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Sunday, May 28, 2006

My growing political paranoia

This past week I began teaching a four week summer seminar in American politics, and I decided a few weeks ago to focus it on a topic I know relatively little about -- the role of religion in American politics.

I came to this topic in a roundabout way while working with friend Domonic on some possible papers related to his interest in patronage and its role in American public administration. A major theme of Domonic's work is that patronage had been "demonized" during the Progressive Era efforts promoting civil service reform, and that got me to thinking about the American "political culture of reform" and its ties to religious movements. At one point we proposed a paper (not yet written) titled: "It Takes An Awakening".

The "Awakening" reference was, of course, to the intermittent episodes of religious revivalism ("Great Awakenings") that occurs in the US history according to some students of American religion. Most recently (in 2000), economic historian Robert William Fogel published a book titled The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, in which he posits a view of US political development that passes through overlapping cycles tied to the emergence of religious awakenings that eventually alter political agendas and result in significant policy changes (i.e., reforms) which, in turn, generate political reactions, and so on. Triggering these cycles are technological changes that challenge the egalitarian norms of Americans -- norms which Fogel vary from era to era. Without getting into detail, Fogel argues that there have been three such Great Awakenings in the past, and that we are in the midst of a Fourth which emerged in the 1970s and is hitting its political stride about now. For a summary of his argument, see here; also see here. Also see his speech on the subject at AEI.

With the opportunity of the seminar to dive deeper in this topic, I soon discovered that I knew little or nothing about what Fogel called "enthusiastic religions" and their role in US political history. I remember reading some Jonathan Edwards sermons/essays in high school and freshman English (oh, so long ago!), but I don't recall reading much about the Great Awakenings in my history courses. Religion was always a side story in the historical narratives. It was always there, but hardly more than background....

Boy, has my tune changed! In fact, I am in danger of going in the completely opposite direction as I start to see religion in almost every aspect of American political history as well as our political present -- and future. What's more, this is all beginning to have an impact on my relative indifference to current political events. The more I read, the more I am convinced that there is really some dangerous trends (shades of Roth's The Plot Against America) emerging that are starting to make me question my honed detachment from everyday politics.

I have not only assigned Fogel's book to the class, but also Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy -- a work which I initially thought to be a bit too pessimistic. As the students explore an everexpanding bibliography I am posting, I have been reading Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming (listen to her interview on Fresh Air), and waiting in the queue is James Rudin's The Baptizing of America. I am educating myself in the history and sociology of American religions by reading papers and articles by several credible historians of evangelical religions, especially George Marsden (especially his Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism). And the more I dig into this material, the more concerned I become....


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Friday, May 26, 2006

Flood, pestilence and the penalties of procrastination... Part Three

Finally, the procrastinations.

I am not a fan of those self-help books that overpopulate the bookshelves in the local Barnes and Noble or Borders stores. I am especially dismissive of the stack of such works found around my house where both spouse and children seem to go on organizing binges every so often.

But I am at the point of surrender, for this has probably been one of the busiest and most frustrating semesters I've experienced in terms of being overcommitted and unable to sustain any semblance of order in my life. Papers are piled high and deep on tables, desks and floors (which makes the high costs of intermittent flooding more so). Not only at home, but in my office at the University as well. Until very recently my email software indicated that I had more than 2000 unread emails -- that's right, UNREAD! -- dating back to last October.

How did I get into such a fix? More important, how do I get out of it?

Getting there wasn't easy -- lots of commitments (too many) involving "pre-occupying" projects (the kinds of things that don't allow you to do anything else other than obsess on the deadline) and a medication-induced lack of anxiety (despite the benefits of having lost my "rage" to the daily dose of beta-blocking Atenolol, there are drawbacks -- I have also lost that "edge" that drove me to keep up with the demands of my life). I had also gotten use to a different pace of life while spending two years in Belfast away from the daily grind of teaching and administration -- and seeing the household bills come through the mail slot.... The readjustment has been relatively smooth, but now I am paying the price by having to spend a couple of months (yes, it will take that long!) making up for the slippage in my life....

How to get out of this hole I've pleasantly dug for myself? Well, I started to read some of those books -- or at least to scan a few web sites about them. Spent many hours considering the option and I felt a possible solution was at hand -- until I realize a couple of weeks ago that this search of a self-help option is just another form of procrastination.

Nevertheless, I have now adopted an approach that seems to be working -- at least on my emails. We are now down to 938 unread emails, the oldest dating from last December, but only 105 from this week. Believe it or not, that is great progress, and I am on a roll!!!

The "system" I've adopted is tied to some self-help guru, and it is based on the idea that you just have to sort things out, toss those that you can't do anything about, and clear, delegate or file the rest. I started to apply that to the email situation about two weeks ago, and I hope to expand the application of this approach to the "hard copy" stuff that is now knee deep in my various hideouts.... With summer approaching, and with no "preoccupying" deadlines in sight, I might actually make some headway....

That is, once my basement dries out and I get rid of those pesky bugs on my windshield....


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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Flood, pestilence and the penalties of procrastination... Part Two

And now for the pestilence....

