Archive for February, 2012

Snowe for President?

Senator Olympia Snowe shocked the political world by announcing her retirement at the end of her term.    She expressed confidence she could have won in November, but said she didn’t want to spend another six years in the toxic partisan atmosphere that has overtaken DC.

I have always had a profound respect for Senator Snowe, and have voted for her the two times I had the chance to while living in Maine.   I probably would have voted for her again.    It’s not that I necessarily agreed with her more than with her opponents, only that I trusted that she would try to work to create pragmatic compromises on difficult issues, focusing on problem solving rather than ideology.    I find it both sad and a bit frightening that the atmosphere in the nation’s capital has gotten so vile that she decided to forego a fourth term.

Last year she visited campus, campaigning for State Senator Tom Saviello, who does adjunct teaching for us in the Poli-Sci department, and State Rep Lance Harvell, who also has close ties to the university.    I told Senator Snowe how much I admired her efforts at pragmatic problem solving over partisan battles.   We chatted briefly about the atmosphere in Washington and her body language expressed physical pain as she talked about it.   It was clear to me in that brief conversation that she was deeply troubled by what was happening.

Snowe while serving as a young Maine State Senator

Snowe celebrated her 65th birthday last week.    She was born Olympia Bouchles in Augusta and lost both her parents to illness — her mother to breast cancer when she was 9, her father to heart disease the next year.    She was of Greek heritage on both sides of her family, with her father an immigrant from Sparta.    She earned a political science degree at the University of Maine at Orono in 1969 and married her first husband Peter Snowe that same year.   He would die in a car accident just four years later.

Her husband had been a Maine state legislator, and she ran for his seat and won it, getting into Maine state politics while only in her mid-twenties.   In 1978 she was elected the House of Representatives at age 31, representing the 2nd district, and served there until she ran for the Senate in 1994 to replace outgoing Democratic Senator George Mitchell.    While in the House she served three years with John McKernan who represented district 1 from 1983 to 1986.   She would marry him in 1989, the same year McKernan became Governor.  She served a dual role as a Congresswoman and Maine’s First Lady during McKernan’s stint as Maine Governor from 1989 to 1995.

Through all of this, no one doubted or questioned her Republican credentials.    She was independent and pragmatic, following the tradition of Maine politicians going back to Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine Republican Senator who in the 1950s was one of the first in her party to stand up to Joseph McCarthy during his witch hunts.    Another Republican, William Cohen, later served as Secretary of Defense to Democratic President Bill Clinton.   Snowe’s colleague in the Senate, Susan Collins, is also known as a pragmatic moderate Republican.

Margaret Chase Smith, GOP Senator from 1949-1973, her political career ending the same year Snowe's begun.

I started my political life as a Republican.  At the age of 12 I was canvassing for President Nixon in my home state of South Dakota — also the state of Nixon’s opponent George McGovern that year.   At age 16 I drove people to the polls with my ’63 Chevy Bel Aire for President Ford.   At 20 I was in Detroit at the national Republican convention that nominated Ronald Reagan, one of the “Reagan youth” allowed on the floor of the convention during Reagan’s acceptance speech.    One thing I remember about that is meeting two really attractive female Maine students and trading a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin for a little Maine lobster decal that I still have on an old camera case.   Little did I know I’d sometime live in Maine!

From 1983 to 1985 I worked for Republican Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota in Washington DC.  As I studied European politics for my Ph.D. and learned more about how the political system works, I drifted away from the GOP, though never felt completely at home with the Democrats.    I supported and still support President Obama, and on most major issues my views are liberal – though with a dose of fiscal conservatism.

But while I drifted to the “left,” the Republican party has changed dramatically.   In 1980 you had the Jerry Falwells and “moral majority” types denying evolution and condemning pro-choice Republicans (both Snowe and Collins are pro-choice).   But the party was more pragmatic, less ideological than the Democrats seemed to be at the time.

Senators Snowe and Collins

So when I look at Olympia Snowe I see someone representing a kind of politics I too rarely see from either side of the aisle – the kind of Republican I remember from my youth.    Consider the Republican party rhetoric during the primary campaign, the demonizing of Barack Obama, the extremist tones taken by Gingrich and Santorum (and Romney sometimes too – though I don’t think he has his heart into it), I have to shudder.   I want to choose between two sets of plausible rational perspectives, knowing that the US system demands compromise and negotiation.   Instead it’s too easy to fall into ideological jihad.   When Republicans dismiss someone with such solid Republican credentials as Snowe as a “Rino” (Republican in name only) because she doesn’t toe an extremist ideological line, it’s a sign that many in the party have gone to a very dark place.

I don’t think most Republicans want to go that route.   The candidates Snowe was on campus to campaign for are pragmatic problem solvers like her.   Most Democratic and Republican students on campus get along with each other well and have good spirited discussions and debates.    The Republican party in 2008 nominated John McCain despite him being eviscerated by the far right.    Mitt Romney would not be trouble if not for caucuses that bring out the activists more than rank and file.

