Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Imagine that the average voter is the average sports radio caller...

Now, construct a viable argument in favor of democracy.

I've seen that premise presented in that or similar fashion and done so myself any number of times. No one can ever make a solid argument. Churchill said it was the worst of all forms of government, except for all the rest. But, as time goes on, one begins to wonder.

People are stupid. People are even more stupid in large groups that can easily be swayed by loud voices speaking words that either prey on their fears or fit with their presuppositions or both. It's even worse when said voices have an agenda that is designed to take advantage of the ignorance and/or trepidation of the public in order to use them as a tool to accomplish goals that are precisely contrary to their collective interest. In ancient Rome, they were referred to as demagogues and were reviled by the patrician class, members of the Senate, and other "right-thinking" stalwarts of society. Of course, at least part of the agenda of said rabble-rousers was to encourage the mob to seize its common rights and desires and escape the control of that very class of patricians and wealthy landowners. In modern times, demagoguery has been perfected to encourage the ignorant to forge their own chains, usually by distracting them in time-honored fashion with cheap electronics and American Idol (aka bread and circuses) or by encouraging their base fears that all of their problems are not caused by the people that own their government (who often look like them) but by the people who are "different" (who usually don't look like them.)

This has been a pretty common political strategy in the US since the Irish started getting off the boat in droves in the early 19th century, but it was brought to the fore in modern times as the centerpiece of Nixon's Southern Strategy in 1968. Taking advantage of a Democratic president's signing of the Civil Rights Act, he pushed the idea that the problems of poor,white folks were caused by the newly-enabled presence of even poorer black folks. And people bought it because people are stupid.

With this in mind, why would we want to have our government in the hands of blooming idiots who accuse the current Patrician-in-Chief of being connected to a radical Congregationalist pastor at the same time they accuse him of being a practicing Muslim? Citizenship in a democracy is a responsibility as well as a privilege. Wouldn't it be wiser to require people to assume some responsibility to educate themselves, not necessarily to opinions, but to basic reality?

Now, of course, I'm treading dangerously close to one of the fabled liberal taboos: the idea of a "voting test." This has been a tactic employed in the past to discourage the impoverished, who were less likely to be literate, from casting a vote. If we still had a decent educational system in this country, I might not even be nattering on about this. Jefferson, of course, said: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion." There are few Jeffersonian ideas with which I more wholeheartedly agree (and I agree with a lot of them.) But he was talking more about simple ignorance; a lack of knowledge. Today we face a situation that is built upon the deliberate spread of disinformation and a political sphere so polarized that any suggestion to the contrary is immediately dismissed as heresy.

So, how would such a test take place? What would be its parameters? Would it be as simple as presenting everyone at a polling place with an index card that read: "If you believe the current president is a Muslim, check this box" and denying entry to anyone who checked the box? I'd take it one step further, of course, by passing out a card that read "If you believe that any Democrat or Republican candidate is actually interested in helping you, check this box". Anyone who checked the box might not only be denied entry but also might end up in Blofeld's piranha tank, but that's just me.

What would comprise civic education sufficient to be a decent voter? Knowledge of how the government actually functions? I'm mortified at the number of times I've asked high school kids how many people make up the US Senate and not been given the right answer (hint: it's 1 for every 78,000 fellow millionaires in the US.) Should we go farther? Chomsky once said that if one's contribution to society is to walk into a booth and pull a lever every four years, one might as well not bother. Should there be some level of service in one's community before one can vote? Now we're getting closer to the concept of Starship Troopers, which is not necessarily what I'd like to see, either (I find that movie hysterically funny; most other people seem to find it somewhere between simple-minded and juvenile.)

No one wants to see a return to the time of 'democracy' meaning only landed, white males having suffrage (well, almost no one... Someone remind me about how the various 'tea party' movements are a positive thing, again? Watering the tree of liberty with the spittle of idiots isn't nearly as promising as the blood of patriots or tyrants.) But should it hold some level of obligation or responsibility to know the facts before entering the booth? Or should we all just get behind this guy:

Honestly, I would have paid good money to see Jimmy as the next governor of New York. Unfortunately, the real landed white men of modern times like Jerry Speyer and Dan Tishman don't share my sense of humor.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The team, the team, the team!