OK, I am no entomologist, and I really don't know what the little "bugs" are, but they are certainly splattered and embedded on my windshield....

I think they are the infamous "black flies" of New England that I've heard of in the past. You would think that after ten years of living in the area I would know what these things are -- people around here are always talking about them in late spring and early summer. But in the past I had not paid much attention, mainly because I was either out of the country or commuting to work in black-fly-free New Jersey.

But now I commute regularly (52 miles, to be exact) to my campus office in New Hampshire, and by the time I get there these days I can barely see through the windshield because of these hundreds of tiny black specks that have accumulated there. The interesting thing is that they do just that -- they seem to accumulate without any visual splatterings, and they do so in such numbers and with such stealthness that they seem bred to seek implanting themselves on the clear surface to stay (cui bono?). You cannot get rid of them by just turning on the wipers and window washer -- nor will a mere squeegee treatment do the trick. A significant amount of "elbow grease" needs to be applied to get rid of them -- and by the time you are another five miles down the road they are back making visibility difficult....

Are these the legendary black flies? I tried looking up the little pests on google, and the best answer I can give is "perhaps." Black flies are annoying not merely for their numbers and tendency to swarm around your head (it turns out they love the CO2 we exhale, according to one site), but also because some carry a nasty bite (it is the female seeking blood, again according to my sources). They typically emerge and start to breed in April and May and head from south (of where, they don't say; they are a problem from time to time in Florida, for example) to north, becoming a literal pest in Maine (at least in this part of the world) during July -- and then they disappear. Like many others, I originally thought they were like mosquitoes, and to some extent they are. Unlike mosquitoes, they do not come indoors and cannot penetrate clothing, etc. They breed in running water, and like temperatures above 50 degrees. Small (1 to 5 mm in length), they live for about six weeks.

The recent rains have certainly provided them with the running water, and during that rainy spell of the past week or two it was in the 60 degree range. So all indications are that these are black flies.

Hopefully, however, they will start their move north with the help of a breeze -- and while I have nothing against our friends in Canada, I wish for this pestilence to make its annual trek quickly so I can see out my car window....

But then I am probably wrong -- perhaps it is some other creature doing its thing....

black flies

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Flood, pestilence and the penalties of procrastination... Part One

Perhaps you are reading this because you are curious about the title. What follows is the story of my life for the past two weeks -- or at least the major preoccupations of my life for that period. It is such a long and depressing story that it will have to be written in several installments....

Let's begin with the fact that there was a long article by Kevin Kelly in the New York Times magazine a couple of weeks ago on the future of books (subscription required), and it was controversial enough to draw comments from John Updike and others at the national Book Expo held a few days later. For me it was the timing rather than the content of the piece that made it relevant to my life -- for on that very weekend I was busy attempting to salvage hundreds of soggy titles that were unfortunately on the bottom shelves of bookcases in my flooded basement.

By official accounts, it rained around 11-13 inches on the North Shore/Cape Ann area the weekend of May 13-14. The downpour started on Saturday, the 13th, and by evening it had started to raise the water table levels around my street to the point that water began to percolate up from the basement floor. This was not the first time such had happened, and we do sometimes get an inch or so. For that reason we knew enough to raise things off the floor -- but I had mistakenly counted on the sump pump kicking in and saving my books from damage. We went to sleep Saturday night thinking all would be well in the AM....

Well, it wasn't. For some reason the sump pump never kicked in, and the rainfall kept coming at a record pace. There was at least three inches of water in the basement by morning, and by then it had made it to the lower shelves. All my basement office walls have built-in book cases -- a lovely feature that helps support my obsessive book collecting habit (I have several thousand titles lining the walls). From ceiling to floor they stand vertically and horizontally, crowded into every available inch of shelving...

Do you know what happens when water hits books? The paper absorbs the water and the books expand -- and so not only did I have hundreds of soggy books, but it was almost impossible to free them from the shelves without significant effort -- and perhaps a crow bar....

But with the help of my family, free them we did -- hundreds of damp, expanded books, many stuck together, some curling, all showing water marks as we stacked them in stairwells and makeshift book cases located away from the rising waters.

By Sunday night I had three sump pumps going, but the water did not recede until Wednesday. Since then I have had two dehumidifiers and two high speed fans blowing 24/7, and believe it or not the basement floor (including a drenched indoor/outdoor carpet in my office that has suffered through this before) is now dry. The books? Well, they remain damp, perhaps damaged beyond any use -- but I keep hoping to salvage at least a few. Among the losses is one of my favorite recent reads (The Metaphysical Club) as well as a first edition of a famous 1950s textbook that was unfortunately located too close to the ground.

Which brings me back to the relevance of the Times Magazine piece which forecast the digitization of all books. I suspect in the future obsessive types like me will be collecting our titles on hard drives rather than on book shelves. That would not end my anxiety, however, for my computer is also located in that wet basement. The difference is that all my wiring is up on the ceiling, so there is less danger of losing my "data". That is, until I noticed that the moisture in the room was making the ceiling titles sag....

So much for the flood....


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