Orwell, Language, and Liberty: Part One

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The following post is the first of two installments by department work study Rachel Bauman.

George Orwell (1903-1950) was a profoundly political writer, with his opinions shaped by his experience with the world wars, revolutions, and political upheaval which characterized the period in which he lived. Though he is arguably best known today for his novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Orwell also wrote prolifically on the political issues of his time, from the problems of British imperialism to his concerns about the Soviet Union (Newsinger x). Though Orwell’s novels were embraced by the political right in both the United States and the United Kingdom, he was actually a staunch advocate for socialism who sought to comment on the corruption of socialism by totalitarian regimes (Newsinger x-xi). Much of his criticism of contemporary totalitarianism, and the general political climate of his time, focused on the significance of language in both freeing and oppressing people, perpetuating social hierarchy, and defining truth and reality (Bolton 15, 143, 154). In Nineteen Eighty-Four, language serves all of these purposes. Language is power, and power is the Party’s ultimate goal— thus, in order for the Party to gain power “not… over things, but over men” (Nineteen 276), the Party must control language and all that it entails.

In order to better understand Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is important to first gain a clearer understanding of Orwell’s political views and their development. After a five-year stint with the Indian Police in Burma, beginning in 1922, Orwell emerged from the job a hater of imperialism and a “determined opponent of authority and supporter of the downtrodden” (Newsinger 2-3). This formative time in Orwell’s life led him to adopt what Newsinger calls “a particular idiosyncratic brand of revolutionary socialism,” and he was conscious of its possible applications in the context of twentieth-century Britain (21). This rosy revolutionary idealism soon faded when, in late 1936, Orwell went to Barcelona and signed up to be a member of the POUM militia in Spain, a group that advocated for a complete revolution and subsequent dismantling of the “bourgeois state” (Newsinger 44-5). Orwell’s negative encounters with revolutionary Communists and their brutal tactics led to his claim that “Communism is now a counter-revolutionary force… using the whole of their powerful machinery to crush or discredit any party that shows sign of revolutionary tendencies” (qtd. in Newsinger 59). This distaste for Communism continued throughout Orwell’s life and was a driving force in his later works, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four (Newsinger 89).

Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) during his days in Burma

Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) during his politically formative years in Burma

The imminent approach of war in the late 1930s shifted Orwell’s political perspectives still more. When Britain finally declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, Orwell, who was originally anti-war, switched to a kind of “revolutionary patriotism”—he hoped that the war would provide an opportunity for socialist ideas to take hold in Britain (Newsinger 62, 66). By the end of 1942, Orwell abandoned these prospects as unrealistic; even so, he remained a socialist (Newsinger 89, 97). His political beliefs were anchored in a strong opposition to the Communism of the Soviet Union, which he believed had bastardized the ideals of true socialism (Newsinger 110). Socialism in Orwell’s mind was “a democratic classless society where private property had been replaced by common ownership of the means of production”—it was nothing like the totalitarian regime which emerged in the post-war Soviet Union (Newsinger 112, 119). Orwell was particularly disturbed by the public’s lack of understanding about the distinctions between socialism and communism as it was being practiced in the Soviet Union, and it became his goal to dispel this false notion in order to restore respect for socialist ideas (Newsinger 110). With this goal in mind, Nineteen Eighty-Four should be viewed as not an attack on socialism, but rather as a satire of totalitarianism, which Orwell viewed as “the culmination of a trend in his own time that alarmed him” (Newsinger 130, Bailey 40). Not a prophetic vision, exactly, but a satirical projection of where Orwell’s conception of the toxic political climate, if not rectified, might lead (Bailey 23-4, Bolton 151).

 

Works Cited and Further Reading

Bailey, Richard W. “George Orwell and the English Language.” The Future of Nineteen Eighty-four. Ed. Ejner J. Jensen. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1984. 23-46. Print.

Bolton, W. F. The Language of 1984: Orwell’s English and Ours. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984. Print.

Newsinger, John. Orwell’s Politics. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. Print.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. London: Secker & Warburg, 1997. Print.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Inside the Whale and Other Essays. London: Penguin in Association with Secker & Warburg, 1957. 143-57. Print.

Orwell, George. “The Prevention of Literature.” Inside the Whale and Other Essays. London: Penguin in Association with Secker & Warburg, 1957. 159-74. Print.

An Evening with Doris Kearns Goodwin

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The following post was written by senior Rachel Bauman, department work study and blog manager for the 2014-15 school year.

Doris Kearns Goodwin and Kim Phipps. (Image courtesy of the Messiah College Facebook page.)

Doris Kearns Goodwin with college president Kim Phipps. (Image courtesy of Messiah College.)

