Archive for the ‘electoral politics’ Category

The Broccoli Reflex

August 14, 2012

[I originally wrote this in 1992 for a newspaper I contributed to at the time. I understand that this is now construed as auto-plagiarism unless properly confessed, but it still seems relevant to current realities, and is hard to find anyplace else, so I am, modestly, reprinting it here as a public service.]

Quick, what do broccoli, tofu, fruitcake, and Democratic presidential candidates have in common? The first answer is probably most people’s first reaction to all of these: “Eeeeeeuuuww!” The second answer is that I suspet very strongly that this reaction, in all four instances, has been conditioned by, if not a Sinister Media Conspiracy, something at least as effective.

Kids are raised, from the first time they set eyes on televised food commercials, to dislike vegetables, and especially broccoli. Sometimes it is the purveyors of some veggie delicacy themselves who teach this lesson. “You may think broccoli is yucky, but we do something to it that you’ll like!” Tofu is the butt of everybody’s jokes about Japanese cuisine, nouvelle cuisine, vegetarian cuisine, and healthy New Age living. And fruitcake, over the last few years, has become a staple of Christmas jokes. Nobody eats fruitcake, the joke goes; they just wrap it up and pass it around the family from generation to generation, using it as a doorstop between holiday seasons.

In point of fact, broccoli, like any other green vegetable, can be quite tasty if not overcooked. Tofu takes on the taste of whatever it’s cooked with, for better or for worse. Which means that, cooked with decent seasonings, it can be a tasty, no-fat substitute for meat or cheese. And fruitcake–well, I may be prejudiced by the fact that my family recipe for fruitcake starts out with soaking a bunch of dried fruit in rum for 24 hours or so, but I like fruitcake, quite a lot actually, and so do about half the people I know.

Still, the bad press given to these laudable foods is really harmless in the greater scheme of things. What happens to Democratic candidates is more serious. For instance, a poll done shortly after some spectacularly bad economic news last fall indicated that 56% of the population would vote for an unnamed Democratic candidate (sort of like a first draft choice, I suppose) against Bush. But the figure dived to well below 50% for any specific Democrat.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan not only succeeded in carrying the popular and electoral college vote against Walter Mondale, but in completely destroying Mondale’s personal credibility. A monogamous churchgoer who had spent twenty-odd years getting regularly re-elected to Senate and Congress from a conservative sobersided state somehow became perceived overnight as a weak-kneed defender of sexual promiscuity and financial profligacy. He has essentially not been heard from since, and could probably not be elected to a local school board.

Then, in 1988, a wide array of well-educated, experienced candidates with a variety of interesting positions on important issues got shot down, one by one, for a spectrum of personal failings ranging through all the Seven Deadly Sins. The lone survivor of the process, Michael Dukakis, was the successful governor of a then-thriving state. But before the campaign was over, he had managed to blow a 17-point lead and came out looking like the patron saint of wimps and rapists. His credibility has been destroyed, and he would have a hard time getting a credit card these days. After these depressing examples, one can hardly blame the electable Democrats for not getting into the race until about two months after the start of the usual season, or Mario Cuomo for being unwilling to get into it at all. In most elections, even the loser gains something, be it only name recognition for a business or professional practice, or a good shot in the next election. When a Republican loses in the presidential primaries or the election, he can live to campaign another day, possibly for another office. Look at Reagan. And Bush. And Goldwater. Even Nixon is surprisingly lively. But when a Democrat does it–at least since McGovern–he’s out of the picture, and out of almost any picture, forever. Clearly, he has very little to gain and almost everything to lose by running. Now that any Democrat with the IQ necessary to sign his own nominating petition has figured this out, we have to assume that those still willing to run are either crazy or very very gutsy and dedicated.

Maybe that really is how we progressives want our candidates selected–the survival of the craziest. But if it isn’t, we need to bring to our own awareness and then the public’s, to the insidious mechanism that clicks into action against any Democrat the instant he becomes known as a possible presidential candidate–the conditioning program to trigger the Broccoli Reflex. Face it, folks, nobody could be simultaneously as vapid and wimpy and corrupt and stupid and insubstantial and dangerous and dull as we always end up believing all of the Democratic candidates are, and still tie his shoes and stay out of jail, let alone get elected to state or federal office and perform even the most minimally ceremonial duties of that office. A Democrat could have the charisma of Franklin Roosevelt, the vision of Eleanor Roosevelt, the devotion and integrity of Mother Teresa, the brains of Albert Einstein, and the good looks of Robert Redford, and the Sinister Media Conspiracy would still find a way to trigger the “Eeeeeuuuww! “reflex at mere mention of his name or party affiliation.

When we hear the current batch of candidates called the six-pack (“all lite, no head”), we need to recognize that this isn’t political satire, it’s operant conditioning. The GOP mastered the trick by accident in 1972 (actually coining the neologism “ultraliberal” for the occasion because even they knew nobody would swallow the idea of McGovern as a radical), and lost by accident to the same mechanism in 1976. (Everybody thinks it was the Nixon pardon that cost Ford the White House. In fact it was Chevy Chase’s persistent portrayal of Ford, on “Saturday Night Live”. as a maladroit malapropist.) Since then, they haven’t faltered once, and nobody has spotted the wires under their levitation act.