I'm a huge Michigan fan. I attended the university, but I was a Michigan fan from the time I was six years old and first saw the winged helmets winning game after game. Consequently, one of my icons as a kid was Bo Schembechler, the head coach of the football program for 20 years. When I was a kid, I was convinced that Bo was a god. Of course, I also thought that Mr. Spock and Darth Vader were gods, but Bo was the only one whose value system and humanity were, you know, real. And not only real, but on display all the time.

In a way, Bo's statements to the media about the team (the team, the team!) symbolized what became my ideal for humanity in general: you worked together with the people around you to achieve a goal valued by all (well, most...) of you and with a higher purpose in mind. Bo and Bo's teams played for themselves, for each other, but also for Michigan. It was obviously important to him that that ideal, the idea that Michigan represented something higher than money or social status (as would come from, say, an NFL contract), was in the forefront of the players' minds every moment that they were on the field. It meant something to him that they understood that they were the current standard bearers for something that would last long after they were gone, but that could also enshrine them as part of that lasting image that the team and the university had on the fans and the alumni. His focus was service to an ideal. Sounds almost socialist, doesn't it?

We have to be careful about how we focus on that ideal, though. For some, the idea of all-for-one and one-for-all is emblematic of nationalism: Us vs. Them, Oceania vs. Eurasia, the United States vs. Everyone That Doesn't Implicitly Agree, etc. It's possible to see that in Bo's philosophy. The adherence and loyalty was to the team; Michigan's team. But the way he expressed it spoke of something higher: "You will never play for a team again!" Not this team, but any team.

If we dispense with the model of the nation-state and focus on the all-for-one concept as an idea that binds people, then we come to something that not only feels more natural (Is a worker in Ivory Coast really that different from a worker in South Carolina, apart from language and relative pay scale?) but comes perilously close to the communist ideas of the past two centuries, in which the workers across the world would express themselves as one group, rather than splintered into British vs. French vs. Russian vs. German vs. American vs. Anyone Non-white. Is there anyone that could logically argue against a philosophy that presents an ideal of humanity working together for the betterment of all, regardless of racial or national identity or status?

Now, I'm not trying to suggest that Bo was a communist or even a socialist. I met the man and he was what you would probably call a Goldwater Republican; focused on the upstanding citizen approach on the social side and keeping the government out of his wallet on the pragmatic side. But he knew the value both of group effort and instilling the idea in the group that they struggled for something bigger and broader than simply themselves. There was no Randian instinct in Bo (be it Ayn or the newly-elected Senator Paul...) and I think that he would have objected to the perfidy of modern economics and finance in the same way that many sane people do. Riches for a few and crumbs for the rest is no way to build a team or to encourage a team to work for each other.

Now the question becomes: since Bo instilled this ideal into his players at an institution of higher learning, can we trust that the largely uneducated, misguided, and disinterested public would be able to do the same?

Monday, December 27, 2010

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

That's F. Scott Fitzgerald, from his short story, "The Rich Boy" (1926.) The man was a fiction writer when said people still had to take a grasp of what was going on around them and transmit that through a fictional story to be considered a great writer. Now you just have to spew the content of Jane's Defense Weekly with some half-assed dialogue and you can be Tom Clancy. And get off my lawn. (No, really, there are some truly excellent modern writers. I'll get to that later.)

The concept that Fitzgerald was trying to get across was that of the nurture side of the classic nature vs. nurture debate. The conditions in which one was raised tend to shape the worldview of the individual. There are still instinctive reactions (e.g. nature is still part of it), but the broader actions of life like, say, policy design will tend to follow what you've become accustomed to, whether as a child or later... unless you're dumb as a post and claim that global warming can't be a reality since god promised that he wouldn't hurt us again after Noah's boat landed, like Representative John Shimkus does. Congress really is high comedy sometimes.

So, if you were an idealistic young lawyer who had spent a good part of your life working with impoverished communities or on various civil rights issues, but along the way had done time at Harvard Law... and then been elected to state office... and then national office... the whole way along hobnobbing with money and lobbyists and apparatchiks... wait. Am I reminding you of someone?

Oh, yeahhhh. That guy. "Change you can deceive wit-" sorry- "believe in." It never fails to amuse and then irritate me when people declare that this or that candidate is THE guy (it's almost always a guy...) that will be the "difference maker." The one to "change the way Washington works." The one who's really "in touch with the people." That kind of crap has been spread around since Rome, but then it was who was really in touch with the mob (read: rabble) to keep them from rioting and toppling the state. The way to be in touch with them was to buy them off with the bread dole and public games. Now you just have to convince people that their pet agenda is the one thing on your mind long enough to get past the first Tuesday in November.

