Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Convention Season!

So its convention season again and with it come complaints about how irrelevant modern presidential conventions are, typically launched by the very people who have to cover them for the unwashed American masses to view on TV.  This is a typical complaint and in many ways it’s quite accurate.  Indeed, the last convention in which there was a serious challenge on the floor would be in 1980 when Ted Kennedy tried (in vain) to unhorse Jimmy Carter and the last time a upset could have possibly occurred would probably be 1976, when it was in the realm of possibility (but highly unlikely) that Ronald Reagan could have upset Ford.  For those of you keeping score at home, the last time a convention started and the winner was still largely in doubt would probably be in 1960, if not earlier.  So the critics are right that national party conventions don’t “matter” as they don’t pick nominees any more, but they are missing the larger point.

Conventions do have a point in our modern age, for while they don’t make important decisions on candidates they do play an important role in communicating with folks other than the national press corps or political junkies like yours truly.  It’s hard to remember, but most of the American electorate doesn’t pay attention to politics that much.  They live busy lives and the news in general and political news in particular can be both quite boring and rather depressing.  In addition, our culture, especially our media culture, doesn’t celebrate people involved in or following politics at all.  The professional hardened cynic is almost always the hero in political drama and a loyal party foot soldier or idealist activist is at best a sap and at worst a fraudulent charlatan.  Thus why people like Andrew Sullivan or David Brooks might know all about Mitt Romney and this election, lots and lots of Americans still don’t.  The result is that conventions play and important role in introducing candidates, showcasing political parties and their messages to millions of Americans who are just now starting to tune into the election.  You and I might know who Paul Ryan is but millions of American’s are going to learn about him this week, many for the first time.

In addition, conventions help political parties organize and communicate with themselves.  Political science has shown for decades now that large percentages of Americans base their position on issues base on what stance the party they tend to vote for takes.  Just think about Republicans and Iraq, they go from supporting a President who boasted at his convention about pursuing a “more humble” foreign policy, to largely supporting the invasion of Iraq, and after no WMD’s turned up many Republican voters still claimed they were the cause of the war and were in fact there.  Partisan voters, activists and other party actors can use these events to organize their parties’ positions from the new marriage equality plank the Democratic platform to the GOP platform that now calls for the end of Medicare.  The mass media events that are conventions are in some ways the only way to organize political parties with millions of members all over the country.   

To be sure the media often covers events where nothing of “importance” is decided.  How many people were actually impacted by the O.J. Simpson verdict directly (one of the most watched Television event in recent memory) or who wins a gold medal in coordinated diving?  Not many, but the media still covers it none the less.  And lots of things treated as political or national news don’t have a big impact on people’s lives either; every year they announce the President’s physical, he’s always fine, and announcing the movement of the Dow Jones Average is a nightly ritual on TV news despite the fact that most Americans have no net wealth, most don’t own any stock and almost none actually hold large quantities of stock in the 30 companies that make up that average.  Still it gets reported like clockwork.

The reason these complaints get rolled out every four years is the media itself.  First of all they rarely take place in New York, Atlanta or Washington (where most press big wigs live and work) so that means usually they have to fly to somewhere out in Middle America (imagine having to go to Denver or Tampa for one of these things, these people are supposed to be writing about THE FATE OF THE NATION, and these are places ESPN henchmen get sent to cover a football game!)   Then they have to stay in regular hotels with no swanky restaurants, I’m sure David Brooks is quite annoyed right now, no decent room service!  In addition, most press big shots are out of their traditional information networks at these things.  They are no longer discussing the Great Game of Washington with their lunch buddies from the Cato Institute or various Titans of K Street, no now they have to talk to some delegate (gah, that’s just one step above a regular voter!  How am I supposed to get my WaPo column and live the high life when I’m in a swamp talking to Ron Paul people wearing stupid hats!)  And to add injury to these insults the political press is no longer in control of the actual coverage.  In almost every other political event what gets reported is filtered through the writing of reporters of columnists where only a tiny bit of the actual coverage is what some politician actually said.  TV is usually worse with talking headed pundits who don’t even show us what America’s political leaders said, they explain what it all means, and then argue for three minutes about who is “winning.”  But during conventions the reporter is made largely irrelevant as our political leaders communicate directly with the American people without the traditional middle man.  It is all very frustrating.  And if there’s one thing a frustrated reporter knows, it’s how to complain.  Hence the complaints.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why Don’t You Read a Book