So if the GOP goes and nominates a Rick Santorum or a Newt Gingrich, I would urge Senator Snowe to consider an independent Presidential bid.   Americans Elect is on the ballot in all states, I believe, and searching for a candidate.  Snowe could represent an alternative to kind of politics we’ve grown used to from both parties.    To be sure, I’m not dissatisfied with President Obama.   But I want a real choice – a Gingrich or a Santorum gives me no alternative but to vote for Obama.  Snowe would force me and many others to consider her – and could send a message to the GOP that as a far right party they risk becoming a permanent minority.


The Folly of Striking Iran

Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Right now President Obama’s chances of re-election look good.    The Republicans are in disarray, he has no primary challenger and most importantly the economy appears on an upswing.   Taken together, the stars are aligning for the President better than any time since early in his Administration.   In politics, timing is everything.   However, lurking under the radar screen of most Americans is the possibility of an Israeli or (less likely) American strike on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities.

Already President Obama is being criticized for not giving Israel high tech bunker busting weaponry that could increase the chances (but not guarantee) that an Israeli strike would work.    The CIA has consistently said that they do not think Iran is close to possessing a nuclear weapon and many doubt they actually want to go through with producing one.   There are also serious doubts about Iran’s delivery systems.

The reason both Presidents Bush and Obama have tried to hold Israel back is that such a strike is not at all in the US national interest.   A nuclear Iran (like the nuclear North Korea) would be an irritant, but not a major threat.

If Israel or the US struck Iran, however, the results could be devastating.  Oil prices would certainly skyrocket putting the economy back into recession just in time for the election.    President Obama would likely lose, especially if his base was infuriated by him starting another offensive war.   The Euro crisis would deepen as well, and the world economy would be back where it was in 2008 – or worse.   And that’s a best case scenario!

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak: What are they thinking?

In a worst case scenario the bombing unleashes a series of attacks on US interests in the region.   The Shi’ites in Iraq radicalize and ally with Iran, the Taliban uses this to incite the youth in Afghanistan, Hezbollah and Hamas launch terror strikes against Israel, and the region drifts towards the worst regional war since 1973.

Hezbollah remains a threat - one that Israel underestimated in 2006

Oil prices could rise to astronomical heights, the straits of Hormuz could be closed, Saudi oil facilities attacked, and unrest against even stable regimes like that of Saudi Arabia could grow.

From the US perspective there is little upside to an attack on Iran.   The only interest the Iranians can directly threaten is the oil supply, but the risk is small.   Especially since prices are unlikely to drop precipitously, the US and Iran share an interest in keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing.   And the Carter doctrine still applies – nobody thinks that Iranian nukes would deter a US response to Iranian aggression threatening the flow of oil.  Iran would be loathe to escalate such a crisis to the nuclear level since that would mean the end of the Islamic Republic.

The Persian Gulf

Iran’s power would grow in a region includes the Arab states, Israel, Russia, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.   All other things being equal the US would prefer Iran be a weaker rather than a stronger regional power, but there are many options to balance Iranian power and contain any effort to extend it.   There would be concerns of further proliferation, but there would be many ways to prevent that.

Another indirect threat would be that Iran would give nuclear technology to terror organizations.   That sounds scary, but a country that works hard to gain a nuclear weapon does not give up control of them to people they can’t control.    Even now Iran limits what it gives groups like Hezbollah – and the Iranians certainly don’t want Hezbollah hotheads provoking a nuclear strike on Iran!

Remembering how wrong the US was about the Iraq war it would be a mistake to assume an attack on Iran would be low risk.   The war in Iraq was supposed to be easy, cheap, and yield a stable, safe pro-American ally offering us permanent regional bases.   None of that turned out to be the case.

The main dangers in striking Iran:  1)  There might be no benefit at all as Iran may have successfully decoyed its program; 2) This could severely undercut the reform movement in Iran, whose success would do more than anything to support US regional interests; 3)  After years of decreased influence and appeal, al qaeda and other radical groups could benefit from the US launching another war of aggression and the terrorist threat could spike dramatically, undermining our counter-terrorism efforts; 4) An oil price spike could not only bring us back into recession, but if the crisis were to drag on global depression is quite possible; 5) Iran could respond to an attack by escalating the war to create regional instability.

In the case of number 5, the US would see no alternative but to try to create “regime change” in Tehran.   This would cause unrest in the US.   Strong, angry domestic opposition to such a war would be far more intense than the opposition to the war in Iraq – national stability would be jeopardized, especially if an unpopular war were to be accompanied by deep recession or depression.    In short, this could lead to a crisis far more severe than any yet faced by the US or perhaps the industrialized West in the modern era.

Protests against the Iraq war were relatively mild; a war with Iran could unleash far more division

To be sure, it is possible that a strike could succeed and Iran would refrain from responding.  That’s the best case scenario.    The best case scenario is probably more likely than the worst case scenario, though most likely is something in between.