I don’t mean to imply that all Democratic candidates do in fact combine all the better traits of a Roosevelt/Teresa/Einstein/Redford hybrid. Obviously, Hart and Biden really did adulterate and plagiarize, respectively, and some of the others made minor but genuine goofs that year. But a Republican can lie, cheat, steal, fornicate, adulterate, and sell out the entire American economy to the Japanese–can have the brains of Dan Quayle, the family life and war record of Ronald Reagan,and the ethics and looks of Richard Nixon–and still be perceived by just about everybody, including most Democratic voters, as “presidential caliber.” There is more going on here than meets the eye. Broccoli, fruitcake, and tofu were only trial runs. The way things are going now, in 1996, the Republicans could run a Big Mac for President–a Big Mac over 35 years old!–and win. Next time somebody says “six-pack” (except, of course, when referring to beer), STOP the conversation right there. And don’t let it proceed until you have forced all participants to ask themselves “Where did I hear that? Do I really want to say it or endorse it? What do I really know about any of these guys?” And let’s be really conscious that there is a real difference between satire and sabotage.

Red Emma

Same Old Song II; or Some Dilemmas of Democracy

April 5, 2011

We have never established a rule for when a reply is long enough to become a post, but I suspect this one may reach that limit. It is not merely the “defense” establishment that stays while presidents come and go, but a few other eternal verities.

One is that, while the House of Representatives is constitutionally entrusted with both the power of the purse and the power to make war, it has had no serious chance to use the two in tandem as the Framers intended for well over a century. This is partly a technological problem. As every grade-schooler who paid attention in American History knows, the Battle of New Orleans was fought well after the War of 1812 had ended in a peace treaty, simply because, at the time, communications were limited by the speed of horse and sail. Now, wars can happen, and be ended, literally in a blink of an eye. The power of the purse becomes merely the power to pay the debts already incurred during that blink. That’s the theoretical limit.

In real life, wars take a bit longer to get started, but nowhere near as long as getting a declaration of war through Congress. And the power of the purse becomes a nullity if we already have “boots on the ground” and Congress could accomplish nothing by refusing to fund them except to leave the boots on the ground with no resources to maintain or defend themselves or even catch the next flight home.

The second problem became apparent in the run-up to the First Gulf War. Amazingly, both houses of Congress seriously debated our entry into that war for several days, before actually embarking on it. The ultimate result was, of course, a nearly unanimous vote in favor of the war (see the next paragraph for explanation.) But a good deal of time was consumed by war advocates proclaiming that such debate was “premature” since the war had not yet broken out. Debate over the Vietnam War, which took place almost entirely after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, involved at least the same amount of argument that it was “too late” to deliberate whether the war was a Good Thing, since we were already in it. Apparently there is a split-second in time, known only to Stephen Hawking, when it is neither too early nor too late to debate entering a war. It probably happens at 4:30 AM Eastern time, when both houses of Congress are asleep in their beds.

The third problem is that, once the executive branch has decided on a war, they become not merely the object of patriotism but its voice, and anyone who disagrees becomes, at best, the loyal opposition or the honored but ignored voice of an outworn pacifism (like Jeanette Rankin, bless her soul), and at worst a pack of traitors. Often, even those who argued against the war in the early part of the debate end up voting for it in the end, to provide a show of “unanimity” in support of national goals.

The first thing those arguing against the war have to do is disclaim pacifism. Senator Obama himself did a fine job of this in his speech opposing the Iraq War, when he stated that he wasn’t against all wars, just against dumb wars. Being against all wars renders an American politician permanently unfit for office, since a pacifist Commander in Chief is a contradiction in terms. Being against unjust wars might leave a Catholic politician among the legitimate competitors, except that it has been a long time since the US was involved in a war that plausibly met the Augustinian qualifications for justice. Or, for that matter, an intelligent war.

The next thing an opponent of the currently debated war has to do is proclaim his loyalty to and support for our brave men and women in the field, no matter how pointless and iniquitous the task they are commanded to accomplish. As pointed out earlier, this utterly precludes using the power of the purse to stop the war, and thereby turns the constitution into a nullity.

Only then can the opponent start talking about the merits. One of the few issues that is still a matter for legitimate disagreement in such debates is whether we go to war alone or with allies. Bush Senior gets a lot less praise than he deserves for his coalition-building in the First Gulf War, which enabled him to fight that war mostly on other people’s money, and with no foot-dragging by the UN or NATO. It put us in the position of being a mercenary army for the Europeans and Japanese, who needed Kuwaiti oil a lot more than we did. But it left us in a considerably better financial position than Bush Junior’s device of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq “off the books.” These days, “multilateralism” has a bad name in some quarters. Real macho nations go it on their own—and on their own money, which they then borrow from the Chinese. This issue needs revisiting, preferably before we go to war with the Chinese.

