What You Should Think About Being Cool

October 6, 2008

“It is only after time has been given for a cool and deliberate reflection that the real voice of the people can be known.”

–George Washington

On the eve of 2008’s second U.S. Presidential debate, I am inclined to reflect on one of the more interesting statements from the first.  Senator Barack Obama observed, “part of my job, I think, as President, is to make government cool again.”  In that regard, the candidate faces an uphill battle.  For thirty years, whatever efforts were made to get positive results from trickle-down economics have been exceeded by efforts to rally popular support for an ideology that characterizes government itself as “part of the problem.”

Millions of American voters consider themselves informed because of fantasies spun from the hot air of passionate extremism.  Rather than recognize the limited technical parameters within which a tax cut is likely to promote growth, their dogma transmutes any tax cut proposal into a surefire remedy for the economic troubles of the day.  Rather than recognize the legitimately constructive role new programs could play in promoting progress, their dogma demands nothing but venom for any economic act the state may take to promote the general welfare.

There is a legitimate difference of opinion about the effectiveness of campaigns to popularize this anarcho-capitalist ideology.  Dissent persists.  Heretical suggestions of imperfection in free markets are increasingly allowed to escape into mainstream media content.  Sadly, to hoodwinked legions, any media not fully co-opted by the ideology of free market fundamentalism is to be dismissed by charges of bias . . . along whatever pesky facts they might happen to uncover.

This preference for reducing politics to a level approaching infantile, regurgitating the false narratives and avoiding absorption of real information, is grossly irresponsible.  It is only natural that someone of a patriotic mindset would feel animosity toward organizations and individuals promoting and acting on these false narratives.  Yet, like the central theory of trickle-down economics, the idea that it is right to fight fire with fire is nice, neat, simple, and generally wrong.

Having the right idea does not bestow the loudest voice.  Perhaps more crucially, having the loudest voice is no assurance that it will sound out the right ideas.  Americans of all political orientations have contributed energy to noise machines.  Yet in this century, it is unmistakable that the substantive discourse of conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. and Peggy Noonan has been replaced by the deceitful manipulations of conservatives like Karl Rove and David Frum.  The leadership of the party in power lacks ability or the willingness to distance itself from blatant scoundrels and laughable incompetents.

The tenor of Senator John McCain’s campaign makes this unmistakable.  At a time when both global and national economies are in severe turmoil, that organization opted to let today’s campaign efforts be dominated by personal attacks and sleazy innuendo.  With a little less than their usual levels of restraint and discipline, Senator Obama’s campaign responded in kind.  On the eve of a historic debate, both candidates have positioned themselves in a gutter where slander and trickery marginalize any role underlying realities may play.

A “fight fire with fire” mentality only insures that a clash will be heated.  In the ideal, a fire may also shed some light.  Given the nature of politics, such heated appeals more often wind up obscuring important realities with smoke.  Alas, there is also a perception issue here.  Credible analysis holds that John Kerry’s “above the fray” approach to slander and personal attacks in the 2004 campaign lost him some votes.  A sufficient amount of dirty fighting from one campaign demands a measure of it from the other to avoid a popular perception of weakness (however misguided that perception may be.)

Yet the grave danger exists, as has long been the case with U.S.-Iraq policy, that saving face and perpetuating false narratives will take priority over making changes and popularizing accurate narratives.  Early in his primary bid, Senator Obama called for “a new kind of politics.”  Even granting that this call may have fallen on deaf ears across the Senate aisle, it should not be abandoned.  For cooler heads to prevail, that which is most vulgar and primal about our politics must not be legitimized.

Perhaps nothing truly defines 21st century American politics better than the desperate need for cooler heads to prevail.  Twenty men with boxcutters attacked this nation over seven years ago.  Because of what twenty men with boxcutters did on a single morning, “everything changed.”  In the absence of cool rational thought, that sort of rhetorical absolutism enjoys popular resonance.  In the absence of cool rational thought, extremist policies may steamroll right over otherwise effective checks and balances.

