resolve the tension in favor of Mulder) that they cease to be anything more than two competing mantras: "Science!" and "I want to believe!" By the later seasons, it doesn't matter, though, because viewer interest in the characters and their quest for answers has pretty much wiped out any concern for standards of belief.

I started this post intending to talk about Falling Skies (TNT's post-apocalyptic alien invasion family drama, which I just finished watching yesterday), and how that show, despite checking off about five different items that make it ripe for cheap intellectualism, manages to stay almost entirely aloof.  It's an apocalyptic drama.  It involves all sorts of difficult moral situations.  It has a running "American Revolution" theme.  Despite all this, the writers almost never turn episodes into meditations on moral conundrums, nor do they draw on freedom-talk or the ideals of American liberty to gross excess.  The show chooses to show a bunch of outlandish and difficult situations which involve ideas, but without directly commenting on them or drawing obvious moral conclusions.  The show is not "realist" in any normal sense, but its treatment of ideas is, in some analogical sense, realist, in that it presents moral problems via the plot, but refrains (mostly) from having them hashed out pedantically in dialogue.

Anyway, there's more to be said about all of this, but I'm satisfied with saying this much for now.

Funny Things

Well, one funny thing, at least.  I'm watching the fifth season of TNT's Falling Skies (a post-apocalyptic alien invasion family drama with an American Revolution theme), and someone gives one of the main characters (a former American History prof) a copy of Toqueville's Democracy in America.

I love that the props team at Falling Skies chose to mimic the Library of America edition of Toqueville, but they seem to have forgotten to check the man's name (Alexis, not Alexander).  Here's the cover they're mimicking.

22 December 2015


I should begin by reviewing my qualifications to discuss this topic.  I have no background in finance or economics.  Those who read this blog know that my background is in philosophy and theology, specifically Thomist theology.  Nevertheless, being an educated citizen of the United States who has read a little bit of political philosophy and discussed these things more than a little bit, I'd like to devote some time to thinking about Capitalism: what it is, how it should be understood, and how it can or should be practiced.

1.  It seems clear that the "obvious" definition of Capitalism in the air (i.e. the one which occurs most readily) is something like this: Capitalism is a model of commercial activity in which the maximization of profits is pursued as the primary (or even exclusive) end of business.

2.  I have described Capitalism as a "model", instead of calling it a method or philosophy.  Capitalism, under this definition, is not a set of procedural rules which dictate behavior, nor is it a set of metaphysical propositions.  Instead it is a way of understanding or imagining a set of contexts, objects, and behaviors.  It's a practical lens through which commercial activity is viewed, which filters out the elements extraneous to the model.

3.  Capitalism is a self-limiting practical model.  It covers only a single domain of behavior — commercial activity, the exchange of products and services on the basis of a strict agreement (rather than on the basis of friendship or community trust).

4.  Capitalism is not a philosophical system (though Ayn Rand has developed a philosophical system based on capitalist tendencies), in that it has nothing to say about moral questions, or the constitution of the real, or the nature of human understanding.  If one wants to use the Kantian jargon, we could say that Capitalism is based on the hypothetical imperative: If one engages in commercial activity, one ought to maximize profits. 

5.  What are "profits"?  The notions of "profit" and "capital" are central to Capitalism.  A profit is the value gained through some commercial activity (whether a trade or an investment) over and above the amount of value expended on the activity.  What is Capital?  The notion of capital is based on the recognition that the exchange value of a commodity depends on the extent to which it is desired by people who are available to trade for it.  Capital is, in the most general sense of the word, the assets controlled by a particular person (or group), understood solely in terms of their exchange value.

6.  This enables us to restate our original definition in different terms: Capitalism is a model of commercial activity in which we attempt, through labor, exchange, and other means, to maximize our assets, considered in terms of their exchange value, and pursue this maximization as the primary or even exclusive end of commerce.

7.  In the United States, since the outbreak of the Cold War, Capitalism has been frequently contrasted with "Socialism" or "Communism".  It is often true that the meaning of a given term changes when it is placed in opposition to another term, and this is certainly one of those cases.  When one speaks of "Capitalism vs. Socialism", usually the disjunction has little to do with the understanding of Capitalism we have described so far.  Socialism is not a model of commercial activity but has to do with the distribution of ownership.  "Capitalism vs. Socialism" is a dispute about the best way to organize the distribution of ownership in society, not about the proper dominant model for commercial activities, though the two issues are related.  (The difference in meaning between Capitalism in this case and Capitalism considered in itself can lead to confusion and equivocation.)

8.  Capitalism and the Capitalist.  By the definitions we have given above, the Capitalist is simply an engine for profit maximization, whether he acts for his own sake or for the profit maximization of a firm.  Creativity comes for the Capitalist in the interpretation of trends and circumstances, the identification (and construction) of advantageous possibilities, and the anticipation of future outcomes.  Capitalists approach a chaotic world of resources and interests and attempt to transform it to their own advantage, whether as organizers of productive labor and resource distribution, or as conduits through which resources flow between various buyers and sellers.

9.  It is obvious that commercial activity does not occur in a vacuum, independent of other human realities.  This is most obvious because the exchange value of any commodity is ultimately derived from its impact on the ability of concrete individuals to fulfill their basic needs and aspirations, and to find enjoyment.  Frequently this fundamental fact about the exchange value of goods is obscured by the complexity of the system of exchange and the variety and abstractness of some commodities.

10.  Commercial activity is founded on human interests and on the organization of human society.  As a subset of human activity, commercial activity falls under human sociability, and like all other social behavior it is circumscribed by expectations about the justice, good-will, and truthfulness of those involved.

11. Once we realize that we can look at commercial activity within a larger context of human behavior, it becomes possible to assess it by broader standards of reasonableness than those provided by the Capitalist model.  Consider the following example.  Under Capitalism (as defined above) civil law can be thought of as a restriction on the possible means of profit maximization imposed by force, or as a regulatory stabilization of the process of exchange.  But when we look at the laws regulating commerce, considering commerce as a social behavior which occurs within stable communities whose existence is dependent on the maintenance of a fair distribution of basic resources and the promotion of the common interest, commercial regulations cease to be brute-force impositions or even merely market-stabilization strategies, but are seen rather as instruments for the guidance of one variety of human social behavior toward the benefit of the society as a whole in which that behavior occurs.