Recently, I got around to reading some of the reviews that came out about Game of Thrones Season Two.  Despite being one of the best shows on television, the reviews I saw where rather mixed.  Much of this can attributed to the “frustrated-English-grad-school-casualty” philosophy that tends to dominate a lot of critics in this day and age.  Critics, especially critics in New York, seem to see their role in life as being to attack everything, well everything but Sex in the City, and write in a sort of preening/whining Village Voice-esque tone.  In addition, Fantasy has always been a denigrated genre in American literary circles and I suspect the same goes to for the world of TV.  But what I can’t stand is when critics are just simply wrong about historical fact and use their ignorance of history as a way of attacking a TV show.  Emily Nussbam took a typical stand in her review in the New Yorker:
From the start, the show has featured copious helpings of pay-cable nudity, much of it in scenes that don’t strictly require a woman to display her impressive butt dimples as the backdrop for a monologue about kings…”Game of Thrones” is not coy about the way the engine of misogyny can grind the fingers of those who try to work it in their favor.  An episode two weeks ago featured a sickening sequence in which King Joffrey order one prostitution-a character the audience had grown to care about-to rape another…But while the scene may have been righteous in theory, in practice it was jarring, and slightly incoherent, particularly since it included the creamy nudity we’ve come to expect as a visual desert…But there is something troubling about this sea of C.G.I-prefect flesh, shaved and scentless and not especially medieval. 
Leaving aside the fact that all TV shows are “scentless”, that is they are a visual and audio based medium not an olfactory one, what struck me was that last sentence where open sexuality is described as “not especially medieval.”  This is utter nonsense.

To begin with the books the TV show was based on was heavily based in medieval history.  Most fantasy, especially stuff that comes from Tolkien, creates a world where technology might resemble the Middle Ages but human behavior seems to have for more in common with Victorian norms and mores.  Romance looks a lot like it does in Withering Heights with distant lovers constantly pining away for each other.  The world Robert Jordan created in his “The Wheel of Time” series has no swear words stronger than “blood and ashes” and no one is ever dirty.  George R.R. Martin, who wrote the books, deliberately set out to create a world that resembled life in the Middle Ages, and did a huge amount of historical research before he began writing.  Accordingly, the show maybe set in a fantasy realm but it does resemble the period in history it was based on, even in the portrayal of sexuality that seem to get Nussbam all in a tizzy.

Life in the Middle Ages was nasty, brutish and filthy.  Violence and cruelty were regular parts of life and ever present, much as it is in the show.  Common games played in that era by villagers included one “sport” which consisted of a group of men chasing a pig around a fenced in area, such as a village square, armed with clubs beating the pig to death while spectators cheered them on.  Another one popular with young men in France was to take a cat and nail it to a tree through its abdomen.  Participants then take turns standing in front of the dying cat with their hands behind their back trying to beat the cat to death with their face and forehead.  You proved you manliness and skill by killing the cat without it managing to scratch out your eyeballs.  These types of cruelties seem shocking to our modern sensibilities but they were rather tame compared to what people did to other people in that age.  A common problem you would face as the host of banquet or feast was people getting drunk and stabbing each other to death with their daggers at the dinner table.  French nobles solved this problem in later centuries by introducing the practice of hosts providing silverware for attendees, as is the modern custom, with knives with rounded off tops to make it harder to stab someone to death.  This is why your table knives have rounded off tops.  Even this level of violence was relatively tame compared to life during war time, where most tactics involved slaughtering your opponent’s peasants and burning his lands to the ground to reduce his incomes and prove he was unable to defend his friends and subjects.  Raping and pillaging was seen as a normal and effective way to reward your men for the hard work of taking a town or city.  Witnessing a town being "put to the sword," that is the methodical killing of all of its residents, was probably a “jarring” experience as well.  All of this is recorded fact, but I’m sure if it was put into the show-especially the cat game-it would be dismissed as “unrealistic” or “outrageous” by people like Nussbaum.  

