Friday, October 29, 2004
Last Post before Election. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm moving this weekend into an old house that has needed a lot of attention--and still needs it. I haven't had the time to post much this week, and I'll be without an internet connection at home for several days as well. So between dealing with all the things you have to deal with in a move like this and not having easy internet access, it's not likely I'll be posting much in the next week or so.
But what is there to say at this point? I'm resigned to either outcome. My belief is that politics plays a fundamentally passive role in social systems--it reacts to impulses that originate in the culture. The culture is the society's soul, and an election like this tells us more than anything what the condition of our collective soul is. It's not a pretty sight.
All of us whether we are inclined either to the left or the right know that something is profoundly wrong. Depending on our temperament or upbringing, we're inclined to understand the causes differently, and so are understandably inclined to favor different solutions. Bias is a a lens that distorts all our perceptions. None of us are immune. and so all of our judgments have to be provisional. None of us knows the truth. At best, as St. Paul says, we see as through a glass darkly.
But it is the very understanding of the provisionality of our understanding that is at the root of wisdom. You learn from your mistakes. You learn what works and what doesn't work. And as you grow older, if you have been paying attention, and learning, and thinking about what you have learned, your judgments become sounder and more trustworthy, and you can say that you have, to a greater or lesser degree become, wiser. And that wisdom, while it is not a possession of the truth, is a condition of being closer to it.
What we call "knowing the truth" in my opinion is not really knowing at all; it comes from an idea that somehow we possess it, and we never do. Rather we have a relationship with it, and possession is always the death of anything healthful in any relationship. Rather than seeking to know the truth, we should instead seek to love it. And the kind of knowing that comes from first loving is the only knowledge worth having.
My problem with the a fairly common mindset on the right is that it thinks it possesses the truth in some special way that others don't. My problem with the left is that they think there's no truth to love--that we just make things up as we go along. Both are equally wrong, but the first in its tendency toward rigidity is more dangerous. The latter, at least, is capable of adaptation.
Monday, October 25, 2004
Al Qaqaa. How quaint that the administration should seek to suppress this information until after the election fearing that it might do it political damage. Some 60% of Americans still think that Bush is the better choice when it comes to fighting the war on terror. So he doesn't have to worry. Why? He owns the "terror-fighter" brand. Facts don't matter; owning the brand inoculates you from the facts.
Read the story in today's NY Times. I'm sure there will be some media buzz about it this week. But it doesn't matter. There was a time when I naively thought that the problem lay in the media not reporting how bad this administration was. I still think that they haven't begun to scratch the surface. There are layers of awful stuff that we'll be finding out about for years. But there's enough information now before us to make the sane choice.
Why am I so pessimistic that we will make it? I really believe we've lost our minds. We don't think anymore. We just react. That's always been true, of course, but it just seems worse now than it's ever been.
The GOP has effected one world-historical snow job. When we come to our senses some years hence, we will wonder how we could have been so stupid as to let these guys get away with what they are getting away with.
Sunday, October 24, 2004
Caveat Emptor. Despite the political passions that have been stimulated in the current presidential election cycle, most of us experience politics as disconnected from our real lives. Politics seems to have become peculiarly irrelevant to the way we live. Or it’s relevant, like sports are relevant--as an entertainment. We identify with one party or the other as we identify with our local sports teams.
We watch them compete in the debates. Or we watch their surrogates pound on one another in shows like Crossfire. We cheer for the guys on our team, and develop a profound dislike for the guys on other team. It’s either you like the clean-cut Yankees/Republicans or you hate them. Either you like the scruffy Red Sox/Democrats or you hate them. Nothing important changes in the way we live because one team wins or the other loses. After the contest is decided, we're pleased or disappointed for a few hours, and life goes on. The players live their lives in their separate world; we live in ours, and nothing changes.
But the problem is that in politics the winners effect very important changes, but for most of us middle class Americans, our lives are untouched by them. Unless, to take an example, we have a loved one being shipped off to Iraq. I don't have anyone there. In my world, there isn't a single person I know who is a soldier in Iraq. Iraq doesn't affect me personally in any significant way. It hasn't changed my life. It would be easy not to think too much about it, because it's easy to feel disconnected from anything that does not personally change the way we live.
Iraq is unreal for most of us. It's an abstraction. we have no idea, really, what people there are going through. And we are easily manipulated into thinking one thing or another about it because we don't have any direct experience. The war was played in its early stages as a sports event. The American public was excited to be identified with the winning team. The war played to a full house until things started going bad in the summer. When the team started losing, the public decided pretty much it wasn't interested anymore. We're dimly aware of how the team is doing, but we're not going to the games anymore. Who wants to watch a loser? Hey, let me know when things get turned around, and then I'll start watching again.
But it's not an entertainment event; it's real. It's a horror. How lucky for us that we can click the remote and watch something else.
Politics as an entertainment phenomenon is amplified by the way it's played in the media. It's not important that the policies our lawmakers are developing are in fact profoundly changing the underlying structure or our social arrangements. To dwell on that is so boring. It's too complicated. It requires effort and thought. Not good for ratings. I'm not saying that nobody cares about the details, but most people don't. And the GOP seems to understand that in a way the Democrats don't. The Democrats still think that facts and making a rational case to the public still matters. The GOP doesn't even bother. They figured out long ago that that's a losing strategy.
The GOP has a very clear, rational, political agenda, but it understands that you sell it to the public pretty much the way you sell cars or vacation packages. They understand that the electorate behaves in much the same way that consumers in a mass market behave. Some people are judicious buyers , but most aren't. You win elections not by appealing to the judicious few, but by manipulating the irrational fears and desires of the masses.
The GOP approach is based on a branding strategy that pits one half of America against the other. This is at the heart of the Us vs. Them culture war theme: The GOP brand represents the real, virtuous America. The Dems' brand represents a decadent, permissive, anything-goes, immoral America. Which brand are you going to buy? Well, then, if you buy GOP, you buy the whole agenda. You don't have to look too carefully. You can trust us because we're the quality product. Don't pay attention to what those decadent Democrats say about us. It's all untrue. They hate what we stand for. They're selling a product that will make America weak. You buy Democratic, and you buy a weak, defective product. You don't want to risk it. Next thing you know terrorist will be blowing American cities off the map one by one.
This is the bill of goods that the GOP has sold the American electorate. Whatever evidence there might be to support its promotion, there's a ream more to demonstrate how ridiculous it is. But the Dems haven't made that sale. and the result is that the American electorate is very likely to buy GOP, as truly defective as their product is. Sooner or later, the Americans who buy GOP will find out what lemon it is that they have bought, but by then it will be too late. Caveat Emptor.
Friday, October 22, 2004
Bush an Embarrassment to Conservatism. The American Conservative Magazine, in a recent article endorsing John Kerry, doesn't say anything that readers of this blog haven't heard here or elsewhere, but I call attention to it because it supports the point that I've been making about how the Bush Administration is living in bubble world of delusion. Sensible conservatives see that this is true as clearly as sensible liberals.
Partisanship is not the lens through which the Bush presidency appears as the disaster that it is. The bubble mentality of those who support Bush, though, has become very much a clouded lens that obscures their ability to see what is obvious to pretty much the entire world. And yet this awful president still has a very good possibility of being reelected. What's wrong with us? I've tried to come up with one explanation or another in the posts I've written over the last several weeks, but I continue to be astonished that this election should be so close.
Anyway, here are some key grafs from an endorsement column inThe American Conservative:
In Europe and indeed all over the world, he has made the United States despised by people who used to be its friends, by businessmen and the middle classes, by moderate and sensible liberals. Never before have democratic foreign governments needed to demonstrate disdain for Washington to their own electorates in order to survive in office. The poll numbers are shocking. In countries like Norway, Germany, France, and Spain, Bush is liked by about seven percent of the populace. In Egypt, recipient of huge piles of American aid in the past two decades, some 98 percent have an unfavorable view of the United States. It’s the same throughout the Middle East.
Bush has accomplished this by giving the U.S. a novel foreign-policy doctrine under which it arrogates to itself the right to invade any country it wants if it feels threatened. It is an American version of the Brezhnev Doctrine, but the latter was at least confined to Eastern Europe. If the analogy seems extreme, what is an appropriate comparison when a country manufactures falsehoods about a foreign government, disseminates them widely, and invades the country on the basis of those falsehoods? It is not an action that any American president has ever taken before. It is not something that “good” countries do. It is the main reason that people all over the world who used to consider the United States a reliable and necessary bulwark of world stability now see us as a menace to their own peace and security.
