Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Real American Pastime

People outside of the United States, surveys say, have got some issues with America. They don't like what our government does, or the pervasiveness of our influence, or the cultural artifacts exported throughout the world that many see as evidence of a corrupt and declining society that has neither the interest nor the willingness to educate themselves, even slightly, about the history and cultures, etc., of other nations. This is a fair critique, although it is a little off the mark. We Americans generally don't really even care much about our own history and culture, as has been noted many times. History to us is less a grand narrative of events past as it is a grab bag of half-remembered people that did Great Things and events that were Important, but these people and events, decontextualized, have effectively become Rorschach ink blot tests that tell more about the person invoking them than about the actual person. One could ask the average conservative about Ronald Reagan and get a litany of superlatives about our 40th President: morning in America, low taxes, small government, strong leader, and so on it goes. History is a bit more complex, though, as this same Reagan also raised taxes repeatedly, did not significantly alter the role of government, and started the movement away from the egalitarian society of the post-WWII era and more toward the New Gilded Age in which we now find ourselves. The former is the more common perception, of course.

So, the history stuff done, what about Our Great Culture? The one that the Tancredos of the world feel is under imminent threat from waves of Mexican Immigrants? It is true that America has a rich tradition in art and in words. We've produced some pretty good playwrights and a few decent philosophers. America has sparked several legitimate cultural movements, including film noir and abstract expressionism. But surely these things are not under assault from The Immigrants? In any event, the average American these days has little use, or knowledge, of any of this stuff. Politics is little different: to Americans, who have not been oppressed in ages, freedom is merely a watchword. It is something invoked in truck commercials and Memorial Day advertisements. Even before the American Revolution, Americans never had to live in a police state akin to Communist Russia or East Germany, though we should be credited for opposing Communism partly because of the horrifying abuses of human rights that occurred under their banners.

So, it is difficult to define American culture, since the things usually referred to as "culture" are generally ignored, if not disdained, by the average American. To him (and her), culture is mostly found on the television and in the movies, not to mention the ubiquitous advertisements for products that pop up everywhere. The media has become the main purveyor of culture, and it has far more power than any other group or individual has ever had in earlier times. Part of this is due to the vastly greater amount of information available to the average Joe, with the advent of the internet as well as, to a far greater degree, the still dominant force of television. In any event, because of the power of the media, American culture consists largely of popular television shows and movies that are bland enough for a sufficient amount of people not to object to them. The media's power is impossible to overstate. The prevailing model of advertising these days is not to advertise a product, introducing the points in favor of the product, but to buy enormous chunks of advertising time in order to so brainwash a person with brand awareness that, when he's hungry, the idea of choosing anything other than a Snickers simply doesn't enter his mind. Since we are talking about movies, this occurs in that arena as well, and with many indications of success. The enforcement of the norms is accomplished easily enough: nobody wants to be the one person at the office who didn't see the latest Hollywood crapfest, so all must go. And a certain movie being sufficiently popular often forms a reason in and of itself for seeing it. We, as a nation, do obsess over box office results, after all. Liking something in America is often predicated upon other people liking that very thing. For all the individualism in American society there is also a terrible fear of being left out of the crowd. That is why, with all apologies to baseball, conformity is the true American pastime.