Sexuality and gender relations were also very different from contemporary American customs.  Medieval life was a bawdy and social affair, every day-especially for the nobility-was never ending parade of social customs and rituals done with others.  Hypocrisy and contradiction was built into all forms of life.  The entire ideal of courtly love seems so foreign to how we live today it seems to have come from another civilization.  As Barbra Tuchman points out in her great book about the 1300’s A Distant Mirror:
If tournaments were an acting-out of chivalry, courtly love was its dreamland.  Courtly love was understood by its contemporaries to be love for its own sake, romantic love, true love, physical love, unassociated with property or family, and consequently focused on another man’s wife, since only such an illicit liaison could have no other aim but love alone…The fact that courtly love idealized guilty love added one more complication to the maze through which medieval people threaded their lives.  As formulate by chivalry, romance was picture as extra-marital because love was considered irrelevant to marriage, was indeed discouraged in order not to get in the way of dynastic arrangements…Guided by this theory, woman’s status improved less for her own sake than as the inspirer of male glory, a higher function than being merely a sexual object, a breeder of children, or a conveyor of property.
In no way did people in this time act like well to do New York professionals without computers and wearing goofy tights and they were not “prudish” compared to modern American sexual customs.  In the crowded dense world of the medieval city numerous people would sleep in the same room.  A common practice would be for the master to sleep with his wife in a bed in a small room with his servants sleeping on the floor only a few feet away, obviously being personal witness to whatever would occur.  One English King fathered 16, yes 16, children out of wedlock, another age 29 married a six year old for a variety of political purposes.  He fell ill and died before the holy wedlock could be consummated.  A popular story of the 14th century began with the line “a Priest and his lady went off to bed.”  There are records of the building of a Cathedral in Italy that document contributions from all aspects of medieval society including wealthy merchants, local guilds and “Rafela, a prostitute.”

This is how people lived for centuries, but put a scene like that in the show and no doubt critics would complain about its lack of “realism.”  But this is because of their ignorance of history, not poor production choices.  Their world was simply very different from our own.  Thus Joffrey’s cruelty might shock modern critics like Nussbaum but in no way was it “not medieval.”  Patriarchy and male superiority were hallmarks of medieval life, Joffrey as a king could do as he pleased and he never would have to worry about being arrest by the NYPD after being accused of sexual assault by a chambermaid, unlike modern political figures.  Indeed history records a French nobleman, Gilles de Rais, who acted like a modern serial killer before finally being caught and burned at the state.  The legend of Count Dracula is based on the myth of a Romanian noble “Vlad the Impailer” who was famous for impaling captured Turkish soldiers on large spikes.  These examples might be extreme but they give a picture of Joffrey’s behavior being quite possible.

What we see here is an attempt to distill all of the ways that people can look at life through the narrow lenses of early 21st Century American rich people.  When something comes along and points out that in no way is our own culture and ways of living “normal” or “natural” some people seem inclined to push back.  But this is wrong.  While the world of Westeros may be a fictional creation of one man’s imagination, it’s a powerful reminder of the different possibilities for how people can live and interact.  And we shouldn’t dismiss it because the possibilities, both good and bad, for change in our own society can seem quite unsettling.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Can’t Take Politics Out of Politics

Recently the State of California held their primary elections for State Legislature.  It was a brand new system designed by “reformers” to make the system “better”.  In short it was an overhaul of the traditional primary and general system to try and elect more “moderate” candidates, as the reformers thought more “moderates” would solve California’s problems.  It was an attempt to get around the political impasses in the Golden State by getting rid of politics and replacing it with something else.  What that something else is, “reformers” have never quite explained…