These sentiments mean that as long as Bush is president, we have no real allies in the world, no friends to help us dig out from the Iraq quagmire. More tragically, they mean that if terrorists succeed in striking at the United States in another 9/11-type attack, many in the world will not only think of the American victims but also of the thousands and thousands of Iraqi civilians killed and maimed by American armed forces. The hatred Bush has generated has helped immeasurably those trying to recruit anti-American terrorists - indeed his policies are the gift to terrorism that keeps on giving, as the sons and brothers of slain Iraqis think how they may eventually take their own revenge. Only the seriously deluded could fail to see that a policy so central to America’s survival as a free country as getting hold of loose nuclear materials and controlling nuclear proliferation requires the willingness of foreign countries to provide full, 100 percent co-operation. Making yourself into the world’s most hated country is not an obvious way to secure that help.
I’ve heard people who have known George W. Bush for decades and served prominently in his father’s administration say that he could not possibly have conceived of the doctrine of pre-emptive war by himself, that he was essentially taken for a ride by people with a pre-existing agenda to overturn Saddam Hussein. Bush’s public performances plainly show him to be a man who has never read or thought much about foreign policy. So the inevitable questions are: who makes the key foreign-policy decisions in the Bush presidency, who controls the information flow to the president, how are various options are presented?
The point is that you don't have to be a liberal "Bush-hater" to see this administration for what it is. And if you still believe that George Bush is in the driver's seat of this administration, you are simply seeing only what you want to see. He's not. He has no capacity whatsoever to direct foreign policy. He's a figurehead. And if he's not directing policy, who is? Why do they operate in the surreptitious, dishonest way that they do? How can you know this, or even just suspect it, and still retain an ounce of trust in this administration?
Once again this election is not about policy. Reasonable men and women can debate different approaches to solving universally recognized problems. But this election is not about different approaches concerning how to pay for Social Security or how to deal with rising costs of health care. Its' not about abortion or about gay marriage. This election is about stopping a silent coup. With the Democrats, at least, what you see is what you get. It may not be pretty, but it's not the packaged fantasy that the GOP is using all of its Madison Ave. skills to foist on a too-credulous electorate.
How is it possible to think that Kerry could make things worse?
Wednesday, October 20, 2004
Nothing to Add. I don't have anything to say about the latest controversies that this campaign has been reduced to--the unbearable, career-ruining humiliation suffered by Mary Cheney's being outed by Kerry, the legitimacy of the ever-fairminded Sinclair Broadcasting to balance the blatantly anti-Bush bias of cable and the networks, and the question whether it's legit to speculate on whether a draft is likely in a Bush second term, despite what our straight-shooting, reality-based president with excellent planning skills says. Just thought I'd add that I have nothing to add.
Monday, October 18, 2004
The Neo-Jacobins. I'm in the process of getting an old house I recently purchased into move-inable condition by Nov. 1. So I'll be busy with that and the other things I do that provide for my livelihood. I don't know how all the things that need to get done in the next two weeks are going to get done. And any blogging I do will be restricted to what I can fit in before breakfast, so to speak. In any event, I'll be moving to a street in Seattle called Burke Ave. I don't think it was named after the famous Edmund. But I like the fact that his name will be associated with where I live. He was then and is now a much needed voice of sanity.
He is promoted today as a conservative, but in his own day he was considered a liberal. He made his name as a proponent of evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. He argued passionately that the French Revolution was a huge mistake because its Jacobin spirit. The spirit of Jacobinism is extremism in the cause of sweeping aside the whole irrational, premodern bulwark on which a society's traditions and customs are based. The Jacobin hope is to create a new reality based on a kind of deracinated idealism with as little as possible of the baggage that has been inherited from the past. And as Burke argued, when you do that, you essentially destroy the social psychological framework that keeps men civilized. The result is inevitably the Terror in France or the purges directed by the Jacobinist spirit in Russia, China, and in other "revolutionary" societies. You can create a new reality only if you destroy the old one, according to the Jacobinist logic.
Now read this quote from Ron Suskind's NY Times Magazine article that 's been getting some play in bloggerland:
The [Bush] aide said that guys like me [Suskind] were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
Now I realize that this is just some Bush aide talking and not anybody really accountable, but I think it points to a mentality that illuminates much of what has happened over the last four years. And this is what I mean when I say that these guys really aren't conservatives. They are deracinated, neo-Jacobin revolutionaries, and that's why they are so dangerous. Jacobinism in the final analysis is not a phenomenon of the right or the left; it's about an inflated sense of politics' capacity for control over reality. It's born of powerlust and the delusional idea that you can remake a society according one's imagined blueprint. Facts? Facts are for pedants. Facts are so five minutes ago. We Jacobins are world creators. We create new worlds and facts are what we define them to be. History will be rewritten to conform to our new reality.
I don't think that Bush is a Jacobin, but I think he is manipulated by the neo-cons and others who are. Several of the original neocons were Trotskyites who defected to the right in the 70s, and they have brought the Jacobin revolutionary mentality of secular left revolutionaries with them but now in support of an agenda pursuing American empire. For these guys power is the only thing that's real. Power therefore defines what is real. There is no reality except as Power defines it, so everything depends on who has power. They have it, and they have no intention of giving it up.
Friday, October 15, 2004
There is no normal anymore. I would never have thought that the race would go down to the wire like this. Last fall and winter it became clear that things would deteriorate badly for the president, and if anything what has come public exceeded my expectations. I suspect that what we have learned about this administration barely scratches the surface, but what we have learned should be enough. Apparently it isn't. I have overcome my initial incredulity that given everything we now know about the president, so many Americans can still support him. And my search for an explanation has led me to appreciate how profound and irrational are the forces driving the conservative backlash.
One of the peculiar characteristics of the time in which we live is that on one level everything seems to be normal. Life goes on pretty much the way it always has for the last fifty years—adults go to work, children go to school, we get around in cars and watch a lot of TV—there are continuities, for sure. But something is different. Things don’t feel quite right. There's relative calm on the outside, but there's barely controlled panic on the inside. People are scared, and they don't quite know about what. It’s not just the heightened level of anxiety that the nation feels following 9/11. It’s been going on longer than that—at least since the sixties, because that’s when Americans began to have a palpable sense that we were no longer who we thought we were.
I think it comes from a feeling of the country having lost its anchor. There's a directionless drift that makes people very anxious, and it comes from a sense that there's no "normal" anymore. This sense of the country losing its norms has accelerated in the last forty years, and much has been written about just getting used to a world where normal means constant change. All kinds of self-help books have come on to the scene instructing their readers how to thrive in chaos or how to ride the rapids of change. And that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t really cut to the heart of the matter, which is that living with constant change is stressful. People need stability. They need to have a feeling of some control over their lives, and when they don’t, they cannot help but feel that they are lost and that their lives are spinning out of control.
So they vote Republican. The Democrats have become identified with the forces of normless chaos, the Republicans with the forces of what used to be thought of as "normal." For many people it's that simple and that primitive. It has hardly anything to do with the specific issues. It's all a matter of who they believe at an unconscious level will be more effective at maintaining and promoting the feeling of order and security that comes from the world being normal again.
But as I've been arguing for the last couple of weeks, voting Republican doesn't slow down the change. It just gives people the illusion of control. It gives people a feeling that their vote is all about trying to bring back the old, normal America. This is a politics of nostalgia and it's just shot through with delusion. It's a politics that refuses to deal with the world as it is.
The fact is that change and social chaos will continue to be the norm no matter whom we elect. And the kind of people we need in political leadership positions are not those who promise to make the anxiety and discomfort go away, but those who will help us to develop the skills that will enable us to adapt. A lot of people I know would say: Well that's what the GOP stands for. The Dems are for giving everybody a fish, to use the old cliche, and the GOP is for teaching every body how to catch his own fish. That's why the president was talking about education the other night. What's wrong with that?
My response would be that even when I agree with the president, I don't believe a word he says. If he's re-elected he won't do a thing to improve education or job training, except maybe to burden the states with another unfunded mandate. Bush presented himself as the compassionate conservative in 2000 and nothing his administration has done suggests there's an ounce of compassion in his conservatism. It's not even really conservatism. This is an administration that is in the pocket of Big Money and it serves only the interests of Big Money. All the traditional-values talk is window dressing. It's a tool that the Big Money people use cynically to keep the Indians on the GOP reservation. And their chief tool is the clueless George Bush.
As I have said before, and I will no doubt say again, a vote for Kerry is not a vote for change. It's simply a vote to apply the brakes. It's the truly conservative vote. It's a vote to return to a politics that is more mainstream. There's nothing particularly exciting about that or about Kerry. But he represents a political approach that is more in touch with the reality of a changing America. For real change originates in the cultural sphere, and is eventually reflected in the political sphere. The GOP simply represents a politics of nostalgia that reflects the culture's lacking any sense of future possibility. And this politics of nostalgia is a very conveniennt cover for Big Money to push the country where it wants it to go.