I cannot imagine people at the Pentagon and in the Department of Defense seeing any persuasive rationale for a strike against Iran.   I can imagine they will pull all the stops to assure that Israel refrain from its own strike, perhaps even suggesting that US support for the Jewish state cannot be assured if they start the war.


A Chink in the Armor?

Recently an ESPN headline writer was fired for running a story titled “A Chink in the Armor” which was considered a racial slur against a Chinese player.    Given how often that term is used in sports, I would err to the side of believing it an unintended pun rather than a racially inspired remark, but ESPN didn’t want to risk a PR debacle.  Fair enough.

However, this may go to far: a call to retire  the phrase ‘chink in the armor.’

The phrase itself is old, from middle English.  It refers to a fissure or break in the armor worn by knights.   As a metaphor, it rather effectively connotes a very powerful team or player who has a small weakness that potentially could lead to defeat.

Retiring or ‘banning’ phrases within the media is common.   Rare is the word “nigger” heard, usually either from blacks themselves or in a dramatic context — like when an angry and distraught Col. Oliver (a character based on Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire) tells Paul Rusesabagina “you’re not even a nigger, you’re an African” in Hotel Rwanda.   That usage dramatizes the apparent racism of the world in refusing to help Rwanda, it isn’t meant to denigrate blacks – it was Oliver’s angry way for characterizing the orders he was receiving.  Otherwise, the once common slur is virtually gone – banned in schools, the media, and public places.

Nick Nolte's use of the word "nigger" served to dramatize how little concern the West has for Africa

Not all groups get equal treatment.   If I were to say “He wants $5000 for the car, but I’m going to jew him down to under $4000,” that would be out of bounds.   It’s a stereotype of Jews being cheap and always going for a better deal.   However, if I say “Hey, I paid too much for this, I got gypped” few people would blink.   Gypsies don’t have many defenders, and most people don’t even know that “gypped” comes from how gypsies (or to be politically correct, the Roma) cheat people.

What if the caption was "How to Jew Down the Price of a Used Car?"

But those words are directly related to the racial group in play.    Chink is not.   Chink is used as a slur against Chinese folk, but it also has a different meaning going back a millennium, and is used as a common phrase.    One might compare it to the use of the word niggardly, which has a whole different heritage and meaning (nothing to do with race).     People have lost their jobs for using that term, especially when people with a poor vocabulary falsely believe it to be uttered as an allusion to race.

Yet unlike “chink in the armor” the word niggardly isn’t common.    Moreover, there is a long history of oppression of blacks – slavery, ghettoization, etc.  While bigotry against Chinese has been common in the US, especially on the West coast where they originally settled, it’s not as horrid a history.

Of course the groups that have suffered the most in US history are the American Indians.   I’ve heard it argued that “Indians” or “Braves” should not be used for team names.      That seems to go too far – after all, you don’t see Norwegians complaining about the use of Viking – and that team is named after a group known for being rapists, murderers and thieves!   (Full disclosure: as I type this I’m wearing a Viking sweatshirt and I’m a Minnesota Vikings fan).

But what about the Redskins?  You know, the team representing our nation’s capital.    It’s one thing to have a name that is respectful – the “Fighting Sioux” from North Dakota actually uses the tribal name rather than the broad term “Indian.”  But “redskins” has always been a racial epithet.     So the worst part of this sentence “The break down in the defense shows a chink in the armor of the Redskins…” is the metaphor “chink in the armor?”   Really?

If "chink in the armor" is bad, what is this?

Like the gypsies, the American Indian nations don’t get much respect or attention, so it’s OK to continue with terms that denigrate them.

Then you get into other terms.    Some want to banish the “R” word – retard.   Long ago mentally retarded children started to be referred to as “special” – education for people with handicaps is now called “special education.”   The result – “special” has become an insult that works exactly as “retard” used to.   Trying to micromanage language usage is ultimately an impossible task.

At base I think people need perspective.  I try to teach my children something that will make life much easier for them: “Do not give other people power over your emotions through their words.”    If someone calls you a name, getting mad at them and being bothered and offended is a self-inflicted wound.   You have chosen to give that other person power over your emotions, you could have decided to ignore them – people call names to arouse a reaction, when you comply, you hand them a victory.

Not that I think terms like “nigger” or “jew him down” or even “gyp” should be used.  In fact, I’m all for changing the name of the Redskins and other obviously derogatory team names.    But we shouldn’t go overboard.  The goal is not to have a language whitewashed of any possibly offensive term, especially not if the term’s meaning and usage is not derived from slurs.  “A chink in their armor” is fine.

Most importantly we have to focus a bit less on the words and language and more on real conditions.    The only reason a slur can sting is because it evokes status differentials in society.    Calling a white anglo saxon a “WASP” isn’t very offensive because it does not harken to some kind of lower status for those people.   Calling an Italian a “dago” or a Japanese a “nip” does.   Some of it may be historical, and if so the longer removed the history the less offensive the term.    The more different groups have equal status the less you’ll see offensive terms used — society will naturally move away from such usage.