The financial issue is rarely raised until the war is actually over. By that time, it is too late to ask whether we can afford it. All we can do is try to figure out how to pay for it. The last time we looked at the money issue up front was in World War II, when Roosevelt had already decided we had bloody well better pay for it. He spent most of the war borrowing the money from American citizens. Wars are not paid for out of discretionary income, because wars, once decided on, are not discretionary. The Vietnam War was paid for by short-circuiting the War on Poverty, and by inflating the currency, rather than by raising taxes as we had done during WWII. Shortly thereafter, we decided that inflation, like raising taxes, was a bad thing. Now we pay for wars by viewing every other item in the budget (now, apparently, including even Social Security and Medicare) as discretionary, and by not noticing inflation as long as it affects only ordinary working people.

The one great force of modern economics to which even the “defense” establishment is not immune is privatization of governmental functions. So far, it extends only to what would otherwise be considered “staff” and “logistics” functions of the military, such as food, housing, transportation, and intelligence. Oddly, the private-sector jobs thereby created don’t seem to make a dent in the unemployment statistics—is this another idea worth revisiting? Could we balance the economy by putting 5 million unemployed civilians to work peeling potatoes in Kabul, suffering all the dangers and difficulties of military service at minimum wage with no benefits, no job security, and no legal rights except those provided by the Uniform Code of Military Justice? Donald Trump, call your office.

And finally, the “defense” establishment has to deal with the problem posed by a former Secretary of Defense: you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Now, that apparently means that you go to war with a bunch of overfed, overweight, undereducated, unhealthy people, many of them with minor criminal records, who can’t find jobs in the civilian sector. Watch this space for announcements that Boot Camp has now become a Fat Farm, and Advanced Individual Training now starts with basic literacy. You heard it here first, folks.

Red Emma, with assistance from her beloved brother, Ben Trovato

It’s the Same Old Song…

April 4, 2011

Maybe it’s the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Or one of the pale imitations that sprang up in WWII. One of the ever-so-alluring melodies of a “good war.” Given half a chance, most of us—and even worse, most of our presidents–really want to be the good guys in somebody else’s revolution, the Lafayette to somebody else’s Washington. We may have other motives lurking underneath, like oil, but that one is the hardest to ignore. And now Obama, whom I would have expected to be immune to that nostalgic passion, has been hit hard by it.

It shouldn’t surprise me all that much. In 1964, my first election, I voted for Johnson precisely because he was such a seasoned politician. Too self-interested, I thought, to blow up the world. Nobody blows up the world out of self-interest. Clausewitz says so. (What he actually says is something like he is presuming that the opposing parties do not possess any weapon capable of utterly destroying each other, which is why it’s reasonable to consider war a pursuit of politics by other means.) And so long after the fact, it’s hard to figure out how much self-interest and how much yearning for a good war comprised his motivation for lying us into Vietnam. But it is absolutely clear that he was motivated by both.

And then there was Jimmy Carter, who apparently thought the Ayatollah was a brave and saintly rebel against the evil Shah, until the American hostages got locked up. Everything that happened after that was fumbling, because he still had a hard time grasping how the Iranian Revolution had gone wrong (or maybe, that it had never gone right in the first place.)

And even Clinton, who insisted on intervening in the Balkans based on the really awful things the Serbs were doing to everybody else in the neighborhood—where, I asked myself, was the draft dodger I had voted for?

Of course, Woodrow Wilson, who “kept us out of war” just long enough to get re-elected before getting us into WWI, wasn’t a particularly great example either. The only president I can recall who promised to get us out of a war and actually did it was Eisenhower.

All of this should be going up on the wall beside my list of never-believes, like “Never trust a person who says ‘trust me.’” Or, as Nelson Algren says, “never eat at a place called Ma’s, never buy a used car from a man who calls himself Honest John, and never sleep with anybody who has more troubles than you do.” Never vote for a presidential candidate who promises to get or keep us out of a war, unless you really want a war.

Is there a chance Libya won’t turn into another Iraq? Apparently, Ghadafy is trying to work things out diplomatically, preferably by letting his son inherit and sort of clean up the family business. It might even work. But we ought to have figured out by this time that, when you elect somebody to an office that includes the title of Commander in Chief, you’re handing a gun to a 12-year-old, and the best you can hope for is that he knows how to use it without shooting anybody he’s not trying to hit.

Daniel Ellsberg has a slightly different take on all this. For him, it’s not the title or the frills that turn a rational animal into a predator. It’s the super-classified information you get, that almost nobody else has access to:

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.