I know. Big Money has a huge impact on the Dems, too. I'm not kidding myself about that, but the Dems are also responsive to the needs of a broader range of Americans in a way that the GOP simply is not. My fear is that the country is finally going to wake up five or ten years from now and wonder how things got so bad. In confusing times when people feel anxious about the future, they make bad decisions. A vote for George Bush would be such a bad decision.
Thursday, October 14, 2004
The national polls don't matter. It's now all about what happens in the states, and there are only ten or eleven states still in play. Both candidates have a solid count at around 210 electoral votes. The most important states still swinging are Florida (27), Pennsylvania (21), Ohio (20), Michigan (17), Missouri (11), Iowa (10), Wisconsin (10), and maybe Virginia (13). At this point only Pennsylvania and Michigan appear to be leaning toward Kerry. If he holds them and adds Florida, he wins. If he can't get Florida, but adds Ohio and Iowa he wins. There are any number of scenarios that you could look at, but those are the states I'll be watching most intently.
Morning After. The Consensus this morning seems to be that Kerry won big in last night's debate. I'm relieved that seems to be the public perception, but I stand by my point that Kerry cannot play not to lose. During these three debates Kerry gave Americans reason to feel more comfortable with him as presidential. That was a minimal objective he had to achieve if he is to have a chance on election day. But at this writing, no matter that Kerry is perceived to have won all three debates--the race is still a dead heat. And to me it is astonishing that this president, who I am certain will be judged as one of the worst in American history, is still in the game and in a very strong a position to win.
One negative storyline for Bush that seems to be emerging is that in the same way that we saw three different Gores in the three debates in 2000, we saw in these 2004 debates three Bushes: Clueless Bush, Aggressive Bush, and Happy Bush. The friend I was watching the debate with last night was so struck by how much more positive and energetic Bush seemed last night that he thought that they put Bush on some kind of drug. Who knows? It's looking more likely that he was wired in the first debate, why not give him some performance-enhancing drug for this one?
But no matter that he came across better last night than in the previous two debates, his inconsistency from debate to debate does not contrast well with Kerry's steadiness. Kerry came across as calm and presidential in all three debates. Bush was, well, who was he? For sure, he's not the strong, steady leader that the GOP propaganda machine wants you to think he is.
Wednesday, October 13, 2004
Third Debate. I've never understood the popularity in football of the 'prevent' defense. It never seems to prevent anything, except the big play, which is pretty rare to begin with. It's a strategy that is focused on not losing rather than to keep doing what got you the lead in the first place.
The analogy here that I want to make to the debates isn't perfect because Kerry certainly hasn't established a lead in the overall race, but he has clearly dominated the debates. This last debate was an opportunity to be aggressive, to build on his lead, and possibly to put the game away. I thought instead he chose to play not to lose. In doing so he gave Bush an opportunity to get back in the game. This is the first debate in which Bush came across more positively, by a hair, than Kerry.
And so I was surprised to see that the post-debate CNN pundits seemed to lean toward giving the W to Kerry. I think this is the same syndrome at work here that I commented on last week with regard to the Cheney Edwards debate. These pundits, it seems to me, are so afraid to step off the reservation that they will only say what is acceptable within the narrow range allowed by conventional wisdom. And since the Beltway CW is that Kerry is stronger on domestic issues and was expected to win this debate, unless he did something to blow it, it's presumed that he's the winner. But I don't think so. In the same way Bush would have been the presumed winner in the foreign policy debate, but he blew it to everyone's surprise. So Kerry was declared the winner. But in this last debate I would say, at best, it was a wash for Kerry. Hope I'm wrong about that in the way it played for the undecideds.
But I do think that Bush helped himself tonight much more than Kerry did. And he did it not on the wonk issues, which no one expects him to win, but on the cultural values issues. I think the GOP game plan was to try to paint Kerry as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal, and while there were a few attempts by Bush to attack using that theme, they weren't sustained and were not all that effective.
What I did think was effective was Bush's coming across as having the values the average American can identify with. I thought he was very strong and very believable there. And that's what most viewers carry away with them from the experience of watching this debate. And Kerry, except for his answer on the gay marriage theme and his joke about his wife, came across as far more abstract and way too wonkish. He was ok, but just not as good as he had been in the previous two debates--and Bush was much, much better. For that reason, I have to give the W to Bush.
I have no recollection of what Kerry said in his closing statement. It just washed over me as so much blah, blah, blah. This was a terrific opportunity to put up some big points, and he just didn't do it.
I'm really amazed with all the preparation time and all that is at stake in these debates that the Kerry campaign couldn't come up with a more aggressive rhetorical strategy to dramatize Bush's weaknesses in domestic policy. Kerry scored a few points here and there, but I think by and large he really let the president off the hook, and I think it will slow whatever little momentum he has going for himself. Again, I hope I'm wrong about that. But Kerry can't afford to be not aggressive. Playing not to lose is a losing strategy. He's just not in a position to play that kind of game.
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
Negative Capability. It's interesting that George Will would do a column celebrating the conservative domination of American politics on the same day that I posted my piece on the politics of nostalgia. He would argue, I'm sure, that I'm the one in the bubble, and that conservatives like him are the ones in touch with the real America.
I think the mistake that conservatives like Will make is to see themselves in a battle for the soul of the nation with the godless liberals. But liberalism is not the enemy of traditional-values America, the creative/destructive social and economic forces released by capitalism are. This idea is pivotal. If you don't buy this, then probably nothing I say makes sense. Traditionalism and Capitalism are simply incompatible. You can't have it both ways. Real conservatives have understood it since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and Will, for all of his pretense as an principled intellectual conservative, has always struck me as a bogus media conservative. Nothing that Will says in his column, or anywhere else that I'm aware of, would indicate that he grasps what seems obviously to be the central driving forces shaping American culture.
That's why Will's conservatism is so pompous, dyspeptic, and out of touch. He is one of the best examples of the bubble mentality about which I wrote the other day. His conservatism takes heart in that so many Americans seem to hold conservative values, but the whole point of what I've been writing the last couple of weeks is that there is nothing left to conserve. American conservatism is a contrived system that provides a semblance of order but which does not convey real life the way a living traditional society transfers it from generation to generation. It's traditionalism in form only.
Many Americans are conservative because there is no vibrant alternative to the formalistic traditionalism that they accept by default. Since there is nothing for them to look forward to, they look backward. This is key for understanding the politics of nostalgia. Looking backwards to the good old days is what people do when they have lost any real imagination of future possibility. It's what you do when you're old, and this kind of backward-looking conservatism has always been the politics of the old--or the cynical.
Liberals are liberal by default for different reasons. If you have a moment, check out the column I wrote entitled "Getting Beyond the Secular" that argues why the secular left offers no way forward either. Both liberalism and conservatism are spent modern-era ideologies that persist as old habits in a completely changed postmodern environment. And it's for that reason that I want to be clear that my arguments seeking to prick bubble conservatism are not an endorsement of the politics of the secular left. I am not at all at home there. But many on the left have important things to say in the way of critique. They see things that bubble conservatives refuse to look at. The rest of us have to give them a fair hearing and look at what they point to. And in my opinion many on the left see far, far more clearly than those in the conservative bubble do. But they have their blind spots, and the biggest one is their rejection of religion. Or to put it another way, they are tone deaf to the spiritual dimension of reality.
We need the left because we need their No, but saying No isn't enough. We long for something to which we can say Yes, and for me it's not there yet in our cultural life, except for little patches of hope here and there. So we are as a people, if you see things the way I do, in an in-between time, in a time that is neither here nor there, and the challenge is not to choose to be anywhere because it's better than being nowhere. There are times when you have to wander in the desert, but you have to do it looking forward to Canaan, not backward to Egypt. A guy like Will would be among those making the case for going back.
Anyway, ours is a time when we would do well to learn what Keats called 'negative capability':
several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
The "irritable reaching after fact and reason" is the clinging to what is dead and done--to what's already in the books. Negative capability is the radical openness to what is alive and new. This might be a little to "zen" for some, but I think that it points to the kind of mind that must be developed it it is to be open to the future, that is, to that which comes to us from the Absolute Future.
Sunday, October 10, 2004
There’s No Future in Nostalgia. In Western civilization until the time of the Renaissance, the common belief was that human culture had been the story of progressive decline from a golden age of heroes, when gods and men intermingled and contested with one another. For the premoderns everything significant and interesting happened in illo tempore, in a time long, long ago. History, in their imagination of it, was a story of devolution from a bright, golden dawn through a succession of ages, each darker and coarser than the one that preceded it.
In the premodern West there were no robust ideas about future possibility in history. If history had a direction, it wasn't going anywhere good. Humans were thought to be at best in a holding pattern until the end times. The only future that mattered was the eternal one in heaven or hell. But in the period from the Renaissance through the 19th Century, a new confidence in human possibility and an unprecedented hope for a better human future on earth arose. And there was a gradual culture-wide shift of temporal orientation from the past toward the future. The significant and interesting stuff was yet to come.
