Privatizing Yosemite

My family and I have been enjoying a brief post-Christmas holiday in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite was the first land — anywhere, at any time, in all of history — to be set aside by any government, protected against future exploitation and development, and designated for public use and enjoyment. The park was originally set aside 150 years ago by Abraham Lincoln and then expanded under Theodore Roosevelt.


It may strike some readers as odd that the National Park system would have been founded and then expanded under two Republican Presidents. Shouldn’t republicans have privatized the lands, delivering them up to the private marketplace?

Our wonder illustrates how far the Republican Party has diverged from its original founding principles; but also how poorly most of us appreciate those principles. From its very origins, republicanism stood for “the wealth we hold in common,” res publica. Thus its commitment to public institutions, public space, public programs that benefit all members of the public.

The Democratic Party, by contrast, historically was notorious for playing to the worst, private, base instincts of the nation. Remember, until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic Party was the party of private property, including private human property, and hence the pro-slavery and pro-Confederate party.

Nothing, therefore, could be more natural than for the anti-slave Abraham Lincoln to also protect land for public use.

Today, by contrast, the Republican Party has become the anti-Republican Party; the party most opposed to public institutions, public property, and the public good. Did the Republicans have their will — just read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom — all of this would long ago have been privatized.

And, now, with Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate; why not? Why not simply sell the Republic, thus bringing the irony full circle?

God of the Universe?

My friend Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at UC Berkeley, sent me a link to an article written by David Overbye published in the December 22 New York Times: “Do Aliens Know It’s Christmas” (

Not surprisingly, Geoff is among the astronomers Overbye quotes in his piece, no doubt in part because Geoff is credited with having discovered more exoplanets (planets circling around other stars) than any other astronomer and with having fine-tuned the method for discovering such planets.

The article, if I might grossly oversimplify Overbye’s point, rightly problematizes the particularity of Christmas. Overbye lifted the article’s title from a question that Geoff frequently raises this time of year: “Do Aliens Know It’s Christmas?”

Again not surprisingly, one of Overbye’s theological authorities is Ted Peters, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. Ted sat on my Masters Committee when I was earning my M.A. in Church History. To those who are skeptical over God’s universality, Ted points out that “God doesn’t seem to be limited by history and communication.”

But, since it is a article of our Confession of Faith that, well, yes, God did undergo real and ongoing limitation in and by history and that this limitation extends to communication, I really think that Ted’s response sidesteps the issue. Indeed, it would seem to be the whole point, the “offense of the Cross” as Paul might put it.

And with this insight, I think we can hazard a response to Geoff’s question. No, aliens do not know its Christmas; and this holds as well for most human beings prior to, say, the 16th century, when Europe’s campaign to conquer the Earth began in earnest. The God of the Universe? This is the god that everyone knows — the god of lawfulness, regularity, systems, reason. This is the Stoic god whom Paul talks up in Romans 1-2 and 13; the god that everyone would believe in anyway, Christmas or no Christmas. And I suspect that even every alien’s son and daughter, did they give it a moment’s consideration, would recognize that lawfulness, regularity, predictability, reason, and so on, hold for them as much as they hold for us humans. The mathematical god holds validity everywhere and at all times. So, yes, in a sense, Ted Peters is absolutely right. This god is not limited by history and communication.

But is this what we mean by Christmas? Is it not precisely the specificity, the historicity, the here-and-not-there, now-and-not-then — this limitation, constraint, emptying; is this not what we understand to be Christmas?

And what if it is precisely this limitation that is the most divine quality of the Palestinian Jew born in Bethlehem? Well, in that case even the search for a universal Christmas would violate its signal characteristic. And, in that case it would be perfectly normal to say to the aliens when they arrive, “Let us tell you a story that we are sure you have never heard . . .” But also then to ask our aliens “What stories do you hold sacred?” And imagine how different the world might have been had Europeans in the 15th century been equipped to ask this question when they arrived in the Americas.

