What You Should Think About Victory

October 14, 2008

“It is common sense to take a method and try it.  If it fails, admit it frankly and try another; but above all, try something.”

–Franklin D. Roosevelt

In theory, a two party system could provide a sturdy national rudder to guide the ship of state along an optimal path to the future.  Imagine a democratic China where a Red Party promotes traditional values and industrial growth while a Green party promotes modernism and environmental protection.  The Greens could provide support for a wide range of new ideas while the Reds oppose change and strike down the worst of new government institutions.  The end result would be constant improvement without runaway excess.

As wonderful as that sounds, it is merely theory.  Here in the United States, our politics are dominated by one party that emphasizes new ideas and another that favors the status quo.  In theory, while Democrats bring modern values and institutional changes to the table, Republicans obstruct all but the best of those new ideas.  In practice, this simply is not the case.

Many historical Democrats have brought helpful new ideas into the public arena.  Yet the Clinton administration found itself browbeaten by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution.  After backing down in the fight for universal health care, Bill Clinton signed off on a range of institutional changes that were decidedly conservative.  While catering little to traditional values, his bold spending cuts and restraint with new initiatives were a wild departure from the “tax and spend liberal” brand Democrats’ critics so often apply to them.

Yet the historical record of Republicans is even less consistent with the idea of substantive conservatism.  Again and again a rhetorical emphasis on spending restraint gives way to bold new levels of federal spending.  Some Republicans may have stood in firm opposition to the rise of modern values, but their economic practices have ranged from incoherent to downright hypocritical.  As unpleasant as “tax and spend” may sound, surely it is better over the long term than “borrow and spend.”

Even today that side of the aisle offers us nothing new.  Senator John McCain continues to push for lower taxes on business, lower taxes on high personal incomes, increased defense spending, and a more belligerent posture on the world stage.  Even in those moments when he eschews fearmongering and presents himself as an agent of change, almost all the substance of his policy proposals is a call to stay the course.

Yet his opponent actually does rise up to fulfill the role of a liberal reformer.  Senator Barack Obama sometimes draws on ideas crafted in previous decades, but even his oldest proposals have yet to be given due consideration in national political dialogue.  Only a strong sense of unrest coupled with a spectacular failure of trickle down economics sets the stage for mainstream consideration of sweeping change.  The underlying realities are largely as they were years ago, but the signs indicating a need for change have become much harder to ignore.

It is in this context that some Republicans have taken to decrying a lack of jingoism in Senator Obama’s rhetoric.  The Rovian word count game (as in, “he spoke for an entire hour and did not use the word ‘victory once'”) is a sleazy and often misleading trick.  Yet it is true that the Democratic nominee is reluctant to use simplistic language in addressing complex nuanced subjects.  Rather than make unsubstantiated claims about future prosperity, victory, etc. he favors more precise and technical discussion.

Yet this should not be cast as a liability.  Amidst frequent Republican talk of prosperity, today’s announcement of a plan to increase the income tax deduction for dependents is the first proposal by Senator McCain to offer some benefit to working class families that was not inferred as an inevitable byproduct of making the rich even richer.  Though this does represent substantive change, it is both a departure from the rest of the Republican campaign and an oddly belated effort to acknowledge that America’s real economic distress must be addressed through outreach to the families and individuals in the most difficult of circumstances.

The same can be said for foreign affairs.  Republicans often speak in sure tones of victory in Iraq.  Some have tried to link this to declining levels of violence over there, as if partially cleaning up a mess of our own creation constitutes some sort of victory.  Others focus on the idea of a stable democratic regime able to provide for its own security.  Perhaps that would be a real victory, but it has not been advanced by recent military initiatives, nor is there any Republican proposal that speaks to the heart of political challenges facing democracy in Iraq.

In spite of the blood spilled, in spite of the treasure consumed, in spite of the goodwill lost; the McCain-Palin campaign pushes for continuity in U.S.-Iraq policy.  No matter how many times the candidates employ the word “victory,” neither does much to define it, let alone offer up a concrete plan for its achievement.  Rather than work on rallying the nation behind some sort of real solution to the serious problem, the Republican party has chosen to demonize their opponents for nothing worse than the failure to embrace hollow rhetoric.

