Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Our Turn in the Wilderness

Since I'm not a real journalist (I don't even play one on CNN), I have the luxury of letting things settle in my mind before commenting on them. I was thankful for that last night. Such a wide range of conflicting thoughts and emotions were swirling around in their tincture of Merlot that I would no more have trusted myself to go to the keyboard than to the steering wheel. I doubt an editor would have empathized.

As usual, when great events overtake me, my thoughts turn to Joseph Campbell. The literature of comparative mythology has been formative in my approach to life and my understanding of the human condition. We keep telling the same stories to ourselves, again and again, in different forms and different contexts, unfolding different facets of universal themes. One of those themes is that of the Fall and subsequent Redemption. Whether we speak of Jonah/Jesus/Moses (et. al.) in the Judeo-Christian mythology, or the European Troubador/Courtly Love literature, or the multiple avatars of the Hero's Journey which show up pretty much everywhere, there is a persistent motif of overreach, collapse, exile/quest, and Return.

There is little question that the Republican party has crumbled into a state of incoherence and decadence at least since 2004 (and arguably as far back as 1994), and last night was its moment to Fall.

I think what so often gets lost in our policy discussions (even the ones which manage to stay civil) is the fact that between the Liberal and Conservative positions there are clear differences between two more-or-less equally valid and coherent world-views:

Liberals believe in the perfectibility of humanity through the rational implementation of deliberate societal engineering which creates the conditions for an equitable access to society's resources, for the benefit of all. The role of government is to determine what will best serve its citizens, and to devise the means by which to make it so. It is, in essence, a revolutionary world-view, since it holds to the idea that you improve the lot of the individual by re-making society to serve him.

Conservatives believe in the perfectibility of humanity through the removal of as many obstacles as possible to the individual's ability to identify and pursue her interests and maximize her resources through her own industry and ingenuity. It recognizes that inequities will arise, but that they are the results of differential levels of inventiveness and effort within a given, fair marketplace of opportunities. The role of government is to stay out of the way, to be thrifty with the collective resources (since they will be put to the most good in the hands of individuals making rational decisions about how to deploy them for their own ends), and to address any systematic and unjust impediments to the availability of opportunities to compete in good faith. It is, in essence, an evolutionary paradigm (which, yes, is ironic, given some of its proponents' positions on the concept!), since it holds that any top-down societal engineering will be inherently inferior to the collective variation-and-selection which will emerge from the mass of decisions made by individuals to improve their own lots.

The Republican party has failed miserably in its mandate to be the champion of the Conservative world-view. It has allowed itself to fall prey to the allure of K Street lobbyists, to dole out pork like it was a never-ending state fair, and to operate the economy on logarithmically escalating deficits without breaking a sweat. And all the while, it has had the hypocritical temerity to drone on about the importance of "limited government" and "fiscal responsibility." Last night, the country cried "bullshit."

One of the things which had appealed to me the most about John McCain was that he had a long and proven record of fiscal conservativism (to the unending annoyance of his fellow Republicans!). It was my hope that his election would bring this issue to the front burner and restore the clarity of the contrast between the Liberal and Conservative perspectives, so that the people could make a more informed choice about which they preferred, when mid-term elections came around in two years. Alas, the damage was too extensive for such an on-the-fly retool.

Congressional Republicans had so tarnished the brand that there was no clear distinction between the top-heavy, spending-rich approach of Liberalism, and the lean, unintrusive, free-market approach of Conservatism. It is hardly surprising that so many Americans voted for a "change." The tragedy, in my eyes, is that they have voted for those who would do, as a matter of policy, much of what those they voted out have been doing out of sloppiness and greed. Again, this is not to say that Liberalism is inherently bad, any more than Conservatism is inherently good. It is simply that the distinction was so muddied that that the decision was in part based on corrupted data.

Still, this too is part of what happens in a marketplace of ideas, and therein lies the opportunity before us. The Conservative perspective has been forced out of the village and now must wander in the purifying wilds in search of a vision. Meanwhile, the Liberal perspective has its moment to make its case, largely uncontested (though, thankfully, the filibuster option is preserved in the Senate, where it will perform its function to thwart the perennial hubris of the long-frustrated conqueror). It is a thing fervently to be hoped that Conservatives will find their 'spirit guide' and return to the clarity of purpose which will enable them to make their case to an American electorate which will be able to discern the contours of these competing paradigms, and decide whether to let them back within the city walls.


