Dynamist Blog

Take Me To Your Leader...You Must Have a Leader

Thoughtful, original, nuanced, curious, and empirical (and also often funny), Jonathan Rauch exemplifies what intellectual journalists are supposed to be. So it's no surprise that while the keepers of conventional wisdom at the NYT and New Yorker desperately try to identify the secret bosses of the Tea Party movement, Jonathan has been trying to understand what's really going on. For the short version, you can watch the video, but it's better to read his article on how the radically decentralized movement actually works. Here's the opening:

Though headless, the tea party movement is not mindless. Its collective brain meets every Monday night.

More than 200 leaders of local tea parties -- coordinators, as they usually call themselves -- join a conference call every week organized by an umbrella group called the Tea Party Patriots, the largest national tea party organization. On one Monday recently, three national coordinators begin the session with a rundown on plans for upcoming rallies. The events are expensive; does anyone have a problem with a search for $1,000 donors? (No one does.) An organizer has put together a manual on what to ask candidates at town hall events. ("That will go to the entire e-mail list.")

The group is polled on whether to hold a second round of house parties throughout the country. (Yes.) A coordinator gives an update on an iPhone app for tea partiers who will be going door to door this fall to talk to voters. (It will use Global Positioning System technology to download walking lists and upload voter data in real time -- cutting-edge stuff.)

The floor is then opened. Local leaders propose ideas, announce new tea party groups, float queries, and offer tips. (How can we maximize free publicity? Lawn signs, movie events, and digiprint postcards are cheap and effective.) A newcomer introduces a start-up tea party in Winfield, Ind. A coordinator in nearby South Bend offers a welcome. ("I know all these folks. I want to get you connected with them.")

Rick, from Albuquerque, N.M., asks if the national agenda includes investigating voter-roll irregularities, something his group is concerned about. Mark Meckler, a Tea Party Patriots coordinator and co-founder, weighs in. Newcomers "often don't understand how badly we need you to lead the way," he says. "If this is an area of concern to you," he admonishes, "the way the Tea Party Patriots works is that you guys really lead the organization. We're a relatively small group of people who are just trying to help coordinate. We're not in charge; we're not telling anybody what to do. You need to take a leadership role and stand up." Meckler suggests that Rick gather a group of people concerned about the issue and go to work.

Rick gets the message. "We'll get on the Ning [social-networking] site and try to take the lead on that."

Will vote fraud emerge as a tea party cause? Maybe, maybe not. Meckler, the closest thing the movement has to an organizational visionary, meant what he said. No one gives orders: In the expansive dominion of the Tea Party Patriots, which extends to thousands of local groups and literally countless activists, people just do stuff, talk to each other, imitate success, and move the movement.

Read the whole thing.

Fashion and Culture

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 16: A model walks the runway at the J. Mendel Spring 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at the The Studio at Lincoln Center on September 16, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz)

While I'm catching up on the Dynamist blogging, I should call attention to another article I wrote for the WSJ, during New York Fashion Week. Here's the opening:

In March 2009, a few days before a major exhibit of Andy Warhol portraits opened at the Grand Palais in Paris, the curator faced a minor crisis. Pierre Bergé, the partner of Yves Saint Laurent and keeper of his legacy, objected to having the late fashion designer's portraits grouped with the likes of Giorgio Armani and Sonia Rykiel under the heading "Glamour." Saint Laurent was an artist, Bergé said. His image should hang with those of David Hockney and Man Ray. After all, Mr. Bergé said, Warhol himself had proclaimed YSL "le plus grand artiste français de notre temps."

The show went on, to glowing reviews, without the Saint Laurent images. It was an irony-drenched and very French moment, all about maintaining the status distinctions that Warhol himself had exploded. This was, after all, the man who famously compared department stores to museums. "Why do people think artists are special?" Warhol once said. "It's just another job."

Absurd though it was, Mr. Bergé's protest expressed a widespread conviction: that fashion is an inferior, unworthy, trivial and culturally suspect pursuit. Art is much, much better. In museum circles, observes Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, "Fashion is really seen as the bastard child of capitalism and female vanity."

So Sept. 9, when Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week opened at Lincoln Center, marked a significant cultural moment. The performing arts complex is doing more than providing a venue for runway shows. (You can, after all, rent its facilities for a bar mitzvah or corporate conference.) The center has hired a director of fashion and will incorporate fashion, along with opera, theater, dance and music, into its year-round lineup of featured arts, with plans for fashion films, photo exhibits and lectures.