12.  There is something peculiar about Capitalism as a model of commercial activity, even considered merely as such.  Commercial activity is not, except in the most extreme cases, purely impersonal.  It involves the cultivation and maintenance of personal relationships, within a particular firm and between firms, between merchants and customers, etc.  These relationships are essential to commercial activity, not because they enhance profit-maximization (though I imagine they do), but because commercial activity cannot take place without them, and even more so because they are aspects of the higher goods to which all social activity, including commercial activity (being founded on exchange value, which is ultimately derived from human interests) is directed.

13.  Capitalism (as defined above), in other words, is a model which treats commercial activity as a non-social behavior, or as a social behavior which occurs in the absence of the broader norms and human concerns that motivate social activity and govern it in communities.  One can describe this abstraction in various ways.  David Graeber traces it to the relationship between occupying armies (who pay their debts in coins made from the spoils of war) and occupied peoples, who are required to pay taxes to the conqueror in coins he has issued.  In this relationship the norms which bind and govern communities do not exist.  The relationship backing the exchange is characterized not by friendship or goodwill, but by simple domination.

14.  The martial analogy is not entirely fair, because commercial activity according to the Capitalist model is not based (primarily) on the threat of violence so much as the manipulation of human interests.  Nevertheless, Graeber's genealogy of the modern understanding of capital is illuminating.  The transformation of Graeber's martial interpretation of Capitalism into something adequate to the realities of modern Capitalism (as defined above) is analogous to the transformation necessary to change power as it functions in Machiavelli's political vision into power as it functions in the work of Michel Foucault.  For Machiavelli, political power is primarily about military domination, the seizure and redistribution of resources, and the cultivation of an imposing image.  For Foucault, power is about facilitating the emergence of value distinctions and then participating in the organization and transformation of other elements as they flow between various poles of value.  Power is about significant differences and the organization and exploitation of tensions created by those differences.  In this way, for Foucault, power is more about exchange than domination, and more about facilitating the flow of resources than determining their global distribution.

15.  Such a vision of Capitalism is unappealing because in it the mechanics of Capitalism as a mode of action become divorced from the practical human interests which underlie all commercial behavior.  The abstraction is inhuman, and therefore to some extent divorced from reality.

16.  I began this reflection with the intention of describing an alternative model of commercial activity, closely analogous to Capitalism, but without the inhuman abstractness which is the perpetual bane of Capitalists (whose speculative activities seem to perpetually spiral into the realm of fantasy, presumably because the Capitalist model divorces the profit motive from the underlying real and human considerations of business).  Now that I have reached this point, though, it's clear that doing so would require more work than I'm ready to put into this reflection at present.  So, instead of a description, I will set down a few leading questions that seem worthy of further examination.

17.  The profit motive is, in contemporary Capitalism, the primary goal for commercial activity.  What would happen if that Capitalism were supplanted by an alternative Capitalism, in which commercial activity was motivated by the desire to maximize the productivity and social value of a particular enterprise?  How would one go about creating an honorable business culture in which such a motivation became normative, and those who pursued private profit without due consideration of social value or productivity were penalized?  What sort of education would be necessary?  Is it possible?

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (9)


One of the themes of Lyndon Johnson's early political career is debilitating illness.  Sometimes the exact nature of the illness is unclear (the phrase "nervous exhaustion" tends to be repeated); at other times, the illness is more definite — for example, Johnson's appendicitis at the end of his 1937 congressional campaign.  Often, sickness seems to be triggered my excessive anxiety or overwork.  The 1948 campaign for the U. S. Senate begins, for Lyndon Johnson, with a kidney stone.  Perhaps the cause of the stone was psychosomatic, perhaps not.  Johnson had passed kidney stones before.  But shortly after begins his campaign — a campaign he seems to have understood as the deciding political moment of his life — the pain sets in.  For some time he continues working (despite physical agony, lost of appetite, and persistent nausea), pretending that nothing is wrong.  One of his assistants is kept with him at all time to help him bear the pain.  His doctors inform him that if the stone does not pass (which it appears day by day less likely to do) he will have to have it surgically removed, or risk permanent kidney damage.  And the surgical removal of a kidney stone would have ended his campaign and his political future.

Caro chronicles the stone's progress in great detail.  Eventually, Johnson is completely incapacitated by the pain, hospitalized, and removed to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where a technique has been developed for non-surgical extraction of kidney stones.  After some worry about the feasibility of the operation in Johnson's case (his stone is lodged too far up the ureter for the operation to be guaranteed success), the extraction is successful, and Johnson returns to Texas to begin the great fight for his political future.

The campaign of 1948 is a fusion of the 1937 and 1941 campaigns.  As in 1937, Johnson works tirelessly to meet as many voters as possible.  As in 1941, he has apparently unlimited campaign cash reserves to draw on.  Coke Stevenson, his opponent, is an old fashioned conservative Democrat, whose sole platform is constitutional government, justice and the rule of law.  Stevenson prefers to stand, rather than to run.  He refuses to engage in name-calling, and he refuses to make any campaign promises, insisting that "the people know my record".  Despite all this, Stevenson was one of the most popular politicians in Texas history.  Johnson commanded no where near the same degree of respect among Texas voters.

The centerpiece of the Johnson campaign is the "flying windmill", a helicopter he uses to quickly get around the state. The windmill functions both as a convenience for Johnson (though not for his staff, who have to deal with the complex logistics of refueling and arranging landing sites), and a big draw to his public events.  In 1940s Texas, the majority of people have never seen a helicopter, and so Johnson's arrival in each small town becomes an attraction sufficient to draw the entire population.

Johnson exploits Stevenson's lack of political guile in order to attract conservative voters who would not naturally have supported him.  He comes up with lies about a Stevenson "Secret Deal" with the Labor Unions to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and broadcasts them constantly on radio stations across the state, causing those who supported Stevenson to begin to doubt his good faith.  In time, this propaganda campaign, combined with Stevenson's persistent refusal (until too late in the campaign) to respond to Johnson's attacks, led to the frustration of the Stevenson campaign's funding efforts, crippling his organization.