One might wonder why this is, but the answer is quite simple. An Englishman, or a German, or a Frenchman has a definite culture and history. It is part of what gives his existence meaning, it is part of his identity. Sure, such notions of identity might be confining and cumbersome, but people of those particular nationalities will always have those things that they can always fall back on, buried deep inside their consciousness. With Americans, though, no such culture exists. Because of our status as a nation of immigrants, most Americans believe (with some justification) that the story they learn in the history books is not their own story. And our culture is an amalgamation of many different cultures, which is to say that there isn't one definitive American experience that has been handed down, generation by generation, for decades. We are constantly in a state of civil war in our culture, always quick to eschew the past (for the aforementioned reasons) in favor of the latest trend, the lastest fad. It is quite ironic: all the hand-wringing about what it means to be an American is all beside the point because, at the bottom of the thing, being an American has no meaning. We have to construct our own culture because no satisfactory one exists. That is both the greatest triumph and the greatest tragedy of America.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Another thing about Clinton--for all the (justified) talk about her horrible treatment at the hands of the media, the media has uncritically parroted the conceit of her campaign, that her experience makes her the most capable candidate (and best potential president) that the Democrats have to offer. Putting aside the questions of how much her experience as a political spouse is worth and how active she was in the day-to-day operations of her husband's White House, doesn't this just seem a bit off to you? Even if Hillary Clinton was a close advisor that counseled her husband on every single issue when she was First Lady, she was merely offering advice. There was no decision-making aspect to her job. Clinton acts as though experience is the one and only requirement for the job, and that having a lot of it will result in better decisions. And, yet, despite her experience, she still made some terrible decisions in the Senate, not the least of which was her vote on the Iraq War. It doesn't seem that her experience helped her there. Maybe if she wove that incident into her general narrative of experience, I'd be more comfortable with her. Maybe.

She would probably not appreciate the comparison, but isn't her C.V. very similar to that of George W. Bush's when he was running? Bush had spent all his life in close proximity to powerful politicians, and he even worked in his father's inner circle during the elder Bush's reelection campaign. He never really achieved much on his own, he got elected to office mostly because of his family name and connections, had a largely uneventful term in office, got reelected, and then got himself selected president? And at the time, Bush was often referred to as the inexperienced candidate in the race, as I recall, so much so that he had to add Dick Cheney to the ticket (maybe his worst decision ever). So Bush and Clinton have similar resumes. Bush's might even be a little better, since he was a governor rather than just a senator. I don't think that Hillary would be as much of a disaster as Bush--Bush was always kind of a rube, a probably very nice man who was manipulated by some savvy, powerful svengalis. Clinton isn't that at all. Still, as far as politics goes, the experience argument cuts both ways. In 2000, Bush sounded like a reasonable guy, a non-ideological problem-solver. People trusted him, and he let us down. I cannot shake the feeling that Hillary would turn out the same way. She'd probably get some stuff done, but deep down she's a centrist and she sees things through that lens.

Clinton mania

I am prepared, at this point, to believe that Hillary Clinton's "emotional moment" in New Hampshire was genuine. After all, despite what the right says, she is not a robot from Mars sent to America to destroy our capitalist system. She does not have a history of faking emotional responses, to my knowledge. The morons who asked her to iron their shirts, though, might very well have been Clinton plants, because that sounds like something that Clinton's dark genius Mark Penn might have dreamt up in a fever pitch of inspiration. For those of you who are unaware of who Mark Penn is, allow me to paint a picture for you: picture Karl Rove, the feared, hated, overrated but still quite talented political operative. One wonders what actors might play him in future films--Paul Giamatti, perhaps, or Alan Rickman, for a nice touch of villainous menace. "The Architect" himself would no doubt approve. Now, imagine Karl Rove as played in a major motion picture by Chris Farley (in Tommy Boy mode). That's Mark Penn. He is a largely disrespected, bumbling, curiously right-wing loser who would probably be occupying your city's local Cardboard Box Hotel were it not for the Clintons. His book, Microtrends, was mocked so much by political bloggers that another round of mockery simply does not seem necessary. Suffice it to say that someone who tries to build political coalitions out of aspiring snipers and archery moms cannot be good at what he does.