“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.” (

Oddly enough, the History Channel, and writers like Dan Brown, may be our best defense against this problem. They tell us up front that our world is run by an intersecting cabal of hidden rulers who know things the rest of us will never know because they will never permit us to learn them. The Secret Brotherhood of the Tasmanian Illuminati is as good an explanation as any for what happens to American presidents once they get elected. Dan Brown and his ilk seem to have a plan to overthrow the Secret Brotherhood—subvert some of the people best qualified to belong to it, before they come to power. Sneak people into Harvard, and Princeton, and Skull and Bones, and Opus Dei, who will survive the initiation without losing their moral compass. People like Dan Ellsberg, in fact (alumnus of Harvard, the US Marine Corps, and the RAND corporation.) Bradley Manning doesn’t exactly fit this profile, nor does Julian Assange; technology may have changed the prerequisites for the job of mole in the Illuminati. But arguably, that’s the real purpose of a liberal arts education—to train both the next generation of the Illuminati and a few moles to keep them honest. In the meantime, if you are confronted with a choice between two presidential candidates, both more or less equally qualified except that one promises to end a war, or not to start one, you might as well flip a coin. You’ll get the same results.

Red Emma

In Praise of Folly

February 20, 2011

Item 1: So far, there’s one consequence of the 1995 government shutdown that I haven’t seen anybody mention. It was the direct cause of President Clinton meeting Monica Lewinsky. Ordinarily, she would never have spent any substantial amount of time in the Oval Office, as a mere intern. But when Congress shut off the money supply to the federal government, Monica, like all the other interns, suddenly became essential. She could continue to report to work, and even get enlisted to do things interns normally never did, because, unlike the civil servants who normally did them, she didn’t get paid. The pundits now discussing the possibility of another shutdown generally think the Republicans lost that round. If you factor in Monica, that’s not so clear.

Item 2: new entries on the Bennigan’s Index—of the two new eateries advertising their plans to open up within one block of my office, only one has actually done so. I’m getting really skeptical about the other, given that it’s been six months now. And in the meantime, two other cheap eateries in the next block have closed down. This is not encouraging. And of course, Giordano’s Pizza has just filed for bankruptcy.

Item 3: which leads one to wonder. Last year, several economists mentioned the second round of the Great Depression that started in 1937 as a direct result of Roosevelt cutting spending and raising taxes to reduce the deficit. This year, nobody’s talking about it at all. Instead, the GOP is suddenly utterly panicked about the deficit, which of course bothered them not at all when Bush was running it up in the first place.

Item 4: speaking of which, Mr. Wired is watching the SyFy [sic] Channel marathon of disaster movies, which this week is mostly about snakes gone wrong. Roger Ebert once characterized a certain genre of films as “idiot movies,” in which every time a character had to make a choice, it was always the stupidest choice possible. Most of the SyFy disaster films are more like the Ten Little Idiot genre, in which we watch a whole series of characters make such choices, and we get to bet on which one is still standing at the end. Not unlike presidential primary season, except that even the meanest monster snake is still kind of pretty, compared with many politicians.

Item 5: And Republican Congresscritter Mike Beard (see seems to think that if he eats all the pie, G-d will put another one in front of him. Didn’t the Greeks have myths about this?

Red Emma

Getting Real About Democracy

February 17, 2011

In 1959, Vice President Nixon and Russian Premier Khrushchev met in a model American kitchen in a Moscow exhibit, and talked about democracy. The actual specifics of the discussion were rather more subtle than what the public, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, ultimately got out of it. What the US audience heard was that democracy is better than communism because the average capitalistic American can afford a refrigerator and the average communist Russian can’t. But even in the subtleties of real conversation, the fact that an ideology supposedly based on dialectical materialism considered certain kinds of public ideals more important than material comforts, while a culture supposedly founded on the ideals of freedom and equality valued its kitchen appliances more than either, never came up. (Nor, oddly, did the fact that, for a large part of the year in a large part of the USSR, people don’t really need refrigerators, they just need an unheated space for storing perishables. But I digress.)

Is freedom valuable only because and to the extent that it produces material prosperity? Some philosophers decry this outlook as a merely “instrumental” view of something valuable in its own right. Aristotle talks about it surprisingly often. Indeed, freedom is not the only ideal we value for its economic advantages. Max Weber attributed the same advantage to particular kinds of Protestant religiosity. So do many on the Religious Right today. Are freedom, and virtue, good because they are good for business? Only because they are good for business?

This is no mere abstraction. The more prosperous parts of the Middle East are doing some serious soul-searching on the subject as we speak. And so, closer to home, are the citizens of Chicago. It’s hard to find, or even to coin, a term for the form of government which has ruled Chicago (with a brief interregnum) for 50 years, but it sure as hell isn’t a democracy or even a republic. Maybe a political monopoly.

The closest parallel I can think of is an altercation I had many years ago with our newspaper. We were signed up for delivery, and our delivery service was outrageously spotty. I kept calling the paper circulation department to complain, with no results. The circulation people told me they had contracted delivery out to some private service. So couldn’t you contract it out to some other service, I asked, baffled. Well, no, they couldn’t, because there was no other service. And, they pointed out, no other service was likely to spring up, because the current service had an exclusive monopoly on delivering both Chicago papers. That’s a pretty good analogy to Chicago politics over most of the last half-century. The Machine has a monopoly on government. And no alternatives are likely to come into existence, because there is no niche for them to occupy. Now Daley II has announced his retirement, and next week we have to vote on his successor. We all seem to be really awkward about this. After all, no Chicagoan under the age of 40 has ever had the experience of a serious multi-candidate mayoral election.

