Thursday, April 23, 2009

Worse Than Hypocrisy

The only thing really worth pointing out about former Vice President Cheney's defense of torture, and the effort of his allies to drag down the Democrats with a you-let-us-do-this defense (though some, like Joe Lieberman, really deserve that line of attack), is the fact that Cheney and his allies spent the last eight years rhetorically indicting all criticism of the executive branch (or whatever branch Cheney thought at the time he belonged to) as coming from traitors. That Ari Fleisher, who led that particular charge (remember "we should watch what we say"?) is now leading the conservative counter-charge along these lines merely proves, to paraphrase Larry Gelbart's Broadway comedy, "Sly Fox," that sincerity is written on both his faces.

This line of "argument," however, is worse than hypocrisy. Put simply, it is Fascism in its rhetorical form. Agree with us, so we can drag you into the mud with us; disagree with us, and we'll brand you as traitors. Those who brandish these verbal clubs should be forced by the rest of us to admit who and what they really are: cowardly predators whose stated commitment to principles barely masks their appetite for power, and their mortal fear of losing it.

Unfortunately, for the most part, we the people let them get away with it for eight years. So where does that leave us?

Torture is criminal under international law, which our Constitution recognizes as binding, and immoral in any event, dragging nations who practice it into the same reputational gutter that has stigmatized every nation that has rationalized its use. No, we cannot indict an entire nation. But we can indict those who made the decisions in the decision-making branch, whether they thought themselves a member of that branch or not. And if the Republicans really want to extend that liability to members of the executive branch, that's fine. There were more of them marching in lockstep with Cheney on this issue than there were Democrats.

Oh, well. Given the dynamics of the Bush Administration, at least Cheney can't say he was following orders.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tea-Bag Hypocrisy

It's the day after the IRS filing deadline for most of us, and I suspect we all could use a little humor. With that in mind, I offer this photo of an idiot polluting the Severn River in Annapolis, Maryland with what is, presumably, a perfectly good box of tea:

For the record, the idiot in question is a Republican member of Maryland's House of Delegates, Donald H. Dwyer, Jr.. He was one of allegedly thousands of people who joined so-called "tea parties" yesterday to protest the so-called "socialistic" policies of the Obama Administration (and, in Maryland, the administration of Governor Martin O'Malley). Apart from losing last fall's election on merit, their principal grievances are the expansion of government and the increase in the public debt in the past several months, the blame for which they lay entirely at the feet of Democrats.

The idiocy of all this seems, at least to me, to be so obvious as to be totally beneath comment. But, in the (faint) hope of initiating a bipartisan dialogue, I'd like to throw out a few questions for these, my fellow citizens who participated and/or sympathized with these pseudo-events:

1. The Boston Tea Party (on which the events were supposedly modelled), like the so-called "Reagan Revolution", was designed to protest taxation without representation, not taxation of any sort. The sons and daughters of the American Revolution understood that government was a social contract, one that benefited everyone in society. Why have you confused that with your own short-term self interest?

2. Some of you claim to be unrepresented because your candidate didn't win the last election. Well, the vast majority of the candidates I have supported in more than thirty years of voting didn't win, but I didn't use that as an excuse to give up on democracy. What gives you a greater right to do so?

3. Above all, where the hell were you during the past eight years, when the expansion of government and the public debt were geometrically greater that anything President Obama has done or has promised to do? Aren't you guilty of hypocrisy? And isn't that a character issue?

I don't expect honest answers to any of these questions from this crowd. But the least they can do is stop pretending they have anything in common with the founders of this country. Every one of them, had they been alive at the time of the real Tea Party, would have been Tories whining about the destruction of valuable tea. They have no answers to our current problems except tax cuts (for which they are unwilling to pay with anything except yes, you guessed it, more public debt).

They ought to apologize for the mess their bankrupt policies have left America with, and not pollute it further by dumping tea.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It's Not "Nannying" When The Private Sector Does It!

So, let me get this straight: When the government creates a rule or spends money to promote public health, it's symptomatic of the "nannying" state (or, for some, the "bullying" state), but when a private company charges extra for its services based on your size (whether you can control it or not), it's just good business? Seems to me that if behavior is "nannying" or "bullying," it shouldn't matter whether the mailed fist comes from the private or the public sector. On the other hand (no pun intended), more often than not, government action is designed to prevent the problem, while business is often in the position of only being able to react to it. And government can be voted in or out every two to four years, while businesses can go on and on for years before their bad behavior catches up with them.

Unless, of course, society decides that business = virtue and government = vice, and government no longer has the support of the people to be proactive. And the bad behavior of business can go on and on for decades, because we've put effectively put handcuffs on the police and bought tickets to the burglars' ball.

But that wouldn't describe any society any of us know, right? Right? Um, I thought so!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Why Don't I Like Mickey Kaus? Here's One Really Good Reason

I have a confession to make: I'm addicted to "Kausfiles," a blog written by Mickey Kaus for (an otherwise excellent Web site, if you've never checked it out).

And I'm addicted in spite of the fact that I hate what he writes.

Let me explain. Kaus is a textbook-perfect example of what I would call a self-loathing Democrat, one who professes allegiance to the Democratic Party and its general political philosophy, while spending the majority of his time looking for supposed "examples" of how conservatives in general, and Republicans in particular, might ... actually ... be ... (gasp) ... better, no? (An approximate imitation of Kaus' style, but close enough.)