Yet the absurdity does not end there.  Senator McCain has frequently told the nation that he knows how to capture Osama bin Laden.  What is he holding out for?  Does he fear such an accomplishment would not catapult him into the White House?  Is it an idea the present administration has refused to implement?  Is it an idea he would withhold from a future administration if Barack Obama should happen to serve as its Commander-in-Chief?

Senator Obama is not fast and loose with terms like “victory” only because to do so without coherent and concrete plans to accomplish victories is dishonest.  When we are honest, a discussion of Iraq must recognize tremendous challenges that no amount of military power can resolve.  Our armed forces are second to none, but that acknowledgement does not imbue them with supreme abilities to address diplomatic, political, or economic problems.  Perhaps the federal approach long advocated by Senator Joe Biden has drawbacks as well as advantages, but at least it speaks realistically to the nature of the situation in Iraq.

Should the next President of the United States be John McCain, I believe everyone would expect much talk of “victory.”  Yet does anyone expect him to swiftly neutralize Osama bin Laden?  Does anyone expect him to smoothly resolve the internal conflicts in Iraq?  Does anyone believe that his economic proposals would remedy fundamental economic problems the man himself was among the last to recognize?

If one does not look beyond the two party system for answers, then the choice is clear.  One alternative leads to a future where there is much talk of victory, while meaningful actions only perpetuate economic and foreign policies framed by the present administration.  The other path leads to a future of much more realistic discourse, with meaningful actions that strike a new economic balance and adopt a new tone on the world stage.  If ever our nation is to achieve real victories over the great challenges of our times, it seems to me that the political choice we must make is clear.

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What You Should Think About Hope

October 13, 2008

“I steer my bark with Hope in my head, leaving Fear astern.  My hopes, indeed, sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.”

–Thomas Jefferson

Virtually all Americans desire a peaceful and prosperous future for our nation.  I can say this with confidence because virtually all <insert nationality here> people desire a peaceful and prosperous future for <insert nation here>.  This is universal human nature.  Even in time of war, opposing forces are each mobilized by concern for the security of their homeland.

The most insidious sort of combatants, terrorists, can be distinguished by life-changing experiences in parts of the world devastated by constant violence.  Unable to imagine a secure homeland, their desperation drives them to undermine the security of strangers and neighbors alike.  Yet even they harbor the twisted hope that shocking violence could raise awareness and bring an end to the brutal oppression in which their darkest tendencies were forged.

Away from the insanity of a place like Belfast during the Troubles or the Gaza Strip today, hope and malice are less likely to intersect.  From the yokels responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing to the killers who lash out at abortion clinics, our homegrown terrorists have clearly lost all hope.  Consumed and deranged by a potent blend of fear and hatred, they lash out despite having no coherent vision of a better future to follow from those actions.

Responsible civic discourse is always degraded by appeals to fear and hate.  Yet it can be elevated by appeals to hope.  This nation has made many monumental efforts through the decades.  Some, like marginalizing indigenous tribes or organizing the Confederacy, were the product of fearful and hateful rhetoric.  By contrast, hopeful rhetoric has inspired our greatest achievements, from the Internet to the Apollo Program all the way back to the Constitution itself.

As fuzzy and sentimental as this analysis may seem, its strength is revealed by the rarity and weakness of exceptions to it.  Direct your mind to the past.  Did a President’s angry words ever serve as the birth cry of a great national success?  Did any dark chapter in our history begin with earnest appeals to the better angels of our nature?  If those questions are answered in the negative, a clear relationship between hopeful rhetoric and real success in statecraft has been observed.

The present election provides mixed messages from both sides.  The Republican ticket offers hope that there will be more use of domestic fossil fuels, more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and more cold shoulders for foreigners seeking high level diplomacy without preconditions.  Few people seriously believe a surge in fossil fuels can address our economic shortcomings, never mind dealing with serious environmental issues.  Faith in the panacea of tax cuts remains popular, though in the present historical context that can only be characterized as blind faith.

As far as American exceptionalism goes, that point is a blend of hope and fear.  It is all well and good when citizens hope that our nation’s conduct on the world stage is so amazingly wonderful that there are no errors to acknowledge.  It is neither well nor good when citizens hope that our nation’s position in the world is so coercively dominant that there is no need to acknowledge errors as they become apparent.  When the line between patriotism and jingoism is crossed, so too is the line between hope and fear.