At this time traditional authority was rejected and replaced with the authority of human reason, and the belief arose that there was nothing impossible for humans to achieve through the use of their rational faculties. This faith in reason over authority is the very essence of the Liberal spirit that animated the Modern era. The golden age was no longer thought of as something lost in the distant past. On the contrary, for the new Modern Liberal it lay ahead in a utopian future that was achievable through human intelligence and effort. The only obstacles were those put in the way by intransigent traditionalists who clung to their irrational premodern ways.
In Europe this optimistic, future-focused imagination of the meaning of history died in the period following World War I. And if there was any scrap of optimism left, the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich stomped it out. World War II was the first postmodern war, brought to a horrifying end by a weapon which for the first time in human history demonstrated the kind of power that could end history. Human reason delivered not utopia but ever more clever ways to kill and destroy.
9/ll didn't change everything; Hiroshima did. Everything had changed, but we Americans in the fifties remained for the most part insulated from it. Death and Destruction happened elsewhere. The fifties instead was a time during which Americans resumed their pursuit of the American Dream that had been put on hold during the Great Depression and the Second World War. But history caught up to us in the sixties. The beginning of the end was the Kennedy assassination, and after that the race riots, the Vietnam debacle, and the sexual revolution. It was the time, as suggested in an earlier post, memorialized by Don McLean’s “Bye Bye Miss American Pie.”
Something was lost, something essential in the American imagination of itself. And many have since then come to believe that it was during this period that America lost its soul. But I would say rather that America lost its innocence, which is different. We lost it when we dropped the bomb, won the war, and became a superpower. This is not a moral judgment; it is simply descriptive. Innocence and the naive uncritical thinking that come with it are things you need to lose if you're going to be a grownup.
The last half of the 20th Century was the time when America was forced to grow up and assume responsibilities for leadership in a world that looked to it for its idealism and fairness. But we cannot live up to the world's expectations unless we were able to confront our dark side with a clear-headed sobriety, without the childish naiveté and the mindless patriotism of the earlier era of our innocence. Did we succeed? I don't think so. We took some steps, but then we turned around and went the other way. The American Soul isn't lost; it's just in a state of arrested development. Let me explain.
Our confusion is understandable. In the seventies the very fabric of the traditional values that made America what it was, that made America great, seemed to unravel before everyone’s eyes. Traditionalist America was turned upside down: abortion, Watergate, urban decay, radical feminism, gay rights, the oil crisis, stagflation, losing the Panama Canal, the Iran hostages. Nothing seemed right anymore, if by right you meant the way things had always been, the way we were taught as children what was what. And Americans were not feeling very good about themselves. They were in the midst of a raging identity crisis.
And then, after almost two decades of tumult, Ronald Reagan came onto the national scene. Reagan’s optimism and sunny disposition were for many a longed-for anodyne to counterbalance the Nixon/Carter decade of of malaise. Reagan announced that it was once again “morning in America,” and he did it in a way that resonated with America’s traditional sense of itself. But if, as I would argue, Carter more honestly assessed our true situation, it became clear that the nation was more interested in the Reagan's sunny platitudes. Carter, whatever his shortcomings as president, was/is a thoughtful, honest man, especially when contrasted with Reagan, a hollow man who can said to be honest only to the extent that he believed his own propaganda. Had we re-elected Carter, I believe he would have helped us to move forward, even if only a few steps. Instead we chose to anesthetize ourselves with Reagan's platitudes, and we are still paying for it.
Reaganism set us back because it was driven by a politics of nostalgia, and there is no future in nostalgia. For the politics of nostalgia is a search for a historical/cultural solution that is misdirected in time. American nostalgia lies in its longing for its lost innocence, for the pre-Hiroshima America. It cannot be found again. It ought not to be sought. Such an understanding of ourselves is no longer commensurate with the real world in which we are living. American nostalgia is the alternative people choose as a refusal to grow up and to deal with the changed situation and all of its complexity. It's chosen as a refusal to own up to our own complicity in evil. It's chosen as a refusal to embrace an uncertain future by instead embracing a fantasy of the past that while like a drug it might make us feel better, it impairs our judgment about how we must grapple with the huge issues that confront us.
Reagan represented the Peter Pan hope that we could be the America of our lost innocence. Reaganism is for that reason fundamentally delusional. It's born of a refusal to see the world as it really is. It's born of a refusal to grow up. Ronald Reagan represented what so many ordinary Americans wanted to believe about themselves. He was a mirror into which they could look and feel good about themselves again. And many Americans welcomed his presidency with a long sigh of relief. He seemed in their eyes proof that perhaps we hadn't lost our American soul, after all. Perhaps, they thought, it’s still possible to be an American in the old-fashioned way.
Reagan’s election marked the beginning of a culturally conservative backlash against what many Americans saw as the unraveling of their traditional understanding of American identity. And yet the forces unleashed during the sixties and seventies continued to work very potently within the culture despite the resurgence of political conservatism. At the end of the Reagan/Bush1 era, many conservatives were very disappointed that they had very little to show for their twelve years in the White House. Whatever changes the Reaganites were able to effect in foreign policy or in deregulation or the tax code, they had made no inroads in changing the broader culture which continued to fragment and, seemingly, to spin out of control.
Where in the cultural sphere have their been any significant conservative successes? There has instead been an increasingly severe disconnect between what is going on in the political sphere and what’s going on in the cultural sphere. Trends in popular music, film, literature, sport, TV and theater all developed out of a sensibility that had little connection with the nostalgic fantasy of a return to traditional America.
Developments in the cultural sphere seemed to have no effect on the political--it was as if the trend lines within each sphere were going in opposite directions. It was as if people voted for conservative politicians to give themselves a feeling of control, but with little effect. And unless there's some kind of neo-Puritan coup, the cultural right is not likely ever to have any significant impact on the "real" culture. The cultural and economic forces working against the reassertion of naive traditional American values are just too powerful.
And so the political agenda of the cultural right has failed because the politics of the right is so out of touch with what is really happening in the culture. Understanding the real world is not a strong point with those on the right. The people in charge in Washington are out of touch when it comes to understanding the cultural reality in Iraq, and they are out of touch when it comes to understanding the cultural reality in the US. They are living in a fantasy bubble that gives them the illusion of control which can be maintained only so long as they stay inside the bubble. Bush is our bubble boy in chief, and about half the country is living in the bubble with him. But that might be changing.
If these guys were real conservatives they would understand that the attempt to impose top-down political control in the cultural sphere is never desirable, and that the attempts to effect it usually end in disaster. The societies in both the Middle East and in the U.S. just need to be allowed to evolve with a minimum of control from know-nothing politicians of the left or the right. Letting a society alone to evolve without political interference used to be a conservative value. It's Burkean conservatism. Discrete interventions now and then, yes--to rectify imbalances and to protect the victims of egregious abuses of their human rights. But as a general principle the project to assert any level of top-down political control on a society creates more problems than it solves. And that includes trying to impose a democracy on a society where the historical and cultural conditions for it are not yet ripe.
But democracy is not what the bubble people really want. Control is. And they think they can do it by sucking huge, complex cultures into their simplistic, control/security fantasy bubble. The results speak for themselves. If they've made a mess of Iraq, give them another four years, and you will see what a mess they can make of things in the U.S.
Saturday, October 9, 2004
The Mistakes Question. Josh Marshall (1:07 am post) nails it:
The president prizes loyalty over all else. And the folks who’ve gotten canned are in almost every case folks who’ve raised concerns about the president’s mistakes before he made them or before their consequences became fully evident.
Though the president didn’t appoint Eric Shinseki as Army Chief of Staff, his accelerated retirement for questioning whether the president was putting enough troops on the ground in Iraq is the telling sign for how the Bush White House works.
In the president’s world, accountability and punishment aren’t for the folks who make the mistakes. They’re for the people who recognize the mistakes or, God forbid, admit them. And when the president had a chance to come up with any mistakes he might have made in four years as president the one that instinctively popped into his mind were the times he’d appointed folks who turned out to be from the second category, rather than the first.
This is all of a piece. In the Bush world you never admit mistakes. The only mistakes the president can think of are the times he appointed people who do admitted mistakes --- who put reality above loyalty to the president.
Morning After Thoughts on the Debate. From a quick glance at the insta-polling, Kerry seems to have won in a rout. The margins are even bigger than for the first debate. I know that these are not scientific, and all they indicate is that more Kerry supporters participate in on-line polls. It's more of an indication that the momentum has definitely shifted toward Kerry.
I was also surprised to see that the electoral counter site shows Kerry once again in the lead. Two weeks ago this counter showed Kerry with projected electoral votes in the low 200s with Bush in the 320s. This morning it's Kerry 280 and Bush 248. Again, for me this is only an indicator of the race's momentum, and clearly Kerry has the positive kind and Bush the negative.