There’s more to it than that, in both Chicago and the Middle East. From the outside, business and other political entities find a monopoly (or dictatorship, or kleptocracy) easier to deal with than a democracy. You know where to send the bribes. (I’m only partially joking here. Chicago took longer to get television cable service than just about any other large city in the US because that phase of development happened during the “interregnum” mentioned above, when Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, and Eugene Sawyer held the office of mayor, and the political scene ran from free-form to chaotic. As a result, the cable companies couldn’t figure out whom to bribe in order to get the concession.) You know where to apply the pressure. As a result, sometimes the citizens of a monopolistic polity really are more materially prosperous than those of a poor but honest democracy. Once the Daley dynasty was back in charge, Chicagoans had no trouble getting cable.

Back in my English teacher days, I often used my students as guinea pigs in informal sociological studies. Since I taught in both private and community colleges, and often at satellite campuses in suburbs and obscure neighborhoods, I actually had a pretty good demographic spread of subjects. For several years, I asked all of them: If you had to choose between (a) a benevolent dictatorship in which you were guaranteed a job, a good income, a nice home with all the modern conveniences, a car, health care, and education for your children, but no right to vote or choose your leaders or have any part in deciding on the laws that would govern you, and (b) a democracy in which you would have the right to vote, choose your leaders, advocate for laws and causes you believed in, with some chance of effecting the system, but a really bad economy, with poorly-paid jobs, so that most people could not afford a decent home, a car, education for their children, or health care—AND IN NO CASE COULD YOU HAVE BOTH DEMOCRACY AND A GOOD ECONOMY—which would you choose? I had to belabor the point that they could not choose “both,” on pain of a failing grade, because so many of them almost automatically assumed that democracy always produced prosperity that I could not otherwise get them to accept the premise, even for the sake of argument.

The ethnic differences were interesting. African-Americans almost always chose the poor but honest democracy. Hispanics almost always chose the benevolent dictatorship. Immigrants, from almost any country, tended to favor the benevolent dictatorship model. I could not discern any difference between men and women, or older and younger students. Everybody else pretty much split right down the middle.

If I were setting up the same survey today, I might formulate it a bit differently. Instead of a benevolent dictatorship, I might posit a state run like a corporation, in which the ordinary non-shareholding citizens got good jobs, good benefits, the right to live in a well-run company town, but no part in choosing the Board of Directors or the CEO, and no right to buy shares (kind of like George Pullman’s initial vision) versus the aforementioned poor but honest democracy. So okay, my fellow Alexandrians, which would you choose? And why?

Red Emma

The Politics of Politics

February 16, 2011

You’ve probably noticed the phenomenon yourself. Any discussion can be completely derailed, any subject can be avoided. All you have to do is say “Well, that’s just politics.” End of discussion. On to the weather and organized sports. Amazingly enough, even elected representatives can blacken one another’s reputations simply by accusing each other of “playing politics” with some important issue. Politics is a dirty word among Americans. Calling someone a politician borders on libel.

It was not always thus. Aristotle said politics is the main thing that distinguishes human beings from lower animals. (Which tells you how little Aristotle knew about cats, for instance. But I digress.) Politics, after all, is the way people make collective decisions, usually about our various visions of The Good, or about distributing scarce resources, without resorting to violence. In most other cultures, politics (a/k/a public service) is still an honored profession. In Central Europe, post-communist politics has achieved a new birth of respectability. What makes American attitudes about politics different?

Politics has been defined as the “manipulation of power,” and as “war by other means.” Usually, when we talk about “playing politics”, we are referring to something else, to what we call “party politics” and James Madison would have called “faction”–putting the success of one’s own group ahead of the merits of the issue in question. It is this sense of the word which we usually have in mind when we talk about certain things being “above politics”–for instance, that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” i.e. that foreign and military policy are “above politics.” Similarly, we appoint government functionaries through civil service, and appoint federal judges for life, to keep them “above politics”–that is, not beholden to or under the control of any particular “faction.”

But, like Madison, we tend to think “faction” is a bad thing because we see it as based on nothing but personal or group advantage. “Viva Yo,” as the Spanish put it. If a faction takes an ideological position of any substance at all, we assume that position is somehow conducive to the personal advantage of faction members, or they wouldn’t be adopting it. There is some basis for this, of course. Very few people who do any serious thinking about public policy issues arrive at positions that are likely to work against their personal advantage and survival. Most of us figure that what’s good for me is also good for just about everybody else, everybody who matters, anyway. But the real purpose of politics is not merely to allow factions to compete for advantage, but to allow divergent visions of The Good to compete for public support and power.

The other aspect of politics which most disturbs ordinary Americans is the necessity of compromise, splitting the difference, making sure everybody leaves the table still a bit hungry. To decide any issue this way, we think, is to start by presuming it can’t be very important. If it were, we would fight to the last drop of blood. Once a question transcends politics in this sense, war cannot be very far away. Once slavery stopped being a normal part of life, like breathing air, and became a moral issue for both sides, politics failed and war became inevitable.