By contrast, the Democrats’ chief appeal to fear draws mainly from a reasonable apprehension about continuity in public policy after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left their mark on world history.  Sure, occasionally there is a low blow about Senator McCain’s aversion to modern information technology (after all, a President should have no shortage of top quality clerical assistance.)  However, the bulk of the attacks go negative on the record and plans of the Republican nominee — not his personality and assorted minor foibles.

With the rest of their enormous media buys and direct communications, Senator Obama’s supporters articulate real hopes.  His health care proposal may not rid the nation of parasitic middlemen, but it does constitute a real effort to address a serious national problem in terms of access to medical goods and services. Few Americans would argue that poor citizens should be allowed to die in the streets due to the costs of treatment.  Yet some legislate and millions vote as if that they hoped for precisely that.  Not since the early 90s has any prominent American leader tried to realign hope with basic human decency in this crucial way.

Elsewhere, Senator Obama’s idealism takes even more noble forms.  His plans for education and science funding would make our workforce more competitive and could bring about a technological renaissance.  Healing damaged international relationships, getting serious about renewable energy sources, providing tax relief for families that have never seen a six figure paycheck — the list of appeals driven by hope and joined by substantive specifics is lengthy.  Heck, the man even hopes to radically transform [warning: PDF link] the national failure that is our policy on broadband infrastructure development.

Perhaps there is no force in the universe that could silence all the fearmongering and hatemongering noise machines in American politics.  Yet that is no reason at all to bend to any particular agenda.  The ultimate tax cut would not address the realities of homelessness, domestic hunger, and preventable loss of human life that occur in our cutthroat economy.  The ultimate drilling initiative would not address the realities of toxic byproducts, industrial emissions, and rising greenhouse gas levels.

Even if political conservatives accomplished goals as stated in this election cycle, unsolved problems growing, some already devastating in scope, would create far more trouble than the most loud-mouthed partisan pundit ever could.  All loyal citizens bear a duty to disregard, dismiss, or dismantle sources of political fear and hate.  Likewise, civic duty calls for heartfelt hopes to be expressed clearly and harmonized with the realities of our times.

Not even a sitting President gets to live in a United States perfectly altered to suit his every whim.  Hope must be tempered with reason if it is ever to bridge the gaps between our noblest dreams and our daily realities.  Fear and hatred repulse reason and hope.  What Machiavelli wrote on the subject has little relevance in an open society with regular peaceful transitions of power.   Perhaps appeals to fear and hatred have a part to play in popularity contests and power struggles.  Yet they can only diminish any civilized leader’s ability to govern effectively over the long term.

Barring one of the greatest surprises in the history of American politics, the contrast will be clear as voters go to the polls on November 4th.  One candidate offers ample thoughtful specifics in a long list of plans to make life better for honest working Americans.  The other adheres to the failed politics of the past while framing precious few appeals without falling back on themes of fear or hatred.  When taking the time to exercise a citizen’s right to vote, think of which future is more desirable — a nation driven forward by hope or a nation frozen in place by fear — then act accordingly.


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.


What You Should Think About Nuance

August 11, 2008

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

–H. L. Mencken

I believe very few Americans understand the extent to which Democrats and Republicans embrace the same agenda.  From the “War on Drugs” to our unilateral arms race, some of the most wasteful and destructive U.S. policies are not up for discussion.  Concern about the strong emotional reaction any critique of such policies tends to generate outweighs concern about insuring our nation is governed by the best available ideas.  This is why the 2008 election so often seems to be about baby steps in the realm of social progress while events of our times offer the chance of a transformational event.

On the other hand, the crisis in South Ossetia illustrates that there are real differences between the leading candidates.  In the immediate aftermath of the first major outbreak of violence, Senator Barack Obama called for a pull back on the violence and a search for alternatives to military action.  It was an eminently civilized call for restraint.  Senator John McCain ridiculed this plea for peace.  In his eyes, Russia is an evil empire, Georgia was victimized . . . oh, and Czechoslovakia was never dissolved.