On October 30, I had the pleasure of being in a sold-out Parmer Hall, hearing renowned historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin speak on her newest book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Goodwin is perhaps best known as the author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which was adapted into the critically-acclaimed 2012 film Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Goodwin admitted that her interest in strong leadership has framed her studies thus far; she has written extensively about some of the most dynamic presidents in American history, including FDR, Lincoln, and now Theodore Roosevelt. Some of our best presidents showed their strength in times of national crisis. But, Goodwin noted, there were no large-scale crises during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. What then contributed to TR’s leadership? She outlined ten characteristics that defined leadership to her, including conquering the self, resolutely addressing the problems of the time, and taking criticism “with grace.” TR conquered his sickly childhood through rigorous self-training. As President, he took steps to address the social crises that came with the industrial revolution, like poor working conditions, unsanitary food production, and monopolistic business practices. And TR was well-known for his rapport with journalists of every persuasion; he even invited some of his fiercest critics for meals at the White House!

“He adored being president,” said Goodwin of TR. He was a master communicator and traveled around the country more than any previous president, talking simply and persuasively to the American people about citizenship and the importance of virtue. Because he had already been in office for seven and a half years following the assassination of William McKinley, he decided not to run in 1908. He put his full support behind his Secretary of War and close friend William Howard Taft, who he was sure would carry out his progressive policies. Unfortunately, noted Goodwin, “not everyone who is number two is meant to be number one,” and Taft’s kindly personality was not well-suited for an effective presidency. This led to a rupture in Taft and TR’s relationship, reaching its peak during the 1912 election season when TR, who failed to secure the nomination of the Republican Party, ran under the Bull Moose Party of his own creation. The Republican votes were split between Taft and Teddy, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election. Before Roosevelt’s death in 1919, however, he and Taft were fully reconciled, which was a joyous occasion for both of them.

Interspersed throughout Goodwin’s summary and discussion of her book were lively stories about her time working with Lyndon Johnson when he was President and later as he wrote his memoirs at his Texas ranch. Johnson opened up to Goodwin, whom he hired even after she wrote a condemnatory article about his handling of the Vietnam War, about his concerns that the war would tarnish his reputation. She recounted that LBJ was always working—even while floating in his pool, and that his only real solace from the stresses of the presidency was found in the support of his wife, Lady Bird. Goodwin also discussed her childhood love of storytelling, which led her to become the “narrative historian” she is today, and her experience working with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis on Lincoln. Goodwin also noted that Spielberg has already purchased the rights to her new book on TR and Taft, which is sure to be impressive.

The most memorable part of the evening for me was during the question and answer session, when Goodwin considered whether or not her great love for the historical figures she studies clouds her objective judgment about them. She stated that her research always begins with respect and admiration of some kind, and a desire to like the person she’s researching—after all, she has to “live with them,” as she calls it, for years. But this affection doesn’t mean she won’t be occasionally disappointed. Her admiration for FDR, for example, is tarnished by his call for internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. But, Goodwin noted, it is important to balance the strengths and failures of such figures when analyzing their decision.

Goodwin’s message can easily apply to our current political context. We must remember that our leaders in government are indeed fallible human beings, with both strengths and lapses in judgment. Leadership is more than just getting it right all the time; it is a consistent pattern of principles mixed with pragmatism. It is an attempt to secure the most good for the most people, even if it requires self-denial. At the end of his life, Goodwin said, Theodore Roosevelt wanted to feel as though he had lived with integrity, doing his best with what he had been given. May our present and future political leaders strive to do the same.

 

The Gospel of Lear

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The following guest post was written by senior politics major Casey Daggett.

King Lear, undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces, if not his crowning achievement, reveals the profound complexities of human nature. While it presents a troubling picture of the human condition, the text wrought with violence, selfishness and suffering, its difficult lessons cannot be ignored and remain just as relevant to our society as they did in Elizabethan England.  Shakespeare’s tale of an aging, maddened king has the capacity to reflect our modern political environment.

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most complex figures. From first introduction, we learn that he is proud and that this hubris will be the undoing of both him and the innocent Cordelia. Lear is obsessed with his status as King and furious with Regan and Goneril for denying his requests to house both him and his men in an attempt to diminish his power. He then flees into a great tempest alongside the disguised Kent, his fool, and Edgar, walking through the countryside naked and raving.

However, it is in this moment, when King Lear has been robbed of everything that has designated him as a king—his power, prestige, and even the garb which would signify him as royalty—that he sees beyond the pride that has doomed him. For the first time in the play, King Lear sees beyond himself, crying out, “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are / that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm / how shall your houseless heads and unfed sides / your loopt and window’d raggedness defend / you from such seasons as this?” (III.IV) When Lear has lost everything, only then does he think of those beneath him: the homeless and the hungry. He wonders how the marginalized people of his kingdom will survive such a wild storm as the one raging around him, those whom he has never before felt any commonality with.

