The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Vital Center

Back from Thanksgiving in Large Southwestern State. I love the desert--those saguaros never get old. The trip home was a bitch, though: planes delayed because of weather, etc. Weather delays don't bother me all that much, ordinarily, but every since I've been travelling with a child I've come to really hate delays. We stayed an extra two and a half hours in Airport #1, and the laptop I had intended to use as a DVD player for the boy didn't work off the battery. (Fortunately, we found an outlet so he could watch TOY STORY for ninety minutes before the plane boarded.) He fell asleep on the first 3 1/2 hour flight, making it easy, except for the fact of some woman in front of us who hissed "I won't be able to take that for three hours!" when the boy kicked her seat once. Landed in Atlanta, found our gate with the Steeler game playing, and the boy was hyped even though it was 10pm and ran around.

All was well until at the end of our 90 minute flight, when the boy finally gave in to the illness that's been shadowing him for weeks and vomited up all of the goldfish crackers, Burger King patty, french fry, milk, and half-digested Cheez-Its he had in his stomach. The only blessing was that the plane was entering its "initial descent" into Pittsburgh at the time. But I'm sure you can imagine the smell.

I've been thinking a lot about Arthur Schlesinger's THE VITAL CENTER these days, mostly because I read it in conjunction with my current research. The book, from 1949, was a kind of manifesto for what became known as the "non-Communist left" in the 1950s. Schlesinger ended up working for the Kennedy administration later on, but in 1949 he was a young buck intellectual trying to come up with a plan to lure the leftists who had flirted with the Communist Party back in the 1930s and get them on the American side. His plan for a "vital center" is both unremarkable and stunning today, for his "center" is located about ten steps to the left of what we'd consider "center" today. He sees the Democratic Party--which had, when the book was written, been in power for seventeen unbroken years--as a sister party to the European democratic socialist parties. More amazing, he saw this as a good thing.

What's utterly discredited in his book is the philosophy that rules the polity today: that the market and "free enterprise" is the ultimate American value. For Schlesinger, what he calls the "business class" is entirely irrelevan and intellectually bankrupt—their philosophy not having changed since McKinley, or at latest Coolidge. How appropriate that it is to these models that Bush now looks.


  • At 2:22 PM, Blogger zp said…

    hey, i love this helpful and quick review of vital center. thanks.

    did you see, square circuit and ihatethenewyorker are now listed on amardeep's list of blogs? hooray for PA.

  • At 6:19 PM, Blogger mantooth said…

    That's cool--I hit upon his blog from you and then I saw that Singh was going to be at a recent conference I attended and so I wanted to meet him, but I didn't end up seeing him. I probably should attend more panels and spend less time wandering the city when I'm at conferences.


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