Though the man took time to ridicule his rival’s call for non-violent solutions to human struggles, apparently he did not have time to educate himself about the realities of this complex conflict.  Given only a superficial glance, there is no time to see anything other than Russia’s forceful and deadly violation of a neighbor’s sovereign territory.  Yet should we let the foreign policy of the world’s lone military superpower continue to turn on casual glances and gut reactions to world events?

Among the underlying realities are the fact that the people of South Ossetia identify much more strongly with Russian governance than the Georgian regime.  Just as loyalty to the government of Turkey prevents the U.S. from supporting independence Iraqi Kurds so strongly desire for themselves, loyalty to Georgia prevents the U.S. from supporting the desire of the Ossetian people to become united within the Russian Federation. The fact that such a desire is inconvenient to our State Department is a poor reason to behave as if it simply does not exist.

Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, this particular conflict zone was being pulled in two directions.  Early Soviet organizational plans divided Ossetia with an eye toward weakening ethnic identities in order to strengthen the new national identity.  The southern half of the area was incorporated into the Georgian SSR, though some measure of autonomy was recognized.  As with other Stalinist pushes to marginalize ethnicity, as in Chechnya for example, control asserted by the hypermilitant security state gave way to grave problems in future decades.

Today’s Georgian conflict is a delicate matter because there are two worthwhile principles in direct conflict.  National sovereignty is one.  After the first Persian Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush declared “a new world order” and created a solid foundation for geopolitical stability.  With a standard holding that unprovoked international military aggression is always unacceptable, conditions existed that were good for business and good for the peaceful varieties of political reform as well.

Then along comes President George W. Bush, demonstrating that no semantic game-playing is sufficient to prevent the world from recognizing a bold act of unprovoked international military aggression as precisely that.  No serious historian is likely to reflect on these events as an uncommonly bloody and torturously slow “liberation.”  Contemporary world leaders may now exploit this horrible example for their own purposes.

The genie so briefly bottled is once again on the loose.  Even the doctrine of “pre-emptive defense” was enough to accomplish that harm.  Yet, to whatever degree it was a factor in the original push for war, bringing stability and democracy to the people of Iraq is now the closest thing to a legitimate reason proponents of continued occupation can muster to justify their stance.  Yet it is also strikingly parallel to the Russian rationale for this invasion of Georgia.  Past referenda and polls paint a clear picture of an overwhelming desire by the people of South Ossetia to be reunited with North Ossetia, a goal best accomplished by joining the Russian Federation.

Georgian leaders denounce the organized emigration of South Ossetians into Russia as if it were a campaign of genocide.  Yet those migrants willingly, even eagerly, pursue Russian citizenship.  It is simply not honest to suggest that non-violent efforts to strengthen ties between South Ossetia and Russia constituted any sort of attack.  Clearly the principle of self-determination is at issue as well.

On the other hand, even South Ossetia contains some diversity.  For generations, ethnic Georgians and ethnic Ossetians have been intermarrying freely.  Prior to the recent attacks, the Georgian government provided many essential services to the people of South Ossetia.  It would also be dishonest to suggest that the Georgian regime has no claim on that territory.  Defending sovereignty and supporting self-determination — each a justification for a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime — are principles in opposition in Ossetia today.

Should South Ossetia be ceded from Georgia and absorbed into Russia?  Should both South Ossetia and North Ossetia break away from their respective states in order to form a modern sovereign Ossetia?  Should the borders remain precisely where they were one week ago today?  None of those questions need be answered to judge the comments of the two leading U.S. Presidential candidates.  Both speak chiefly to one issue — should this dispute be settled over a conference table or on a battlefield?

It is hard to devise a greater form of evil than “war for its own sake.”  Though the 2008 election looks to be a referendum on the war in Iraq, both sides seem moved much more by emotion than reason.  Mainstream journalists’ patronizing chatter about how engaged and informed the electorate is during this cycle does not reflect a sudden upsurge in accurate fact recall by poll respondents or other measures of informational merit.  As many journalists are themselves more connected to narrative emotions than the underlying realities of world events, it is no surprise that they should mistake passion for savvy in others.