The consensus is that Bush's answer to the "Did you make any mistakes" question was just awful. That's a soft pitch that he should have been prepared for and knocked out of the park. It's like the cliche question that gets asked all the time in job interviews--What's your greatest weakness? There are all kinds of ways to finesse the question if you're ready for it, but all he could come up with was his stump speech defense of of Iraq.
Bush was also made to look foolish was on the prescription drug question. Kerry's attack here was withering and credible. Safety?! Yes , like the Baskin Robbins clerk who launches the occasional loogie into the Chocolate Chocolate Chip Mint, those silly Canadians take the drugs American companies make, secretly switch defective or contaminated imitations and send them back to us sniggering secretly with one another about those stupid Yanks. Thank God we have a president who will protect us from those pranksters.
It turns out that Bush does own a timber growing enterprise. FactCheck.org, the probable source of Kerry's information, had a correction this morning that shows that Kerry was essentially right:
What we originally reported as a "timber-growing" enterprise is actually described on Bush's tax return as an "oil and gas production" concern, the Lone Star Trust. We were confused because The Lone Star Trust currently owns 50% of another company, "LSTF, LLC", described on Bush’s 2003 financial disclosure forms as a limited-liability company organized "for the purpose of the production of trees for commercial sales." So, Bush does own part interest in a tree-growing company, but the $84 came from an oil and gas company and we should have reported it as such.
So Kerry's essential point stands--Bush would be considered a small business owner, and he has a company that is involved in timber, and Bush's denial of it is typical of the GOP way of twisting things. Either that, or he doesn't even know that Lone Star has timber-producing interests, which is plausible considering how uninvolved and hands-off the guy is.
The debates have made it harder for the GOP to hide the defective product that they are trying to sell. They are masters in the sales game, and they were able to snow enough Americans to buy GOP by using 9/11as their main sales gimmick, but you've got to have a good product, and this guy is just bad. They are trying to make him look like Ronald Reagan, but he's no Ronald Reagan. He's Dan Quayle.
Friday, October 8, 2004
Debate Take. I'm in no position to judge winners and losers since I don't believe a word uttered by the president under any circumstances. It's not that I "hate" him. I just cannot take the man seriously. This guy is in so far over his head that I almost feel sorry for him. The enormity of this disaster in Iraq must weigh heavily on him--at some level he must know what's really going on there. But for me, he long ago lost even the slightest sliver of credibility, and everything I have learned about him since reinforces that judgment.
But as expected his performance was better tonight, and the way expectations game goes, this will probably be counted as a victory, even though hardly anything he said made sense. We'll wait and see. But tonight I'm not going to waste the rest of my evening listening to the inane spin of the Beltway courtiers.
But what was the bit about the president owning a timber company about? It's hard to believe that Kerry would say that if it weren't true. Equally hard to believe that the president would flat out deny it. Too easy to check one way or the other. I guess we'll find out, won't we.
And then he won't pick somebody for the supreme court who would support the Dred Scot decision?! There's a real litmus test for you.
As with the Edwards/Cheney debate, I thought that Kerry scored more highly because his attacks were more effective, more articulate, and easier to understand. I thought Bush's attacks were hackneyed, mini stump speeches that would be credible only to the already true believers. I don't think that they will play well with the undecideds. But what do I know?
From where I stand the only issue on which Kerry looked silly was on the abortion and stem-cell questions. He didn't answer the woman's question, but then how could he? But the President was equally morally incoherent in stating that he wanted to get credit for approving the use of a limited number of embryos. It's ok when he approves it, but not when he doesn't. Anyway, I've been looking for an opportunity to talk about abortion in this blog. It's become radioactive and impossible to talk about in a way that's sane. I'm gonna try. I may or may not succeed. But not tonight.
On a more deadly serious note: Go Sox. As someone who always got very nervous when Mike Timlin was called from the pen during his short stint as a Mariner, and as someone who perked up when he was called in to face the M's as an Oriole or Red Sox, I knew who would win the contest when Guerrero came to the plate to face him with bases loaded. I've seen too many Timlin blown leads, and once again he lived up to expectations. Note to Terry Francona: Never put Timlin in when something important is at stake. In other words only put him in to eat innings when you're behind.
A's fans: Arthur Rhodes--same deal. Anyway the Yankees just beat the Twins as I write, and it's looking like deja vu all over again. That blown lead in Game 2 is going to haunt the Twins. Why Nathan was left in that game after throwing nine straight balls is beyond me. I was beggin. I was down on my knees: Take him out. Nathan's hit the wall. But, no.
I'm all for believing in your guys, and I know that's what he's paid for, and I know Nathan's one of the best, but use your head, man.
Anyway, more on the debate tomorrow.
Are They Liars or Delusional? For me it's an open question, and as I suggested in an earlier post, my best take is that it's a mix of both with the delusional part a bigger factor than the liar part. They are so convinced they are right in principle that the particulars aren't important, and so they can be sloppy with the facts because the only facts that matter are the ones that support their cause, and if there aren't enough of those to go around, they'll make some up.
But check out this exchange between Saletan and Weisberg on the Slate Politics page. Saletan is responding to Weisberg's claim that the flip-flopper accusation sticks with Kerry because it's based in reality. Saletan agrees, but says until recently the Democrats were at a disadvantage because they had no label like "flip flopper" to stick on the president. So despite all Bush's negatives, there was nothing that captured them like "flip flopper" does for Kerry. Now the Dems have such a label, and it's that "Bush is out of touch". This is a theme that is appearing now more in the Dems ads, and Saletan talks about some of them.
My own opinion about the flip-flop charge is that it has more to do with a stereotype of liberals than it has to do with Kerry's flip flopping any more or less than most politicians do, including Republicans. But if the Democrats tried to get the flip flopper label to stick on Bush, they wouldn't succeed no matter how much evidence they produced to support it, because it doesn't fit the stereotype of Republicans. Everybody knows that Republicans are flinty and stubborn (e.g. Cheney the other night). You always know where they stand. But liberals? What do they stand for? In other words, the GOP has been skillful in manipulating the evidence to pour fuel on a slumbering flame, which is the negative stereotype of liberals as unprincipled and wishy-washy. And the Democrats have been less effective in negatively stereotyping Bush.
So the question is whether the "Bush is delusional" label will stick. I think there's plenty of evidence to support it, but it might be a hard sell because it doesn't play into any long- established negative stereotype. Here's Saletan's point:
This really is Bush's essential flaw: not that he lies or flip-flops or serves the rich—I don't think any of those charges are true—but that he doesn't get it. He believes what he wants to believe and refuses to recognize emerging realities that challenge these beliefs. He couldn't see that radical changes in the economy and in the budget outlook between 1999 and 2001 made his backloaded tax cuts unwise. He couldn't see warnings in his intelligence briefings that the evidence of Saddam's WMD was iffy. He can't see the magnitude of the postwar mess in Iraq. He can't fix problems—hell, he's worsening problems—because he can't see them.
I've been pleading for this message all year, so I'm relieved to see it take center stage. For months, Bush has hammered Kerry's fundamental weakness, but Kerry has missed Bush's. Voters were hearing only one side of the story. Now they're hearing both.
If Saletan doesn't think that Bush and the GOP are serving the interests of big money, then he's delusional, but his other points are well taken. The question is whether the Dems will be skillful in trying to make this label stick. Weisberg doesn't think they've been good at it or that they're likely to be. It will be interesting to see if this is a tune that Kerry tries to sing tonight.
Thursday, October 7, 2004
Sullivan Is Educable. At least he can see what's right in front of his eyes. He like many Americans thought the war was the right thing to do. I never thought that, but at least he recognizes that this particular group has bungled it badly. Might a better outcome have been possible? We'll never know. But the more we find out about the administration's thinking, the clearer it becomes that these guys never had a chance. Strong, steady leadership?! How can anybody who has any awareness about what is going on believe that? To Sullivan's credit, he no longer does. He's asking the right questions, and there are no good answers for them.
The fundamental question in this campaign is the war in Iraq. Was it worth starting? Has it been conducted well? Will it make us safer? My answers to those three questions are, briefly, yes, no, and, it depends. But from a broader perspective, the following facts are simply indisputable. The fundamental rationale for the war - the threat from Saddam's existing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction - was wrong. Period. In the conduct of the war, it is equally indisputable that the administration simply didn't anticipate the insurgency we now face, and because of that, is struggling to rescue the effort from becoming a dangerous mess. Period. So the question becomes: how can an administration be re-elected after so patently misjudging the two most important aspects of the central issue in front of us? It may end up as simple as that. Maybe, in fact, it should end up as simple as that.