Alas it was not to be:
All incumbents who ran this year advanced to the fall campaign, and all but four finished in first place. Likewise, 101 of 113 non-incumbent candidates endorsed by the major parties advanced.
The primary elections showed how irrelevant the whole reform effort was asWhat we are seeing here is the fool’s errand of trying to take politics out of politics.  Political scientists have long documented, indeed since the 1790’s, that when faced with a new environment or system of elections political parties respond.  They work around complex rules meant to limit their power and find new strategies to do what political parties do best: organize candidates, elected officials and voters, take positions on issues and win elections.  In California the parties responded by borrowing a page from the Iowa playbook, both the Republicans and Democrats held endorsing conventions to choose a candidate for offices and then worked hard to get the word out to activists and party loyalists on whom the “right” candidate to vote on was.  As you can see from the results, it worked quite well.

This is not unique.  After Watergate liberal Democrats in Washington were at the height of their power, they won a landslide in 1974 and won the presidency in 1976.  Many of these liberals were products of the fierce ideological battles of the 60’s and they sought to try and fundamentally reform our politics systems and make them “better” and more “democratic”.  Indeed, they largely shied away from the nitty gritty of passing regular legislation to deal with common problems.  No, they wanted to change the entire political process instead.   They passed strict campaign finance laws to try and limit the role of money in elections, the passed the War Powers Act to try and limit the presidency in foreign policy and prevent future Vietnams and got rid of the old boss dominated system by introducing a national system of primaries and caucuses to pick presidential nominees.

Alas it also didn’t work.  Parties and special interests invented new ways to raise cash, so called “soft money” that we heard oh so much about in the 1990’s.  Every President has simply ignored the War Powers Act since its passage and it has never been enforced by Congress or the Courts.  And old big city and Dixie courthouse bosses were replaced by county party chairs and state legislators in Iowa and New Hampshire.  It’s an old rule in politics, being right is never enough.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Culture Wars

A few weeks ago Mitt Romney caused quite the stir when he pronounced that culture is what determines why some countries and rich and strong and others poor and weak.  He cited the differences between the economic life of Israelis and Palestinians as an example.  There are a lot of problems with his example, such as the problem of ignoring the very real policies-check points and such-that make it enormously difficult to transport goods or people even a few miles in Palestinian areas.  This is not to say that Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the West Bank and Gaza strip are necessarily wrong (I am not a Shin-Bet agent or a human rights lawyer so I will defer on that question), it’s that they are very important in terms of understanding the economic differences between the two groups.  It’s also wrong because it ignores the very real historical events that resulted in two very different forms of governance and institutions for the two nations.  That is Israel won its independence from the British Empire, defeated attacking Arab armies from a number of countries and was created after a series of events generally called The Israeli War of Independence or The Founding of the State of Israel.  The Palestinians by contrast were largely on the losing side of said war and became a stateless people both inside the historic areas of the British Mandate of Palestine and scattered all over the world, including millions in refugee camps in other Arab countries.  These are very different historical courses and they certainly impacted why there are economic disparities between the two groups.  This is pretty basic stuff and if its news to Romney would someone please rent him a copy of Exodus?  I mean he could be the next President of the United States.

Romney’s argument is wrong as well, just like his example.  First of all, when people ascribe success to a group’s culture they never define what they mean.  Are you talking about informal norms or religious ceremonies?  Family structure or folk dances?  Define your terms!  Instead all they do is offer a series of vague cultural stereotypes, at best, from groups that are comparatively wealthy.  Thus America is successful because of its “strong work ethic”, do Mexican roofers in the US without proper documentation not work hard?  Or we “value education”.  Really?  Recently former US Senator and Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum announced that young people shouldn’t go to college because they would be “indoctrinated”.  Do people living in poverty in the slums of Mumbai not hope and dream their children could get the chance to go to a University?

