Monday, November 26, 2012

November 26, 2012
Debates can be decided by the choice of the terms in which they are argued, by the label attached to the issue or position. In other words, they are decided by definition, and therefore in advance. Liberals have won a few that way. However, conservatives have had the overall advantage.
They have accomplished this in part by successfully defining "liberal" as a term of derision. When one side allows the other to define not only the labels for the issues but the names of the parties, the argument is nearly over. Liberals, rather than fighting back, have retreated into calling themselves progressives.
Liberals are derided in part because they are an "elite." Somehow, those who stand up for the welfare of the country and its citizens are elitists while those at the top of the socio-economic pyramid, who want still more, are allowed to pose as friends and protectors of ordinary folk. Dan Quayle often is credited with redefining "elitism," and saddling liberals with the epithet, by attacking the "cultural elite." I’m not sure that that phrase makes sense — the debate isn’t usually about the acquisitions budget of an art gallery — but it helped cement the image of liberals as out of touch. One variation has to do with values: ordinary people are religious and morally conservative and don’t care for the alleged loose lifestyles of the left; here’s where Quayle’s Murphy Brown attack registered. A corollary is the notion that liberals, residents of the Northeast or the West Coast, are unsympathetic toward real Americans from the heartland. Another trope has been the "intellectual elite:" people who, confident of their superior knowledge, tell us what to do; this goes back at least to the Roosevelt brain trust.
This year’s election gave us a twist on intellectual elitism courtesy of Rick Santorum: education is elitist.
President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob! There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor, trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. . . . .
I was so outraged that the President of the United States would stand up and say that every child in America should go to college. Who are you? Who are you to say that every child in America go — I mean the hubris of this President to think that he knows what’s best for you. . . . This is the kind of, the kind of snobbery that we see from those who think they know how to run our lives. Rise up, America. Defend your own freedoms and overthrow those folks who think they know how to orchestrate every aspect of your life.
Did Mr. Obama say that? Apparently not, but it hardly matters. Here the attack on the intellectual elite — they are liberals (socialists, communists, pick your favorite synonym) who want to impose authoritarian rule — comes wrapped in reverse snobbery about education. This was served up by a man with three college degrees. Not to worry; Rick definitely resisted being remade in the image of an intellectual.
Other words and phrases influence decisions: "right to work," not interference with unionization; protecting "small business," not tax breaks for the wealthy. (Small business has replaced motherhood as the icon to be protected; we could at least define the former). The current magic phrase is "the fiscal cliff;" it implies that some sort of unavoidable crisis awaits rather than a (less dire) situation created unnecessarily and irresponsibly which can be avoided by making intelligent decisions. Here’s statesman Orrin Hatch: "Rather than stop the country from going over the fiscal cliff and preventing the expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax relief, they [Democrats] are prepared to Thelma and Louise the American economy right over the cliff.” Note the second magic phrase: "tax relief," the Bush gifts to the wealthy.



Monday, November 12, 2012

November 11, 2012
In Science and the Modern World, Alfred North Whitehead praised the Seventeenth Century as "the one century which consistently, and throughout the whole range of human activities, provided intellectual genius adequate for the greatness of its occasions." His focus was on science, but he mentioned two men of letters, Shakespeare and Cervantes. He might have added another, John Donne who, in 1624, wrote these familiar lines:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Donne’s insight is a lesson we need to relearn. Conservatives, especially in their libertarian form, are wedded to the notion that everyone should be able to go his own way, keep what he has, take what he can, and ignore everyone else. (The contemporary formula for that is YOYO: you’re on your own). Contrary to Donne, they believe that the loss of a mere clod is unimportant: they will take notice only if a promontory, one of their manors, is lost. We’ve just had a presidential election in which that philosophy came to the fore and was personified in the Republican candidates. They lost, but no transformation should be expected.
One excuse for that philosophy is that we can’t afford the welfare state, that transfer payments lie at the heart of our budgetary problems. Another is that welfare (including Social Security) creates laziness and dependency. Both were offered up today by the reliably reactionary Robert Samuelson of the frequently reactionary Washington Post.86
Our society is increasingly divided, increasingly controlled by great wealth, unwilling or unable to solve or even recognize urgent problems, prone to treat social programs, even disaster relief, as if they were gifts to the unworthy rather than a mark of an advanced and stable culture. We need inspiration but, unlike the Seventeenth Century, the present one is not blessed with thinkers adequate to the occasion. We must resort to those in the past, which ought to appeal to conservatives.


86. "It’s the Welfare State, Stupid,"   

Sunday, November 4, 2012

November 4, 2012
In two recent columns, Charles M. Blow described Mitt Romney’s relationship to the truth. In the first, he said: "This election may go down in history as the moment when truth and lies lost their honor and stigma, respectively. Mitt Romney has demonstrated an uncanny, unflinching willingness to say anything and everything to win this election." He referred to Romney as "the unprincipled prince of untruths."83 In the later column, he added: "Evidence continues to emerge that Romney is one of the most dishonest, duplicitous candidates to ever seek the presidency."84 Moreover, Romney has managed to combine a disregard for the truth with a lack of substance; his vagueness would embarrass Reagan and his deviousness would embarrass Nixon. In other words, he is a deceitful empty suit.
This is not to say that Barack Obama is a candidate to inspire confidence or enthusiasm. Whether from conviction, strategy or timidity, he has not staked out a progressive position with any consistency or tenacity, and at times he seems to lack imagination. I wish that we had a strong liberal on the Democratic ticket.
That reaction is common on the left and has led some to rebel. Chris Hedges recently declared that he will vote for the Green Party.85 His basic argument is that "major correctives to American democracy have come through movements . . . that have operated outside the mainstream," and that the right course is to support those efforts by voting for their proponents. That conclusion is familiar, abstractly cogent and foolish. I can offer the last opinion without undue smugness, as one who strayed from the fold under similar circumstances: in 1980, I abandoned Jimmy Carter as insufficiently liberal and voted for the third-party candidate John Anderson. Mr. Hedges sees such a desertion as a statement of principle and a critique of the system. It is, instead, an exercise in pique, a self-centered and unrealistic demand that the world go one’s way.
A vote for a third party or write-in candidate is a vote not merely thrown away, but thrown to the opposition. Is Hedges sufficiently unaware to think that the choice of Romney or Obama makes no difference? Is he complacent about a Romney win? Apparently so: "The November election is not a battle between Republicans and Democrats. It is not a battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It is a battle between the corporate state and us." Hedges lists some entirely valid criticisms of Mr. Obama, and praises the Green Party leader, but neglects to evaluate Romney, who is the real alternative. He somehow sees the barrage of advertising by Republicans and Democrats, attacking each other, as a single corporate campaign to convince us not to vote for a third party. He is talking nonsense, both in his apocalyptic picture of the corporate menace and in the implied notion that the two candidates are equally committed to "the corporate state."
Leave aside his exaggeration and lack of focus. Third parties or non-party movements have, as Hedges argues, put forth important progressive ideas, but they haven’t implemented them for the simple reason that they never win national elections. The agenda is set by the party which does. Hedges will, in a tiny way, directly help the Republicans; to the extent that his argument has influence, he will have a slightly larger impact; others independently of the same disposition will push the result further in that direction. They need to recall that the most important potential impact of any third party which is at all successful is demonstrated by Florida, Ralph Nader, and the outcome of the 2000 election.


Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day