A SIMPLE QUESTION: Returning to Bremer. One of his early complaints was insufficient troop numbers to stop looting, restore order and protect unguarded weapon sites. Leave everything aside and focus on the latter. The war was launched because we feared Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The main fear was that these weapons might be transferred to terrorists who could use them against us. And yet in the invasion, there was little or no effort to secure these sites! And there was no effort to seal the borders to prevent their being exported, or purloined by terrorists. Why? I've long pondered this, but Bremer's gaffe brings it back into focus. Why would you launch a war that failed in its very planning to avoid the disaster that you went to war to prevent? I don't understand. We were lucky in retrospect that Saddam didn't have any WMDs. The way this war has been run, it would have actually increased the chances of such weapons getting to America via terrorists rather than reduced them. At least, that seems to me to be the logical inference. Am I somehow wrong? Why did the administration leave weapons sites unguarded for so long? Why did they not send enough troops to secure the borders? I'm still baffled. And rattled. Can anyone explain?
Why is this race is still so close? I don't know what is more pathetic. The delusion and ineptitude of the current administration. Or the Dems inability until recently to make a forceful case to reveal the administration and its policies for what they are.
Things seem to have shifted once again in Kerry's favor, but somehow I'm not all that optimistic that this ticket can maintain its momentum. I'm still not convinced that the Dems understand the psychological battle front where the real political war is being fought. It's no longer a matter of arguing about the facts. They are in plain sight for anyone who cares to look at them. It's now all about psychological warfare in the service of politics. And the Dems are still babes in the woods compared to the GOP in this facet of the campaign.
Expectations Game. Sorry for all the typos in yesterday's "Just Say Anything" post. I banged it out during a quick break. In general the first version of everything I put up is a little rough, and I go back and clean it up when I have a chance. But this one was particularly bad.
Going into tomorrow's presidential debate, it's hard to believe that Bush will do as badly as he did in the first one. The town hall format might favor him, and it might be a format that will induce Kerry back into his ponderous, wordy style. But I think it's more likely that Kerry has finally learned what he has to do to communicate more effectively, and it's a real question whether Bush has the basic ability to do any better. He's had three blown opportunities this year, and there's reason to think that this could be his fourth. He's a lightweight, and there's nothing that can be done to cover that up in these venues.
But the way this game is being played, even if he does moderately better than his performance last week, it will be hailed as a victory for Bush by the same talking heads who thought Cheney was the winner Tuesday. It won't matter what he says.
This race is too close, but I take heart in the analysis of those who say the fundamentals favor Kerry. Most undecideds are undecideds because they are feeling very uncomfortable with Bush and don't yet feel comfortable with Kerry. Most undecideds break for the challenger rather than the incumbent when there are serious questions about the incumbent. The GOP strategy will be to continue to fabricate ways to make this sector feel uncomfortable with Kerry, and as the Swiftboat smear showed, they will say anything to accomplish that end. Expect more dirty tricks, especially if things continue to go badly for Bush.
Kerry on the other hand has got to continue to stay on the offense. That was to me the key to the Edwards performance on Tuesday. Keep these dudes on their heels.
Wednesday, October 6, 2004
Just Say Anything. That's been pretty much the Bush Administration's m.o. since Day One. The Orwellian quality of so many of their pronouncements and its way of framing and controlling the public debate has been often commented on here and elsewhere. Check out this site for a list of all Cheney's distortions last night. It starts with the obvious contradiction of his bald statement that he never met John Edwards before yesterday evening just before the debate. But the distortions didn't start last night and they won't end there.
These guys just say anything if it supports their positions or smears the character or positions of those who oppose them. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that struck a chord:"Clinton lied, but no one died." Why did it matter so much six years ago to conservatives that Clinton lied to cover his butt about a private matter, and it doesn't seem to matter at all that this administration chronically distorts the truth or outright lies to do the same about public matters that have an impact on us all? It's just so weird and unbalanced.
But the CYA motivation explains some but not all of the administration's most egregious fabrications. I often find myself wondering if they really believe their own propaganda or whether they are really just as cynical as they appear to be. It's a combination of both, I suppose. In part I think that when you get into the habit of stretching the truth, you start to forget what it really looks like--I suspect they have a genuinely hard time knowing what is really true and what isn't.
They have an enormous capacity for self-delusion perhaps because they are trapped in the house of mirrors that they themselves have constructed. Sy Hersh said recently that he'd feel a lot better if the Bushies were cynics like Kissinger. At least Mr. K. knew he was lying. But these guys insulate themselves from criticism and seem to have created a mutually reinforcing social dynamic that makes them believe that the rest of the world is nuts, and they are the only ones who really know what's right.
Anyway, we've got to put an end to it. And the easiest way is just to vote them out.
More on Debate. Read Slate's Will Saletan this morning who provides all the specifics to support the contention that Edwards last night gave better than he got, and that his efforts were directed more toward the undecideds, while Cheney seemed to be focused more on bucking up the true believers in his base, which I believe is a losing strategy:
If you watched this debate as an uninformed voter, you heard an avalanche of reasons to vote for Kerry. You heard 23 times that Kerry has a "plan" for some big problem or that Bush doesn't. You heard 10 references to Halliburton, with multiple allegations of bribes, no-bid contracts, and overcharges. You heard 13 associations of Bush with drug or insurance companies. You heard four attacks on him for outsourcing. You heard again and again that he opposed the 9/11 commission and the Department of Homeland Security, that he "diverted" resources from the fight against al-Qaida to the invasion of Iraq, and that while our troops "were on the ground fighting, [the administration] lobbied the Congress to cut their combat pay." You heard that Kerry served in Vietnam and would "double the special forces." You heard that Bush is coddling the Saudis, that Cheney "cut over 80 weapons systems," and that the administration has no air-cargo screening or unified terrorist watch list.
As the debate turned to domestic policy, you heard that we've lost 1.6 million net jobs and 2.7 million net manufacturing jobs under Bush. You heard that he's the first president in 70 years to lose jobs. You heard that 4 million more people live in poverty, and 5 million have lost their health insurance. You heard that the average annual premium has risen by $3,500. You heard that we've gone from a $5 trillion surplus to a $3 trillion debt. You heard that a multimillionaire sitting by his swimming pool pays a lower tax rate than a soldier in Iraq. You heard that Bush has underfunded No Child Left Behind by $27 billion. You heard that Kerry, unlike Bush, would let the government negotiate "to get discounts for seniors" and would let "prescription drugs into this country from Canada." You heard that at home and abroad, Bush offers "four more years of the same."
These are among the punches that Cheney took but did not effectively parry. He seemed to think it was sufficient to take a couple of shots at Edwards and Kerry and go home. As Andrew Sullivan points out below, he just looked tired and sounded flat. He didn't even get up at the end of the debate to shake Edwards' hand. It was as if he didn't have the strength. Here's Sullivan's take:
There was a tone of exasperation in much of Cheney's wooden and often technical responses to political and moral questions. I can't explain the incoherence except fatigue and an awareness deep inside that they have indeed screwed up in some critical respects, that it's obvious to them as well as everyone else, and that they have lost the energy required to brazen their way through it. What I saw last night was a vice-president crumpling under the weight of onerous responsibility. My human response was to hope he'll get some rest. My political response was to wonder why he simply couldn't or wouldn't answer the fundamental questions in front of him in ways that were easy to understand and redolent of conviction.
SNARL, SMILE: But, in fact, it was worse than that. He went down snarling. His personal attacks on Edwards were so brutal and so personal and so direct that I cannot believe that anyone but die-hard partisans would have warmed to them. Edwards' criticisms, on the other hand, were tough but relatively indirect - he was always and constantly directing the answers to his own policies. Edwards, whom I'd thought would come of as a neophyte, was able to give answers that were clear and methodical and far better, in my view, than Kerry's attempts to explain himself last Thursday.
So I have to ask once again: Were the post-debate talking heads watching the same debate that I was?
Tuesday, October 5, 2004
Quick Take on the VP Debate. I don't know that the contrast between Cheney and Edwards was as telling as the contrast between Cheney and Bush. It's clear that Cheney is the heavyweight to Bush's lightweight. And although much of the spin I heard on Chris Matthews and Brit Hume seemed to favor Cheney as having landed the hardest punches, I was impressed with how little Cheney had to say. He had a couple of prepared punch lines like the bit about never meeting him before. [Update: Even this isn't true.] But so what? He had better opportunities to hit Edwards harder or to defend himself against some pretty cutting accusations, and I don't think he did it. I thought he'd be tougher.
Edwards had two objectives. The first was to come across to the American people as someone that could do the job. Compared to people like Dan Quayle, or even the current president, he hardly appears to be a lightweight, especially because he's smart and articulate--traits that neither Bush nor Quayle could claim. I doubt his inexperience is something that will make most people worry about his being a heartbeat away. I think he came across as as energetic and appealing, and more people are going to like that than not like it, especially when contrasted with the kind of flat, dour persona projected by Cheney. But I can see why some people, especially those on the right who need a Big Daddy figure, would be inclined to favor Cheney.