Still, there is good cause to hope that the passions of those who oppose war will, in this rare instance, truimph over the passions of those who support war for its own sake.  Bloodthirsty Americans exist, and in Senator McCain they have found a voice on the national stage.  His ridicule of calls for peace, his oversimplification of a complex conflict into a “black hats vs. white hats” scenario, his deliberate confusion of brute strength with useful effectiveness — all these things make him a true spokesperson for the warmongers among us.  I do not dispute that those Americans deserve a voice in the process.  Yet I would ask, can we do no better than to give that lot yet another term of power with which to lead us down the roads warmongers inevitably lead their peoples?


What You Should Think About Fear

July 1, 2008

“Fear is not the natural state of a civilized people.”

–Aung San Suu Kyi

Senator Joe Lieberman is a fascinating study in missing the point.  I first became aware of this when he embarked on a campaign to censor violence in video games.  Here was a grown man, well-educated, commanding a large capable staff, and placed in a position of moral obligation to be astute on a wide range of issues.  Yet he was convinced of a strong causal link between an entertainment medium and the worst sorts of human behavior.  In joining that misguided crusade, he fell in line with a shameful tradition of cultural conservatives ignoring substance in order to attack music or films or books or even plays.  The same buffoonery has been going on in public squares since the Agora of Athens was established.

Still, this particular Senator never fails to disappoint.  Forget about failing to deliver Florida in the 2000 election (after all, Vice President Gore’s organization bungled Tennessee even worse.)  Senator Lieberman’s misadventures go well beyond an ineffective run for his own Vice Presidency.  Whenever presented with a chance to display some insight into international relations, security issues, and counterterrorism policy; the man displays a natural gift for apparently sincere obliviousness.

Either that, or he is truly a coward.  If this is the case, then he is not merely cowering in fear for himself, but coweing in fear for the entire nation.  After all, less than eight years ago, this great nation was attacked by nineteen men with small knives.  Of course that means we must escalate warfare throughout the Middle East until both Iran and Iraq are merely parking lots for the great shopping malls of Dubai and Saudi Arabia, right?

This is the thing to keep clearly in mind as the security debate unfolds.  Armed only with a clever plan and a few inches of sharpened steel, nineteen men brought the United States of America to tears.  Perhaps because of one subject that is still taboo — the extraordinary weakness that enabled such a modest effort to produce such horrific results — we made a collective choice to fight first and think later.

Thus this choice was made without regard for little matters like target selection, means of engagement, post-invasion planning, etc.  Rather than fight back against those who had bloodied, terrorized, and (dare I say it) shamed us; this nation chose to fight for fighting’s sake.  We did not reform transportation safety to bring about real security upgrades.  We reformed it to satisfy the political desire to make people feel as if action were being taken.  We did not deploy armies to neutralize the actual threat to our safety.  We deployed them to satisfy a convoluted mix of political goals, with greater emphasis on acts that would predictably strengthen Al Qaeda than those that would be likely to weaken or eliminate the group.

For people acquainted with relevant facts, it seems hard to imagine such a stupid response to such an important issue.  In the coarsest levels of political dialogue, many conclude that this is because people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and even Senator Lieberman are all evil men intent on bringing the nation to ruin.  I suppose there is some possibility that apocalyptic delusions of grandeur influence the sitting President’s worldview, and Dick Cheney is disturbingly comfortable in the role of a latter day Darth Vader.  However, I believe that it is nonsense to suggest either of them actually hates America or desires ruin befall our people.

They are simply terrorized.  The goal of the terrorist is to strike fear into the hearts of many people.  Even with the stunningly lethal outcomes of the 9/11 hijackings, American security was not significantly changed.  Rare is the month our driving habits fail to kill more people than died in those terrorist attacks.  A perfectly rational response would be to pursue the perpetrators and their accomplices, implement a sensible transportation safety plan, and go on about routine business.  An understandably irrational response would be to dwell on a mix of anger or sadness for a time, then go forward with the rational response.  Given national leadership that was adequate or better, recent history would have played out along understandable lines.

It did no such thing in large part because a particularly twisted and corrupt subset of politicians happily exploit the fact that fear is power.  Making the absurd leap from Saudi men with boxcutters to an Axis of Evil intent on nuking our homeland was only possible because a traumatized people are vulnerable to the absurd.  It was all made much worse still by political hate media — the sort that continues to draw enormous audiences no matter how profoundly wrong its content has been in the past.  Perhaps there are still some sensible voices on the American political right wing, but they are largely drowned out by other voices that cunningly exploit negative emotions — fear, anger, and hatred — to galvanize resistance against constructive political change.