Ultimately it’s not the words that sting, it’s the way we take them.  That’s something we can learn from George Carlin.



Street Collage

“And if you’ve got enough money where you don’t have to work, let’s face it, who wants to work? There’s no reason why anybody, that five generations of people got to be on welfare…Kids nowadays, that’s the whole thing, too much money, they’ve got too much money. They don’t have to struggle and work for things like when I was growing up had to do. And I was lucky if I got that job delivering hats in a hat store for twenty-five cents per hat. Too much money today is with the young kids, everything was handed to ’em, and that’s why they are the way they are.”

If you read that quote and reflect, you may find yourself agreeing. This generation of kids grew up with DVDs, cell phones, computers, video games and everything they wanted just handed to them. This is why they’re “the way they are” – selfish, lazy, unambitious, entitled, etc. Yup, not like when my generation grew up, we had to work!

Teens often seem entitled, aloof and arrogant to many

However, the quote comes from a street interview (not sure if it’s real or staged) in the middle of the song “Movement for the Common Man” on the album Styx I, which was released in 1972. That means that the ‘young people’ talked about in that quote are probably nearing 60.

In other words, how elders view youth hasn’t changed much in 40 years, even if today’s elders are yesterday’s youth! Why would that be? First, consider another part of that track “Street Collage” from Movement for the Common Man:

Well, you see now, I’m a depression baby and I remember the WPA. If we could just start the same thing again and get people working out there, why not? Is it too menial for somebody to sweep the street?

The elders of 1972 looking at the youth of that time compared them to the depression era. By the early seventies consumerism was beginning, the convenience society was forming (TV dinners were becoming standard fare, the microwave oven was gaining popularity. 40,000 were in use in 1970, by 1975 it was 1,000,000. Fast food was popular, but not yet omnipresent. McDonalds still kept track of how many million had been sold, not just “millions and millions.”

And then there’s this, from the same section of the song:

I had one gentlemen get in — No offense to you gentlemen, he had long hair and a beard — And I told him, he had better go home and take a bath; He had B.O. so bad, it was terrible! I said “You might be educated, but did your parents tell you to go dirty?”

It was the era of the hippies, protesters against the war, for civil rights, and sometimes against the western industrialized society completely. Having survived the depression and used to being thankful for a chance to make money, the counter culture movement of the seventies was a different cultural world. Emblematic of this is a television show that started in January 1971, All in the Family. Just consider the opening tune:

Those were the days! Now many “elders” look at see gays marrying, have the same reaction to Occupy Wall Street that their parents or grandparents had to Vietnam war protesters, and see a youth that has grown up in a time of plenty being used to having material abundance. Beyond that there are cell phones, video games, facebook (and the younger generation seems to disregard the intense concern about privacy that earlier generations cling to), a black President, and a very different world.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Frankly, I’m impressed with today’s youth. Teaching at a university I see them engaged, concerned about their future, and more knowledgable than ever due to the internet and connections made often across borders. To be sure, these are college kids, but I teach at a rural state university not an elitist private school. If students here are engaged and connected, that’s a good sign.

Today's youth - ready to change the world!

Yes, they are used to technology. I hear students talk about how hard it would be to go without their mobile phone for even part of a day — they are more connected to friends and family than I would have wanted to be when I was their age. Parents are often almost tyrannical in their desire to keep in contact with their kids, even at college (note to self: I will not be that way as my kids grow up!). When we’ve done travel courses to Italy and Germany, parents increasingly try to demand students stay in contact with them every day.

In fact, if anyone deserves criticism its the parents’ generation. There is so much effort done to protect kids or make sure they succeed that kids often get stifled by the attention and control. It’s a well intentioned stifling, and certainly better than ignoring kids or not caring, but it can go too far. If the youth of today seem spoiled it’s often not their fault — it’s being forced on them by their elders.

Being over protective leads to sometimes irrational and harmful efforts at control

That’s probably the biggest difference I notice between my youth and now. There is so much protection now – a kid brings a swiss army knife to school to show his friends and he’s expelled. Who does that protect? An ESPN announcer has “chink in his armour” about a Chinese athlete and the fact “chink” had a double meaning as a pejorative for Chinese folk and he gets fired. Really? Protecting us from double meanings in popular expressions?

Yet with all the protections, the ubiquity of fast food, video games and other temptations overpowers those who would want to protect kids from themselves. It’s a bit surreal. Yet through it all, I think we underestimate the youth — just as my elders were doing back in the 70s. They learn to navigate their reality, they understand dangers and risks, even if their belief in their immortality causes them to sometimes foolishly disregard them. But my generation was the same way. That’s youth.

