Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Re: The Momentary And The More Permanent.

August 25, 2008

Re: The Momentary And The More Permanent.

If you had to choose, for an important position requiring brains, between a person who was among the best in his class at the Harvard Law School and a person who was near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, you would obviously choose, since the position does require brains, the person who was among the best at Harvard Law, right? Well, maybe wrong, if the position is President of the U.S. (an office held since 2001 by a brainless one) and if the chooser is, as in 2000 and 2004, the American electorate.

The brainlessness of one current candidate -- however charming this good ol’ boy may be -- and the equal vacuousness of parts of the electorate, were on display at the somewhat preposterous debate, or forum, held by Rick Warren. When Warren asked questions that were mindless set ups for any good ol’ boy, questions like what Supreme Court Justices would you not have nominated, or when does life or its rights begin, the good ol’ boy came back quickly with simple minded, expectable answers beloved of the right wing and the audience; he would not have nominated the four liberals and life begins at conception. Such answers were as dumb, and as unreflective, as they were expectable when one panders to the right wing of this country. For Warren even to have asked such questions illustrates that the supposed debate, or forum, was a set-up for McCain, which it in fact was despite Warren’s attempts to project a patina of fairness. One wonders how Obama, who is a smart guy, let himself get suckered into such a set up.

Ain’t it a hoot?: the MSM, as is finally beginning to penetrate, gives the Naval Academy Anchorman a free pass when he makes dumb mistakes or displays ignorance, as seems to be more frequent than one would care to see in a president (as when he claims it’s safe to walk in Iraqi markets (which maybe it is, if and when you’re surrounded by guys in dark glasses carrying automatic rifles), to not knowing who was doing what in Iraq or when, to not knowing how many houses he owns). Then, not to be outdone by the ignorant MSM, Obama himself agrees to a set-up that makes the Anchorman look good, by agreeing to a deal where, as expectable, the questions are setups for the Anchorman and the audience loves simple minded answers. Way to help the MSM assist McCain and hurt you, Barack.

Obama should be vigorously pointing out McCain’s lack of acumen and honesty -- this is a guy who was part of the Keating Five, you know, and who pretends to integrity while he gave in to George Bush on Iraq in order to placate the right wing and while his campaign is chock full of the wealthy abomination known as Washington lobbyists. (Nor will anyone ever know whether he remarried for love, as he would surely claim, or to get the money for a political career, as he would surely deny.) But instead of giving McCain the “what fer” that he deserves, Obama played Mr. Nice Guy so that the new “naval person” (pace Churchill -- or was it FDR?) can swiftboat him with impunity across the length and breadth of the country. This is how liberals running for President came to grief in the past, as Kerry and Gore found out. God forbid it should happen again.

Of course, it’s also true that campaigns have their ups and downs. People forget this in the heat of the moment, and as they focus on one moment after another instead of on the long view -- a phenomenon of short run thinking symptomatic of almost everything in politics and the media. By definition momentary things change all the time, and there may shortly be another one of those changes now that Obama has picked Biden, who apparently will make his bones partly by assailing McCain. (Incidentally, has anyone noticed that the Democrats now have a ticket comprised of two persons who have each taught constitutional law to law students? This is truly unique -- I don’t know that a ticket ever before had one such person -- and maybe it is hopeful, although using Biden as an attack dog does seem inconsistent with being a professor of constitutional law.)

The short run thinking symptomatic of both this country and its media does bring to the fore another essential point or two, however. One revolves around the unhappy fact that, at least when it comes to public affairs, much of this country is, to put it as nicely as possible, highly unintelligent. (It would be rude to say stupid.) This terribly elitist idea has lately come to have an increasing purchase; it even has recently been the subject of a book by a professor of history at George Mason named Rick Shenkman. A host of the usual subjects, from television on down, are suspected of causing the lack of acumen, with my personal “favorite” being the widespread, gross lack of knowledge of history. Knowing little, people are prone to believe anything, so that we keep doing the same dumb things over and over again, even if they don’t work. (Wasn’t it Einstein who defined insanity as taking the same failed action over and over again in the expectation that the result will change?) In the United States, the conservatives, the neocons, have persuaded people that military action is still the answer, forgetting the horrors of two world wars (which at least we won), of Korea, of Viet Nam, of Iraq, of British and French colonial experiences, and so forth. Now, remembering nothing of these horrors, never having seen their own country destroyed as the Europeans have, not having the imaginations to see the horror in their minds’ eye when their country has not in fact suffered it, and their own families being safe, the conservatives beat the drums for war with Iran. They talk tough about Georgia (and Poland, and Ukraine, and Latvia, etc.), ignoring the history showing that as abominable a country as Russia has in fact been for at least 350 years, it nonetheless feels it has vital interests in these places and it does hold the geographical cards there.