Kim Jong-un

Is Sony Picture’s movie about an assassination plot against Kim Jong-un in poor taste? It goes without question. Is it inflammatory? Yes. Is the movie grade B material? So says nearly everyone who has seen the movie. So what’s all the fuss about?
Let’s say that Sony produced a movie about an assassination plot against the US President. (Here’s a list published last year: Movies about Plots to Kill Presidents.) Or, let’s say that Sony produced a movie about an assassination plot against a sitting President, our current President. My guess — only a guess — is that, while the subject might delight the 20% hard core Obama haters who form the base of the Republican Party, no major film producer would touch the movie. Politically, it would be unwise.
The fuss, let me suggest, concerns the intimate relationship between culture, power, and social regulation. In communities where individuals and groups overtly regulate the political and the social, taking aim (literally or figuratively) at these individuals or groups is a direct attack upon social and political regulation itself. It is the personalist dimension of the political that we find so disturbing, so unsettling. In a market society, by contrast, where exchange relationships regulate both the political and the social, a direct attack on political power, cultural convention or social regulation feels less threatening. Any credible attack on the market, however, and you would find an entirely different story.
There is an upside to replacing the political and the cultural with the market; the question we have learned to ask and that we do ask without thinking is “How does this effect the bottom line?” But there is also a down side. What does it mean that politics does not mediate our relations with one another? What does it mean that culture has been monetized? (I.e., if a cultural artifact has a sufficient market, we will produce it.) What does it mean that our nation is owned and operated by and for those who have money? And what would it look like if soccer moms and Monday Night Football dads really did govern our nation (instead of the investors and advertisers and media moguls who fill consumers’ brains with trash)?
Social relations in all societies, including our own, are mediated by something. North Korea’s social relations are mediated by centralized, overtly political coercive power; social relations in our society are mediated by cash, which has an even more powerful hold over us because we mistake it for our own free choice.
We naturally feel that the consumer should choose. Political leaders should not dictate those choices. Parody is an important part of political criticism. Which may be the point of intersection between Stephen Colbert, whose departure the Republican base celebrates, and Kim Jong-un, whose departure the Republican base would also celebrate for what I suspect would be identical reasons.

Convergence, Russian Style

This is exam week at UC Berkeley and many of my students have elected to write their final research papers on the concept of economic convergence, the process wherein local, regional, or national economies converge with one another, forming a coherent, consistent, and comprehensive whole or totality of laws, regulations, and institutions.

But what about power and culture? What roles do politics and rhetoric play enforcing or contesting convergence?

One way to interpret the trials of the Russian economy is through the lens of convergence, but obviously not economic convergence alone. In Russia’s case, the EU, the UN and the US are using macroeconomic mechanisms to compel Russia’s political establishment to permit Ukraine’s integration into the global economy. Obviously, these entities would also like to see Russia’s political authorities shed their relationship with Russia’s oligarchs and adhere more rigorously both to its own and with foreign laws governing property rights, trade, and commerce.

Ideally, what these international actors would like is for Russia to shed its dependence on local and regional laws and regulations, including long-standing cultural regulations and informal laws. Yet what would this entail?

Is it realistic for the EU, the UN and the US to anticipate that Russia will embrace the bulk of the social and cultural canon presumed in the US, western Europe, Japan, India, and, increasingly, China?

In this case it may be valuable to consider the actual mechanisms operating in Russia’s resistance to convergence; or, in the alternative, its proposal for an alternative path to convergence. For, clearly, given Mr Putin’s popularity, not only in Russia, but among right-leaning opponents of American economic domination throughout Europe and Asia, broad swaths of cultural habits and social norms are offering Putin a deep bed of velcro into which he can sink his hooks. One of the reasons for this support is surely the belief that what we understand as convergence is no more than a poorly concealed instance of good old fashioned hegemony.

To the extent that this is how many Russians and right-leaning Europeans view Russia’s seizure of eastern Ukraine, we might then wonder how the macroeconomic mechanisms applied by the EU, UN, and US might push Russia toward (or repel Russia away from) global economic convergence. For there is simply no question but that convergence, in the case of Russia, will entail the elimination of purely local or regional laws, practices and regulations that many Russians take to be a part of their national heritage.

My best guess is that Russians — and not Putin alone — will view the imposition of these macroeconomic tools and the hardships they must endure on account of them through a lens of hegemonic overreaching by the West. The result will therefore likely be the opposite of convergence; divergence.

At the same time, this likely response places in a new light, the rationale used to justify these mechanisms in the first place. It begs the question, but no more, of the cultural, social, and political dimensions of the movement toward global convergence. What is it in fact that we want if what we want is the elimination or eradication of all purely local, regional, or national laws, regulations, customs, and practices?