Edwards' second objective was to raise a reasonable doubt about the vice president's credibility. I think he did that. And as suggested above, I was surprised that Cheney wasn't more vigorous in defending himself. True believers aren't going to be swayed, but I'll be interested to see if the Edwards attacks have an effect in Undecidedville. They should.
[I just got a call from a friend as I write this telling me that an insta-poll on MSNBC gave the debate to Edwards with 69%. So now I'm listening to Matthews and Andrea Mitchell keep carping about how Edwards was ineffective. Listening to them I wonder if they saw the same debate that I saw, but whatever. We'll see if I'm more in tune with the broader public's perception than these Beltway talking heads. Now Fineman is talking about how Cheney won decisively on foreign policy. It's as if these guys wrote their analysis before the debate took place and they just see what confirms what they already thought, to wit: Cheney has forty years of experience and he was Secretary of Defense for awhile. QED: Cheney must be the winner on foreign policy. What each candidate actually said is irrelevant.]
The real issue here is not whether Cheney landed a few punches. That's to be expected. And I think Edwards parried them fairly effectively. The more interesting political question is whether the punches that Edwards landed did any damage. Ultimately this is not about Kerry or Edwards. This election is a referendum on the Bush/Cheney incumbency, and quite frankly hardly anything that Cheney said in his defense struck me as robust in the way of rebuttal--not enough to allay the growing doubts that so many Americans have about the administation's policy. I think Edwards' attacks were more articulate, easier to understand, and just plain more effective. Again we'll see whether my admittedly biased perception has any correlation with what the average undecided voter saw.
Cheney landed a couple of punches, but he took some, too. He came across more effectively than his boss, but he walks out bloodier than when he went in. Edwards has a couple of scratches, but he comes out looking stronger. Such is my take, for what it's worth.
Sunday, October 3, 2004
The Tribal Mentality. I've stayed up a couple of nights this week to watch Colin Quinn's "Tough Crowd" which follows "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. It's pretty funny look at culture and politics from the perspectives of different northeastern urban tribes. Quinn assembles a different group every night, but apparently there are regulars. The group will typically comprise an Italian, a Jew, a couple of Blacks, another guy and himself representing the Irish. The show is essentially the kind of argument you would expect if you put these people together in a bar somewhere in pre-gentrified working class neighborhoods in New York, Boston, Philadelphia. It's the kind of arguing I heard all the time growing up in the Northeast, but would never, ever hear in Seattle where I live now.
It pretty much breaks down to the blacks and Jews being the liberals and the Irish and the Italians being the conservatives--at least on the nights that I watched. And they do a pretty entertaining job at taking shots at one another in which they stake out their positions on the issues of the day mainly by mocking the tribal foibles of the others. I thought this kind of thing was banned by the political-correctness police in eighties and nineties, and I'm sure the inspiration for the premise of the show came from a no-b.s. guy like Quinn wanting to do a show that would be a vehement flip of the bird to that kind of political correctness.
It's not just trading insults. There's real wit and thoughtfulness, and everyone gives as good as he takes. It's not a setup like Hannity and Colmes where you have a token liberal paired with the real star who is a rabid conservative. But it would appear that the participants understand and accept that the ground rules require that they take no offense at being ethnically caricatured. And each person seems to accept his role as the representative of his or her tribe and its groupthink.
It's important to understand tribal thinking. We'll probably always have it in one form or another. The tribes represented in the shows I watched still had their roots shaped by the neighborhood ethnicity that you still find in some neighborhoods in the Northeast. But I doubt that twenty years from now you'll hear a distinctive Irish or Italian voice. The cities on the east coast and, I imagine, midwestern cities (I know nothing about them firsthand) like Chicago and St. Louis still have the lingering elements of the European ethnic communities that thrived in the last century but which started to fall apart in the sixties for the host of reasons that things started falling apart then.
I bring it up because ethnic communities provide forms of traditionalism that run parallel to the American protestant traditionalism that I wrote about last week as having died. And by a curious coincidence, former Navy Secretary James Webb has written a book that was previewed in today's Parade Magazine, entitled Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish shaped America. This particular American subculture is at the heart of the American right-wing backlash, and clearly has more staying power than other traditonal subcultures on the American scene. Colin Quinn's ethnics are a dying urban breed. Webb's Scots-Irish thrive in the fundamentalist churches of the south, in Nashville-style popular music, in Nascar culture, in the celebration of guns and patriotic violence that you find in the Appalachian uplands, the deep south, and the mountain west.
In praising this culture, Webb touches upon some themes that I developed in my column about the "Southernization of American Politics":
Because "sophisticated" America tends to avert its eyes from them, it is inclined to ignore or misunderstand this culture. The Scots-Irish tradition of disregarding formal education and mistrusting, even despising, any form of aristocracy has given us the man the elites love to hate--the unreconstructed redneck. The Southern redneck is an easy target with his intrinsic stubbornness, his capacity for violence, and his curious social ways.
His legacy is stained because he became the dominant culture in the South, whose economic system was based on slavery. No matter that the English aristocrats of TIdewater were slavery's originators and principal beneficiaries or that the typical Scots-Irish yeoman had no slaves.
Yes and No. The southern redneck did in fact despise the Yankee elites whom they saw as sanctimonious interlopers. But sanctimonious though they may have been, they were still right. This resentment of Yankee moral superiority goes back to the period preceding the Civil War, and it still lives in the the kind of rant we heard from Zell Miller during the Republican Convention. But they were at the same time very deferential toward the Tidewater (English?!) aristocrats that Webb correctly points out were the real beneficiaries of slavery. These Tidewater aristocrats cynically pursued a divide and conquer strategy which worked effectively to keep the whites docile in the mills and the blacks docile in the fields. They did it by stoking the flames of hatred both toward the blacks and toward northern, liberal elites who were depicted as hating everything that their redneck culture held sacred.
People like Webb and Miller want to make the case that this American subculture is misunderstood. But what's to misunderstand? Their ignorance? Their blind patriotism? Their love of guns and violence? Their mindless, fanatical religiosity? Their naivete and manipulability? What is it that's misunderstood? That despite these traits their rough-hewn honesty and independent spirit is the backbone of America?
Sorry. I don't buy it. If they are independent, it's only in their own fantasy of themselves. How many stood up for the rights of blacks when it would have cost them the social approval of the others in their tribe? They are as conformist and predictable as any particular tribal group can be. By Webb's own description, this particular culture reinforces everything that is most moronic in American society. Give me Colin Quinn's urban ethnics any day. It has at least an intelligence and wit about it that you hardly ever see in this Scots Irish tribalism.
But I suppose if you wanted to argue against what I wrote last week, you could make the case that this particular form of American traditionalism is hardly dead. It seems to be robust and thriving. I'll have more to say about that at another time.
But for now the point I would like to make is that it is culture formed by a particularly toxic mixture of the Celtic pugnacity with Calvinist rigidity. It was toxic in Northern Ireland where the Presbyterian Scots shipped in by the English to suppress the Catholics. It was toxic in the South where it was at the core of the racism that viciously enforced the segregationist system. It was toxic in the West where it mercilessly sought the extinction of the American Indian, and it's toxic now in its stupidity and hatred of anything and everything that doesn't fit into its bizarrely archaic fantasy of itself.
Saturday, October 2, 2004
Loss of Soul. I wanted to expand still a little more on what I was saying earlier in the week about how Traditional America has died and how its corpse has been taken over by the demon spirit of consumer capitalism. The real heart of traditional America is Jeffersonian. It lies in an imagination of the American citizen as an independent, self-sufficient landowner who sustained himself on his farm. This imagination of the American ideal was carried forward by Andrew Jackson and later by the rural populists toward the end of the 19th Century. They always saw themselves as opposed to the Big Money interests of the Northeast and later the railroad magnates and other industrialists whose growth and influence were making it increasingly difficult for the these yeoman farmers to thrive, and in the end even to survive.
There have been some attempts to keep the Jeffersonian American ideal alive. In the 1920s the Fugitive Poets, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and others, made a futile effort to defend the agrarian Jeffersonian ideal against the encroachments of industrialization, and the contemporary poet and essayist Wendell Berry is an eloquent heir to that legacy. But the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal was doomed to extinction in America, and if it lingers now in the American imagination, it is wraithlike and insubstantial. It might remain in some people's minds as memories do, but it does not live in concrete human institutions that transmit it as a living tradition. The gradual destruction of the family farm as a foundational American institution and its replacement by the new capital intensive agribusiness system killed whatever vitality this genuine American traditionalism once had.
