Archive for October, 2010

Scoundrel Time

October 30, 2010

Once upon a time political campaigns were almost friendly competitions. (Think Lincoln-Douglas.) Candidates may have been ambitious, of course, but losing wasn’t the end of the world; they’d give voters their views, and if they didn’t prevail, so be it, they’d go back to practicing law. They usually regarded their opponents as honorable and worthy adversaries.

Ad demonizing British Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair

How times have changed.

The fundamental reason is that the stakes in elections have become so high. Being a congressman or even a governor didn’t mean all that much when government didn’t do all that much. Not so today when control of government means power over billions of dollars. Candidates will often go to great lengths — trashing anyone in their way — to gain, and hold onto, such power.

The stakes have also been raised psychologically in elective politics. We’re in a Vince Lombardi world here – “winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.” You don’t want to be, or be seen as, a loser. Candidates are driven by a terror of that fate. This was illuminated by a piece I read recently about Al Gore. When he was a potential president, the rich and mighty all sucked up to him. After he lost, they wouldn’t return his calls. It’s easy to imagine how devastating that can feel, driving politicians to do anything to avoid such humiliation.

And the higher the stakes in elections, the more are candidates motivated to expend immense resources on them. Meg Whitman in California has dished out $140 million of her own money running for governor. Other candidates must practically sell their souls to raise the cash. With that much invested, it becomes really really important to win – whatever it takes.

From famed 1964 ad implying candidate Goldwater would start a nuclear war and kill this child

Another factor is that we no longer view political opponents as honorable and worthy. No – they’re not merely wrong, they’re wicked. We don’t just assail policies, we impugn motives. This Manichaean bent in our politics makes it seem justifiable to smear a political opponent with negative ads, no matter how unfair or distorted. After all, isn’t a little mud-slinging justifiable if it means defeating evil?

And, of course, such ads work. We say we hate them, but are too often infected by their insidious messages. My Californian mother told me she’d never vote for that scoundrel who “shipped jobs overseas.” It seemed hopeless to argue the complexities of the issue, and that the real scoundrel was the perpetrator of that smarmy ad.

These revolting attack ads don’t target intelligent, informed voters. Those people already know whom they’re voting for, and why. We
idealize the “independent” voter who supposedly reflects carefully before making up his mind. But in reality the swing voters are the most disengaged, ill-informed, and clueless, caring little about politics, who will vote on impulse and hazy impressions if they vote at all. They’re the ones who decide elections, and whom attack ads aim to sway.

I’d like to say you shouldn’t vote for any candidate who claims the other guy wants to “privatize social security.” Et cetera. But low blows like that are so widespread, it’s hard to avoid voting for the guilty. (However, minor party candidates are typically innocent. And it’s erroneous to think voting for a no-hoper is a “wasted” vote. You only waste your vote when you give it to a candidate you don’t actually want.)

Am I a cynic about democracy? No, a realist. To be a good citizen, you have to understand reality. And I love it – not some romanticized version of democracy, but the actual democracy we actually have. I love it, for all its flaws, because I know what the alternative is. And when I go into the voting booth, I consider it a sacrament.

Reflections on the (Non-)Revolution in France

October 24, 2010

President Sarkozy campaigned as something of a radical – promising what he called a “rupture” with past complacency. He was certainly a preferable alternative to his opponent, Segolene Royal, a clueless knee-jerk socialist, as well as to his predecessor, the feckless Chirac. But while Sarkozy did seem to see things pretty clearly, he turned out to have a touch of “French disease” himself.

His “rupture” reforms have been tepid, timid, not biting the bullet, hardly even licking the bullet. Sometimes he talks as though he understands economics, and other times he spouts the conventional French economic nationalism and dirigisme that has been that country’s curse. Such as his silly declaration that “capitalism is dead.” It’s hard to tell whether Sarkozy is just playing the cynical politician pandering to French foolishness, or really believes some of the absurdities he spouts.

So now we have the controversy over raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. Past efforts at reforms of that kind have typically run aground in the face of bloody-minded street demonstrations and strikes (which wrecked the Juppe premiership in 1997 and permanently removed the testicles from Chirac). So the reactionary unions and their allies have once more mounted the battlements to oppose what is, after all, a reform that is obviously necessary and indeed far short of what is really needed. And I must say that the otherwise disappointing Mr. Sarkozy deserves some credit for refusing to cave in.

Apparently there are some people in France who have brains. Unfortunately they don’t have the vocal chords of the ones who don’t have brains. The French mostly seem to have the opinion that they can keep on retiring early with fat pensions after having worked 37-1/2 hour weeks with lengthy vacations and generous family leave allowances, etc., notwithstanding the fact that the working population (if you can call that “working”) is inexorably shrinking and the population collecting public benefits is exploding. They just do not seem capable of comprehending that somebody has got to do productive work in order for society to fund all those generous allowances and benefits. They seem to think they have an unalienable right to do ever less work and collect ever more benefits.

But in fairness to the French, they are not the only ones suffering from this misunderstanding. The connection between, on the one hand, what government or society doles out, and, on the other hand, productive work, is a connection that usually is absent from political discourse. We’ve seen it as well in Greece. And with the American left.

Well, as of now, Sarkozy’s re-election seems unlikely. The leading candidate appears to be Socialist Martine Aubry – who was responsible for reducing the standard work week to 37-1/2 hours. Just the person France needs.