While I'm on the subject of Hero's Journeys, though, it would be badly remiss of me not to note with considerable pride in our Nation that a Black man has just been elected president of the United States! Just about within my lifetime, American Blacks were getting sprayed down with fire hoses for demonstrating peacefully, and now a generation of kids (notably, mine) will have no objective basis for the idea that any door is closed to folks of color. The very idea will seem silly to them. Whatever else comes of this, I don't know that I would have much to say to anyone who failed to see that as a staggering advance in the evolution of our society.

I have very pronounced policy differences with President-Elect Obama, and grave concerns about the direction in which he may take our Nation. But that is for another day. Today, I am proud and impressed with our great Republic for taking an immense step toward a truly post-racial society. It's about bloody time!


Mike said...

Actually, you'd better start buying birkas for Mrs. 'Cyte before B. Hussein O. takes all your money and gives it to the less deserving.

OTOH, his terrorist connections will now probably blow up all white, non-gay, christian Americans so it may be a moot point.

I am now just Mike, and I no longer approve this message.

Kevin Smith said...

A couple of things -

I think there were a lot of issues that McCain faced, not the least of which was that he didn't do a good job running his campaign.

Politics seems to have become less about actually getting things done than it has about an "us against them" mentality.

I have voted across the board (as a matter of fact, I voted for the incumbent Republican congressman from my district), and tend to try to vote for people that come across competently, have demonstrated good ideas and the willingness to listen to other ideas and people that care about their constituency - not just a portion of their constituency. The move to nominate Palin as the Veep smacked of trying to appease the hardliners, and, honestly, the fact that there was no way someone involved in several scandals in her home state got that nomination, just tells me that the McCain camp never properly vetted her. That bothered me. She was chosen to pretty much get the hard right vote - and the fact that her avid backers are a population that seems to think differently than what you noted (both conservative and liberal are legitimate world views), that anyone that thinks differently than they do isn't a "real" American, well, that sort of exclusionary view of the country that is supposed to be the world's melting pot worries me - do those white, European descended Americans really think that they're more American than the second generation Korean that busted his ass to get an education and a job?

Financially, if you look at the way the two voted (historically), there weren't huge differences between the two. That said, I don't exactly trust a politician who took well over $100K in graft from the Keating Five (yes, he gave it back, but not until after he was caught - which strikes me as disingenuous), ran a campaign where he blasted pork-spending, but named a Veep candidate whose state budget has actually increased significantly under her tenure. Also, from a financial standpoint, I have to admit if I had to choose between financial advice from Warren Buffett or Mitt Romney, I'm going with the guy who could buy and sell Romney.

The fact that, during a time when our society is becoming more fragmented, McCain ran a campaign based on lies and smears rather than ideas (see poster above), he was really short on ideas, really bothered me. The fact that his campaign not only drew people like these , but pandered to them, bothered me to no end.

Unfortunately it wasn't just the party brand that was a problem for McCain, but I think the way his campaign was run killed him.

For the record - I have voted for Bush (Sr.), Obama, Nader (I couldn't bring myself to vote for either Gore or W, and I realize Nader is a bit of a nutjob himself), Perot (C'mon, would have been a kick to see how the real politicians would have had fits trying to deal with him). I don't believe that party politics is something that's a good thing - I think it tends to be divisive (oh, the dem had that idea, I'm not gonna vote for it - can't tell you how many times I've heard variations on that from everybody from Teddy Kennedy to Jesse Helms - it bothers me. A good idea is a good idea, and it shouldn't matter the ideology of the person presenting - I get that sometimes its at odds with ideology, and I can live with that - it's the times that it's not that piss me off).

Unfortunately, I think it goes back to our need to belong to a group, which in itself tends to foster an "us against them" mentallity.

As for the poster above, in the interest of full disclosure - the Afghani freedom fighters that McCain referred to in debates...they were the Taliban. They were called that when we were arming and training them, they were called that when Osama bin Laden was one of their fighters. Also, McCain also has ties not only to Ayers, but the Iran-Contra scandal - and the last time I checked, we live in a country of Jews, Muslims, Taoists, Atheists, and any number of non-Christian religions.

And he might actually want to look at what economists say about the what the two plans would (have done for) do to the economy. By a margin of four to one they thought McCain's would do further damage to the economy (of course, he was also the same man that pushed for [partial] repeals of the regulations put in place after 1929 to keep the same sort of crash from happening that happened in the last couple of months) than Obama's.