Twenty men with boxcutters were the most effective terrorists in the history of terrorism.  They were provided unwitting yet essential support by the sitting President, his speechwriters, his advisors, and many lesser officials in the executive branch.  The United States of America was under threat by a criminal network with a demonstrated capability to deploy conventional bombs and knife-wielding fanatics.  The group did benefit from private Saudi financial support and sanctuary in the Taliban-controlled portions of Afghanistan.  Yet its single greatest asset was a U.S. Presidency eager to elevate these scum from a ragtag band of misanthropic cave dwellers into an overwhelming threat to the American way of life.

Shocked, saddened, and infuriated by a real national tragedy (and an emotional impact amplified through the manic properties of contemporary media,) our citizenry was in no position to insure that cooler heads would prevail.  Rather than show real leadership by rising to the occasion, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their associates willfully exploited the situation to advance such barbaric policies as the pre-emptive defense, enhanced interrogation techniques, extraordinary rendition, and the unitary executive.  All cloaked in clinical doublespeak, each one of them does more to undermine American liberty than any British tax act ever did.

It is right that people should be upset by all this.  It is right that people should be upset that there is precious little in the way of substantive discourse emergent from American political conservatives.  Perhaps at some rallies and special events, it is not entirely wrong to allow some of that negative emotion to be vented.  Yet it is certainly wrong to ever let it displace calm cool rationality or cold hard facts.

To the degree that conservatives do express their views with support from earnest analysis and accurate information, that deserves responses supported by earnest analysis and accurate information.  Even when conservatives support their views with only hotheaded bluster and misleading noise, responses should still be solidly supported by earnest analysis and accurate information.  When it comes to political clash, perhaps the best approach to fighting fire is not with fire, but rather with ice (or at least a simple wet blanket.)

If our national leadership ever is to benefit from cooler heads in action, then advocates in possession of rational perspectives must step up with the dignity and poise required to actually be cool.  If Presidential politics is to cease being a venue for mongers of fear and hate, it must become a stage for the projection of confidence and hope.

It is long past time for the demonization of the entire public sector to give way to a rational national debate about the role of government in American life.  Our government is not based on inscribed tablets distributed by a burning bush.  Our government is not shaped by manuals sent here from some higher intelligence.  It is now, and always has been, shaped by the words of American patriots.  In pursuit of the goal to make government cool again, there can be no finer start than to be cool whenever engaging in civic discourse.

Advertisements

What You Should Think About Presidential Debates

October 1, 2007

“Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”

–Nikita Krushchev

We Americans have a peculiarly lax notion of what constitutes political debate. It is not at all uncommon in democratic societies for heads of state to make a habit of standing before opposition leaders in public, giving spontaneous answers to the toughest questions a critic of policy could pose. This tends to introduce moments of levity or even embarrassment that some say would be best kept apart from government. On the other hand, it also tends to exclude ideas so indefensible that they certainly should be kept apart from government.

As far from that level of public accountability as we may be, our culture celebrates democratic traditions. Debates as we conduct them still serve some purpose. Among other things, they are vital window dressing to keep low-level political insiders confident that the results of elections are an expression of popular will more than an outcome of power brokers’ whims. In a manner that seems less significant with each passing cycle, Presidential debates also stir up discussion throughout the nation. In times past, fairly specific points of policy might be addressed in detail. Even today, sloganeering and optimistic vagueness still expose substantial audiences to unfamiliar facets of the candidates.

In fact, 2007 has brought us an unusual phenomenon in that both entrenched parties promote many televised debates as part of their own candidate selection processes. Large fields mean that individual candidates only enjoy a few minutes of speaking time at each event, but as a whole they constitute tremendous free air time for the dominant political parties. Well, “free” may be a misnomer, because maintaining media interest involves allowing a few intriguing questions into the mix of softballs and cliches.

In the end though, I suspect more people develop the illusion of understanding than any actual understanding from this process. Take variations in foreign policy practices advocated by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When confronted with a question about the use of nuclear weapons in counterterrorist operations, Sen. Clinton’s answer was profoundly irresponsible, woefully misinformed, and theoretically the cause of historic catastrophe. By contrast, Sen. Obama responded as anyone with a working knowledge of modern munitions should — that conventional weapons are already more than up to to the task of neutralizing any terrorist target that might also be destroyed by a nuclear strike.