So, community organizer to Wall Street's best friend? How does it happen? It happens because of the nurture effect. If you hang around long enough with people who tell you the Chicago gang's economic ideas are the only reliable answer to life, the universe, and everything (42!), pretty soon you'll be thinking like they do. When you start to think that way, it becomes very easy to imagine that your station in life is reliant upon thinking that way. Presto! You could have seen this coming as soon as he hired Geithner and Summers to be his economic team (By the way, one of my dearest wishes in life is to drop Larry Summers into the middle of an intersection somewhere in Russia or Latvia or one of the other nations he traumatized with his economic "shock therapy" and see how long it takes for the population to get medieval on his ass.)

Your savior president doesn't care about you. To paraphrase the eminent philosopher D. Duck: "He's rich! He's wealthy! He's comfortably well off!" That means you're one thing and one thing only: you're a number ("You're the weak... and I am the tyranny of evil men.") He needs a certain amount of numbers to stay in office, so as long as you do your duty every 4 years and abandon all critical thought, walk into a booth and pull a lever/connect an arrow/touch a screen and elect him or someone like him, you've fulfilled your role, as far as they're concerned. He's not there to serve you or help you. He's there to serve the people that pay for all the advertising that you soak up, swallow, and believe for a few months before having your image shattered once again. If you drop out and don't participate at all, that's even better. They don't even have to pay to sucker you in. They can go on draining the money out of your paycheck and denying you opportunity without even having to pay lip service to your concerns. And you'll let them, because your iPod is much more interesting, right?

They have control. They know that they have control. And you're letting them have control every time you believe that anyone with a D or R following their name will somehow act differently and act in your interests. How much do you have in common with a millionaire? With the results of the latest election, 100 of 100 US Senators are millionaires (prior to that, the lone exception was Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.) These are the people you expect to represent you? It doesn't matter that someone used to be a community organizer. Once they're rich and in office, it's over (funny how those two go hand in hand by default, isn't it?) And if you think I'm talking about "class warfare", you're right, because there's been a class war going on in this country since its inception and the non-wealthy have a two century losing streak. Wake up to it.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Deus vult and Deo vindice!

The madness that involves violating one's own supposed precepts in order to violate another's existence.

The madness that drives otherwise intelligent people to the depths of ignorance and ignorant people to the heights of destruction; their own and others'.

The madness that perpetuates war and disease and famine and death at the beckoning of writings from millennia past and drives communities apart from within and without.

One cannot have proper communication in the face of faith. The latter will eventually drown out any attempt to properly understand one another as the belief that the ultimate destination of those who do not believe will be doom of some kind that may or may not infect the minds of the children whom that faith proclaims to protect and 'save'. Cue Helen Lovejoy... One questions why people will simply not stop and think.

The ideas that have driven people to the limits of outrage; of achievement; of beauty; of earnest desire and contemptible desire are those that are in and of themselves earnest and contemptible. Faith has been used to create codes and to shatter them; to insist upon guidance and to set people free from it; to create unshakable laws and to empower people past any law written by a human hand. All of this has been done with the idea of some goal that can neither be defined or experienced because the ultimate experience will supposedly be at the end of any that can be related to one another. Thus, communication denied.

Is action taken by the will of a person or by divine fiat? The laws say thou may not and the laws say thou may. Are all of those laws prescribed somewhere before they are even written or has the will of the average human being been proscribed before he or she has even learned how to pick up a pen and use it to communicate what is in their mind? Are we a nation of men or a nation of laws?

Unfortunately, we're currently a nation burdened by the conviction of some that the principles upon which it was founded were both universally applicable and unchangeable; this in the face of the facts that the writers of said principles were objecting against the idea that divine, unknowable will elevated the status of any one person above any other. God/Yahweh/Allah/Brahman/Buddha were to have no part in the common designs of the American man and yet we are stuck arguing over how big their role should be in a time period where we are supposedly more educated and more knowledgeable about the world and our role in it than those hallowed people. Would that it were actually so...

I knew a man, once. I had the audacity to tell him that I had no use for philosophy or poetry. I was a pragmatic individual and I knew where of and what I was and where I was going and I had no time to stop and consider deeper thoughts. I was all of 15 years old and a senior in high school. That man taught me how to better use the words that I was so proud of and encouraged me to reconsider philosophy and poetry, telling me that I would learn to love them.