"King Lear and the Fool in the Storm" by William Dyce

“King Lear and the Fool in the Storm” by William Dyce

Lear continues, shouting above the tempest that “O, I have ta’en / too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; / explore thyself to feel what wretches feel, / that thou mayest shake the superflux to them / and show the heavens more just” (III.IV). He realizes, naked and exposed to the fury of nature, that he has shown too little care towards the poorest and the neediest of his kingdom, that in his great pride he has overlooked those that needed him most. Lear goes on to advise the powerful to go out and truly understand what sorrow and poverty the poor experience in order to serve them better, to make the world a better place through empathy, generosity, and kindness. Only when Lear is stripped of all that has made him powerful, all that has designated him as king and given him wealth, can he understand the needs and fears of the poor.

Lear’s warning and regret serve as a powerful message to our own society, where the gap between the poor and the wealthy grows increasingly larger. Amidst the despair and darkness of King Lear, one brief moment of hope flickers, and that hope calls for the wealthy and privileged to aid the marginalized and the needy. Are we not also called to help those around us and to hold our political leaders to the same standard?

In a culture where fame and fortune is glamorized, what does it take for us to remember poverty and inequality? Must we first hit our absolute lows, be stripped of our status and our prestige to empathize with the marginalized and the downtrodden? Does it take an economic recession, low unemployment rates, business closings, and a downgrade in credit for not only our political leaders, but ourselves to help the poor? Will we then be able to empathize with those we previously overlooked?

Lear’s desperate cries into the storm serve not only as a warning, but as a message of hope. We are called to consider “the least of these,” to aid and serve them as our equals and peers, and to help them before political and economic tempests. As the ever-increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor grows, the message of social justice within King Lear is as relevant to our own society as it was to Shakespeare’s. The privileged and powerful have a duty to serve and aid those beneath them, to embrace them without disdain before a political or economic crisis strikes.

However, does our political culture reflect this calling?

Fall 2014: News and Happenings

I’m pleased to announce that our blog is back (and with a new look!) We’re now about a month into the Fall 2014 semester. The leaves are changing, sweaters are emerging from closets, and hot coffee is being sipped (or chugged, in some instances.) And here at the department of Politics and International Relations, classes are in full swing! Here’s just a sampling of what we’ve been up to:

Constitutional Law (POLI 214)

Dr. Rego is teaching the first of SCOTUSbuilding_1st_Street_SEa two-part sequence in Constitutional Law. This class, Governmental Power and Constraints, examines landmark constitutional cases regarding the allocation of power among the various institutions of government. General topics include the politics of constitutional interpretation, judicial power, legislative power, presidential power, separation of powers in action, nation-state relations, and economic liberties. Of special interest is the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution. Throughout the semester, students are challenged to consider both the judicial and the political factors that influence the decision-making of justices, as well as the belief of many that the Supreme Court is, or should be, the ultimate/exclusive interpreter of the Constitution. Regardless of whether this is or should be the case, the Court is a major player in our political system. For this reason, students are expected to become proficient in reading and comprehending the judicial opinions through which the Court speaks to the nation in order to explain why it has done what it has done.

Theories of International Relations (POLI 362)

The millennial generation of students has been referred to as the “first globals;” that is, the first generation of young people to be networked to the culture, economics and politics of the global community. Just a couple of decades ago relatively few American students had travelled outside of the United States. Today, the majority of students have spent some time in another country, even before they got to college. It is not surprising, therefore, that student interest in studying international relations is growing. At Messiah College there are several options for students interested in global education. The Department of Politics and International Relations offers a popular major track in international relations that attracts students with interests that include diplomacy, public policy, intelligence work, non-governmental organizations, international law, and multi-national business. During the current fall semester Professor Dean Curry is teaching the IR track’s capstone course, Theories of International Relations. This upper division seminar, and sequel to the International Politics (POLI212) course, introduces students to the major theoretical approaches to IR as well as provides students with an opportunity to rigorously reflect on contemporary issues of global politics. According to Dr. Curry, one of his main objectives in teaching the KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAcourse is to connect the ivory tower of academic ideas to the gritty real world of the global political economy. The format of the course is structured on a graduate school seminar model with class discussion and group presentations focusing on timely articles as well as six recently published books addressing a range of IR issue areas.

 

In addition, be sure to check out our newly-uploaded department video, which features students and professors discussing the benefits of studying politics at Messiah College:

 

Be on the lookout for more blog entries later in the semester!