Some people might think that the term "self-loathing Democrat" might be repetitious, because Democrats as a rule demonstrate a certain amount of self-loathing for one or both of two reasons:

(1) Unlike Republicans, who cling to ideas that are either outdated or moronic at inception with the fervor of religious fanatics, they tend to be so obsessed with showing a perpetually open mind that they often systematically deliberate even good ideas to death; and/or

(2) Like Republicans, albeit differing in degree, they are attached enough to material success to envy the seemingly superior financial position of most Republicans, overlooking the fact that that position is often based on inheritance, borrowed money, or both and rarely on merit (see, e.g., Donald Trump).

I'm not sure which one of these categories Kaus falls into; he may be unlucky enough to fall into both. But his status as a self-loathing Democrat is beyond all doubt, if (like me) you are unlucky enough to be addicted to his columns. I'm not even sure I can explain my addiction, except possibly to blame it on a perverse fascination with the idea that some who seems, at least on the surface, to be very bright can systematically lead himself over and over again into mind-boggling error. Were I inclined to do so, I could make an almost daily blog out of Kaus' mistakes. However, one of my fellow bloggers has beaten me to the punch. And I'm more than happy about that.

But there is one comment of his recently that I took very, very personally, leaving me with no choice but to write about it. He posted it on April 8th in "Kausfiles":

Why would you leave a recurring part on a hit TV show--a job you "loved" --to become a mid-level liaison official in the White House? Either you are crazy or you have huge political ambitions. Or both.

Unless you are regular or recent viewer of the Fox TV series House, a show that (like The Simpsons) is so good one can hardly believe that it's on Fox, you may not be aware that this is a crude reference to one of its actors. (Spoiler alert: if you did not watch the show last week and still want to see it unsurprised, stop reading this until after you have seen it.)

The reference in question is to actor Kal Penn, who (up until last week) played Dr. Lawrence Kutner, a member of House's diagnostic team. In his time away from the show, he spent a considerable amount of time and energy campaigning on behalf of Barack Obama last fall. In the process, he became very close to campaign officials, and expressed an interest in formally working with the new Administration. Last week, Penn announced that he would, in fact, be leaving the series to become an associate director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. He made this announcement in the wake of last Monday's episode of House, in which his character apparently took his own life.

Back, however, from House to Kaus. What personally infuriated me about this comment is that Kaus seems incapable of considering a third possibility: that there are in the world some people (a limited, perhaps, but very real number) whose talents and energies need to find fulfillment in more than one area. More to the point, it is not exactly unusual to find such people in both politics and the arts. Anthony Trollope, Victor Hugo and Glenda Jackson are three illustrious examples of people whose talents manifested themselves strongly in both areas (as opposed to Ronald Reagan, whose lack of talent managed to do the same, for which all of us are currently paying the price).

I'm not saying that Penn's work in the White House will be the equal of his excellent work on television. That remains to be seen. But it is entirely possible to be talented in more than one area, and to want to see one's talents fulfilled in both. Such a desire can stem from altruistic or selfish reasons; neither motive can or should negate the reality of the wish.

So why would Kaus instantly assume that Penn's career change stems from insanity and/or a lust for power? If I were a dyed-in-the wool cynic, or an advocate of ad hominem argument, I might assume it has something to do with the fact that Penn's parents are immigrants from India, meaning that an attack on him fits neatly, in a subtextual way, with Kaus' overarching theme of the past several months: that immigrants are destroying the American economy, and that comprehensive immigration reform will accelerate that destruction. (They aren't and it won't; in fact, it will have the opposite effect. But that's a topic for another entry.)

I do, however, think that it might have something to do with cynicism. This, in turn, brings me back to the concept of the self-loathing Democrat. Cynicism, born of thirty years of nearly uninterrupted conservative power in this country, may be at the root of a third potential source of self-loathing: the cynical view that, having made it this far, conservatism will last forever. Certainly conservatives, who have spent much of the past two decades promoting "the end of history" (ending, of course, in their favor), have a vested interest in this perspective, one that they have worked hard to protect.

But there is a central irony in this: in its classic form , conservatism attempts to use history to educate humanity about the limits of its potential. And, if history teaches us anything, it is that nothing lasts forever. Not empires, not families, not philosophies, not economies, and most certainly not the me-first, borrow-and-spend, only-the-next fifteen minutes-matters conservatism that has largely held sway since 1980. Thirty years is not forever, although many of us can be forgiven for thinking that it feels like it. If there is one thing that most Americans can and do agree upon, it is that it is time to try something different (even if many of them are not sure of what that difference is).

For whatever reason (an obsession with dithering, material envy or cynicism), Kaus is just not ready to move on. Unfortunately, he's not alone. It is ultimately up to the future, and those who will write the history of the present, to determine whether his failure will ultimately become ours.

A note of disclosure in closing: those of you who have or will read my profile know that I am also someone with multiple interests. I don't pretend to have achieved at the level of the individuals cited in this posts as examples. But I believe very strongly that, just because the volume of knowledge in the modern world has tended to lead to an age of specialists, it may still be possible and even desirable to cultivate more than one field. And I don't intend to let anyone's self-loathing stand in my way.

I'm off tomorrow to New York with my stepson, to see the opening of the New York Mets' new stadium. Until then ...

Friday, April 10, 2009

In Case You've Noticed (Part 2) ...

... my absence has been longer than I expected, due to a combination of the wedding, my father-in-law's birthday, and the beginning of Passover. To anyone reading who is also observing the holiday, Happy Pesach and, hopefully, no matzoh stomach!;-). And a Happy Easter to those who will be either collecting eggs or going to church (or doing both) on Sunday.

I really am going to try to get back to more regular posting this weekend. It's not for a lack of things to say.

And a shout-out to my fellow blogger, John Tierney, who has been taking a break from blogging for family reasons. Hope everything's better soon, John!