Which puts an entirely different slant on placing anything “above politics.” That which is above politics is also beyond civil dispute. If “politics stops at the water’s edge,” then foreign and military policy lie outside the operation of democracy. Somebody–who may or may not have been popularly elected–decides what that policy should be, and our elected representatives then buckle down to supporting and implementing it. Even if circumstances change, so that a workable policy become unworkable, or a morally neutral policy becomes an abomination, the people and their representatives must continue to implement it to the bitter end. Any attempt to call a halt, for instance by cutting financial support, would be “playing politics” with national security, or so the supporters of the status quo insist.

Similarly, to say that education, or the environment, or other matters of public policy, are “outside politics” is to say either that we are prepared to “go to the mattresses” for them, or that we have unanimous agreement on The Good in those areas. No doubt there have been periods in our history when the latter was true. But, more often than not, this is simply wishful thinking among partisans of one or another vision who desperately want everybody to stop all this arguing and let them get on with their work. Merely wishing, however passionately, will not make it so.

We have to accept the fact that most communities and nations–and particularly ours–are host to numerous factions competing both for material advantage and for their visions of The Good. If we downplay the political realm as a place to play out this competition, we do not thereby eliminate competition. We merely force it to happen in other arenas and by other means. The most common alternatives are violence and money. If you cannot get a hearing for your vision of The Good within the political forum, you can always assassinate one of the more legitimate contenders, or buy off his supporters. Both of these alternatives to politics are popular in Third World countries, and both have achieved some currency even in the U.S. and industrialized Europe as well. The political realm, because its participants can so easily (and often deservedly) be accused of using public funds and facilities for personal advantage, has a hard time protecting itself against infringement by money or violence, and an even harder time distinguishing, in practice and in theory, between personal advantage and ideology.

In countries where, as here, the political realm still exists in a more or less healthy condition, it needs a few things to insure its preservation:
(1) better mechanisms for drawing more people into political dispute, especially people whose opinions are not normally solicited or listened to;
(2) a clear message that dispute is legitimate, and nothing is “above politics,” including ongoing military conflict, national security, and data and principles agreed on by scientifically-educated people; and
(3) mechanisms for public education about issues currently under public dispute, in structures accessible to any interested citizen, and encouragement of a strong ethos requiring those who take part in public debate to educate themselves first. What the “public square” did in a rather rudimentary but thoroughly personalized way in ancient Athens or revolutionary Philadelphia, the Internet is equipped to do in a somewhat shallower but far broader way. For the first time ever, we are technologically equipped to exercise democracy in cities larger than the Aristotelian fifty thousand families.

The questions that so far have been adjudged to “transcend politics” are all, of course, “controversial,” which is what we call any topic when we don’t want to discuss it. What the word actually means is that people disagree about it, and feel strongly about their opinions on all sides, but cannot imagine allowing their minds to be changed by rational argument.

So far, the U.S. has managed to form and preserve a relatively healthy political forum by keeping the really hot “controversial” topics out of it, or allowing discussion within the political realm only by properly licensed “special interest groups.” Such groups are likely to explore an issue more thoroughly and extensively, but they are not necessarily more knowledgeable than the average person on the street. On the contrary, they may just be better organized and more enthusiastic in spreading ignorance and misinformation (and sometimes even disinformation.) Which would be okay if all sides had an equal chance to be heard. But that kind of opportunity depends on all kinds of often unpredictable variables. Money helps a lot. Enough of it can guarantee a hearing. Being perceived as controlling a lot of votes or a lot of publicity is the next best thing. Absent these advantages, the best an interest group can do is try to get a lot of money or a lot of votes, and then parley them into access. Merely having strong, well-researched, carefully-thought-out, well-expressed opinions will not do the job. Maybe we need a more open political realm where it would.

Part of our problem is not merely that we distrust politicians (although, heaven knows, we do!) but that we distrust the political art, even (perhaps especially) when practiced by sincere advocates who are not pursuing their own material advantage. “Rhetoric”, which originally meant the art of persuasion, is now a synonym for the barnyard epithet. Most of us resent anyone who merely states a position without prefacing it modestly with “It’s only my opinion, but…” Anybody who has the nerve to try to change other people’s opinions–except, of course, in the mode of commercial advertising–is somehow infringing on our right to believe whatever we want. The converted are now the only people it is acceptable to preach to. Indeed, most advocacy activity these days is specifically directed only toward inactive sympathizers, and its purpose is not to change their opinions, but to persuade them to act on the opinions they already hold. The only non-sympathizers who can legitimately be confronted with one’s opinion are legislators and other public officials. The purpose of such confrontation is still not to change their opinions, but to change their official actions. We don’t really expect politicians to have opinions of their own, but only to weigh the vote-power behind the opinions of their constituents and act accordingly.