Interview with Dr. Lauermann, Politics Professor and Author of New Book

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Congratulations to Dr. Robin Lauermann on the upcoming release of her new book titled Constituent Perceptions of Political Representation: How Citizens Evaluate their Representatives. Below is an interview with Dr. Lauermann that highlights a synopsis of her argument, and outlines the process by which she wrote the book.

RobinLauermannDr. Lauermann, congratulations on your new book! Could you give a brief synopsis of the book and your central argument?

My book provides a look at the less studied aspect of representation – evaluations of officials by their constituents (not the member behavior or the citizen vote, but the link between these two). Specifically, I look at how policy, casework, earmarks and symbolic actions affect evaluations.  I find that symbolic behavior, which creates feelings of trust, is the most important factor affecting evaluations of U.S. House members.  This factor has not been incorporated in previous analyses which examined a variety of factors.  While this finding provides some comfort, in that it provides stability for our system, it also reflects that the public does not set high expectations for officials.  That facet in turn means that we are unable to hold them accountable in ways that produce constructive outcomes.

What inspired you to write this book? Why are you interested in the topic? 

It was originally the focus of my dissertation, though I have done much more extensive research and revision since that time, including taking two week long and intensive graduate level specialty statistics classes.  The genesis of this topic began with three classes: Legislative Process (Congress), Public Opinion, and Empirical Theories of Democracy.  These classes helped introduce me to the topic of representation, how it was intended to work (and does work here and in other countries), as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the system.  So much emphasis was on representative issue positions and I wanted to uncover more about the various factors shaping the representational process.  The work of Morris Fiorina, especially in the “personal vote” literature – which focuses on member activities beyond policy voting —  was inspirational to my own.

Tell me about your writing process for this project, i.e. how long have you been researching, how did you collect your data, and how long did it take you to write the completed version? 

I have been working on this project for over a decade, longer if you realize that some of the foundational ideas were sparked in my undergraduate and graduate classes.  I worked on each of the analytical chapters as independent articles, presenting at a number of conferences.  One chapter was published in the 2009 volume of Commonwealth: A Journal of Political Science.  My analysis is based primarily on data in the 1978-2000 National Election Studies, which provides a large and representative sample; it is a widely respected data source.  In addition, one chapter includes data from legislative voting scores which were added to one of the larger data sets; it was a work intensive process for which I was thankful to have a student serve as a Smith Scholar Intern (program at Messiah where students can intern as research assistants for faculty).  I also included narrative examples as well as contemporary data.

The publisher which accepted my manuscript was the second one to which I submitted the completed project and, in my opinion, a more noted one. Once it was accepted, I had to thread a theme within the manuscript, which sprang from an insight which developed from an op-ed that I had published last year.  The revisions took about three weeks and I had one final set of copyedits which were mostly stylistic – that is, how they preferred to present certain common aspects of writing such as words versus symbols, types of dashes, etc. – rather than revisions to my writing.  I had some personal satisfaction that the product that I submitted, much like the journal article, was accepted “largely,” which means that only modest edits were needed and that it was otherwise strong in content, organization, style and mechanics.  For a long project, I find that to be an accomplishment!  I credit the use of writing techniques – techniques which I share with students in my general education and major classes – for the final product.

Dr. Lauermann presents Democracy in America.

Dr. Lauermann presents Democracy in America.

What struggles did you face along the way?

The biggest challenge was persevering with the time to write amidst responsibilities of teaching and administration, as well as some difficult family circumstances.  I have a strong sense of self-discipline, but was sidelined by a number of competing priorities.  My knowledge in Political Science has helped me develop talents as an administrator; while highly rewarding, as I was able to pursue visions in policy as a leader in my roles as chair, director of advising and now assistant dean of general education and common learning, significant projects often crept into time that I planned for my research.  However, I was able to keep my oar in the water and, moreover, I think it is an improved product because of these experiences.

I also had to wrestle with a serious health issue of a family member for whom I took on legal responsibility/financial representation.  While I would not have chosen to do otherwise, fulfilling that need resulted in less time than I would have liked for the project at the time.

Finally, once I had the manuscript together, I was disappointed that the first submission was ultimately not accepted – initial reviews were positive, but upon revision the original reviewers were not available and the new reviewers were not as enamored of the project.  However, as was the case from the start of my research, when a graduate school professor questioned my topic, I believed strongly in its relevance.  In the end, being able to tweak the focus this last year as a result of some other writing on separate projects, I think the product and the publisher is of better quality.  Thus these struggles have shaped me and my work in indelible ways – ways which, in hindsight, I would not wish to undo.

What insight did you gain from writing on this topic that prior to research you were unaware of?

The public is not as apathetic as more historical scholars thought, but that we still have a responsibility to become more effective citizens in our critical thinking and information literacy  — social media has some creative aspects, but it speeds the communication of ill or un-informed perspectives and has the potential to boil things down too simplistically (like bumper stickers).