(I am offering a substantially abbreviated account of the race, omitting some shenanigans that take place when Stevenson visits Washington, DC, and skipping over the first-round election, which eliminates all the candidates but Johnson and Stevenson.)

A major coup for Johnson is winning the support (and especially the financial support) of the big Texas oilmen — the ones who backed Pappy O'Daniel's gubernatorial campaign, and then arranged for him to win the '41 Senate race when they got tired of his administration.  Caro explains that, in order to win their support, Johnson had to take a page out of O'Daniel's book, and start delivering speeches in his (populist, rabble-rousing) style on the radio regularly.

The decisive element of the 1948 race ends up being none of the things mentioned, but the same thing that determined the victor of the 1941 race: organized voting fraud.  When election day arrives, the votes are counted and reported in.  At first, Stevenson has the lead.  Then the corrections come in, sometimes adding votes for Johnson, sometimes for Stevenson, but preserving the overall result more or less, with Stevenson ahead by several thousand votes.

Then the gap begins to close.  And finally, a couple of days after the election, when the ballots have all been reported, Johnson is ahead by 87 votes.

The votes that closed the final gap and won Johnson the election come in large part from a single precinct, which produces a "corrected" vote count well after its initial election night report, supplying two hundred new votes, all but one or two for Johnson.  When the election result is announced by the election board (though not yet made official, since that was the responsibility of the Texas Democratic Party — remember that because Texas is a one-party state, the election that counts is the primary election, and this is where all the real political fights happen), Stevenson is outraged, convinced that fraud has taken place, and decides to go down and investigate for himself.  First some assistants, then Stevenson himself, go down to Jim Wells county (home of the infamous Precinct 13 which decided the election) and demand to see their election materials.  For a minute, some of Stevenson's people are allowed to see it, and they use what they see to establish what everyone already suspects: that the "misreported" votes were actually added after the fact.  Not only were the additional votes all recorded in a different pen, they were recorded in alphabetical order and, when several individuals listed as having voted are asked by Stevenson and company, they explain that they did not.

Armed with this evidence, Stevenson makes his case to the state's Democratic Party officials, who are charged with announcing the final election result.  But Johnson is ready: first to use his influence with people in state politics to stop Stevenson's investigation, and then to use the courts to prevent Precinct 13's election box (with the evidence inside) from being opened and examined.  Unbelievably, Johnson wins: he gets an injunction barring the opening of the box (which is then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which upholds Johnson's side), and then he wins (by a single vote) the endorsement of the disputed election results by the central committee of the Democratic Party in Texas.  Lyndon Johnson is now a U. S. Senator.

Caro rounds out Means of Ascent with an account of Coke Stevenson's life after 1948.  This ends volume two.

18 December 2015

Review of the Trailers They Played Before the New Star Wars Movie

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens today.  The movie was, as a piece of action/adventure sci-fi entertainment, solidly mediocre.  Maybe I'll say some more about that some other time, but I'm too bored by the thought of writing a review of it to force myself to do so.

However, there were a lot of previews played prior to the feature, and so I'd like to offer some notes on those, even if today I don't want to talk about how unutterably stupid the sun-sucking cannon-planet death star was, or how disjointed and uninformative the plot was, or how they brought in the great Max von Sydow, only to kill him off within the first two minutes.  Not talking about all that.

Anyway, here are the previews.

1.  Kung Fu Panda 3
Dreamworks Animation is back for round three with one of its two successful film franchises (the other being How to Train Your Dragon).  Have you seen Kung Fu Panda?  I did not expect to enjoy it, but it was the standard film to show in the Freshman sacramental theology class I taught (...not kidding...) to illustrate a "sacramental understanding" of the Joseph Campbell "Hero's Journey" cycle, which was popularized by Bill Moyers (a long-time aide to Lyndon B. Johnson) in a mini-series he did for PBS in the late 1980s.  More things I don't want to talk about.  Anyway, Kung Fu Panda is, after you have to watch it four times in a row, a very enjoyable movie.  (As I pause, having just written the previous sentence, I'm no longer sure whether the film is actually enjoyable, or whether my love of it was part of some sort of Stockholm Syndrome.)  The sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2, was not very good.  I expect this third installment will be similarly lame.  Still, probably better than Mars Needs Moms or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

2.  Warcraft
The people who made the Warcraft computer games (most famous for the extremely addictive MMORPG World of Warcraft) are making a movie.  Am I wrong in thinking that there was also a Final Fantasy movie?  I'm sure the addicts and former addicts will flock to it.  The aesthetics are grotesque and the plot will probably be lame.  I'll probably see it anyway, eventually.

3.  Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Zach Snyder's Man of Steel was imperfect, but it had some excellent elements.  The plotline devoted to Clark Kent's mixed identity and childhood was incredible.  Really well-directed, well acted, well written.  The apocalyptic action plotline was too much too soon, and I think should have been saved for the series' first sequel.  Now the first sequel is on its way, and it's a puzzler.  Kent is apparently being set up for a major fight against Bruce Wayne through some sort of scheme by Lex Luthor.  Wayne is going to be played by Ben Affleck.  Despite the huge negative reaction to his casting in the role, I expect he'll do fine with it.  Jesse Eisenberg is playing Luthor.  I like Eisenberg, and I think he could play the twisted genius well, but the trailer made him out to be a little psychopathic, which I think would be a mistake.  Oh, and there was a big monster and some super hero lady who showed up at the last second.  I'm guessing the lady is "Justice", though I'm not familiar enough with the DC universe to know.

4.  Kubo and the Two Strings
Whoever does Laika's trailers is really good. I haven't seen either Coraline or ParaNorman, but they both had good trailers (especially the latter).  The studio's latest stop motion film is called Kubo and the Two Strings, and seems to be some sort of magical adventure drama involving a girl on a quest who has a two-stringed guitar-like instrument with magic powers.  Will it be good?  Who knows.  Maybe not.  But the trailer has good atmosphere and structure.