Liu Xiaobo and Ding Zilin

October 16, 2010

The Nobel Peace Prize was recently awarded to Liu Xiaobo, 55, who is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence in China. His “crime” was to have circulated a petition calling for democratization. Actually, China’s top leaders themselves have called for democratization. The difference is that they know it is only hot air; Liu’s crime was to take it seriously.

In the 1950s, Mao Zedong famously said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” meaning that people should express their opinions openly. Thousands accepted this invitation to criticize the regime. Guess what happened to them.

My local newspaper published an op-ed saying the prize to Liu is actually a bad thing. The argument was that it’s just an empty charade that makes us feel good while doing absolutely nothing to change things in China. Some have even said it makes things harder for Chinese human rights advocates.

Liu’s wife had said she hoped to travel to Stockholm to collect the prize for him. That’s doubtful as the Chinese have effectively put her under house arrest. And now she alerts us that Ding Zilin seems to have been “disappeared.” Ding (her picture at left) is an elderly woman who has waged a determined lonely battle for recognition of what happened in Tienanmen Square in 1989. Her courage in doing so cannot be overstated, because Tienanmen is something the Orwellian Chinese regime wants expunged from history.

But I disagree with that mentioned op-ed. Our human values are important, and expressing those values is part of our humanity. Liu’s Nobel award is such an expression. Maybe gestures like that won’t budge the Chinese regime; but complicity with that regime by ignoring these issues, as it would like, is surely not the way to go either. In fact, you may not have noticed, but there is a global ideological battle under way, almost mirroring the Cold War. Then, it was Freedom vs. Communism; today it’s Freedom vs. Authoritarianism. The Chinese model is not Communism, but economic capitalism combined with political repression. And a lot of people believe this works better than our system with all its messy democratic dysfunctionality. They point to China’s economic growth rates far outstripping ours.

I don’t buy it. I don’t believe China’s people will achieve Western material standards of living without insisting on Western human rights. Nor should they. Our democratic system indeed has a lot of problems, but they are ultimately a consequence of government being accountable to the people; and when government is not accountable, as in China, the problems are deeper. (Including an endemic, corrosive culture of corruption.)

And the fact remains that, overall, democratic countries still have higher living standards than authoritarian ones. America’s government is a drag on its economy, but not enough to squelch the creative economic dynamism of a free people, which ultimately a repressive society cannot match. Moreover, even if you actually believe that tyranny works better in producing economic rewards, Man does not live by bread alone. Freedom is worth paying a price for. Human beings have proven they are willing to make sacrifices to achieve freedom.

Liu Xiaobo and Ding Zilin are monuments to that proposition.

Does humanity have a future?

October 8, 2010

I have a friend who’s a college science teacher and has written a couple of science books. She is constantly talking about how humanity is not the last word in evolution, and is bound, in due course, to go extinct.

It’s a pretty common viewpoint. During the Cold War we were supposedly doomed to “blow ourselves up.” And if not the atom bomb, there was the “population bomb.” Today the trope is that we’re making the planet uninhabitable. Or that technology will somehow bite us in the behind, maybe with a new race of super-intelligent robots that will dispense with us.

Common to all these themes is the idea of humanity as sinful in some way, bringing about our own destruction – and deserving it. People who spout these ideas basically just hate their own species.

I don’t share this misanthropic pessimism. I reject it completely.

It’s true that every other species that ever evolved has gone extinct (barring possibly some bacteria, and of course all those living today). Every species is an adaptation to a particular environment, maybe very successful, but the environment always changes. Perhaps your prime food source goes extinct – or a new predator makes you its prime food source. Whatever – change comes, and you go.

Humanity is different, though, in a crucial fundamental way, because we can change our adaptation. In fact we’ve done so repeatedly. Remember, we evolved in the hot African savannah. Then we moved out to Europe and hit – guess what – the Ice Age! Bit of a shock, yet we managed to change our adaptation and cope.

There is actually good evidence that what drove humanity to evolve into such a uniquely adaptable creature in the first place was that climatic conditions within our original African homeland went through a time of great changeability, going from wet and lush to dry and spare, and back again, and again, relatively quickly. That would have been hell on any animal’s adaptation. It caused the evolution of creatures whose main characteristic was their ability to change their way of life pretty radically when circumstances required.

The emergence of agriculture 10,000 years ago was a key example. Necessity was the mother of that invention; we had reached the limits of our age-old hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and to survive required radical change. And look at us today: our urbanized, industrialized way of life is once again dramatically different from what it was not so long ago. Yet again we changed our adaptation.

So please don’t tell me we won’t be able to cope with climate change, or any of the other bugbears du jour. We are not going extinct. Even if you assume – quite heroically – that the most extreme climate fearmongers, the most extreme sustainability fearmongers, the most extreme technology fearmongers, and all their kith and kin, all are right – and humanity will be almost wiped out – surely there will be some survivors. And surely they will figure out a new way of life for their new and different environment. They’ll repopulate the Earth.

So billions of years from now, the planet will still be ruled by people. Oh, they may be a very different sort from you and me – just as we are so different from cavemen – perhaps those computerized robotized bionic creatures of sci-fi – or something beyond, which we can’t even imagine. But they’ll be the “humans” of their time.

In five billion years, the Sun will explode. Now, admittedly, that will present humanity with a darn tough challenge.

But I bet we’ll meet it.