The blogosphere itself, the virtual ground on which we here confront one another, is one of the political arenas with the most potential for civil discourse among widely divergent constituencies. It can easily break down into either a commercial forum for sale to the biggest advertiser or a batch of mutually inaudible echo chambers for the narrowest possible ideologies. But the fact that nobody is paying us to be here, and that we have so far managed to refrain from both real and symbolic threats against each other, is a good augury. This may be the ground on which the American polity revitalizes itself, and we—with all our flaws, crochets, and ideosyncrasies—may be among those who can make it happen.


Intelligence and Virtue by Proxy

January 24, 2011

I just heard David Brooks, at the Commonwealth Club of California, quote President Obama saying, in private, something like “I’m a better speechwriter than any of my speechwriters, a better political analyst than my political director, and a better strategist than any of my strategy guys.” Brooks seemed to think this betokened a breath-taking lack of humility. Which maybe it did, except for the part about speechwriting, which I have no trouble believing. But it can also mean that Obama is missing out on one of the most important tasks of leadership—choosing sidekicks better than oneself at various particular duties.

Chicago’s current mayor started his political career as lead prosecutor for Cook County, thirty-odd years ago. I got to see him up close, on one of his community task forces, and gained considerable respect for him, because his advisers and assistants were all really smart and really good at what they did. All of them, almost certainly, were smarter than he was. Some of them, at least, were more ethical than he was. As a result, he did a really good job as prosecutor. (Once he became mayor, he shifted entirely out of that mode, probably because, since his father had been mayor before him for twenty-odd years, he figured he knew enough to run his own show. It has become increasingly apparent that he didn’t.)

If by some freak of fate I were to fall into high public office (or, I guess, high office of any kind), I would spend the first six months finding the best available people to back me up. If possible, I would want all of them to be smarter than I, and better at their particular jobs than I could possibly be at any of them. That, essentially, was what Franklin D. Roosevelt did, starting with his choice of wife. To a considerable extent, John F. Kennedy did too. A leader is the sum of his staff.

The average citizen, even a politically active citizen, is unlikely to be closely acquainted with her elected representatives in Congress and the Senate. But it’s pretty easy to get to know their assistants in the normal course of activism or business, and it is legitimate to form an opinion of their boss from that knowledge. For most of us, it is the only sensible way to form such an opinion. Certainly there is no point trying to know a politician from the version of his personality presented to the public by his handlers. The majority of our fellow citizens believe in voting for “the man [sic], not the party.” Since both the man and the party are artificial constructs, this guarantees that we will be fooled again and again. Get to know the candidate’s staff, her “people”, and you have a good chance of making good choices in the voting booth.

Jane Grey

If It Were Not Written…

December 6, 2010

The rabbis who put the Talmud together used to say, when they mentioned something especially weird or counterintuitive, “If it were not written, it would be impossible to believe it.” I guess that’s Aramaic for “Honest! No kidding!”

Every now and then, we run into a whole bunch of counterintuitive stuff at once. This has been one of those weeks. For instance, a psychologist, at /research/proposal-classify-happiness-psychiatric-disorder/, is proposing to designate happiness as a mental disorder. Presumably it should turn up in DSM-X or whatever as Inappropriate Euphoric Disorder. This is not totally out of step with what we know about happiness and its opposite. Depressed people, we have known for a long time, have a more accurate perception of reality than non-depressed people (See http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/ Depressive_realism) This suggests that happiness causes a distorted view of reality. Surely that should qualify it as a mental disorder.

And then there’s the influence of mercury poisoning on avian sexual orientation. See, for the original study. This one is interesting because it may provide an explanation for declining sperm counts in human males (see and perhaps also for the increasing visibility of human homosexual behavior. In which case, no, people aren’t born with it, but they don’t choose it either.

And then there’s what I just heard on our local public radio station, on “To the Best of Our Knowledge”, which this week is discussing the human soul (or lack thereof.) In the course of this discussion, one of the interlocutors, Parker Palmer (I think), said that a more scientific society is likely to be more authoritarian because it leads us to be more dependent on “experts.” Once again I had to restrain myself from leaping up and shouting “This is bullsh*t.” The only difference between “scientifically advanced” cultures and “primitive” ones is that our “experts” are somewhat more likely to know what they are talking about than their “experts.” But humans, at any level of scientific advancement, will rely on the available “experts” to resolve uncertainties. In fact, a case can be made that human culture creates “experts” in order to be able to rely on them. And we make our “experts” out of the currently available material, regardless of its fallibility. The fallibility may vary; the reliance does not.

And then there’s the Unintended Consequences problem. For instance, Israel encourages some Palestinians to emigrate. Like migrant populations from anyplace, they are most likely to want to immigrate to the United States. Some of them succeed. A lot of them end up moving to the Detroit area. This creates at least one and probably a couple of congressional districts that take some hardline anti-Israel positions, and perhaps move the US Congress as a whole a squinch more in that direction. And, more recently (speaking of public radio), as public radio budgets get cut (even though they have not yet lost all federal funding, which hasn’t been a large part of their budgets in the last decade or so anyway), they find that one of the cheapest ways to get programming their audiences will enjoy is to buy them from the Brits and the Canadians. Which may encourage our “cultural elite” to adopt a more European, or leftist, or blue-state point of view.