When Senator John McCain’s campaign recently floated the “we put the nation first, the other candidate puts his left wing agenda ahead of the nation” campaign theme, it seems as if it could only have emerged from a circle of terrorized political advisors.  Like Senator Lieberman, it seems Senator McCain and most of his inner circle are still deathly afraid that the United States of America will prove no match for the next band of fanatics to arm themselves with innocuous tools and a cunning plan.  To hear them speak of strength and experience, to hear them criticize the opposition as weak or soft — the irony that such craven jellyfish would take that tone should be lost on no one.  Alas, it is lost on virtually everyone, including many of their critics.

It would have been a great thing for the world if cooler heads had prevailed in late 2001 and beyond.  Heck, it probably would have been great for the world if cooler heads had taken charge in 2004.  This fall, another opportunity presents itself to let cooler heads prevail.  John McCain may not be more quick-tempered or loud-mouthed than Barack Obama.  However, his continued embrace of bloodshed justified by only the most absurd and implausible of political narratives is a shameful misjudgement that threatens to pile misery atop misery, slaughter atop slaughter, all in one of the most oppressed parts of the modern world.

We should fear terrorists . . . we should fear them even more than we fear lightning strikes, but certainly much less than we fear smog.  All these risks are real, yet they are also all no reason whatsoever for a routine day to be uncomfortable.  The more our behavior reflects a terrorized mindset, the less keenly we will be able to focus efforts on neutralizing actual terrorism.  Even worse, the blundering and slaughtering will continue, perhaps even escalate, while decisions are made based on this terrorized mindset.

It is long past time to overcome this insipid fear, spawned by nineteen suicidal fanatics and nursed into a behemoth by years of carefully calculated political misinformation.  The best security credential anyone could bring to a bid for the Presidency in 2008 is a clear history of opposing misguided military aggression in a climate when such opposition was boldly unpopular.  If we truly want to be strong as a nation, then the time has come for us to show the world no fear.  Endorsing the views and candidacies of leaders still clearly and deeply terrorized by the events of September 11th, 2001 is showing plenty of fear — the very fear by which our true enemies define their own successes.


What You Should Think About Charisma

January 9, 2008

“I think he has a warm engaging personality. . . but you know, the Presidency is more than just a popularity contest.”

–Al Gore regarding George W. Bush

As I roam the Internet’s vast array of comments regarding last night’s New Hampshire primaries, I find my thoughts returning again and again to a disconnect I have yet to see others highlight. A strong theme in Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign seems to be that Sen. Barack Obama is running more on charisma than substance. Yet the favorable result her campaign achieved last night occurred on a day when no story seemed to generate more press than her own emotional outreach.

Prior to the tearless moment many described as “crying,” Sen. Clinton seemed almost averse to emotional appeals. The role of students willing to educate themselves about the caucus process was clearly crucial in Iowa, but it might be fairly argued that Sen. Obama was running a campaign powered by hope. Fear, the other side of that same psychological coin, seems to be at the heart of Sen. Clinton’s distinctively emotional message. In those few utterances, she showed solidarity with the millions of other Americans profoundly troubled and saddened by the behavior of the sitting administration.

Rationally, the message should have little bearing on a Democratic primary contest. To be more precise, it should work to her slight disadvantage. From security policy to civil rights to international relations, Sen. Clinton is a good deal closer to President Bush than any of her top few rivals. People who are deeply concerned that this nation has traveled far along an unhealthy course ought to be at least a little bit wary of anyone so quick to support militarism, secret police, unrestricted free trade, etc. Veering away from Sen. Obama, Sen. Edwards, Rep. Kucinich, et al. in favor of Sen. Clinton actually weakens political condemnation of the status quo.

On the other hand, very few people vote purely on detailed knowledge and considered contemplation of specific policy positions. Though a broad range exists, practically every vote cast is influenced by some blend of political analysis with the human factor. Unlike the “make sure you get at least one good laugh out at every press event” day in the Clinton campaign, this display of human feeling registered as genuine.