Today’s youth are being handed a country in debt and decline and asked to fix things. They are pioneers in a world where even the phrase “high tech” sounds old fashioned. They are crafting new realities, throwing off old prejudices (such as the prohibition against gay marriage) and are cynical of the ideology-based politics of the past. Kids these days? Well, count me impressed. The most hope I have for my country and its future comes when I consider today’s youth. They’re no more spoiled than my generation was, and they seem to grasping the information revolution tools that can reshape the world with a gusto.

Anyway, given the mountain of debt and the myriad of ecological, social and political problems my generation is leaving in our wake, I don’t think we elders have any standing to complain!


If the Republican Race were a Relationship

A guy is bored with his girlfriend.

He cheats, first with a really provocative exciting woman, but she’s a bit crazy.

The next one appears beautiful, rugged and near perfect – but turns out to be as dumb as a rock.

The third is vivacious and intriguing, but sleeps around.

The fourth promises the moon but is haunted by the past.

Then after spending time with a prude

he realizes that though boring and predictable, he wants his original girlfriend back. That’s the GOP this year.


Does the Campaign Even Matter?

So far the 2012 campaign has been surreal.  Despite seeming unpopular and down during most of 2011, President Obama did not draw one serious primary challenger and now leads all Republican candidates in head to head polls.   Given that his approval is still hovering around only 50% (though better than even a month ago), this has to give Democrats a sense that the tide has turned their way.

More telling is the nastiness and division of the Republican primary, and the way in which the appeal is to the right, not the middle.   Even in the emotional Democratic primary of 2008 the competition ended up being for the moderates, not the base.   This meant that except for an occasional gaffe, the soundbites and quotes coming out of the primary season were not particularly harmful to the candidate in the general election.   The Republicans are competing to win the hearts and minds of conservatives, meaning that red meat rhetoric delicious to the tea party is standard fare.   One can imagine Obama’s campaign scouring every speech and statement for something to use down the line.   Moreover, current front runner (at least in the polls) Rick Santorum was quoted as saying that mainstream protestantism has left the ‘real’ Christian faith.   Uh, OK…

The Republicans are divided and lacking enthusiasm about any of their candidates

It is to me virtually impossible to imagine Obama losing at this point IF the economy continues its upward tick.  It looks like it will, at least long enough for Obama to benefit.   Not only have the jobs numbers been improving, but leading economic indicators have been strong and consumer sentiment rising.   These things feed in on themselves and don’t usually turn around on a dime, especially since it’s been private sector growth not government jobs such back in early 2011.

The Republicans, as I noted last week, have had a very dour and negative message, leaving them little to go on if the country looks to be rebounding.   “We could have recovered quicker”  is a clunker as a campaign slogan, after all!  They had a negative message in 2010 that worked as the economy was bleak and people upset.    That was in an off year election; 2012 is a whole different ball game.

But how might the campaign matter?   The Vice Presidential choice is probably irrelevant.   Rarely does a choice truly help a candidate, often (such as with Sarah Palin in 2008) it does real harm.    Debates could matter, though Obama is already proven himself disciplined and effective, it would be hard for a Republican to really savage him in a debate.   Outside interests spending massive amounts of money could matter — though there are signs that dirty politicking is less effective now than it used to be.

A third party candidate:   A third party candidate or a serious independent (and there is still time) could be a game changer.   Still, a third party challenger would be more likely to draw from voters skeptical about President Obama on the right than those on the left.    A fiscal conservative focused on debt like Ross Perot was in 1992 could give Obama headaches on the budget, allowing the Republican and the independent to gang up on the President.   Yet that would likely split the anti-Obama vote, especially if someone like Santorum is the nominee.

A major scandal:   All administrations have little scandals, but so far the Obama administration has remained relatively untainted.    Despite efforts to trumpet stimulus funds going to an energy company that ultimately went bankrupt, or to ask questions about what the Attorney General knew about a drug/gun case, no scandal has gained traction.   But ask Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan – a scandal can su

Economy sours again:  Three months ago I’d have said that Obama would have no chance if the economy doesn’t continue it’s recovery.   Now, I’m not so sure.  Given the weakness of the GOP candidates, Obama’s cash, the benefits of incumbency and the campaign machine’s prowess it would still be possible to win, even if unemployment lingers at 8:0 ro rises slightly.   In that case the campaign would matter – at least to the extent Obama can keep victory a possibility.  If Romney is the nominee and the economic recovery falters, it’s hard to see Obama winning.   Against Santorum or Gingrich he’d have a chance even in a poor economy.

The “secret weapon”:  When a country is losing a war, people often turn to hope of some secret weapon that will turn things around.  Increasing the Republicans are talking about the possibility of a brokered convention, a new candidate emerging from the pack who can somehow bring everyone together – Jeb Bush (are you serious?), Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Marc Rubio or someone.  The trouble is, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and even Newt once occupied that role.   When they had to campaign for real, difficulties emerged.   Perhaps there is a someone else who can overcome all the problems of the current candidates, but hoping for a brokered convention shows desperation.