What significance does this topic have to students of politics?

We have a lot of thoughts and opinions about politics, but they are not always driven by knowledge.  If we think more about our role as citizens, we have the opportunity to promote a more constructive decision-making process, one which focuses on deliberation to reach the better outcome rather than just push an agenda which may or may not be based on actual understanding of problems and how to effectively solve them.  After all, the key element of politics IS decision-making, whether in government or any other organization.  All of the other pieces help us understand how the process works, why it may not and how to improve it.

When can we expect your book to be released, and where will it be sold?

It will be available December 3 on a variety of websites, directly from Palgrave MacMillan and also on others like Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the like.

Thank you, Dr. Lauermann, for sharing about your new book, and congratulations on your success! We look forward to reading it and gaining insight to further inform our knowledge on constituent perceptions of political representation.

Heavy Workloads, Rain, and Obamacare: a Typical Day at Oxford

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Current junior Politics major Johnathan Hershey is currently spending his semester studying abroad in Oxford. Below are his reflections on Oxford and what he learned from European students about their views on America’s health care debate.

Greetings from across the pond!

Messiah has graciously granted me the opportunity to study abroad at Oxford for a semester, so here I am in the UK!

096The Oxford system is pretty different. I recently wrote about it on my own blog (a shameless plug for johnathanhershey.wordpress.com) so you can check out how it works there! It’s so different from anything we experience in the States, and requires A LOT of time management skills, which has taken some adjustment for me (for those of you who know me, you would understand). I definitely encourage anyone interested to check it out. It’s definitely an experience I would recommend; I love it here. Fall has set in here in England with winter not far behind, which means a lot of rain, a lot of clouds when there is no rain, a lot of rain, really short days, cold weather, and, last but not least, a lot of rain.

One thing I have always heard about in the U.S. is how British people typically look down upon U.S. politics, and how they may see their system as “superior”, or in the 092very least, more effective. One night, I was talking to a new British friend who identifies himself as a staunch member of the Conservative party (for those of you who don’t know, there are three major parties in Parliament – Conservative, Liberal Democrats, and Labour). My friend spent his time railing against the evils of what he perceived as Socialist ideals advanced by the Labour party, and how he simply didn’t understand their view on economics and the government’s role in the economy. He thought that government should take a decreased role, and essentially, stay out altogether. Sound familiar?

Like any good students of politics, our topic of conversation eventually shifted to what was currently happening at the time – the American government shutdown over the funding of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), more commonly referred to as “Obamacare”. My original perception coming to the UK was that Conservatives here were much more “liberal” (in the American sense of the term; in terms of government control) than Republicans in America, fueled by the memory of one of my more conservative friends from Northern Ireland calling the American Republican Party “pointless”. My new friend here was shattering all my preconceived notions, voicing his support for Conservative policy that sounded much like Republican rhetoric I have heard many times in good ole’ Central Pennsylvania. This shift in conversation, however, put all of my previous thoughts back into play.

“The fact that your government shut down over universal healthcare is just [silly] to me. Why shouldn’t you give anyone healthcare? And you are denying it to the most 097vulnerable and the most helpless of your citizens. This is [absurd]. Here in the UK it is simply a given, everyone deserves free healthcare and everyone has it,” my friend remarked (comments have been edited to make them more appropriate). Our shutdown was childish to him. Even though it was quickly resolved, he saw no point in this overtly partisan conflict. My German roommate shared the same sentiment with me as my British friend: why prevent access to healthcare for the lowest income bracket of people? Aren’t these the people we should be helping onto their feet? My German roommate, needless to say, is a member of the Christian Social Union: Bavaria’s Christian conservative party.

Whether you support the Affordable Care Act, the government shutdown, or neither (there are certainly cogent arguments from both sides of the aisle), I believe that studying a broader array of viewpoints is helpful to anyone, regardless of field of study. Additionally, their thoughts reflect on two fundamental beliefs of Christianity that can sometimes become a paradox: helping the poor and financial stewardship. How do we begin or continue to assist the “least of these”, while efficiently stewarding the resources we have been blessed with? I found my European friends’ opinions to be immensely helpful in my own studies, and beneficial for this student of politics and international relations for living in this increasingly pluralistic world.

Thank you, Johnathan, for sharing your experiences! We wish you luck at Oxford, look forward to hearing more about your semester as it progresses!  