This is the kind of ignorance that the Democratic ticket has to face and that McCain panders to in his warmongering.

In a recent collection of his prior essays (Reappraisals [:] Reflections On The Forgotten Twentieth Century), Tony Judt discusses the argument over why France collapsed to the Germans in the 1940s. Judt believes you simply cannot discount the general situation in France, the hatred of right versus left, the hatred of Jews, the viciousness of the nationalists -- who had not forgotten the Paris Commune of 1871 -- the unforgivingness of the left, the incompetence of the generals. And then Judt goes back to 1870 and finds some of the same faults in the France of that day, faults which led to the same kind of collapse then as occurred later in 1940. He concludes his essay by writing of the “general conclusion [from 1870] (which can be applied virtually unchanged to the collapse of 1940) . . . . The incompetence of the French high command explained much: but the basic reasons for the catastrophe lay deeper, as the French themselves, in their humiliation, were to discern. The collapse at Sedan, like that of the Prussians at Jena sixty-four years earlier, was the result not simply of faulty command but of a faulty military system; and the military system of a nation is not an independent section of the social system but an aspect of it in its totality. The French had good reason to look on their disasters as a judgment.” “[W]e should do likewise” with regard to 1940, says Judt. (Emphasis added.)

The lesson I take from all this is that sometimes nations don’t change, at least not for a very long time. That is what we face today. Starting from at least 1898, if not from King Philip’s War in the seventeenth century, this country has often gotten what it wanted via war, and much of its citizenry is [stupidly] brainwashed to think war is the way. There is “good reason to look on [the] disasters” of Korea, Viet Nam, and now Iraq as “a judgment,” but much of the nation has neither the knowledge, nor the wit, nor the imagination to understand. Even Obama, who really ought to know better, apparently feels compelled to say we shall fight them in Afghanistan, where both the British and the Russians (and, I am told, even Alexander the Great) previously met disaster.

There is also another crucial aspect of public life, discussed by Judt, where a lack of knowledge and lack of imagination are at play, to the enormous detriment of the country. This is the economy. The free-market-uber-alles-in-all-things-at-all-times, non-regulation ideas of Milton Freedman and Ronald Reagan became so overwhelmingly followed since 1980, just as in the Gilded Age, that we are seeing results of the type that existed then. Fantastic gulfs in income and wealth, housing problems, food problems, bought legislators, economic downturns, you name it, are rampant again as they were 100 to 140 years ago. What Galbraith called the “moral justification for selfishness” has been caused to the point of disaster for millions while the Gatsbys thrive. Once again we are faced with what Judt calls the “Social Question,” and people who know no history and have no imagination, people who do not know or care about the horrors which brought about social welfare legislation lest there be socialism or Communism, revile anything that is not based on the free market, revile such things though an unfettered, unregulated free market can itself cause the most awful disasters, as in the 1830s, 1850s, 1890s, 1907, 1929, and early 2000s.

Fortunately, the body politic, after nearly 30 years of Friedmanesque, Reaganesque hoodwinking has to some extent caught on. For, unlike Iraq, millions of the body politic have been personally affected by the failure of reactionary economics.

Yet, though it may take the personal and national effects of disaster to cause persons and nations to change (as Germany and Japan changed after the most astounding destruction and thoroughgoing defeat in WWII and America changed for awhile because of the 1930s), and it is also true that sometimes even disasters do not change countries or people. The South didn’t change after the disaster of the Civil War. The French remained the same despite 1870. World War I, a disaster for the Germans even if not as thoroughgoing a one as WWII, did not change them. Neither Korea nor Viet Nam changed the U.S., and Iraq doesn’t seem likely to either. The Depression worked a change, yet did not stop unregulated, unfettered capitalism from staging a dramatic, now-thirty-years-old comeback. That people and nations may not change despite logic and the experience of disaster is the ultimate battle that has to be fought by the societally decent and knowledgeable people of this country. They will suffer a setback if McCain and the right wing crowd wins. Presumably, on the other hand, the ball may be advanced if Obama wins. One hopes. But one counts on nothing.