No doubt it was, at least to some degree. In the debate about the authenticity of her emotions, most commentators seem to take an extreme position. Sensible folks mostly lean toward the “it couldn’t possibly have been staged” view while the dittohead legion is quick to dismiss the moment as entirely insincere. It is as if all these people so intent on analyzing political theater lack any understanding of actual theatrics.

While some performers will falsify even the most powerful of emotions, others draw upon their own real feelings to act out moments of extreme sorrow or bliss. In my estimation, the striking of a melancholy chord was deliberate, yet this display was accomplished by drawing upon an entirely genuine and personal anxiety fueled by thoughts of continuity in the direction of American political progress. After all, who needs to dwell on thoughts of a deceased pet or lost love to reach a blue mood when there are thousands of deceased soldiers, tens of thousands of deceased Iraqis, and America’s lost credibility to inspire dark reflections?

Just as people may be drawn to Barack Obama’s upbeat appeals to the better angels of Americans’ natures, it is hard to resist feeling sympathy at the sight of Hillary Clinton’s passionate concern about the flow of recent history. She faces a peculiar challenge — strength is a virtue among leaders, but a woman who fails to show any hint of emotional vulnerability appears unusual in a displeasing way. The vulnerability she displayed was perfectly understandable. Even so, it managed to generate a visceral appeal that echoed constantly through the narrow channels of mainstream media coverage.

I believe it would be irrational to try and reduce voting decisions to a pure calculus of political positions. Phenomena like personality and affect have bearing on job performance, most especially when the job involves grappling with weighty issues and responding to crisis situations. I do not wish to separate myself from the chorus of voices bemoaning the lack of political expertise most Americans take with them to the polls. Still, it is worth clarifying that character also has a vital role to play in the choices expressed in those particular booths.

In the end this primary process may merit a place of note in the political history of the 21st century. Just as the current President’s abuses of power may well be much more egregious than those of Richard Nixon, the public desire for political change may also be greater than it was in 1974. After all, the 2006 legislative elections clearly did not amount to a political reckoning comparable to Nixon’s resignation. Barring a sudden sea change, the next President of the United States will be selected by the Democratic Party.

For now, the top two contenders are both articulate and capable individuals with impressive public service achievements yet relatively little experience holding elective offices of their own. As voters react to blends of policies and personality, Senators Clinton and Obama will each make many efforts to inspire support from the American people. For a relatively young candidate emergent from an unusual background and confronted by residual racism in a nation that embraced a “separate but equal” doctrine up through the 1950s, these efforts will tend to involve straightforward appeals to hope for a better tomorrow. For a candidate emergent from decidedly conventional background and confronted by gender stereotypes that remain strong even in the most progressive nations, the task of generating enthusiasm from supporters is much more complex.

In the end, this effort to connect with the American people is only the beginning of a process the winner will be obliged to continue throughout his or her term(s) of service. A head of state must do more than raise a constructive voice in setting a nation’s policy agenda. Such leaders also must speak out effectively in many other contexts. From mourning in the aftermath of national tragedy to rallying support for significant reforms to speaking authoritatively to foreign leaders, we all benefit from a President’s ability to communicate with emotional force and integrity.

Voters have a civic duty to do much more than respond to gut feelings, but those feelings are not without value. Between the nature of the process and the shallowness of the media, the next three hundred days are likely to be thick with efforts to increase levels of public goodwill generated by political candidates’ force of personality. With a confluence of planning and spontaneity, the personal charisma that follows from these efforts will have much to do with selecting and defining the next leader of the United States of America.


What You Should Think About Licensing Alien Drivers

November 1, 2007

“I do have a political agenda. It’s to have as few regulations as possible.”

–Dan Quayle

As far as I can tell, political commentary is not popular to the degree it enables people to understand an issue. However, it is popular to the degree it enables people to feel as if they understand an issue. In the best instances, this feeling comes from the satisfaction of having been presented with good information and sound analysis. In countless other instances, this feeling comes from the validation of strong emotions. Unfortunately, strong emotions are often inconsistent with political action based on good information and sound analysis.

After the latest Democratic Presidential candidates’ debate, it was a little disturbing to see so many political “experts” talking about the ramification of endorsing drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens. To begin, there was this jarring use of the term “illegals.” I would say “score one for Rovespeak” on that, but the architect of so much bogus language that almost changed mainstream discourse (e.g. “homicide bomber”) was actually a proponent of realistic immigration reform. Whatever the origins, the distillation of the term “illegal aliens” into the invective “illegals,” an utterance more spat than spoken in some circles, now seems to play a role in shaping the language of major network anchors as well.