It's a high-profile indicator of an intellectual trend that has been building for decades. Fashion is shedding its cultural stigma. It is increasingly recognized as a significant cultural activity—indeed, one of the defining characteristics of our civilization.

"Fashion attests to the human capacity to change," writes the French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky in "The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy," his iconoclastic 1987 book. Like science and industry, "fashion is one of the faces of modern artifice, of the effort of human beings to make themselves masters of the conditions of their own existence."

Read the rest here. I highly recommend Lipovetsky's book and also Anne Hollander's Seeing Through Clothes, which I mention in the article. In 2007, I wrote this Atlantic column about fashion in art museums.

Was I Too Complacent about Locavore Coercion?

In response to my WSJ column, Jim Prevor, the founder and editor-in-chief of Produce Business magazine, the online Jim Prevor's Perishable Pundit, and all-round perishable-food-business guru, emails:

[Y]our off-hand comment at the end that the local-food movement would be dangerous if it were somehow enacted into law is not such a distant hypothetical as that remark implied.

For example, at public universities all across the country there are increasing restrictions on food procurement. Although these policies are not "laws" they allow ideologues to impose real costs on the students, on their parents and on the public--without anyone voting for these policies. Recently we've run a series on food procurement at UC Davis:

Everyone Is In Favor of Better Flavor But Is 'Local' A Solution Or An Ideology?

Tom Reardon of Michigan State University Speaks Out: Wither Local?

Dissecting the Meaning of Local, Sustainable and Flavorful

The national school lunch program and related programs use the power of the purse — potential loss of federal funds — to get schools to adopt an anti-trade procurement policy. Some of this is explicit, the law contains a "buy-American" provision. There are exemptions, so a school can buy Chilean grapes when no US grapes are available, but competition is forbidden. The buy-local issue is more complex. The law is actually contradictory with some provisions requiring schools to seek out the low-bidder and other provisions urging them to buy local. The Obama administration has leaned toward the second provision in its discussions with state officials and school districts. We ran a related piece here: 'Buy American' and 'Buy Local' Requirements Confusing School Foodservice Buyers...Chilean Fresh Fruit Association Speaks Out

There are also special nutritional funds that are available only if you buy in politically approved places, such as a Farmer's Market. Here is a link to a government description ofa special program that adds on WIC funds — but only for purchases from Farmer's Markets with the explicit goal of encouraging the purchase of local produce: WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition Program

Beyond these public policy issues, we run a series of focus groups and mall intercepts and other studies that interact with consumers from the UK to North America and on to Australia/New Zealand. You would be shocked at what people expect. A seemingly intelligent woman walked out of a farm stand in Massachusetts. The stand stood on a small farm but probably 90% of the sales of the farm stand were purchased off the local wholesale market. Yet when we asked shoppers why they liked shopping there, more than one pulled out their pineapple and pointed to the advantages of a good Massachusetts grown pineapple!

Economist Luke Froeb comments further on the costs of localism, with video from Stewart Brand at TED. I will note, however, that consumer preferences need not be "rational." It's well and good to argue about the environmental impact of locally grown food with people who buy it because they think it's good for the planet. But we should avoid the technocratic temptation to subject individual subjective tastes to centralized cost-benefit analysis.

In Defense of Pricey Peaches and Foreign Fruit

In a column in Saturday's WSJ, I defend Michael Pollan's expensive taste in peaches but question the locavore ideal. Here's the lead:

Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and a leading advocate of buying locally grown food, recently upset many of his fans by daring to put numbers on his oft-repeated prescription to "pay more, eat less." Eight dollars for a dozen eggs? $3.90 for a pound of peaches?

Those figures were way too specific and way, way too high to go unnoticed. The humanistic foe of industrialized eating suddenly sounded like a privileged elitist, and the local-food cause seemed insensitive to cash-strapped shoppers.

But Mr. Pollan was only being honest. Patronizing local farmers who produce in small batches tends to cost more. You may find some peak-season bargains at the farmers' market, but there's no such thing as a free locavore lunch. Getting fruits and vegetables only from local farms necessarily limits variety — few crops are available everywhere all the time — and it doesn't come cheap. Economies of scale apply even to produce.

Read the rest, and some interesting comments, here. My column will run every other week in the Journal's new Saturday "Review" section. For a bit more commentary on exotic fruits, see this post on my DeepGlamour blog.

I Was So Right about This

The NYT is marking the 40th anniversary of its op-ed page by interviewing a few writers of some of its more memorable op-eds. I was honored that my 1999 piece on the Microsoft antitrust suit, "What Really Scares Microsoft," made the cut.

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