McCain has historically been a good guy - minus the Keating thing and his last couple of years - and largely a political centrist, which would have served him well. But, to be perfectly honest with you, I thought he ran a campaign that showed that he wasn't ready to be the chief executive. And it's a shame, because I think it puts a question mark at the tail end of what I think was mostly a career to proud of as a politician (I won't get into the issues with his military service, which I think worked to his detriment. I will just say that I know three people that are all ex-Navy, and all three voted Obama).

I have to believe that McCain knew he was likely sunk when William Buckley's son, Colin Powell, WV Republican senator and former KKK member Robert Byrd, and W.'s former press secretary all publicly endorsed Obama. Most based on the fact that they felt that McCain just ran a poor campaign. (This endorsement didn't do him any favors either -

Sorry for the long response. I did think the point about Campbell and the hero's journey was interesting and compelling.

Oh...and one last point - I noticed, and this often has come from the more prejudiced McCain supporters, that they like to point out that Obama has an Islamic middle name. I would like to point out that both my daughters have Greek names - it means precisely jack. The need to stress the "Hussein" thing bespeaks of ignorance to me. It is interesting to note, however, that the Islamic extremists in the Middle East endorsed McCain (the current regime has been the single biggest recruiting tool in the history of Al Queda, and scholars on the subject believe that a McCain presidency, based on his comments regarding Iraq, believe that McCain would continue to be that same recruiting tool).

Once again, sorry T for the length of this - but I believe that the part of the conservative party's problem is that they have become a two issue party - Iraq, and catering to the religious right. There's a lot more to running the country than that.

Noocyte said...

First off, most groovy to hear from you again; been altogether too long!

Second (and there's no reason why you should have known this), regarding the "poster above," Mike: please adjust your snark-o-meter to reflect a reading of "off-scale, high." To imagine him --one of my closest friends-- as prejudiced would be like calling Matt Damon a profound geopolitical authority.

Oh, and Mike-previously-the-programmer: I, for one, welcome my new Mecca Underground Socialist Panther Overlords. And the veil is in the mail. Ya bastid.

Now, Kevin: Gracious. To begin, McCain's campaign was as flawed as any other, and did as well as any could expect, given the gale-force headwinds it faced. Lest it be forgotten, his campaign was flat broke, and he was flying coach to appearances just last Summer. And he was effectively tied-to-a-hair-ahead when the financial cluster-frack broke on him and on us all.

As for Palin...Look, McCain had forged a well-earned reputation as a Centrist, as you correctly point out. Having shown a willingness to reach over to the Left, however, it fell to him to reassure a sizable portion of his would-be constituency that he was also going to represent their interests as POTUS. Fair is fair. Sarah Palin energized that portion of his base, to be sure. That is not pandering, it is smart Presidential politics.

As for her "scandals," she was recently (and WAAY belatedly) cleared of any unethical conduct by the independent Alaskan Personnel Board, an outcome which could plausibly be posited as having been anticipated by the substantial vetting which did occur prior to her selection. As for the "exclusionary" bit, there is no evidence that she believed anything more than that she found the fervent, unapologetic displays of frank patriotism among rural Americans to be inspiring, and near and dear to her own experience in small-town AK. She has been spun as having said that some parts of the US are "anti-American," when she said no such thing. And she is not responsible for some of the dumbass things that might have been said by some of her supporters.

The budget of Wasilla did increase, as did its deficit, during her tenure. This is because of multiple capital investment programs (big-box stores and a sports stadium) which actually added value to the economy which she was entrusted to oversee.

As for the Keating Five, it's a red herring. McCain was cleared of any wrong-doing, but was very publicly contrite about his poor judgment, words which were backed up by two decades of strenuous effort to enact campaign finance reform. Personal accounts of McCain (which I'm too lazy to find and link right now) reveal that this had been a formative experience for him, cementing his resolve to stay squeaky-clean himself and to fight for transparency and fiscal discipline in government. The Keating Five affair was trotted out when Obama's associations to William Ayers and the Woods Fund were quite rightly brought into the public discussion. Not that it wasn't proper to bring it up (it was), but it was pretty weak tea, and duly evaporated.

Any "lies and smears" which emerged in the process of McCain's campaign did not originate from the campaign itself, which can no more be held accountable for the screeching of imbeciles on his side, than Obama's can be blamed for those on his own.

When it comes to excesses of party partisanship, you are most assuredly preaching to the choir with me. However, there is something to be gained by a robust dialectical tension in American politics, much as the adversarial process is a crucible of truth in the courtroom.


>The "Taliban" were barely gelled as a group during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. What there was of them was mixed in with the mass of Mujaheddin for whom bin Laden was mainly a money-man (who barely fought at all, himself).