5.  Independence Day: Resurgence
I enjoyed the original Independence Day a lot.  FOX used to air it every year on the night of the Academy Awards, and I would watch. It seems to me that the film has good potential for entertainment, but the trailer was poorly constructed (and this may bode ill for the picture as a whole).  The main point of the trailer seemed to be to communicate "Oh hey, it's just like Independence Day, but it's a sequel!"

6.  X-Men: Apocalypse
This seems to continue the X-Men re-re-boot which took place in the last film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, which was enjoyable enough.  This installment seems to have fallen into the "apocalyptic threat" plot trap that dominates the superhero genre.  Also, yes, super-powerful supervillains are cool, but the whole Apocalypse backstory represents a variety of corniness that should be left in the pages of comic books.

7.  Captain America: Civil War
The Avengers are fighting each other, because Captain America values friendship.  The idea of superheroes fighting is interesting.  Also interesting that the Marvel group is putting this film out in the same year that the DC/Legendary group is putting out the Batman vs. Superman movie.  Those facts aside, I probably won't see this film, because who cares about Captain America?

8.  Zootopia
Probably this will be a lame movie, but the trailer was very funny.  (DMV employees as sloths.)

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (8)


In every volume of the series, sometimes more than once, Caro will pause for a chapter to give the personal history of one of the important figures crossing Lyndon Johnson's path.  In The Path to Power, he gives a biographical sketch of Lady Bird Johnson, and a full account of the rise of Sam Rayburn, the most important mentor of Johnson's early career.  The major biographical sketch given in Volume Two is not of a mentor or assistant, but an opponent—Coke Stevenson, Johnson's enemy in the 1948 Texas Senate race.

Caro has been accused, repeatedly, of gilding his portrait of Stevenson, gilding it to the point of inaccuracy.  In fact, the first chapter of Part Two of this volume seems to be the most criticized text Caro has written.  Not being an expert on the life of Coke Stevenson, or finding the controversy particularly interesting, I will say this: Caro's portrait is interesting and illustrative, even were it not completely accurate, but he has done a very thorough job of defending it against his critics.  In Caro's epic, Stevenson plays the Hector to Johnson's Achilles, the honest and humble civic servant brought low by the egomaniacal frenzy of his rival.  And, because Caro's history of Johnson is not at all flattering, much less morally edifying, Stevenson serves as the just counterpoint to Johnson's corruption—the man we wish would win, even though we know he cannot.  Stevenson represents the Old Politics, the politics of personal acquaintance and public record, pitted against the New Politics of mass media and image manipulation.  He represents an American Cincinnatus—holding office only to serve, and only at the public's request—pitted against an American Alcibiades, the demagogue grappling for power.

Coke Stevenson was a poor boy, the son of poor parents.  He grew up in central Texas, and seems to have had a rugged streak from his youth.  In his mid-teens he started running a freight business on his own, driving a wagon back and forth across an unpaved highway from his home town to the nearest train line, some days away.  Hoping to make something of himself, Stevenson reads books on law in his free time, and lots of books, apparently any he can get his hands on.  He rises from one random position to another, to becoming a prominent attorney in his hometown.  And throughout this, he develops a reputation (apparently well-deserved) for strength, fairness, and impeccable honesty.  Throughout his career, because of his reputation, when local municipal crises arise, people go to Stevenson to resolve them, and he does.  Thus begins his political career.  He is elected to one office after another, sometimes on the condition that he can run unopposed, often with the condition that he will resign his office as soon as the task he is elected for is accomplished.  And so he does, rising from one office to another, with intermittent breaks.  Eventually he is elected to the Texas House of Representatives, where he serves two terms as its speaker.  Disturbed by plans to modify the Texas constitution and eliminate the bicameral legislature (making it unicameral), Stevenson runs for the office of Lieutenant Governor, campaigning against the change.  He holds this office under the governorship of Pappy O'Daniel (discussed in The Path to Power), and inherits the governorship when O'Daniel is elected to the U. S. Senate in 1941.  Stevenson is elected to continue his service as governor in 1942, and occupies the office through the end of 1946, whereupon he returns to his country ranch and his small town law practice.  He is at this point 58 years old.

Caro takes great pains to emphasize the overwhelming political popularity of Stevenson, who held several political records: the only Speaker of the Texas House to serve two consecutive terms, the longest serving governor, the only person to hold all three top state offices (governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker).  Furthermore, his electoral victories tended to be overwhelming, including especially his election to the governorship 1942, which eclipsed even the landslide which launched Pappy O'Daniel into office.  Stevenson was the only governor of Texas ever to be elected by a majority in every single one of Texas's counties.  This majority, moreover, was not won by plastering newspapers and radio broadcasts with the candidate's name, but by a quiet campaign of driving from town to town, shaking hands and talking to people.  Stevenson repeated over and over that "the people know my record, and they know what I stand for."  He refused to make any campaign promises, and would not respond to attacks from political enemies.  His political style is of a sort that is virtually inconceivable in modern American politics.

Two years of retirement from public life seem to have given Stevenson an itch for office, and, with some coaxing from his friends, he decides to run in 1948 to fill Pappy O'Daniel's soon to be vacated Senate seat.  Of course, he isn't the only one who will be running.

[The story of the election (which makes up the remainder of Part Two) will be summarized in the next post.]

17 December 2015

Learning Liturgical Acceptance

Courtesy of a friend.  This is a photo from a mass somewhere in the United States.  Featured in the photograph is a page from GIA Publications' Worship hymnal (the same hymn is assigned no. 754 in GIA's Gather hymnal).  Note the lyrics.