This was the major conflict in American history until World War II. Whose side were you on--those who thought that America should be run according to the logic of capital--the Hamiltonian school? Or those who thought that America should be ruled by the logic of the land--the Jeffersonian school? The second lost, and with it came the loss of the traditional American soul because the traditional soul of a nation is nourished by its longstanding relationship to the land. The last vestiges of a living connection to the land linger in the environmental movement and in the longing many Americans still have to get out into the wilderness. But the spirit of capital is toxic to the soul of the land. There are pockets here and there where the authentic traditional American soul hasn't been completely extinguished, but it's just a matter of time before they, too, will disappear.
Did it have to happen this way? I don't know for sure. In France, for instance, they've made it a priority to support their rural culture and uncompetitive small-scale family farms with enormous subsidies. That kind of thing seems completely irrational to the American free-market mentality. But the French, at least, know what's at stake--their national soul. Nevertheless I doubt in the long run they will be able to hold onto it. The new global system is driven by the logic of capital, and sooner or later everyone succumbs--even the French.
So this is my point. The traditional American soul died and it was replaced by the spirit of capital. The victors, however, coopted much of the language of the vanquished. But it was false, and it developed a foul smell for anyone who has a nose for what's fresh and alive and what's rotten. Wal-Mart culture is prime example. It presents itself as this bastion of traditional American values, but it is driven relentlessly by the logic of capital. When push comes to shove capital cares not a whit about the tradition and has no need of it except for public relations purposes.
If you can't smell the stink that Wal-Mart exudes, and if you think that it's an example of American free enterprise at its best, there's probably nothing I can say to convince you otherwise. But if the thought of Wal-Mart makes your nose crinkle even a little, stay tuned. This warrants further discussion because I think it cuts to the heart of our present confusion about what are the real American values for our time.
More on the Debate. I'm again surprised that my initial observations about the debate seem to correlate pretty much with what the punditry observed. I guess there are some things that are so obvious that you can't spin them, because Bush was awful. The question for many people now is whether they saw the real George Bush in that debate or whether they'll give him a pass for just having a bad night.
Pedro Martinez has been stinking it up lately, too. Does that mean people think he's a bad pitcher? No. But it does raise doubts about his future effectiveness. And maybe enough people who in the past have thought well of Bush will see that it's time to bring in a reliever. So then the question becomes whether enough Americans will see Kerry as the guy who can come in and get done what Bush has been unable to do.
This seems to be the Dems basic message: Look, we think it was a colossal blunder to get the U.S. bogged down in Iraq the way this administration has done. Yes, Saddam was a bad guy. Yes, the world is better off without him. But is the world a better place now with this destabilizing conflagration raging in the heart of the Middle East? Is there a net positive here? Has this been worth the cost? No it hasn't been, but we have to make the best of a botched job. We have no reason to believe these blunderers can get the job done competently, so let's put in a reliever.
For people like me who think Bush should never have been put in the game in the first place, he just gave further evidence about what a dog he is. He's an embarrassment. Bill Clinton was an embarrassment because of his personal failings in the private realm. Bush is an embarrassment because of his failings in the public realm. He's an incompetent, whereas whatever you might have thought about Clinton's character, he was knowledgeable and competent in his job. He was always someone to be taken seriously. Bush has always been diffiuclt for serious people to take seriously. And while I doubt that Kerry is the second coming of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, I think he's someone we can take seriously.
David Brooks in his column this morning seems to be making the same point, and while I doubt he does so intentionally, he damns the president with faint praise:
You could say it was a hedgehog (Bush) debating a fox (Kerry), if you want to use that tired but handy formulation. But I think you'd be getting closer to the truth if you put it this way: The atmosphere of Kerry's mind is rationalistic. He thinks about how to get things done. He talks like a manager or an engineer.
The atmosphere of Bush's mind is more creedal or ethical. He talks about moral challenges. He talks about the sort of personal and national character we need in order to triumph over our enemies. His mind is less coldly secular than Kerry's, but also more abstracted from day-to-day reality.
When John Kerry was asked how he would prevent another attack like 9/11, he reeled off a list of nine concrete policy areas, ranging from intelligence reform to training Iraqi troops, but his answer had no thematic summation. If you glance down a transcript of the debate and you see one set of answers that talks about "logistical capacity" or "a plan that I've laid out in four points," or "a long list" of proposals or "a strict series of things" that need to be done, you know that's Kerry speaking.
If, on the other hand, you see an answer that says, "When we give our word, we will keep our word," you know that is Bush. When you see someone talking about crying with a war widow, you know that's Bush.
More abstracted from day-to-day reality, indeed. It's a nice way of saying that he is clueless and out of touch when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts reality of his job, but he's the guy to go to if you're in need of a moralistic platitude. Give Bush a job as the nation's chaplain or guidance counselor, but don't let him continue as the principal. Kerry, on the other hand according to Brooks, is a sober, clear-thinking, practical manager who understands what needs to be done and will develop a concrete plan for achieving it. He may not be that inspiring, but he'll perform competently. This is the best a Bush supporter like Brooks can come up with to defend his guy?!
I don't know. Brooks's column is very revealing about the kind of mind that got us into Iraq in the first place. It's a mind that was so convinced of the morality of its cause that it needn't bother about the complexity of the issues on the ground. This is clearly Bush's mindset, and it's the mindset of most of the people, even intelligent ones like Brooks or Andrew Sullivan, who have supported this approach in the prosecution of the Iraq war. They had their chance to show the effectiveness of their approach. The results speak for themselves. It's time to bring in the reliever.
Friday, October 1, 2004
The Multi-lateral Principle. I'm getting sick of the way Bush and the others are caricaturing what should be a common-sense approach to global security. Kerry isn't going to give a veto to France with regard to what's in America's best security interests. To suggest that he will is just stupid; to believe it is even stupider.
It's absurd to ever have thought that we could have done this alone, and it's absurd to think that Russia, Europe, India and any number of other smaller nations in the immediate region affected by the mess in Iraq don't want to be involved there. They are madder 'n hell right now at the Bush administration, and I'm sure they love seeing it stew in the consequences of its stupidity. They see this administration as a big, dumb bull in the china shop--all muscle and rage, breaking everything it touches. But in the long term they want stability in the region, and they will work with a president who genuinely wants to enter into a partnership with them to achieve that end.
They know that they can't work with the current administration because of its delusion, rigidity, and bully-boy posture. But if you think that they won't welcome a leader whom they can talk with and who genuinely wants their help, I think that you underestimate the vested interest that these powers have in working to stabilize the region. They realize that the U.S. can't do it alone. But it's understandable that they don't want to do anything that will help the Bush administration in the short run. But that doesn't mean that they won't work with Kerry. They're surely hoping for a Kerry win, and they will be very open to working with him to stabilize Iraq because it is in their best interest to do so.
More on Consumer Capitalism. I know that some of what I've said about this in the past week might make my position appear similar to that held by many on the radical left. Yes and no. I accept much of the critique by the left of free-market consumer capitalism, but I don't accept its solutions. In the long run people have to choose what they really want, and right now we (me included) choose consumer capitalism as the best option available. But that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't grow out of it. That doesn't mean we should be blind to its dark side and how it rots at the soul. And we will grow out of it if an alternative is presented that offers something that is truly better, something that offers us an alternative that is richer in possibilities for the human spirit than the materialistic vacuity that is at the heart of consumer capitalism. That something isn't on the scene yet. It certainly isn't being offered by the secular left. My hope is that it's in one of those seeds I wrote about the other day.
In the long run we don't have a choice. The current system and its social arrangements can't last forever. The earth simply cannot sustain six or seven billion people living at an American or European standard of living, and why should the rest of the world settle for less? Something's got to give sooner or later, certainly within the lifetime of my eighth grader son. And violent conflict between haves and have-nots is inevitable if we don't develop an alternative way of dealing with global consumption and economic fairness issues. Right now the super-empowered terrorists that threaten us are right-wing traditionalists in the Middle East who reject consumer capitalism as the Great Satan that seeks destroy their traditional way of life. In the future, the terrorists will be left-wing revolutionaries who reject it because it is now and will continue to be rigged to favor those who already have power and wealth.
I think that the experiments in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere have proven that top-down state socialism doesn't work and creates more problems than it solves. But the monumental failure or state socialism should not be interpreted as some kind of divine vindication for free-market capitalism. We have to come up with something better, but right now it must be admitted that there are no realistic alternatives. The best we can do at this point is to work hard to mitigate the harm this system inflicts on those who are relatively powerless.
From my reading of history, significant social change doesn't occur unless there is some cataclysm that forces it. All the signs might be pointing to the imminent disaster, but there are always excuses or alternative explanations for the evidence. Denial, the basic inclination to not want to see or deal with a problem until we are forced to, is a universal human trait. There will always be clever people who can give us excuses to think that things are better than the nabobs of negativity think they are. We're seeing that in a dramatic way in Iraq right now. It seems inevitable that the disaster there will have to run its course, no matter whom we elect next month. But my concern is for the long run. Where are things going to be when my son is my age forty years from now?