(Pictures: first depicts the main entrance to the Bodleian library, second is a quick view of Magdalen College, third is Radcliffe Camera – part of the Bodleian library)

Check it out: Life at Oxford as described by student Johnathan Hershey

apple-day-with-avery-and-harry1Johnathan Hershey, a junior Politics major at Messiah College, is currently studying abroad in Oxford. While awaiting his official blog post for the Department of Politics, feel free to check out the link below to his personal blog as he details his adventures within the UK and the University of Oxford. Thanks Johnathan for your stories, have a great time in the UK!

johnathanhershey.wordpress.com

A Politics Professor’s Explanation and Response to the Government Shutdown

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Dr. Lauermann, a Politics professor and the Assistant Dean of General Education and Common Learning, comments on the current government shutdown. Below is her explanation of the situation and her response to those who view either political party as tyrannical.

For other political scientists, my apologies, as this explanation is woefully oversimplified — one could write a book about it!

The current government situation is potentially more routine than would make most of us comfortable to think. When policy is passed, the legislation includes the substantive Robin Lauermannparticulars (what will the policy do and how will it do so). Congress must also pass appropriations to fund the legislation (since the human and physical capital to implement the policies require fund). Enter the annual funding cycle, which is the specific process which brings us to where we are.

Beginning in February the President provides a budget to the Congress for funding the next fiscal year. This power has been enshrined by law with the president for almost a century, because the predominant costs of government come from putting policies into force, secondarily the infrastructure to support the general operations of the three branches of government in their “representative” operations. The Office of Management and Budget, which reports to the President, coordinates the review of appropriations for the various agencies. Typically, the goal is to have agreement within Congress, passing the various packages of annual appropriations bills which continue to fund the government and approved policies, by June 30 to allow sufficient time before the start of the fiscal year, October 1. The government shut down on October 1 because one or more of these appropriations bills were not passed.

Thus the shutdown to government did not result from a proactive decision to close government, but rather the result of failing to take steps to pass funding for most of the appropriations bills (see THOMAS, Congressional records site, for information at http://thomas.loc.gov/home/approp/app14.html). Typically we have avoided similar outcomes in the past, save in recent memory for the 95 shutdown because, absent agreement on the larger budget bills, Congress can pass a continuing resolution (short or long term) to keep funding going until the larger agreements can be reached.

We are where we are because no continuing resolution has been passed. Furthermore, the process has become stymied because some legislators have decided to attach substantive policy concerns (what is law and what does it do) to a fiscal decision (is the law funded and at what level) because unicameral (single house) actions have not been successful.  Certainly there are always the potential for substantive impacts – if you drop spending, a law may not be as effectively enacted – but the messaging was that some members of Congress were going to use the reconciliation process to push for changes in the substantive policy. Whether their position on the policy is “right” or “valid” is the subject of a larger and less definitive conversation because it rests on competing values. However, it is not as common to create debate over whether an existing law, especially one of such scope as the Affordable Care Act, should stand or not via the fiscal process.

Some individuals have raised the contention of tyranny.  Certainly any one perspective refusing to negotiate might be considered tyranny, but because of the nature of our government, it becomes difficult to appropriately apportion blame (even though the public has no difficulty in doing so). Ben Franklin’s quote on treason is applicable here: “Treason is a charge invented by winners as an excuse for hanging the losers.” Treason, like tyranny is in the “eye of the beholder” and sometimes a convenient rhetorical argument. However, just as factions are “sown into the nature of man,” gridlock is sown into our institutional system.

Our system has separate branches which can be led by different groups (divided government). Furthermore, our bicameral system further creates opportunity for disagreement and logjams. Thus to pass, modify or repeal any policy, it requires both houses of Congress and the president (or in the case of a supermajority which can override presidential veto, just Congress).  Overall, the intention of the founders was that if actions could gain and maintain momentum through the larger process, we had less opportunity to make hasty and potentially poor decisions. From my perspective a good test of whether an action is tyranny (or at least ethically questionable) would be whether someone would support a particular political maneuver regardless of which side of the debate (s)he is on. Regardless, there is not a clear mandate among the larger public for anything more than resolving the shutdown (though a careful analysis of public opinion and elections may pose one viable argument, there is no clear and easy outcome on the substantive front to post in such a small forum here).

For a more in-depth, non-politically motivated, analysis I recommend “Revolving Gridlock: Politics and Policy from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush” by congressional experts David Brady and Craig Volden. http://www.westviewpress.com/book.php?isbn=9780813343204. Their work is not only carefully researched but reveals that gridlock is inherent to our system and not just a product of divided government – Jimmy Carter learned the hard way that the same party controlling all of the elective institutions of federal government does not pave the way for smooth policymaking.

Thank you, Dr. Lauermann, for your thorough explanation of the current government shutdown. We welcome comments that readers may have regarding our posts. 

A View of American Politics from Abroad: The Chinese College Students’ Perspective

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Current senior Politics major Abigail Scanga spent the spring semester studying abroad in China. Below are her thoughts on what she learned from Chinese students about their views on America and its domestic and foreign policy.

