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A week of Jasper Johns, Kenny G and Bad Art Friends
Most of what I wrote this week seems to be circling cultural topics. I don’t know if that’s because politics has gotten depressing or because it’s gotten boring. But my one political piece of the week was about the issue that is emphatically both.
One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor
My only piece at The Week this week was a short item about the debt ceiling:
The Democratic position is that Republicans should join in raising the debt limit because they share the responsibility for the rising debt — as they unquestionably do. Raising the ceiling shouldn't be a political football, but a routine matter, since the real decisions are made when taxes and spending levels are set by Congress.
Coming together that way would certainly be better than these constant pointless battles. But getting political cover is hardly something worth risking the full faith and credit of the federal government over. If the Democrats could eliminate the debt ceiling problem on their own, surely that would make more sense than joining the Republicans' incredibly risky game.
And the Democrats had every chance to do so. They could have included an increase in the debt ceiling in the original reconciliation bill, for example, or passed a standalone debt ceiling raise through reconciliation. They could eliminate the filibuster for debt ceiling bills on a party-line basis, just as Republicans did for judicial nominees — or they could eliminate the filibuster entirely in the same manner. All these choices carry political risks, but they are all within the Democrats' power, and are obviously superior to allowing a default.
The article feels a little obsolete already because Senator McConnell agreed to kick the can down the road to December, but he’s already saying that next time he won’t be so helpful. I really can’t fathom what the Democrats are waiting for. I understand that certain members of the Senate caucus get scared about the prospects of modifying the filibuster, and I understand that both moderates and progressives are nervous about including the debt ceiling raise in the omnibus reconciliation bill, because that would make the bill a must-pass matter. But I haven’t heard any Democrat defend this game on the merits. Nobody says “the debt ceiling is a good thing to have because it imposes an important discipline on the system” because nobody can actually believe that.
Meanwhile, in terms of pure politics, this is a weapon that, when the Republicans shot themselves directly in the foot with it, they recovered almost immediately. Who could possibly believe that the Republicans are going to look bad this time when the Democrats control the Senate and they can’t get their own caucus together on a purely partisan solution?
As I concluded in my piece:
If Democrats had wanted to set a positive example, they could have eliminated the debt ceiling entirely as soon as they got the majority. That would have been the right thing to do, and politically wise as well, since it would deprive future Republican majorities of a hostage to take.
Instead they're playing chicken in order to prove that Republicans are the irresponsible party. What a responsible thing to do.
Three posts this week on the Substack, all meditations in one way or another on culture and cultural institutions. For what it’s worth, I’m actually quite pleased with all of these.
“Maculate Conception” articulates my thoughts on visiting the Jasper Johns show at the Whitney Museum, the relationship between art, abstraction, conception, and commerce. I think Johns navigated those relationships far more interestingly than a bunch of recent market-obsessed conceptual artists.
“Grand Strategy. Huh. (Good God.) What Is It Good For?” is my analysis of what went wrong with Yale’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, whose leader just resigned claiming that the university was bowing to donor pressure to curtail academic freedom. Spoiler: I don’t think it’s that simple.
Finally, “Cuddly Nazis and Sympathetic Ghouls” reflects on whether a documentary about Kenny G has anything useful to say about evaluating the moral compass of Holocaust films.
The World Elsewhere
Everyone seems to have spent the week talking about “Who Is the Bad Art Friend,” about the strangely compelling case of Dawn Dorland v. Sonya Larson. This appears to be a story about appropriation, plagiarism, artistic freedom, envy, race and class. But what it’s really about is social media, the way it feeds our desire for attention and incites us to vicious judgment. So I find it very sad that so much of the commentary has consisted of gawking at the bad behavior of two writers and condemning one or the other as the villain—a mode of reading that enthusiastically participates in precisely the behavior that the piece is actually exposing.
More in this tweet thread from me—but first, I encourage you to read the story: