April 4, 2019

NOT GAY ENOUGH:

ALL ABOUT PETE: Only accept politicians who have proved they actually care about people other than themselves... (NATHAN J. ROBINSON, 3/29/19, Current Affairs)

When he is asked about what his actual policies are, Buttigieg has often been evasive. He has mentioned getting rid of the electoral college and expanding the Supreme Court, but his speech is often abstract. In this exchange, for instance, a VICE reporter pressed Buttigieg to better specify his commitments:

VICE: I listened to you talk today. On the one hand, you definitely speak very progressively. But you don't have a lot of super-specific policy ideas.

BUTTIGIEG: Part of where the left and the center-left have gone wrong is that we've been so policy-led that we haven't been as philosophical. We like to think of ourselves as the intellectual ones. But the truth is that the right has done a better job, in my lifetime, of connecting up its philosophy and its values to its politics. Right now I think we need to articulate the values, lay out our philosophical commitments and then develop policies off of that. And I'm working very hard not to put the cart before the horse.

VICE: Is there time for that? They want the list. They want to know exactly what you're going to do.

BUTTIGIEG: I think it can actually be a little bit dishonest to think you have it all figured out on day 1. I think anybody in this race is going to be a lot more specific or policy-oriented than the current president. But I don't think we ought to have that all locked in on day 1.

This is extremely fishy. First, while there's a valid argument that "technocratic liberal wonkery" disconnected from values is uninspiring and useless, the left is not usually accused of being too specific on policy. Quite the opposite: The common critique is that behind the mushy values talk there are too few substantive solutions to social problems. Why does Buttigieg think telling people your values and coming up with plans are mutually exclusive? Why does he think having a platform means you believe you've got it "all figured out on Day 1"? Why treat policy advocates as "dishonest"? Why mention the extremely low bar of being "more policy-oriented than the current president?" And what use are values statements if you don't tell people what the values mean for action? I've seen plenty of progressive policy agendas that don't sacrifice values (e.g., Abdul El-Sayed's plans, the U.K. Labour Party's 2017 manifesto). A candidate who replies to this question with this answer should set off alarm bells.
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The first thing to say about Shortest Way Home is that while it is extremely well-constructed, it is not tremendously exciting. This is because Buttigieg's life has been squeakily bland and respectable. He was born in an upper-middle-class family. His parents were both professors at Notre Dame. He did extremely well in school and took piano lessons and became the high school student body president. He won the "Profiles in Courage" essay contest. He went to Harvard.

To give a bit of color to the "from elite school boyhood to elite school undergraduate years" story, Buttigieg portrays himself as an Indiana hayseed for whom the bustling metropolis of Cambridge, MA was an alien world. So, even though he grew up on the campus of a top private university 90 minutes from Chicago, the Boston subway amazed him. "My face would[...] have stood out amid the grumpy Bostonians, betraying the fact that I was as exhilarated by the idea of being in a 'big' city as I was by the new marvels of college life." He claims to have always found something "distant and even intimidating about the imagery" of being a student. His dorm was a "wonder" because it had exposed brick, "a style I'd only ever seen in fashionable restaurants and occasionally on television." In a ludicrous passage, he suggests that he found the idea of a clock on a bank a wondrous novelty: "Looking up overhead, I could note the time on a lighted display over the Cambridge Savings Bank building. I felt that telling the time by reading it off a building, instead of a watch, affirmed that I was now in a bustling place of consequence." Uh, you can tell time off a building on the Notre Dame campus, too, albeit in analog form--clock towers are not a unique innovation of the 21st century megalopolis. (I enjoy reading these "simple country boy unfamiliar with urban ways" sentences in the voice of Stinky Peterson from Hey! Arnold.) Calculated folksiness runs through the whole book. On the cover he is literally in the process of rolling up his sleeves, his collar blue, in front of a Main Street Shopfront. There is a smattering of exaggerated Hoosierism on many a page: "You can read the progress of the campaign calendar by the condition of the corn."

But okay, that's not unexpected. He's a politician, from time to time they all have to stand by a truck on a dirt road and talk about corn. The first time I actually became concerned was when Buttigieg described Harvard Square. He writes that when he emerged off the Big City Subway, his "eyes darted around the lively scene." He mentions the newsstand where you can "get exotic newspapers like La Repubblica or Le Monde" and the motley mix of characters he saw, like the "teenage punks" and someone passing out flyers for "something edgy like a Lyndon LaRouche for President rally or a Chomsky talk down at MIT." (Same kind of thing, apparently.) There's something amiss here though. These are indeed some of the impressions you might get setting foot in the Square. But there's another fact about the world outside the Harvard gates that is instantly apparent to most newcomers: It has long had a substantial population of homeless people. In fact, it's a scene as grotesque as it is eclectic: Directly outside the Corinthian columns of the richest university on earth, people wrapped in dirty coats are begging for a buck or two from passing students. Most of the university population has trained themselves to ignore this sub-caste, to the point where they don't even see them at all, and Buttigieg is no different. The closest he gets is reporting "a mix of postdocs, autodidact geniuses, and drifters" at the Au Bon Pain. He doesn't mention seeing injustice.

Perhaps just an oversight, though every time I've passed through Harvard Square it has been my signature impression. But there was soon something even more disquieting. Talking about politics on campus, Buttigieg says:  

In April 2001, a student group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement took over the offices of the university's president, demanding a living wage for Harvard janitors and food workers. That spring, a daily diversion on the way to class was to see which national figure--Cornel West or Ted Kennedy one day, John Kerry or Robert Reich another--had turned up in the Yard to encourage the protesters.

Striding past the protesters and the politicians addressing them, on my way to a "Pizza and Politics" session with a journalist like Matt Bai or a governor like Howard Dean, I did not guess that the students poised to have the greatest near-term impact were not the social justice warriors at the protests [...] but a few mostly apolitical geeks who were quietly at work in Kirkland House [Zuckerberg et al.]

I find this short passage very weird. See the way Buttigieg thinks here. He dismisses student labor activists with the right-wing pejorative "social justice warriors." But more importantly, to this day it hasn't even entered his mind that he could have joined the PSLM in the fight for a living wage. Activists are an alien species, one he "strides past" to go to "Pizza & Politics" sessions with governors and New York Times journalists. He didn't consider, and still hasn't considered, the moral quandary that should come with being a student at an elite school that doesn't pay its janitors a living wage. (In fact, years later Harvard was still refusing to pay its workers decently.)

If you come out of Harvard without noticing that it's a deeply troubling place, you're oblivious. It is an inequality factory, a place that trains the world's A-students to rule over and ignore the working class. And yet, nowhere does Buttigieg seem to have even questioned the social role of an institution like Harvard. He tells us about his professors, his thesis on Graham Greene. He talks about how how interesting it is that Facebook was in its infancy while he was there. But what about all the privilege? Even Ross Douthat finds the school's ruling class elitism disturbing! Buttigieg thought the place fitted him nicely.

9/11 happens while Buttigieg is an undergraduate and the rest of the book's Harvard portion is spent musing on war and peace. One of the few things that does disturb him about the school is that its students are no longer expected to serve in the military. (In an extreme conservative tone, he suggests there was no excuse for a student like him not to voluntarily join the armed forces.) He says that he would spend time looking at the names of Harvard students who died in the Civil War, and that "I sometimes paused to recite a few of them, under my breath, between eating breakfast and going to class."

Posted by at April 4, 2019 3:51 AM

  

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