But Penn makes up for his lack of talent by distancing himself as much as possible from liberalism. He was the one who invented the policy of triangulation for Mr. Presidente Clinton in the 1990's. For those who don't remember, triangulation was based on the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" school of thought that, while keeping the Democrats in the White House, kept them out of power on Capitol Hill for over a decade. But at least it worked for Bill, so that he could keep signing such great, progressive legislation into law. Without the leadership of Bill Clinton, we would never have seen such atrocities as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and the Telecom Act, enormous boondoggles for, respectively, the software and telecommunications industries. Just kidding. Clinton signed both into law. Now, I admit that not too many people care about these laws--aside from the people who, you know, work in those industries and didn't want to see massive amounts of power being taken away from individuals and invested in companies. But that is merely the tip of the iceberg for Bill Clinton, liberal. And Mark Penn was there all along, pushing him to the right. It should be unsurprising that Penn's firm has a union-busting shop, which is precisely what one would expect from a politician of a pro-labor party. If John McCain's top strategist were to have a side business destroying religious right groups, he would become a laughingstock overnight, and his candidacy would be destroyed. And yet the religious right is just as important a constituency to the conservative as organized labor is to the liberal. Something tells me that fighting on both sides of this conflict isn't going to help us win it. If Clinton were to fire this yokel, I would be far more positively inclined toward her campaign.

As it stands, I support Barack Obama partially because I like the guy and think he'd do a good job, but it is mostly because I think he is a really, really good politician and I think that Hillary Clinton is a terrible one. To an extent, both campaigns have become less about the actual ideas that the party holds (one does not sense too much difference between the two on that score) than it has become about whether "it's time" for a woman president. I must confess that I do not understand this. If Hillary were a talented politician, a woman of warmth, humor and inspiration in addition to intellect and toughness, I would support her in a heartbeat. And yet she is deficient in all the traits usually associated with successful politicians. She is not, of course, a self-made individual, just as George W. Bush owed his success to powerful familial connections. Left to her own devices, she would probably never have gone higher than a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives. And yet, here she is.

I am of the opinion that her New Hampshire victory was a fluke, a product of a number of incidents in a compressed time frame that caused women, understandably, to flock to her. These incidents will be forgotten. Will their impact dull with time? I think so. At the end of the day, despite some enhanced empathy from women (and men like myself), the arguments against Hillary's candidacy have not changed. She is still the candidate of the establishment. She is still the one with the hard-wired centrist circuits. She is still the candidate that annoys the right like none other, and the one that can deliver the election to them. One hopes that anger about Chris Matthews's treatment of the Senator of New York will subside and women will once again realize, as they did in Iowa, that she is an impossibly flawed candidate. And yet I do suspect that the mask has been shattered to some extent, and that Clinton will be able to count on women now more than ever before. I readily admit that much of the coverage of Clinton's campaign has been horrifically sexist, but isn't voting based purely out of an emotional, almost maternal instinct to coddle Hillary from those mean reporters just more ammunition to those avowed haters of feminism out there?

The Fall of Rudy

There is a most interesting paradox at the heart of the modern-day Republican party. On one hand, it is a party whose policies are not merely wrong-headed, not merely ill-advised, but simply outright dangerous. Their tax-cutting mania knows no bounds, and their love of military solutions to diplomatic problems is equally as vigorous. To a far lesser extent, their social policy is dangerous, but this is largely a ruse. The elitist Republicans have no interest in banning abortion. In fact, they have a very strong motive to keep it going on indefinitely, so as to be able to keep writing books about The Party Of Death (itself an eponomyous book by Ramesh Ponnuru). The Republican elites don't want abortion banned--they want their abortions just like the liberals do! Why else do you think that George W. Bush tried to appoint Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court? Because of her eminent legal mind? No. Stacking the court with conservatives would eventually mean that abortion would be banned, and losing one's mealticket issue would be disastrous. As a White, Protestant woman lacking judicial experience, Miers fit the profile of a would-be abortion supporter to a tee. One senses that Bush realized that putting the court so close to overturning Roe would have been bad for his party politically (even though Roe is no longer a binding precedent--in reality, the relevant precedent is Planned Parenthood v. Casey), and so he figured that the fundies would be happy with Roberts and Bush wasn't going to run for another term, so why not pick a friend and a moderate that would probably wind up on the liberal wing? As it turned out, the fundies weren't just satisfied with Roberts on the Court. Still, Bush's thinking was sound, for one of the very few times in his presidency. In any event, Bush will be gone soon, and the leading Republicans contending to replace him all seem to be true believers in banning abortion. Not necessarily that they believe abortion is bad, but the religious right simply is not going to take excuses any more. And one needs to appeal to one's base, no?