America Needs Better Political Theater

December 3, 2010

Today, Rep. Charles Rangel stood in the well of the House Chamber while Speaker Pelosi read out a resolution of censure.

All three of the Wired Sisters had questions about the proceeding. Jane, being both the most literary and the most easily shocked, kept thinking about King Lear and Oedipus Rex and other fallen monarchs, possibly even including Milton’s Lucifer.

Cyn merely wondered at the apparent disproportionality of the punishment to the alleged misdeeds, and finally concluded that, behind the scenes, Rangel must have been really unpleasant to a lot of his colleagues who welcomed the chance for revenge.

But Emma, who is fond of political theater, found the whole thing boring. The Japanese used to be really good at this stuff, which generally concluded with seppuku. Pope Gregory got to put on a good show at Canossa, with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow to apologize (okay, it doesn’t snow very often in Washington, and probably nobody was willing to wait that long.) King Henry II of England got scourged by monks at Canterbury for having encouraged the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Those guys had style. Washington has a perfectly good theatrical community, and could always bring in outside talent if necessary, so why put on what looked like nothing so much as a petulant schoolboy being scolded by his teacher? Congress needs to retain a dramaturge or a ritualist or something, to put some zing into its routines. Slogan for the next election: If you can’t stun, don’t run.

The Wired Sisters, collectively

Rude Awakening

December 3, 2010

I slept a little late this morning. What woke me was the news on the radio. Specifically, what woke me was the news, in two closely adjacent pieces, that Congress (1) would not extend the unemployment compensation benefits for the long-term jobless, and (2) that God’s Own Party does want to extend the Bush tax cuts, not only for lower- and middle-income taxpayers, but for those making more than $250K per year. They don’t want to extend unemployment benefits ( which would put a $65B dent in the budget) unless they can be “paid for” by cuts in some other area. They are not the least bit interested in demonstrating how the tax cuts for billionaires (roughly a $700B addition to the deficit) can be “paid for.” With great difficulty I restrained myself from leaping out of bed shouting “this is bullsh*t,” which would have painfully startled Mr. Wired and the cat out of their sound sleep.

Let’s break this down a bit. Those losing their unemployment compensation benefits number roughly 800,000 human beings, most of them with families. The average weekly benefit for each member of this unfortunate group is $300.00. That’s a total annual income of $15,000.00 per person, or more likely, per family. Keeping the Bush tax rates for all taxpayers would mean that the something like 225,000 households in the highest tax bracket (up in the $300,000s per year, or 20 times the average annual unemployment benefit) would be taxed at a maximum marginal rate of 35% instead of 38.6%. Crunch the numbers for yourself.

But, the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln tells us, the upper bracket tax cuts are different from the pittance we give unemployed workers. If we give the unemployed their weekly $300.00, they’ll just use it to buy food and pay rent and put gas in their cars so they can keep looking for jobs. If we give the rich more money, they will use it to create jobs. (I love the word “create” in this context. It well-nigh apotheosizes Big Business. One can see Donald Trump leaning out over the heavens, his fingertip outstretched to a Walmart sales clerk… Moro, can you draw this? Anybody else?)

Just as they have created jobs over the 9 years during which the Bush tax cuts have already been in effect, right? The nine years in which corporations have repeatedly demonstrated that they will do almost anything rather than hire American workers to work in the United States at full-time permanent jobs with health insurance and retirement benefits. If the Bush tax cuts had created jobs, there wouldn’t be 800,000 people out of work now for more than a year. Why should we expect the tax cuts to do now what they didn’t do last year or the year before?

And why, pray tell, do we accept the Republican double standard on deficit reduction? That standard dictates that all government spending for ordinary people and their families must be “paid for,” and paid for not by tax increases on anybody else, but by spending cuts on other government services to the same ordinary people. But it also dictates that tax cuts on the richest Americans do not need to be “paid for” at all, because they will by some magical process pay for themselves in jobs to be “created” from the same inanimate matter that used to create organic life in the theories of Aristotle. In short, they would have us keep two sets of books, one for the rich and one for everybody else. Each set must balance within itself, but the two need have no interaction whatever with each other, except across the celestial spark gap (see above) in which the superrich “create” jobs. My father the CPA would be aghast at this maneuver.

But there seems to be a bipartisan push to extend jobless benefits in exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts for even the richest taxpayers, and to hell with the deficit for this week anyway. Republicans and Democrats, the pro-life corporate party and the pro-choice corporate party, shoulder to shoulder against financial sanity.

Well, I gotta go. The sovereign state of Illinois has just passed a bill legitimizing civil unions for same-sex couples. The Catholic Church says this is an assault on the sacred covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, and that means I probably ought to cook dinner for Mr. Wired before our marriage falls apart altogether.

Red Emma