Secondly, cultural proponents ignore that many of the cultural traits they see as being good or bad can be present in both wealthy and impoverished societies.  If you described a society where corruption was seen as normal and everyone knew an easy way to get out of a speeding ticket was to simply wrap some money around your license as you hand it to the cop Romney would probably nod his head and say that’s bad culture.  But I could be describing life in 1970’s Chicago or a poor Latin American country.  If I described a society where the highest value and most important thing was loyalty to your family I could be describing Sicily or Japan.  Sicily has always been poor compared to the rest of Italy, going back to the Roman Empire.  Japan is one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  This chicken or egg problem is common throughout descriptions of Asian societies by modern academics.  Through much of the late 19th century and early 20th century it was common for the smart kids to explain the poverty and failures of Asian nations through the lenses of culture.  British academic-lord-high-muckitymucks described Indians as “enfeebled”.  The Confucian tradition was blamed for why East Asian countries like China, Korea and Japan were poor and unable to stop foreign intervention in their internal affairs.  This is because it promoted family loyalty and conformity not the Western traditions of individual achievement and the pursuit of money.  Then in the 2nd half of the 20th century when Asian societies started doing better the narrative flipped, now their culture was better than us Americans because the promoted such values as self-discipline and such, hence the American obsession with Japanese culture in the 1980’s and early 90’s.  Now the key to economic success is getting auto plant workers to do mass calisthenics before shifts in Ohio, and anyone can kick anyone’s ass if you learn the ancient art of “wax on, wax off.”  The culture was the same, the reality of life in Tokyo in 1880 or 1980 just changed.     

In 1966 journalist Neil Sheehan, who would later win the Pulitzer Prize, wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine about his own experience covering the Vietnam War entitled “Not a Dove, But No Longer a Hawk.”  Its opening paragraph is one of the best things I’ve ever read about the Vietnam War:
Americans, because they are Americans, arrive in Vietnam full of enthusiasm and with the best of intentions.  After a prolonged period of residence, they leave with their enthusiasm a victim of the cynicism that pervades Vietnamese life and with their good intentions lost somewhere in a paddy field.  I am no exception. 
Sheehan’s culture was overwhelmed by the realities of life in South Vietnam: a savage war that would kill god knows how many people, a corrupt and dysfunctional system of government that (he later goes on to tell a great anecdote about how that society was run: “Numerous complaints from the American Embassy led Premier Ky to warn his fellow generals at one meeting of the junta that they were embezzling too much and should exercise some restraint.  Their reply was that they had to think of their families.”) couldn’t solve any problems and all existing under crushing poverty.  After the fall of Saigon many Vietnamese (and Laotians and Hmong and Cambodians) would come to the United States where they would flourish in communities like the Twin Cities.  Because they stopped eating pho and started eating hot dogs?  Of course not, they went from an impoverished society torn by decades of war where education and social advancement were restricted to only a minority of well-born families (another great anecdote about the “democracy” we were supposedly defending: “A friend of mine once visited a hamlet with a South Vietnamese Army major who is one of the few field grade officers to defeat the system by rising from a humble beginning.  The major spoke to the farmers in peasant dialect instead of in the sophisticated urban Vietnamese most Government official’s use.  “You are not a major,” said one farmer in astonishment.  “Yes, I am,” said the major.  “No, you’re not,” said the farmer.  “You talk like a peasant and no peasant could become a major.”) to a rich society that hadn’t fought a civil war in a hundred years where school attendance was mandatory and anyone could start a business. 