As we drift towards March, the campaign is starting to get the feel of one where the incumbent will coast to victory — more like 1972, 1984, and 1996 then 1980 or 1992.  Even if things go sour for the President, chances are that the election will be close, like 2004, when a relatively unpopular George W. Bush held off John Kerry — a man who made it through the Democratic primary season relatively unscathed that year.

Things can turn around, of course, but the drama in 2012 may be less about the Presidential election and more about who ends up controlling the House and Senate.


Pragmatism and Principle

William James (1842-1910)

William James gave shape to a philosophy that would be known as pragmatism, a kind of “grown up” version of Nietzsche’s perspectivism.   At base pragmatism recognizes that truth claims are human constructs, tools that we use to manipulate and navigate our world.

This rejects the idea that truth is somehow a copy of reality — that we can have a proposition or claim that mirrors the way the world is.   The world is not language.   Language is a human construct designed to allow us to interpret sensation and experience.   We communicate our experience through language, meaning that linguistic claims reflect the brain’s effort to impose order and understanding on the world we experience.

Linguistic claims therefore cannot be said to able to convey any kind of absolute truth.   Some contain definitional truths — 5 is defined as a numeric quantity that comes from adding, say 4 plus 1.    We have constructed a useful truth claim that works.   The weirdness of quantum mechanics is often denied by those who do not want the kind of bizarre paradoxical reality that the theory implies – some want to believe in a clear mechanical like order.   But it works — and so it is accepted as truth.

When one moves away from linguistic definitional constructs to efforts to understand whether humans have free will, is there  a God, is a materialist or spiritual understanding of reality correct, or what principles should guide us, we lack the linguistic clarity of mathematical definitions.   Instead multiple competing discursive interpretations of reality can be constructed, many internally consistent and able to explain reality, but in contradiction with one another.

For James this was not a weakness of philosophy any more than the protestant reformation was a weakness of religion.  Rather it was a humanistic liberation from philosophical absolutism.   Just as the Roman Catholic church once claimed that religion could only be received through the Church, traditional philosophy looked to find one absolute truth that all should follow.   Just as the reformation created the idea that the individual could have his or her own interpretation of scripture and relationship with God, pragmatism liberates individuals to determine their own approach to philosophy and truth.

For James this was good because he believed that your philosophical predilection was based less on how you rationally analyzed arguments and came to conclusions and more on temperament.     “Tender minded” types tended to idealism and rationalism, trying to find principles that yield the one true philosophical system.   Moralistic, idealistic and often unyielding, this often created an opening for spiritual and optimistic views on life and nature.    Their views might not correspond to reality as they experience it now, but these people believe there is a deeper truth.   Tender minded folk can take solace in that, and the fact they do understand truth, even if the world does not.

Tough minded people, on the other hand, tended towards realism, cynicism, skepticism and materialism.  This yields a secular, empiricist world view, but one often cold, devoid of hope and pessimistic about the human condition.  Both world views can be held, and each can interpret reality consistently and logically – yet each yields a very different view on life.   Tender minded types build systems which seem to operate on logical core principles, tough minded folk are positivists and pluralists who question the very existence of core principles or the applicability of theoretical systems.

Pragmatism in that sense tells people that rather than try to figure out what is right (since that answer will come more from your personality than anything about reality), understand what truth claims mean for you and then choose those which work best for you and your experience in the world.   This does not mean “work best” in terms of getting what’s best for ones’ self at the expense of others.  This means what “works best” in terms of value fulfillment — what kind of beliefs will yield a life that is more full and meaningful for each individual?  Pragmatism is not simply an amoral approach to achieving ones’ desires.

James also focused on the mass public rather than specialized circles of philosophers.   Specialized philosophers are just people who are very good at developing linguistic defenses of their particular take on reality, debating with others about which take is “right.”   Not much is gained by the linguistic sophistication and logical complexity, except that the experts can feel superior with their own specialized jargon.    That’s not useful philosophy, that’s just playing intellectual games.  Useful philosophy must be accessible to any educated person, meaning James’ books and lectures were far more interesting and popular than those of the “professional” philosophers.

For James different beliefs mean different things.   If you believe in a spiritual approach to reality there is hope — there is meaning beyond the material.   For a materialist there is hopelessness — no matter what one achieves all will be demolished someday, the sun will explode all we know will be forgotten.  There is at base an essential meaninglessness to existence.  If you believe in free will there is a chance to improve the world; if you are a determinist all is as it must be, also a kind of hopelessness.

All these beliefs are possible — you can interpret reality to fit any of them.   Which you choose leads to certain conclusions.    Choose that which fits your temperament and intuition.   Go with it.    But don’t expect others to share the same view.