16 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (7)


When one takes an overarching view of the life of Lyndon Johnson, his career is easily divided into three major parts: his time in the House of Representatives (1937 - 1948), his years in the Senate (1949 - 1961), and his years as President (1963 - 1968).  I am not sure of Mr. Caro's plans for his series as a whole, but so far as I can tell it should be divided into five volumes, three of which are devoted to each of the major portions of his career, with two intercalary volumes dedicated to periods of frustration and transition in Johnson's life.  The result would be the following outline:

  1. The Path to Power – Johnson's youth and years in the House of Representatives, as a secretary and congressman.
  2. Means of Ascent – Johnson's fallow years in the 1940s, without political advancement, leading up to his epic campaign for the Senate in 1948. (Transitional volume.)
  3. Master of the Senate – Johnson's years in the U. S. Senate, ascent to the position of Majority Leader, and triumph as supreme politician during the Eisenhower years.
  4. The Passage of Power – Johnson's fallow years as Vice-President to Kennedy in the early 1960s, leading up to the Kennedy assassination and his assumption of power in November 1963. (Transitional volume.)
  5. [Title Unknown] – Johnson's campaign to keep the presidency in 1964, the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society, Vietnam and his retirement.
The important thing to understand from the outline above is that Means of Ascent, like The Passage of Power, is written as a transitional volume.  It lacks the grand scope of The Path to Power and Master of the Senate, and it shows a Lyndon Johnson who has been denied the instruments of political power and personal advancement so essential to his sense of purpose and well-being.  Nonetheless, the volume is interesting, because Johnson does not cease to develop and work during this period.

Means of Ascent is divided into two parts.  The first, "Too Slow", deals with Johnson's activity during World War II, his first forays into business, and some of his personal relationships during the 1940s.  The second part, "The Old and the New", focuses on the Senate campaign of 1948 and Johnson's contested victory against former Texas governor Coke Stevenson.

Readers of Means of Ascent quickly notice something odd, perhaps irritating, about Caro's writing in this volume.  When discussing a character trait or giving background information, Caro tends to repeat information from The Path to Power, sometimes in detail and at length.  Moreover, he sprinkles quotes and anecdotes given in the earlier volume throughout the text.  New readers may find this irritating, or assume that Caro is simply trying to cater to readers picking up the story mid-way, or filling up extra pages.  In reality, the repetition (which continues throughout the series) is a literary device used to reinforce the reader's awareness of certain aspects of Johnson's personality, or to refresh certain aspects of the historical situation.  These passages and quotations (of which the most memorable is probably Johnson's line "If you do everything...") add savor to the story, giving it a sort of participatory depth that would be absent without them.  The further you progress into Caro's epic, the more you know the tale he is telling, and can repeat back to him the anecdotes he is sharing with you.  Before one realizes this, the technique can be tiresome ("Oh, he's just recycling material from Volume One") but eventually it clicks.


Shortly after Johnson loses the 1941 special election for the U. S. Senate, the United States enters World War II.  Johnson has made much of his promise to his constituents that if and when war arrives, he will leave congress and enlist in the military.  Johnson keeps his promise and enters the Navy just after Pearl Harbor.  Of course, being Lyndon Johnson, he isn't afraid to work out a comfortable situation for himself, and arranges to be attached to a military base and production facility inspector, who sends him around the West Coast to check up on various bases and factories.  Johnson conveniently and repeatedly loses contact with his commanding officer during his "inspection tour", and spends several months staying in opulent hotels and having a grand time, courtesy of his friends (Charles Marsh and Herman Brown).  At one point he ends up in Los Angeles, where he engages the services of a professional photographer and speaking coach to advise him on his political image, how best to pose for photographs, etc.  Alice Glass, his mistress (as well as the mistress of his mentor and sponsor Charles Marsh) accompanies him on this trip, and finds his behavior repulsive.  (Remember, he is supposedly doing military service.)  This seems to have ended their romantic connection.

By Spring of 1942, it is clear that all absent congressmen are going to be called back to the Capitol, or asked to resign their seats.  Johnson will of course return, but there is a major political problem: despite having done several months of "military service" in the Navy, Johnson has not seen active combat, nor been anywhere near a combat zone, and this information will be damaging to him politically — if not immediately, then in the long run.  Johnson desperately needs to get to the Pacific and see some fighting.

At the last minute, he arranges to be assigned to an inspection panel which will travel to Australia to survey the conditions of the troops.  And, while he is there, he volunteers to accompany a group of bombers on a mission, as an observer.  The bomber group is attacked, but Johnson's plane makes it through fine.  This is the extent of his combat service.  He is awarded the Silver Star and returns to Washington during the summer of 1942.

(Caro interjects here with a chronicle of the slowly ballooning legend of Johnson's military service—a legend he created and seems to have come to believe, involving many missions and months of service and the soldiers he fought with during the war.  He would wear his decoration for the rest of his life.)

During Johnson's half-year absence from Congress, Lady Bird takes control of his office, and does a very fine job of it, despite her shy disposition.  This seems to have won her some respect from Lyndon, but not much.  Furthermore, Johnson's military service re-ignites the bond between him and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn.  Rayburn, having been betrayed by Johnson once, no longer has any illusions about Johnson's personal rectitude or principles, but the old bachelor seems to have loved him like the son he never had.

The title of Part One of Means of Ascent is taken from something Johnson was periodically heard saying to himself during discussions of his political future in the House of Representatives.  Johnson's father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., had died of a heart attack in 1937, around the age of 60.  Two of Johnson's uncles also suffered severe heart attacks and died young.  Johnson himself was reminded endlessly as a young man of his striking physical resemblance to his father, and therefore assumed that heredity was against him, and that he would die young like his father had (he was proved right, and died of heart failure at the age of 64).  The knowledge of this probability shaped Johnson's plans for his political future, and determined which routes he considered viable as means to his ultimate goal: the Presidency.  The route which would lead him to power through authority in the House of Representatives was severely hampered by the House's strict seniority system.  It would be years, perhaps decades, before Johnson had a chance of becoming even a committee chairman in the House, much less Speaker, and perhaps it would never happen—every two years he would risk losing his seat, derailing his climb to the top.  "Too slow," he would say, when thinking about this route, "too slow."  In all likelihood he would be dead or defeated before he came anywhere near the presidency.

The main alternative, then, was for him to run for the Senate.  Senators had a greater degree of prominence, greater power, and were better positioned for entrance onto the national political stage.  But Johnson had tried to run for the Senate, and had lost.  During his trip to the Pacific, the deadline arrives for him to file election papers in Texas, and he has to choose whether to run for his congressional seat, or to fight Pappy O'Daniel again.  After a period of torturous indecision, he decides to stay in the House, and stays out of the Senate race. (The mechanics of this choice are somewhat more complex and dramatic, as Caro describes it.)