Apply Romney’s logic to our own society and ask why Detroit-once the fourth largest city in the country-is poor and losing population and Chicago-one of the richest cities in the country-is prosperous and can make a strong bid to host the Olympic Games.  Is it because rooting for the Bears and eating deep dish pizza is better than rooting for the Lions?  I highly doubt it.  I think the following is more important.  Detroit’s economy was heavily based on the manufacture of cars, which would go into decline in the second half of the 20th century as American auto manufactures lost out to foreign imports.  Chicago’s economy had a large manufacturing sector but it was broader based.  It’s also a center of transportation, commerce and finance.  The price of grain around the world is set on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and O’Hare is one of the world’s busiest airports, oh and there’s another one, Midway, both inside the city limits.  Detroit’s airport is out in the burbs.  Agency and chance also played a role.  Chicago produced Richard J. Daley during the 20th century, a man who would wield more personal political power than probably anyone else in the history of the Republic.  He could pick Governors and be incredibly influential in the state legislature in Springfield.  So he could convince the University of Illinois to build a huge campus in the heart of Chicago to educate the city’s working class sons and daughters, even though the Board of Regents didn’t want to.  The University of Michigan is located in Ann Arbor not Detroit.  He ruled the Chicago City Council with an iron fist and so could bulldoze neighborhoods to build that University, despite their protests.  He controlled Cook County government and so could easily get vast amount of land to build O’Hare.  He could reliably control 14 votes in Congress and so could get the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations to pony up the dough to build that airport and the branch of the Blue Line “L” to connect it to the heart of the city.  Detroit had no champion like this.  And so in 1970 Daley could convince the world’s largest retailer Sears, Roebuck and Company to build a massive new headquarters in the heart of the loop: the Sears Tower, then the world’s tallest with 4.4 million square feet of interior space, second only to the Pentagon.  Meanwhile Detroit had to deal with Chrysler deciding to move to a 1,700-acre complex 17 miles outside of the city.

Cultural explanations for the wealth or poverty of nations or cities are just wrong.  But it’s important to recognize the deeper reason for these arguments.  They are meant to ascribe the misery of the miserable to themselves, and make a moral argument that the wealthy and powerful have what they have because they deserve it, they are superior beings.    This is an old line in conservative politics, people get what they deserve so don’t feel bad for the disposed.  And never think their but for the grace of God go I when you walk past the homeless man.  I mean Jesus, you might vote for Obama if you think that.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Chick-fill-a and Why You Should Vote No On Election Day

Ah the Chick-fil-a wars, flaring up in good  ole’ Chicago.  If you missed it, Mayor Rahm Emmanul essentially vetoed a plan for the southern chicken based fast food chain chick-fil-a to open a franchise in the loop (that’s downtown Chicago for all you east coast swells).  This was in no small part based on the fact that chick-fill-a’s supreme leader and president announced to the media that he was for a legal definition of “traditional marriage” (btw I don’t think my parents would count as “traditional marriage” {whatever that means} as they both had jobs and stuff throughout my childhood, which in no way would Don Draper have approved of).  That said, he meant it about gay people, and how gay folks shouldn’t be able to get married to each other.  But the denial of zoning permits by the City of Chicago was treated as the end of the universe by some conservative public intellectuals.  Ross Douthat led the charge by claiming that a denial of building permits in the city of Chicago is the greatest affront to democracy in the history of the Republic.

Guess it was like the Fort-Sumnter-being-fired-upon for fried chicken aficionados.  But this type of zoning fight strikes me as being almost inevitable.  I mean, once you turn marriage and who gets to be a family into a political issue, politicians will treat it like a political issue, because you made it a political issue.  Douthat wants to have his cake and eat it too.  He wants it to be fine for state legislators or voters to treat who gets to marry who as a matter of political preference but then he loses his mind when the other side of that political argument responds politically.  I mean, if marriage and who gets to be a family becomes a political issue, don’t be shocked when politicians treat the issue politically!  Mayor Rahm’s actions might not be the model of municipal governance but if captain chick-fil-a wanted to get his zoning permits through easily, he shouldn’t have started demanding the state start making laws about who gets to marry who and who gets to be a family while others are relegated to the status of sub-families.  And why?  Because significant political constituencies in the City of Chicago find those sorts of political statements incredibly offensive.  And in this country local communities have controls over their zoning from opening bars to opening tire plants.   Once marriage is made a political issue, politicians will act politically, because politicians respond to political issues in a political manner.

If it’s okay to put some folk’s marriage in the political gun sights, it’s okay to tie up your zoning and building permits, because you just said that one of the most basic acts of life-the ability to marry who you love-is a political issue.  So why can’t your zoning permit be a political issue?  Cry me a river Douthat, just don’t try to marry David Brooks, some states have laws against that sort of thing.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Political Smarts

There’s a man named Chris Langan who is smarter than anyone you’ve ever met.  He’s so smart researchers have to invent new IQ tests to try and quantify his intelligence.  There’s a great Errol Morris documentary about him you can see on youtube here.