In fact, the entire apparatus of the Republican party these days seems to be to adopt infinitely unwise policies to appeal to the stable of loonies they call their "base" (never has a more appropriate term been used to describe a concept), wait for the Democrats to block them, and then demonize said Democrats for ruining the economy/letting promiscuity run wild/coddling dictators. One might fairly point out that they themselves did nothing to improve the situation when they were in power, and indeed the Republican platform of security abroad and at home, traditional moral values, and economic prosperity has produced the exact opposite effect in every department. We have never felt less safe. Morality has not improved over the past quarter-century--if anything, it has degraded. And we are now teetering on the brink of a recession which will no doubt be attributed to Bill Clinton somehow, as though it had nothing to do with poor planning and policy for the past seven years and was merely the product of good planning and policy from eight years ago. Anyone who thinks that the Republican Party can deliver on their central promises at this point in history ought to have his (or her) head examined. What do you call it when you do the same things over and over again, expecting a different response? What is it? Ah, yes. Insanity. It wasn't always like this, even in recent history. It used to be that John McCain would try to take some sort of leadership role in the proceedings and try to avoid the hypocrisy. He does not anymore, which is too bad, although it does make the "bad guys" easier to spot since one of the few "good guys" on the other side has switched sides.

So, their politics are irresponsible. But the most interesting thing about the current GOP coalition isn't their rapacious greed or their solipsistic, insane notions of geopolitics or economics or any of the others--it's that the people who are part of the party really ought to know better. That is the paradox. One would expect that business leaders, for example, can spot the essential flaw in supply-side economics. They obviously don't believe it on the merits because they do not put it into practice themselves. As soon as I see businessmen chopping their prices big-time in an effort to make more money, I'll begin to accept this business as sincere.

What brings this up is this post from Kevin Drum, which talks about Rudy Giuliani's multitrillion dollar tax cut. His desperation is unbecoming to a man seeking the nation's highest office. It is downright pathetic. The people can sense these kinds of things. Giuliani seemed like such a promising candidate, too: he could have been the GOP's new Eisenhower, preaching moderation and cooperation with the Democrats. His background would have suggested that approach, and God knows that it's a popular one these days. Republicans were more than willing to overlook the social issues because they thought Rudy a sure winner against Hillary Clinton, their version of evil incarnate. Giuliani had the celebrity and the popularity among Republicans to pull it off, and he would have been a sure winner if he had. Better to be in office with an apostate than out of office with a true believer, no?

Instead, Giuliani tacked violently and so hard to the right when he didn't even have to. One must only assume his natural impulses took him there. Why else would a pro-choice frontrunner announce that he would appoint anti-choice judges to the Court? He was leading handily at that point, and everybody (okay, I) knew that Gov. Romney would never win the nomination. Why else would he position himself as the hawk of all hawks in the race? This was never his weakness. Why would he move on so many issues that the conservative Republicans didn't really seem to care that much about at the time, when electability was the key issue? One suspects, behind the Brooklyn sneers and the tough guy braggadocio, that the man is unable to just sit still and just sail ahead. The Giuliani of 2006 would have made a formidable opponent. Rudy Giuliani's most formidable opponent at this point is himself, and he is losing. Again, he cannot sit still and let the Republicans fight it out among themselves, which was his very own strategy in the first place. He feels it slipping away, even though everything is going according to his own plan, and he's plugging holes in his sinking ship more furiously than did he ever with his enormous selection of mistr--well, you get the idea. Perhaps he realized that the putting all of one's eggs in a single basket is not a good strategy, although even a first-grader might have told him that.

I used to believe that the worst thing that could happen in a presidential election was that you might not win. I hadn't considered losing your massive popularity and respect, having every sordid corner of your life aired out, letting your reputation be forever tarnished, and leaving everyone with the impression of you as a dangerous, lunatic nutbag an option. And yet it is. Thank you, Rudy, for reminding me that occasionally in this life bad things do happen to bad people.