To say that “nuclear weapons should never be taken off the table” is either a pointless bluff or a sign of ignorance about the enormous downside of detonating nuclear weapons in the Earth’s atmosphere. Yes, America is a superpower, and we do well to face or even embrace that fact. However, threatening suicidal terrorists with what they would regard as martyrdom, in this case with the especially grand gesture of producing a radioactive wasteland at the site of the event, seems like a flawed approach (to say the least.) Implying that there is a “table” to sit at with terrorists is itself a little awkward, but legitimizing the “do what we say or else we’ll nuke you!” posture is downright absurd.

What happened the day after both candidates expressed their views? Infotainment hacks came to the consensus that Sen. Obama’s inexperience was showing while Sen. Clinton demonstrated the kind of superior judgment she gets from . . . from . . . well, from sleeping with a working President, I suppose. Yet that is a bizarro version of what actually happened. Sen. Clinton, apparently fearful of being branded as unwise by the same media airheads legitimizing this President’s nuclear “bunker buster” initiative, decided that she too had to be cuckoo for nuke-o-puffs.

Most people who would describe themselves as “wonks” would have no trouble following the facts and dismissing that quirk of the process as trivial. Yet still Sen. Obama struggles with perceptions of inexperience and still Sen. Clinton rests on popular exaggerations of her expertise. No doubt both are educated thoughtful people. However, while campaigning to become the President of the United States, one of them refused to rule out a military option that anyone at least moderately versed in real life weapons of mass destruction would not hesitate to dismiss out of hand . . . and the next day she gained ground because of it!

The issue of meeting with heads of government from unfriendly states is less clearcut. Still, the debates wound up promoting public misunderstandings. I disagree with Sen. Clinton’s position that summits with nations like Iran or North Korea should never occur but that the other party makes major concessions simply for the chance to meet with an American President. However, public figures willing to endorse her opinion include plenty of respectable informed experts (unlike the “nuking terrorist camps isn’t a bad idea” set.) This is an area where the nation would benefit from a healthy and deep clash of ideas.

Instead that too wound up being “scored” by vapid media analysts as some sort of win for Sen. Clinton and another indicator of Sen. Obama’s inexperience. There are also plenty of experienced credible experts supporting Sen. Obama’s approach of preserving the option for unconditional summit diplomacy when dealing with troublesome states. If our democracy was truly thriving, then it seems like this would have been the subject of avid discussions from coast to coast. Insofar as it did receive any follow-up discussion, that tended to occur in passing while pundits reviewed the most recent debate as a whole.

Dwelling on the disagreements between the two leading Democratic candidates merely provides a case study in a broader phenomenon. Modern Presidential debates seem to do more to promote the perception of an open popular process than they do to promote the reality of an open popular process. People who are actively averse to informative political media will tune in to these spectacles, perhaps listen to a little analysis as well, and come away with a sense of satisfaction for having performed their civic duty to be well-informed. Admittedly, there are plenty of voters even less informed. Yet that is no justification for celebrating the existing process as if it did justice to the values and aspirations on which this nation was founded.

So, what should you think about Presidential debates? If you like political theater, then by all means you should assemble some snacks and enjoy the show. Even if everyone maintains his or her public persona for the duration, there are bound to be a few moments of interest. Then there are those rare instances where facades crumble and something resembling real human interaction takes place. Given the trend away from the give and take of “real” debate and toward a parade of simple questions with brief answers, neither ideas nor personalities clash much anymore. Yet the potential for an authentic exchange has yet to fall to zero.

One thing you should not think about Presidential debates is that they are an effective alternative to following the issues and the candidates over the long haul. Governing a huge modern nation is about as complex as any activity could be. A quick glimpse at something relevant can add to understanding, but by itself it does not constitute understanding. If you have strong stances of your own on pressing issues, then you have a solid beginning in the hunt for insight into the best use of your vote. If not . . . well, keep checking here, and perhaps you’ll find out a great deal more about what you should think.