At one point in the interview he announces one of the big problems with modern societies is that politicians are all stupid, “el stupido” as he puts it.  He then goes to outline his own ideas for a more rational, better type of society.  The problem here is it’s not that he’s necessarily wrong, it’s just that people have been whining about this for about 20,000 years.  And don’t think they weren’t, I bet the Israelites were about 10 days into wandering the wilderness before people started grumbling about how dumb Moses was.  

“If Aaron was in charge we would have found Zion by now.”

“He makes us leave so fast we don’t even have time to bake bread!  But he doesn’t even know where the Promised Land is!”

Stuff like that.  I’m sure.  The idea that intelligence is some sort of sufficient component of successful political leadership is totally wrong.  Intelligence might help you succeed in politics but intelligence without wisdom, morality and prudence can be more highly destructive than stupidity.  Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover were both highly intelligent men, but as political leaders they were disasters.  Look and Jimmy Carter before his presidency.  This was a man who was a nuclear engineer and a Captain of an attack submarine to boot.  Yet from an objective stance his Presidency was a lurching series of political disasters which culminated in a challenge for the nomination from inside his own party and a re-election effort that culminated in the worst showing of an elected incumbent president since Herbert Hoover.  Ronald Reagan was a highly successful president, that is from an object political standpoint, whose important intellectual qualifications included playing the straight man for a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo.  From an intelligence stand point a visitor from Mars would probably pick Carter to be the success and Reagan the flop, but the opposite occurred.   

Secondly, blaming stupidity often becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.  If things are going well it’s because of how smart so and so is, then when problems arise suddenly that person is revealed to be a moron.  The problem here is that the genius and moron are the same person.  You see this phenomenon in how George W. Bush was depicted by a lot of journalists and public intellectuals during his presidency.  He was often portrayed as a shrewd, capable political leader overcoming all obstacles-even Andrew Sullivan wrote about how he was a genius-and then he suddenly became a bubbling moron sometime a few weeks after Stephen Colbert made fun of him in the summer of 2006.  But it’s not like he suffered massive brain trauma right before then.  The actual man George W. Bush was a complex person with conflicting traits, that is he was like any other normal person.  He was someone who was both intelligent and shockingly ignorant about all sorts of things.  He could ruthlessly exploit political opportunities while allowing himself to be manipulated by the outsized role of his Vice President.  Cheney was able to convince Bush that him, and only him, should be able to assemble all sorts of briefing materials and summarize what other White House staffers where saying in written reports.  He thus could edit out material that might cause Bush to question a course of action, as well as remove material that might indicate problems (hence “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie!”).  That Bush could cleverly see how to use nationalism and fears of terrorism to gun up support for supply side tax cuts while not see, until the last years of his administration, what Cheney was doing is quite amazing.

To focus just on intelligence in our political leaders is to remove all sorts of qualities that are just as necessary for successful governance, which is why Moses didn’t have to be all that smart to still be an effective leader.  That said, I’m sure he did well on his SAT II’s.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Two Lessons from a Master

I’ve been reading a great book by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor called American Pharaoh.  It’s a biography-the first really serious one published 25 years after his death-of Richard J. Daley (he’s the older of the two mayors) and I find it fascinating.  It’s both a portrait of an incredibly important man in the history of our country, a window into life in America in a particular time in place and an in-depth description of a method and theory of politics that once was so dominant and now almost totally forgotten.  I’ll probably want to write more about it later, but here are two big things I’ve taken from just the first chapters.

“Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers”

That’s the title of a classic scholarly work about how machine politics worked in Chicago in the first half of the 20th Century.  It’s a quote of an anonymous foot solider of the Cook County machine describing how a political organization should go about its business.  What is amazing is how foreign it is to our own politics in this world.  This man, and machine workers were almost all men, is not interested in ideology.  He does not have a view of how to construct a perfect utopian society (be that a libertarian utopia or an occupy “post-capitalist” one) or avert an epic disaster (be it creeping Sharia law or climate change) or some deeply held personal belief that motivates him (like gay marriage or gay marriage).  He is interested in running a tight ship and ultimately winning on Election Day, and that’s it.  I’ve been to far too many DFL candidate forums and debates in my lifetime, already I know, and what I find amazing is how this goal, winning, can be so hard to find being discussed in liberal American politics anymore, especially in politics here in Minnesota.  The idea of backing a candidate because they will win can seem utterly foreign to discussions in modern progressive politics but in the old machine systems losing-not ideological unorthodoxy-was really the only unpardonable sin, which is one reason why one Mayor could control 40,000 patronage jobs and a million votes on Election Day.   

“He will give me a crown…And what is given can be taken away…no man gives me a crown.  I will take my crown.”

Okay that’s from “A Clash Kings” by George R.R. Martin but Daley would agree with it.  The idea is that true political power has to come from your own organization and your skills and deeds, it can’t be given to you or it’s really not that powerful at all.  Daley spent his life pursuing this theory of political power with a never ending plodding consistency, from rising up through the ranks of his neighborhood athletic club to picking presidents.  Indeed the authors point out in the introduction that the defining characteristic of Daley was not his views on issues or ideology, although he was an embodiment of a flinty working class ethnic conservatism on some issues and a expansive vision of government on others, as they say:
Those were Daley’s views, but his agenda in office was less complicated: he was motivated first and foremost by a drive to accumulate and retain power.  That was the way of the Chicago machine, and it was Daley’s …Daley’s primary test of a political cause was whether it would increase or decrease his power.
This type of approach to politics can lead to many choices I would consider immoral.  Building modern highways and massive housing projects in a systematic way to create the most segregated large city in the country or beating up people who disagree with you, for example.  But again I find this fascinating as it can seem so different from where our politics are today.  The idea of being separated from the never ending and often unbridgeable gaps between differing ideologies or views on issues, and focusing instead on the direct questions of gaining power is just so different.  Pundits often decry the partisan gridlock that dominates Washington DC these days, but Daley shows us an easy solutions.  Cut deals with share the spoils with any group or political actor to gain power, Daley worked with mobsters and Bishops, black political leaders and racist anti-integration neighborhood groups.  We may see this as immoral but it does solve the problem of gridlock.  Daley’s Chicago had many problems; gridlock was never one of them. 

Secondly, it gives progressive groups a great way to look at how to relate to politicians.  As a character tells Toby in an episode of The West Wing, “It’s not important where we meet Toby, it’s important that you do what we want!”  Political priorities can often get misplaced in the never ending quest to be right in some higher, maximal way.  You can see this in occupy protesters who are constantly afraid of being taken over other groups or somehow being compromised.  The end result is the movement fails to get organized and slowly melts always after accomplishing nothing.   

Daley would have told the occupy protesters to take their political army and use it, use it to take over local party units or build their own.  Rally together blocks of voters and march them to the powers that be and demand concessions or threaten revenge on Election Day.  It’s not hard, ward committeemen in Daley’s Chicago could dominate a ward with 285 patronage workers, I bet 100 dedicated volunteers in one of Minneapolis’s city ward could easily unseat a current member of the city council.  Heck, even 20 occupy delegates voting in a block at the convention this spring between Representatives Frank Hornstein and Marion Greene could have easily thrown the outcome to either side, giving those 20 people incredible leverage to negotiate with a state legislator, in Frank’s case one with considerable seniority and powerful committee standing to boot.  Instead of complaining for the umpteenth time on firedoglake about how much you hate Obama why don’t you do something?  Small groups of political activists pretty much ended Joe Lieberman’s power and career (once a contender for a presidential nomination) and threw Bob Bennett right out of office, something Daley would totally understand.  Don’t complain on a blog for someone to give you a crown, go out and take it.