Stuck in the House of Representatives throughout the 1940s, Johnson almost entirely loses interest in his legislative duties.  He speaks on the floor some astonishingly small number of times, introduces and sponsors virtually no legislation, and seems to have stopped trying to fight for the interests of his constituents.  He enters into a period of depression and frustration, and turns to other interests.

One of Johnson's perpetual problems is his lack of money—not for political purposes, but money of his own.  The resolution of this problem arrives in the form of a radio station, KTBC of Austin, which Lady Bird acquires and runs from the mid 1940s onward.  Caro describes the mechanics of the Johnsons' entry into broadcasting in great detail, making clear the extent to which Lyndon's influence on FCC licensing guaranteed a very low purchase price for the station and its equipment, and then guaranteed a virtual monopoly on local radio (and, later, television) in the Austin area.  Furthermore, Caro explains how Johnson used advertising sales as a conduit for political payoffs, performing favors for businesses who would then compensate him (or, legally, Lady Bird, since he was technically not the owner of the station) by buying ad time on the air. In time he would become a multi-millionaire. The system worked faultlessly for LBJ until 1963, during a scandal which is discussed in Volume Four.

Caro closes Part One by talking about how ill-suited Johnson was to work in the House of Representatives.  The House is too big for Johnson, in that his personality and political magic was most effective in small personal settings, in which he could know all the men involved and sway them on the basis of his knowledge and rapport with them.  The House was massive, involved over four hundred representatives, and these men and women rotated in and out of it randomly every two years.  The House was not a place for Lyndon, where he was just another young face, one of a crowd, slowly working his way through the system.  To really exercise his talents he would need to gain entry to a smaller and more stable body.  Part Two explains how he won his ticket to the Senate.

15 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (6)


The final part of Caro's first volume on Johnson begins in April 1941, with the news of the death of Texas's senior senator, Morris Sheppard.  Sheppard's death prompts a special election, to be held in the late summer of that year.  Johnson, hearing of Sheppard's death, immediately begins planning his campaign and recruiting advisors, financial backers, and staff.

In a number of ways, the '41 Senate campaign is similar to the '37 campaign which won Johnson his seat in the House of Representatives: many of the same figures play roles in it, and it has many of the mainstays of Johnson electioneering (nonstop work, endless speeches, etc.).  Unlike the '37 campaign, however, this campaign is statewide (Texas is a large state), and unlike in '37, Johnson now has virtually unlimited campaign funds, thanks to the Brown and Root construction company.  Campaign finance laws limited the amount a person could give to a single candidate to $5000, but in Johnson's campaigns this was easily circumvented: first, through the granting of "bonuses" to Brown and Root employees, and then more extensively through the pooling of contributions — especially out of state contributions — in cash which was hand-carried and delivered to Johnson headquarters.  Caro's quotes from John Connally and other Johnson men involved in the transportation of these bags (literally) stuffed with cash are astonishing.

At the beginning of the campaign, Johnson has a great deal of confidence in his ability to beat his opponents, Martin Dies (a fellow congressman) and Gerald Mann (Texas's Attorney General).  But everything changes when Texas Governor W. Lee O'Daniel announces his intention to enter the race.  O'Daniel is an almost unbelievable figure, and so Caro breaks to tell his story.

W. Lee O'Daniel was raised in Kansas and moved to Texas in his 30s to work for a milling company in Fort Worth, as a flour salesman.  His work selling flour got him involved in radio advertising, and he eventually got himself a regular radio show featuring a band of singers who performed music revolving around flour products and biscuits.  O'Daniel hosted the show and would give little radio talks, dubbing himself "Pappy".  His show became very popular, to the point where, by the late 1930s O'Daniel was one of the best known public figures in Texas.  He established his own brand of flour ("Hillbilly Flour") and became very wealthy.

In 1938, O'Daniel asked listeners to write to him telling him whether he should enter the race to become the next Governor of Texas.  (Up to this point in his life O'Daniel had never held political office or even voted in an election.)  He received several thousand replies, almost all of them urging him to run, and he did.  In the Democratic primary (Texas being a one party state, the primary was where winners were decided), O'Daniel won an outright majority of the votes, crushing his opponents and establishing himself as a political power.

According to Caro, O'Daniel's performance as governor was marked by a flippant lack of interest in the practicalities of government or the achievement of any of his major campaign promises (the most important of which was a lavish universal pension plan for the elderly, something that never had any chance of being passed into law).  After a couple of years of governorship, O'Daniel plays the same trick again, asking listeners (he maintains his radio show while in office) to write to him and say whether he should run for the U. S. Senate.  Of course, they say he should, although some express reservations because "We need you in Texas!"  And O'Daniel enters the race.

Pappy O'Daniel's entrance necessitates a shift in Johnson's public image and overall strategy.  Fighting O'Daniel, Johnson is fighting not just a politician but a household name and celebrity, someone who has, for over a decade, been entering the homes of Texans, consoling them with Gospel truisms and earthy advice and tales of his mother, and winning them over with his smooth voice and mild manners.  Pappy is a trusted and beloved figure, a popular hero.  Furthermore, when O'Daniel campaigns, he brings his band (the "Hillbilly Boys") around with him, and they do little concerts and live shows for the people.  This means that Texans are likely to go and hear what he has to say not just because he's a big politician who's visiting town, but because he's a celebrity putting on a free public show.

Johnson's response to the O'Daniel threat comes in several stages.  His first strategy is to prevent O'Daniel from actively campaigning, by using his connections in the Texas state legislature to prolong the legislative session and thereby force O'Daniel, as governor, to remain in Austin.  This he manages to do for several weeks.  Second, Johnson modifies his style of presentation.  At first, when his competitors are Dies and Mann, Johnson's main effort is to appear senatorial and brusque, and his speeches are delivered in an arrogant and condescending tone, shouted at his audience as if to a group of schoolchildren.  Once Johnson realizes that he needs not just to appear Senatorial but to beat O'Daniel, he modifies his affect in order to be more personable, and invests more effort in hand-shaking and small talk with the public.