The pragmatist at base is about liberty — we are all free to choose how to look at reality and how to understand it.  There is no “right” answer that we should have.   That would be a kind of totalitarianism.  Those who think they have the “true” ideology will usually think that all should act in accord to what they see as the “truth.”   These are the equivalent of intellectual despots.   They think they have the right answer and condemn those who don’t think properly.    Since humans are fallible and the idea that one fallible human has somehow come up with the absolute truth is the height of arrogance and irrationality; a philosophical absolutist is a kind of intellectual Stalinist.   You can have your truth, but don’t pretend that it should be my truth.

Which means that the fundamental principles behind pragmatism are liberty and tolerance.   If there is no absolute truth — if truth is just a human constructed tool to use in the world — then dogmatism and intolerance are wrong.  They are wrong because they don’t work, they impede value fulfillment and the ability of people to make free choices about what to believe and how to act in the world.   Truth claims are all simply interpretations of reality, human linguistic constructs that can’t be measured against the world to see if they are ‘accurate.’   The world is not a linguistic construct.   Constructs are things we create, and are necessarily subjective and interpretivistic.   They are tools which can be judged only by how they work for each individual, how they allow value fulfillment and the ability to make sense of the world.

The claim that this necessitates tolerance and liberty is therefore not a claim of absolute truth, but a proposition based on the belief that dogmatism and absolutism are not only indefensible (no philosophy can prove itself true, since its truth is based on contingent definitions and assumptions), but yield a result that doesn’t work – it prevents value fulfillment and individual liberty.    The truth of this claim is not one that is asserted as a logical and necessarily truth, but has to be championed as a political and chosen truth: seeing the world this way is preferable to people than looking for some sort of “answer key.”    It is a normative belief that liberty trumps dogmatism and orthodoxy.

So pragmatism is, at base, the actualization of the principles of liberty and tolerance.    It is the quintessential American philosophy, justifying our belief in democracy and pluralism, similar to Nietzsche’s perspectivism, but more optimistic and positive.  It appears relativistic, but rests on a key insight:  embracing subjectivity is to embrace freedom, to strive for objective truth is to risk tyranny.


The Horror of Communism

Fictional characters Georg Dreyman and Christa Marie Sieland dramatize how the Communist system could swallow lives whole

In teaching Comparative Politics its hard to know how to explain how Communism functioned.   On the one hand, it’s easy to paint it as an economic failure.   Centralized bureaucratic planning created stagnation, inefficiency and lack of response to real demand.   Incentives within the system were not to rock the boat, not to improvise or show initiative, and thus economic dynamism and creativity were thwarted.

One can also explain the political control of totalitarianism:  the “grand bargain” whereby citizens were promised shelter, food, health care, education and a job in exchange for going along with the system and following the rules.  But explained that way some students say “why is that so bad?”   Less stress, security that one will have life’s needs taken care of, and only at the cost of not being political, well, for many people that sounds like a decent deal.

The real failure of communism, however, was neither political nor economic, it was the system’s inhumanity.   I’m not talking about Stalin’s horrific crimes killing 20 million people, or Mao’s misguided economic policies that killed over 30 million.  I’m not talking either about Pol Pot’s genocidal ideology that led to the Cambodian killing fields.  I’m talking about the mundane evil of ‘real existing socialism’ in the former East bloc even after the purges and mass killings had ceased.

People weren’t taken and shot, and most weren’t even held in prison.    Instead government repression alongside a system that bred dependency took a tool on the psyche and spirit of its citizens.   It’s hardly surprising that alcoholism rates skyrocketed and depression grew.   It was a system that worked against the human spirit with heart numbing bureaucratic control.   It was a system where you could have your basic needs met and appear to be living in relative comfort and still be suffering in the soul.

I’ve finally found a method to communicate that aspect of the communist system:  to show the film The Lives of Others, or Das Leben der Anderen, a German film set in East Berlin in 1984.    The plot is basic (spoiler alert!)   A Communist big wig – a government Minister named Hemph, has a crush on aging actress Christa Marie Sieland (CMS).   She’s in a loving relationship with the famous author/playwrite Georg Dreyman.

Dreyman is a successful writer who remains in the government’s favor but yet has appeal in the West.   He does this by knowing the rules and being sure to stay away from political themes.  He knows to say the right things to government elites and when to keep his mouth shut.    Even as his colleagues chide him for refusing to take a stand, he thinks it foolish to risk everything just to make political statements.   He wants to write, not rock the boat.

When Sieland is being routinely raped by Minister Hempf and his director friend Jerska is blacklisted and ultimately kills himself, Dreyman confronts the reality that he is living in an evil system and has to speak out.

Meanwhile, Hempf has employed the Stasi — the East German secret police — to find dirt on Dreyman so he can be arrested and Hempf would have CMS to himself.   Here we see the Communist bureaucracy.  Anton Grubitz is a high ranking Stasi official who is clearly motivated only by his desire for upward mobility.  He’s eager to give Hempf what he wants and puts his best man, Gerd Wiesler, on the case.