Every Friday night, 9 pm, at Xiamen Daxue (Xiamen University) in China, you can find a crowd of Chinese students gathered around a contemporary statue, eager to practice English. As a native English speaker, I was a rare commodity among the students, who often only get to practice with each other. With my large, round eyes and brown, curly hair, I could not hide or escape the notice of several Chinese students who would rather DSC06361practice English with an English speaker than a fellow Chinese student. Some were more fluent than others, but no matter the fluency of a student, I was always asked the pivotal question, “What is your major?” I must admit that I was perplexed by this question, especially in the face of native Chinese speakers. Do I tell them that I am a double major in Chinese and Political Science? But I knew that that answer would lead to a conversation in Chinese, which was the opposite of what I was there to do: help them practice English. Instead, I more often than not chose the route of just saying Political Science. And more often than not, I was in for a night of criticisms about both American domestic and foreign policy.

University students in China are not just concerned about one particular area of American politics, but rather a multitude of topics, ranging between both domestic and foreign policy. The most common question I received was, “What is your view on gun ownership?” The Sandy Hook Elementary shootings had just occurred two months previously, and Chinese students wanted answers: why would the American government allow its people to own such dangerous weapons? Through conversation, I also learned that Chinese people believe that every typical American family owns a gun. When I explained that my family didn’t own guns, I was further grilled, “Why doesn’t your family own guns?” “Does that mean your family is against guns?” “Have you ever shot a gun before?” “Can anyone get a gun, and how do you acquire one?” After much discussion, I finally found the root of all the questions: how could you feel safe living in America, knowing that your neighbor owns a weapon that could kill you? Though any American could respond by saying that even a kitchen knife could be used to harm, it is a very real fear for Chinese students who are not accustomed to living in a country where the citizens can own such dangerous weapons.

After the whiplash of hearing criticisms of America for allowing its citizens to own guns, then chastised for not protecting myself from my neighbor, the topic usually turned towards a more passionate venue: the Diaoyu Islands. While I was in China, tensions between Japan and China over the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Islands had increased dramatically. Chinese students vehemently opposed American involvement in this issue, and demanded answers from me: Why is the United States involved? How does this conflict have anything to do with Americans? Why were the Americans siding with the Japanese? I tried my best to explain the historical reasons for American backing of Japan, but the students did not want a history lesson. They wanted America to leave the conflict within Asia. At this point in the conversation I usually felt helpless. Yes, I am a student of politics, but do they really expect that I can change American foreign policy? I could feel that the students wanted to convince me that America was in the wrong, so I would try to retain neutral objectivity, riding out the conversation until they changed the topic.

I was studying in China when the bombings of the Boston Marathon occurred. It was shocking for me and my fellow American students to walk into the cafeteria one morning and see pictures and news reports flashing over the TV screens. We were all horrified, and a sense of nationalistic pride washed over us as we read about how Americans were helping each other through the ordeal. It was not as easy to comprehend from the news reports what the Chinese perspective was about the event. I realized that I could ask my newfound friends at English Corner what their take was, expecting a similar reaction that I held felt. To my surprise, the Chinese students were not overly concerned. It was a shame, they said, but America was asking for it. Just like 9/11/01, they referenced. When America involves itself in other nations’ affairs, it is only a matter of time before they will be attacked. The world is not a place where America can exact its influence and then not expect something in return. And with that, the conversation was over, and they moved on to congratulating me for re-electing President Obama.

I came to realize through these Friday night conversations that Chinese college students do not have a particularly positive opinion of American government and its 3 (1)policies. That does not mean that they do not like American culture or people; many were looking forward to traveling to the U.S., and all enjoyed Hollywood productions and entertainment. They were especially welcoming towards me and my fellow American study abroad students, and often invited us to go to karaoke. From a political standpoint, however, the students were confused, perplexed, and angry about how America conducts itself both domestically and internationally. Because I am a student of political science, it was my duty to explain the American perspective to them, though honestly I felt as if I took quite a beating. And even though this was the case every Friday night, same place, same time, same conversations, I decided to keep owning that I studied politics. Because I think it was, and still is, important to have these tough conversations in order to expand our worldview. It was one thing for me to debate American policies in the confines of a Messiah classroom with a community of people I trust, and it was quite another to accept the criticism from Chinese college students in their country, while trying to practice a second language. Though English corner was a rather humbling experience to say the least, it was a valuable one, for now I am better prepared to expand my worldview in international politics. With that, I now turn the tables to you, fellow students, alumni, professors, or people just generally interested in politics: how would you have responded to the Chinese student perspective, had you been in my place?