The biggest strategic change, however, a shift in the terms of the competition.  Since Lyndon Johnson, a third term congressman from Texas's 10th district, is a virtual nobody compared to Pappy O'Daniel, Johnson makes the campaign not "Pappy vs. Johnson" but "Pappy vs. FDR".  Images of President Roosevelt become the mainstay of all his campaign ads, and his public performances are no longer about Lyndon Johnson giving a political address, but a (literal) pageant chronicling the struggles of the Depression and the triumph of the New Deal, setting the stage for Johnson's big appeal to elect him, as a candidate in support of "ROOSEVELT AND UNITY".

Johnson's efforts to out-do the professional performer in his pageantry and showmanship are moderately successful, and the massive campaign expenditures — used to buy up radio time and advertising, to woo influential leaders across the state, and to win the votes of those under their influence — bring him close to O'Daniel in the polls.  Johnson also sees to it that the immigrant populations are "rallied" to his cause, by paying off the men who hold thousands of poll tax receipts in the southern districts of the state, and in Houston.  Caro spends some time discussing the mechanics of vote purchasing here, but his main (and extremely detailed) description of the matter is reserved for the next volume.

All in all, Johnson probably would have won the 1941 Senate race, but for an error made at the last minute, on election day itself.  When the men in charge of Johnson's "boxes" in southern Texas (i.e. precincts whose votes he had bought en masse) ask him when to report out their final tallies on election day, he tells them to do so immediately.  With all of Johnson's votes reported publicly, Johnson's numbers are more or less fixed, and this gives the people on O'Daniel's side knowledge of the number of votes they need to get in order to beat Johnson.  In Caro's view, O'Daniel was not sufficiently organized to orchestrate the procurement of votes for himself, but votes were procured for him anyway—not by Pappy himself, nor apparently by his campaign staff, but by men with large oil interests who had become wary of a continued O'Daniel governorship, and were worried about what might happen if he stayed in office too long.  In other words, O'Daniel wins the election by a hair, because his political enemies want to get him out of the state and into the Senate, where he can't do any harm.  Johnson goes from calm assurance, to concern, to despair as the numbers slowly come in and reveal his defeat.

Roosevelt had supported Johnson's campaign for the Senate, and now he supports him in defeat.  The biggest problem emerging for Johnson out of the '41 campaign is not the loss of his much-hoped-for seat in the Senate, but an inquiry by the IRS into certain irregularities in the books of the Brown and Root construction company.  As mentioned earlier, Brown and Root had given out large bonuses and special fees to various employees and affiliated lawyers, with the understanding that they were then to turn the money over to the Johnson campaign.  This way of handling things was advantageous for the company because on paper they were not violating the $5000 contribution cap, and they were able to write off the covert contributions as legitimate expenses.  The IRS apparently found the pattern of bonuses and withdrawals suspicious, and launched a full-fledged investigation into the matter, which clearly pointed to Lyndon Johnson's campaign.  The investigation, if brought to term, could have destroyed Johnson's political career and landed Herman Brown in prison, but Johnson (after a great deal of effort) manages to use Roosevelt's influence to get the investigation shut down, and the worst is averted.  The company is required to pay a few hundred thousand dollars in a tax adjustment, and the case is closed.

The final chapter of the book discusses Sam Rayburn's election as Speaker of the House of Representatives (his lifelong goal), and the healing of his relationship with Johnson.  Rayburn would faithfully support and advise Johnson for the rest of his life.

This concludes volume one.  The next volume, Means of Ascent, deals with Johnson's war service, his entry into business, and the 1948 Senate race which brought him to the next stage of his career.

[A spectacular collection of clips from the 1941 Senate campaign is available, narrated by Lady Bird Johnson.  You can view them below.]

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (5)


Johnson has a few major strengths as a politician.  First, he works harder than almost anyone else.  Second, he is very talented at courting older men and being a "professional son" to them, in order to win their affection and support for his career.  Third, he extremely good at trading influence with people.  Fourth, he knows how to take advantage of the procedures and powers of institutions he is part of and offices he holds, in order to magnify both the weight of the institutions and the power of the offices.  Fifth, he is extremely good at political fundraising. The fifth part of this volume deals mainly with Johnson's struggles to employ the second, fourth, and fifth strengths in order to gain a more prominent position within the House of Representatives.

Johnson's relationship with Sam Rayburn (who would become Speaker of the House in 1940 and continue holding that office for almost all of the next 20 years) was already established during his time in Richard Kleberg's office  as a congressional secretary.  As Johnson realizes that his upward ambitions are being stymied by the seniority system in the House, his dependence on Rayburn decreases, and he attempts more and more to cultivate a relationship with President Roosevelt.  Roosevelt, while appreciative of Johnson's pro-New Deal campaign platform, has more important business than catering to a freshman congressman's ambitions, and ignores him during his first months in office.  Johnson struggles for attention, and is repeatedly rebuffed.  Furthermore, his attempts to trade influence with other congressmen fail, because he has nothing to offer them in return.  Johnson's reputation in the House is negative—people look at him as a mendacious blowhard who is always trying to get favors without giving any in return.

The turning point comes in Johnson's exploitation of a rift in the Roosevelt administration.  Roosevelt's vice-president, John Nance Garner of Texas, has become increasingly disillusioned with the New Deal because of the Court-Packing Plan, and begins to visibly distance himself from the administration and to speak against its policies with other politicians.  Garner's defection and anti-Roosevelt attitude are taken up by the congressional Texas delegation, which includes the senators and representatives from that state, who were in the habit of meeting regularly for meals and political discussion.  Johnson turns spy for Roosevelt and begins sending unsolicited reports to the administration on discussion among the Texas delegates.  By doing this he hopes to win favor with Roosevelt and to become "Roosevelt's man in Texas", i.e. the chief Roosevelt organizer for the Democratic Party in Texas during the 1940 presidential campaign.  The biggest obstacle to Johnson's achievement of this goal is Johnson's own mentor and father-figure, Sam Rayburn, who is a senior Texas delegate, well known and respected across the Texas political landscape, and an ardent supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal.  Rayburn, however, unlike Johnson, is scrupulously honest and faithful, and refuses to abandon his old friend Garner in favor of his hero Roosevelt, or to abandon his political ideals in service of his old friendship.  And because Rayburn will not declare for one side or another, but cooperates with Garner as his fellow statesman and old ally, Johnson does his best to frame Rayburn as Garner's ally in opposing Roosevelt's re-election in 1940.  Using Charles Marsh's newspapers to drive the story, Johnson co-ordinates a series of carefully constructed press encounters which are meant to put Rayburn in a bad light.  Rayburn eventually becomes aware of Johnson's betrayal, and their relationship falls cold for a few years.  Johnson, however, wins himself a greater degree of influence (if not all he wanted) with Roosevelt, and becomes a familiar figure with the White House staff.