>McCain's ties to Ayers are tenuous and oblique (the Annenbergs --whose foundation funded the Chicago educational project on whose board Obama and Ayers served-- endorsed McCain for POTUS). Whatever one may make of them, Obama's ties to Ayers are close and direct.

>I'll see your three out of four economists, and raise you a few more economists, plus a Swami from Hoboken with really compelling eyes. Again, there are coherent arguments on all sides about how best to allocate wealth and grow the economy. Cf. proof and pudding.

>Al Qaeda did not "endorse" McCain. Some yahoo on an AQ-linked Web site engaged in a little trash talk, based (rightly) on the proposition that McCain would aggressively confront Islamists wherever they might test the US and its allies. Media spin aside, this is a good thing. Confronting blood enemies does have a way of stirring them up and boosting their ranks. Appeasing or ignoring them accomplishes much the same a rather slower pace, and in a way which makes them harder to find, and to facilitate their attainment of room temperature.

>Like it or not (and, for the record, I'm none too sanguine about it myself), the Religious Right is a sizable constituency in our democracy. Shall they, then, be disenfranchised?

>Iraq now stands --against all reasonable expectations as little as two years ago-- within a stone's throw of a strategic victory, which would yield a valuable (if at times erratic and nettlesome [as sovereign nations are wont to be]) ally in a vital region which is lousy with deadly enemies. To me, this earns it a prominent place in the national conversation, which this Administration has quite rightly emphasized.

Sorry about the long response (hey, you asked for it!). Much of this is arguably moot, but we are part of the first draft of history here, and I can't resist the impulse to minimize the quotient of garbage which goes into it...since I can't control the garbage which will inevitably come out.



Kevin Smith said...

Sorry for not recognizing sarcasm - I live on the MD/WV border. When people talk like that here (and there are people that talk like that here), trust me, it's not sarcasm. My apologies.

As for the Keating thing - I was living in NY when it broke, and to say McCain was cleared is a vast simplification. He was indeed caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he offered to return the money (which he did, to his credit, but he should never have taken it in the first place), and an admonishment to not do it again. Overall, Keating was less a red herring than Ayers.

My point about Palin had little to do with whether or not she was cleared - and she still faces questions in regards to charging travel to the state and her per diem - my point had more to do with the way she was vetted. If she had been properly vetted, she would never have been the candidate. Can you see any campaign, run intelligently, name a candidate for one of the highest offices in the United States while that person is in the middle of an ethics probe? (What would the campaign have done if criminal charges were brought days before the election? While it didn't happen, it was a distinct possibility).

The McCain campaign seemed surprised when it hit the news. Also, I get your point about the religious right, but just as much, as a politician, you're working a popularity contest, and if you get someone who's going to alienate centrists, you best be ready for some serious blow-back in the voting booth.

I think, if the campaign felt it were necessary to name a female pol , he would have been much better off going with Libby Dole who not only would have garnered him that religious right, but is popular enough that I know lifelong Dems that would have voted for her (well, previous to her gaffes in the latest race). She has a better resume than Palin, she likely would have appealed to the hard-right as well as centrists, would have likely had a stronger appeal to disenfranchised Hillary supporters, and she can handle herself with the press (I also have to admit that it concerned me that Palin, a journalism major, couldn't answer simple questions about magazines that she read to keep up with Washington - how hard is it to just say Time or Newsweek?)

As for Al Queda - I didn't say they were the ones behind the endorsement, and neither does the article. The group, however is affiliated with Al Queda. What I noted was that the groups feel that the continuation of the same policies in the Middle East fostered an atmosphere that made recruiting easier - to me that doesn't translate into a safer America.

Also, and I always wanted McCain to clarify this, and he never did - if victory is in site, than why might we have to be in Iraq indefinitely? During his own campaign, the Iraqi government began making noise about, essentially, wanting us to withdraw.

And while, yes, the Parties both engaged in smear tactics, McCain's camp did so more than Obama's - more than once Palin implied that Obama was a terrorist and McCain pretty much called Obama a socialist (actually, much to the chagrin of the US Socialist party). McCain repeatedly utilized discredited numbers in regards to voting. It got to a point where, for an independent like me, it was hard to take him seriously as the candidate who could be able to, after the election, cross party line to get things done.

And yes, all campaigns have gaffes and mistakes, and I know we're four years removed, and more from the previous elections, but I just felt like the ones McCain had this cycle were glaring.

I'll drop you a quick non-pol message over at your FBP.

heidi_carter said...

Sounds like some people should have sent you this e-card.

I love some e-cards.