Thank you, Abigail, for sharing your experiences of studying abroad! We welcome any comments that readers may have regarding our posts. 

What can I do with a Politics Major? Thoughts from a recent Alumni

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2013 grad Jon Palmer spent the spring completing a practicum for the Politics Department in which he was responsible for completing our alumni career database.  Below are his thoughts on what he has learned in the process as he reflected over his time in the major.

Over the past four years of my College experience as a Politics major at Messiah College there are many things which I have learned that are important for all students of politics to learn, as well as anyone with the goal of interacting with the U.S. government and 380805_548523961865226_1387279841_nothers as well.  This compilation of things I have learned over the past four years have guided me in my personal journey of morality and ethics, as well as having taught me where I believe God is calling me in my life.

When I first came here to Messiah College I wanted to get a degree in politics so I could learn about government and at the same time try to learn about being a lawyer and what the laws which govern the country entail.  Specifically I wanted to be a lawyer who specialized in constitutional law; I have always had a particular affiliation for those involved in its creation, as well as an affiliation for the ideals it embodies.  I quickly learned that being a lawyer meant that I would be behind a desk for most of the time I was working and would inevitably end up debating many losing battles, or so it seemed to me at the time.  However, I was mostly dissuaded from being a lawyer because I learned that the two most important things about being a lawyer was being both patient and good at research.

I may have learned that I was not cut out to be a lawyer because research takes a lot of patience, which is something I really struggle with, but I have also learned that law-enforcement is where I am called to.  There is much that I feel this major has to offer for anyone who wishes to go into this field. (For example, pursuing a Criminal Justice major does not necessarily provide an advantage in getting into law-enforcement over other fields; if your goal is to be a police officer you will be taught everything you need to know in the Police Academy, as the practical application can only come from experience, according to the police officers I have talked to at my internship in the summer of 2012).  Honestly I didn’t really know about everything that the major entailed and I had thought it was the best thing for me to be a major in.  I did know that there were many different jobs you could get with a B.A. in Politics but after this semester of updating the Alumni database I learned that it was much more.

There are people who have degrees in politics that range from business owners, to lawyers, to police, to people who work in advertising, to editors and writers, all the way to people who work in government positions, or even non-profit organizations.  The question to ask when looking at this major isn’t “what can you do?”  it is “what can’t you do?” The answer to that question is “nothing”.  With this major there is nothing 185585_209938175723808_171986166185676_594667_2294722_nyou cannot do, and if you are not convinced, just take a serious look at the general education classes you take with along with the major.  There are so few fields that have no relation to politics that it is truly astounding more students don’t take a more serious look at this major.  Anything which has laws to govern it, anything that has institutions to run it, and anything involved with other countries has to have some connection to politics, government, or research and this major covers it all.

Another great thing about this major is that it can teach you about the inner workings of any institution related to government, and when you are looking for ways to motivate people in a negotiation, it helps to know why people make the decisions they do.  The inner workings of institutions tend to be similar if not identical, because people have a tendency to want things to be simpler or run in a more efficient way and that means symmetry in institutions.  This major also teaches about the various philosophies which spawned the Constitution and the ideas which prevail in all aspects of life today in the U.S.

One class which also stood out was “Preparing for Public Service.”  I took the class this spring and was astounded by how few students took it, but the value of the class is and will be astronomical in my future.  It has taught me so many practical things, like how to write a letter to someone you want money from, or how to ask someone to do something for you.  These are life skills which can actually be translated across the board as well, because everyone who is involved with politics will at some point need to contact another individual and ask them for help.  It taught me how to negotiate on the basis of my values and not from a single perspective, which creates a flexibility for me to negotiate with without losing sight of what I want to uphold.  It taught me what is involved with fighting for what you believe in by having us create our own interest group on campus with which we are supposed to further the purpose of on campus for one semester.  Keeping it organized, asking others for assistance or information, organizing an event or interview, and keeping our goals in check were all things I had to learn in order to survive the class.  This class has made me able to essentially organize my own non-profit organization if I wanted, or even to start my own business to some degree.  My public service skills and organizational skills have grown immensely as a direct result of this class.  All majors should take this course.

All in all, this major has been an incredible experience and taught me how to do what I want to do in life.  It taught me that a Christian can be both a politician and Christian, but that the politics major can be so much more than that.  It is a pathway to anything involving public service, research, debate, politics, law, institutions, economics, philosophy, religion, and other topics I haven’t named.  These things are all part of the treasure trove of information and wisdom I have found in my education and social life here at Messiah College.

Thank you, Jon, for sharing your thoughts on the Politics major. We wish you the best of luck in your professional career!

Readers, this is our first blog of the semester. Follow us as we embark in this new school year 2013-2014. Welcome Class of 2017!

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