The 1940 campaign cycle arrives, and Johnson is left with nothing of import to do.  He struggles to get assigned to a post in the Democratic National Committee, or some other body of influence, but instead is merely named to the House Democratic Election Committee, which is a virtually defunct organization charged with assisting in the financing of congressional election campaigns across the country. (Caro describes in detail the past activity of this group and its perpetual lack of adequate funds to fulfill its mission.) As Johnson gets himself more and more license to act, however, in the last hour he comes through in a heroic way for his party, connecting the huge cash reserves of conservative Texas oilmen with cash-poor democratic politicians across the country, and wiring them much needed donations to finance their campaigns.  Johnson finally has his moment—his fundraising abilities and connections with Texas businessmen have made him patron to dozens and dozens of congressmen, who will then remember him in future elections and, more importantly, when they return to Congress.  Johnson's gaze, however, is already on the next step in his climb to the White House, the U. S. Senate.  This concludes part five.

14 December 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (4)


After about a year of directing the National Youth Administration's Texas branch, Lyndon Johnson gets his first big political break.  James P. Buchanon, congressman for Texas's 10th Congressional District (Austin and the surrounding areas, including Johnson's native Blanco County), dies in February 1937, leaving almost the entirety of his term of office unserved.  A special election is arranged to fill his seat, and Johnson throws in his hat.

A number of older and more politically established candidates run against Johnson in this race, and no one seems to have expected him to win.  Furthermore, throughout the campaign, Johnson trails his opponents in the polls by large margins.  But Johnson has a drive and a hunger for power that no one else in the race possesses, and he campaigns nonstop, making half a dozen or more speeches each day, driving from town to town, from farmhouse to farmhouse, across the entire district to meet voters and persuade them to vote for him.  As the campaign progresses, Johnson searches for an issue he can use to distinguish himself from the other candidates, and eventually finds one: support for Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing plan, which aimed (among other things) to increase the number of Supreme Court Justices in order to overcome constitutional challenges to New Deal legislation.  Johnson appeals to voters as the most pro-Roosevelt of the candidates—the one who will go to congress and fight for the plan.

In a surprise result, Johnson wins the '37 special congressional election.  On the day before the election he (having worked himself to the point of total exhaustion) collapses with a serious case of appendicitis, and is in the hospital when he learns of his victory.  His illness is serious enough that he has to spend several weeks in the hospital, but is discharged in time to meet FDR in Galveston, where he becomes acquainted with the president, who is very impressed with the young man and invites him to call his fixer Tommy Corcoran if he needs any help in Washington.  During his first few years in Congress, legislation is not Johnson's concern.  Mainly he seems to have had his eye out for (1) advantageous political connections, and (2) opportunities to direct resources toward his constituency.  Through Roosevelt and Rayburn, Johnson secures an appointment to the House Committee on Naval Affairs, which FDR himself had sat on.  Unfortunately for Johnson, however, the House, and especially the Naval Affairs Committee, works on a strict seniority basis, meaning that younger members of the committee (and certainly freshmen congressmen) are rarely invited to speak in committee meetings, much less given substantive responsibility.

During his time in Austin, Johnson made the acquaintance of "Senator" Alvin Wirtz, a prominent Austin lawyer, influence-peddler, and legal representative of the Brown and Root construction company, which was discussed in Part Two.  Wirtz knows that Johnson will be sympathetic to the plight of his clients.  (Their plight is also indirectly his plight, since he expects to receive a significant chunk of their profits in the form of legal fees.)  In return for the assistance Johnson provides, of course, it is understood that Brown and Root will provide him with campaign finance support, which they do throughout his career.  Johnson navigates the bureaucratic and legal complexities of the Brown and Root dam problem, and wins them not just full approval and funding for their existing project, but additional funding for an expansion of the project, in total amounting to around $100 million.  Not only this, but as time goes on he will win them further contracts, including one to build a naval base, with a price tag several times that of their dam.

By this point a cast of characters is growing up around Lyndon Johnson: advisors, patrons, clients, assistants.  Aside from Welly Hopkins, who first recommended Johnson to Richard Kleberg as a potential secretary, we now have Herman Brown and Alvin Wirtz.  A further, equally important character is also added during this period: Charles Marsh, owner of a series of Texas newspapers and a great deal of real estate.  Marsh (like Sam Rayburn, and Franklin Roosevelt, and later Richard Russell, Jr.) takes to Johnson like a son, advises him, helps him financially, and invites him to his massive country estate in Virginia, Longlea, where he lives with his long-time mistress Alice Glass.  Caro devotes some time to consideration of Johnson's amorous dealings with Alice Glass, but mercifully not very much.  The relationship, which seems to have lasted at least two or three years, is interesting for the light it sheds on Johnson's relationship with his wife (and his basic lack of respect for her), but otherwise it merely adds unnecessary sharpness to our picture of Johnson's amoral and egomaniacal lifestyle.

At this point Caro pauses to give us a very detailed picture of the life and work of average people in the Texas Hill Country.  Grueling, bitter, harsh.  The picture he paints not only casts interesting light on Johnson's own background, but serves as the foil against which we understand Johnson's biggest public works accomplishment for his constituents during his years in the House of Representatives: the electrification of the 10th district's rural sections.  An account of Johnson's difficulties in financing and organizing this effort closes this part of the book.