Yet this is only the beginning of the problem. It is understandable that a political debate might be followed by discussion of about the popularity of a program that would allow illegal aliens to obtain drivers’ licenses. Experts are not mistaken to assert that, in a general election, any position short of “round ’em up, truck ’em out, and militarize the border” is going to be unpopular. Yet it seems like lunacy when this assessment of the politics of immigration spills over into thinking about immigration and other policies.

The purpose of licensing drivers has nothing at all to do with designating a national affiliation. Instead, it serves to provide some basic mechanism by which society can encourage uniform driving practices and promote a modicum of safety on the roads. The purpose of punishing unlicensed drivers has nothing at all to do with designating a national affiliation. Instead, that punishment serves to encourage drivers to obtain licenses and otherwise comply with rules established to promote traffic safety.

A dangerous driver careening wildly down the freeway doesn’t much care whether the blurs nearly missed, or the one eventually hit, are vehicles containing natural born Americans en route from Sunday school to a Cub Scout softball match or undocumented Mexican workers en route from an asparagus farm to a strawberry patch. Keeping the roads safe is a common concern. In a nation that is rational enough to recognize these sorts of universal concerns, practical policy responses are usually not controversial.

With so many political noise machines energizing the hostility toward immigrants who illegally bypass the arbitrary national quota system, it is no wonder that popular sentiments misconstrue a helpful public safety measure as “a reward for lawbreakers.” Were drivers’ licenses readily available to illegal aliens, they and everybody else in the nation would benefit from a more orderly flow of traffic. In a much more direct way than usual, hostility toward a measure like this brings suffering upon the hostile as well as the hated.

A more circumspect analysis reveals even more to consider. It is true that this kind of documentation could help illegal aliens build relationships with financial institutions, set aside funds to prepare for future tax obligations or criminal penalties, etc. This hurts who? Then there is the fact that participation in a bureaucracy like this could make some immigrants more likely to play by other American rules. Also, more information would be gathered and recorded about immigrant activity as it occurs within the United States. Again, is there any harm to this beyond upsetting the delicate sensibilities of political hatemongers?

Yet the parade of folly masking as conventional wisdom continues. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both been subjected to widespread criticism for not pandering to opinion polls. In fairness, one might fault a leader for being completely out of touch with the general population. Declaring that it is important to take action with no regard whatsoever for the substance of any criticism is simply stupid. However, it seems a sort of reciprocal error to contend one should always respond to the criticism of the majority without regard to the substance of an underlying position.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, closely linked with this sort of initiative, has long argued that it is a simple matter of public safety. Simple or not, there is no honest informed way to deny that it is a matter of public safety. As with a license to operate aircraft or a license to practice medicine, a license to operate a motor vehicle is not a birthright bestowed on those who happen to be born within a particular set of lines on a map. It is a merit achieved by demonstrating proficiency in the skills required to engage in those activities without posing a public menace.

Thus an incredibly poor understanding of the nature of citizenship couples with a triumph of animosity over understanding in the realm of immigration to create the conditions national leaders must face today. Personally, I am pleased to see Hillary Clinton allowing her voice to favor a good idea over a shrewd opportunity for political pandering. I believe it was Christopher Hitchens who said, “she lacks even the minimal political courage of her husband.” Though my feelings about the Clintons are far from wholly negative, I could not deny a ring of truth in that chilling accusation. It is refreshing to witness at least one bit of evidence that challenges that perception.

On the other hand, I have to say that in my own lifetime I’ve never seen a public figure make it so far in American politics without personally disappointing me as Barack Obama already has. He endorsed licensing illegal alien drivers without so much as a flinch at the thought of how much that would play into the hateful narratives of one particular thriving media fringe. I cannot predict just how this and countless other issues like it will play out as the primary season unfolds and the general elections follow. Yet I can say it is nice not to have to look so far from the mainstream to see actual evidence of personal and intellectual integrity. Now if only the media could begin to catch up with aspiring national leaders . . . we might yet have the makings of a functional democratic process in our midst.