That man was a Catholic priest. I have little use for the beliefs that he held so dearly, but I wish that he was here right now so that I could tell him that he was right. My appreciation for words extended to poetry and philosophy became one of the driving forces of my existence. That man's religion had driven him to teach, in the same way that the driving force of Islam led Arabic peoples to develop scientific principles that we still use today (as we grit our teeth in chagrin over the way Islam is used as a tool of ignorance in Afghanistan.) Is there an upside? Of course there is. I miss you, Father Ziemba. I can't ever repay how you convinced me to stop and think. I only wish so many other people would do the same without the constraints of some presumed morality handed down from an otherworldly being that no one has seen nor ever will.

Don't waste my time (or yours)

There's a certain level of stupidity extant in political/social/societal thought these days that manifests itself in a form of single-mindedness: if you are not with me, you're against me. One finds it in comparisons of Republicans and Democrats (as laughable and contemptible as that is...), "capitalists" and "socialists", Mac users and Windows users (and the everpresent Linux fringe), and the bowl system vs. the playoffs. The concept of finding common ground is a dead one and compromise is seen as the territory of that person not strong enough or smart enough to get what he wants (or should want, if he knew what was good for him.)

Now, when I say "compromise", I'm not suggesting the same route as exhibited by our current chief executive. You see, I, too, am a "sanctimonious purist" in the eyes of the Oval Office. Compromise does not imply capitulation. Standing up for oneself and one's sanity is a natural motivation. One can still live a principled life even if one favors the philosophy of a Life Without Principle (Thoreau; look it up.) But there are limits to all things and those limits are met long before one reaches the current of effluent that passes for public discourse these days. But this is a good example of how we've gotten to the point where the idea of something new and different is derided as unworkable before it's even considered:

A friend pointed me toward a discussion about the nascent social network, Diaspora. As with so many things on the Web these days, the network is being constructed as an open-source alternative to the Facebook monolith. The main topic of this discussion was how Diaspora was going to employ a blank text box for gender, so that people were not restricted to the commonly-accepted "male" and "female". Of course, what the wizards behind this idea didn't realize is that they'd just placed an enormous hurdle in front of the code writers for any kind of interactive tool that requires the use of pronouns. The English language employs three kinds: male, female, and neuter, with the latter not normally used to refer to people. So now they were forcing the code to properly interpret what could be a panoply of possible terms used to refer to someone of their own specification of being. Someone who brought up this sizable sticking point was immediately fire-bombed for being "oppressive".

So, here you have a nascent social network that's supposed to be the alternative to the invasive giant. But, instead of driving forward and producing a service that does things that Facebook doesn't do and which doesn't hassle you on the same invasive level, you place a hurdle in front of the programmers trying to produce the thing, make communication more difficult for programs, programmers, and even users (the very antithesis of the purpose of the creation), and generally distract everyone from the goal while making a few people sit around and smile to themselves about how 'cool' that is. And, of course, when people object on very pragmatic grounds ("Hey, you're making it more difficult for people to be social on a social network and for us to even get this thing off the ground in the first place."), they're excoriated for standing in the way of people's self-identification. Here you have a chance to create a new outlet for people, perhaps devoid of the targeted advertisers and Farmville, and instead everyone will spend every day figuring out whether to refer to each individual as "he", "she", or "zed".

This is the status quo of many of the progressive organizations that I've been a part of and a fine example of the single-mindedness I referred to above: people are tunnel-visioned to their own agenda, regard anyone not helping them with said agenda as "part of the problem", and do a fine job of draining the energy out of what should be a mass movement that could be trying to find a path back to some level of equality in our society for everyone; not this or that oppressed minority or persecuted class, but everyone.

We had the same problem in the Green party while I was there and something I spent a fair amount of time trying to change with a simple message: Get. Over. It. If all people want to do is sit around bemoaning the Plight of the Black Man or spending three weeks writing a time-sensitive press release about water issues on the Colorado by making sure every third paragraph speaks about the Navajo and Paiutes in reverential terms, you will never accomplish anything except making yourself feel better/righteous/self-satisfied for a very short time. That's not progress. That's idleness and that is more emblematic of American society than anything else I can think of.

More on this identity politics problem later, including the concept of how the current idiot in the White House wouldn't really know what a socialist was if one walked up and bit him on the ass.