Hempf (center) convinces Grubitz (left) to spy on Dreyman after watching CMS star in one of Dreyman's plays

Wiesler is a committed Communist.  He is a Stasi agent because he has high ideals and believes he’s protecting socialism and the state.   Yet as he investigates Dreyman, he becomes conflicted.   He starts by hating the “arrogant artist” types who thumb their nose at the state.   But he cannot ignore the hypocrisy of Hempf wanting to use the state police to simply get rid of a rival, his friend’s lack of concern for anything but his ambition, and the way in which the state’s intrusion into the lives of this couple is destroying what he comes to recognize as a true committed love.

Wiesler sets up a listening post in the attic of Dreyman's apartment, hearing every phone call and conversation

Much of the film is about Wiesler’s inner conflict.    At one point you sense he’s changing when a boy follows him into the elevator and asks, “are you really with Stasi.”    When asked if he knows what Stasi is, the boy says “my dad says it’s bad men who put people in prison.”   Wiesler instinctively responds “what is the name of…”  but then stops.   “Your ball.”   He doesn’t have the heart to go after this boy’s dad any more.

What is the name of your soccer ball?

Ultimately Wiesler switches sides.    He starts protecting Dreyman just as Dreyman makes a stand against the system.  Dreyman writes an article to smuggle to Der Spiegel magazine in the West about high suicide rates in East Germany.    CMS is arrested when she finally resists Hempf, who has been supplying her with illegal drugs (which she takes in part because of how his affections torture her).   She is forced to implicate Dreyman and betray her love.

After a fight in which Dreyman begs CMS not to go to Hempf, she leaves, stopping in the same bar Wiesler has gone to. Seeing her there he goes over and pretends to be a fan, telling her she is genuine. His words convince her not to go to Hempf again after all. "You are a good man," she says.

Despite efforts by Wiesler to protect them, wracked by guilt she purposefully steps in front of an on coming truck to kill herself.  Weisler has removed the implicating information but Grubitz realizes he must have aided Dreyman and demotes him.   Dreyman is left broken, CMS is dead, and the system plods on.

A plot summary cannot do justice to how well this film illustrates the pervasive corruption and immorality of the internal system, how it could turn good honest people into those who betray their friends and lovers and ultimately find their own lives destroyed.    It isn’t always as dramatic as portrayed here, but the film encapsulates the human horror of communism.

Yet the film ends with an upside.   German unification and the fall of communism comes.   Wiesler finds work delivering mail.   The Stasi files are open to the public and Dreyman goes to his, shocked to find that Stasi had been watching him.   He reads Weisler’s reports and is amazed to find that Wiesler — known as agent HGW XX/7 in the report — started covering for them and not reporting his real activities.

Inspired to write, he publishes a new novel, “Sonata for a Good Man,” named after a sheet music for a sonata given to him by Jerska, the director who had committed suicide.   Wiesler sees an advertisement for the book and goes into the store and reads the dedication:  “To agent HGW XX/7”   He purchases the book and when asked if he wants it gift wrapped he says no.  “It’s for me.”

The destruction of the lives and relationship of CMS and Dreyman symbolize the destructive force of the Communist bureaucratic system


GOP Message Failure

A year ago many asked the question “Does President Obama have a chance to get re-elected?”   Coming off the 2010 electoral slaughter of the Democrats, the GOP was riding high.  They had the House, the Senate was within reach, Obama’s approval ratings were dropping, and his efforts to intervene in the debt ceiling crisis and on the budget appeared at best ineffective, at worst inept.   Some even suggested Hillary run, or that party elders quietly convince Obama to step down for the good of the party.

The GOP didn’t know for sure who would beat Obama in 2012 — Romney, Perry, Daniels, Christy, Rubio and others were all talked about.   But it didn’t seem to matter, the Democrats had overreached and the political winds were blowing their way.   Sound familiar?   The Democrats thought the same way in early 2009.

As I noted before, the political pendulum can swing quickly.   President Obama’s approval numbers, never as low as Ronald Reagan’s or Bill Clinton’s early in their terms, have jumped from the low 40s to at or near 50% in both the Rasmussen and Gallup daily tracking polls.   The economy is rebounding, with a string of good job reports setting up the potential for a much brighter public mood by late summer.   However, the reason the GOP may find itself in an unwinnable election is not because Obama is suddenly going to recapture the magic of 2008; rather, the Republican message is off track.

Ronald Reagan exuded optimism and a sense of hope in his 1980 acceptance speech at the GOP convention in Detroit

Increasingly Republicans speak in a tone of harsh negativity (“Obama is destroying America, has a radical socialist agenda, etc.)   That’s fine red meat for the primary season, but it has to be coupled with a vision — a sense of the future that does not rely on criticism of the Democrats to make their point.

Back in 1980 I was in Detroit on the convention floor when candidate Reagan accepted the Republican nomination.   It was a great experience.  I went with a group of South Dakota college Republicans, heading to Detroit in a van, staying at Eastern Michigan University and being bused downtown each day.   We got to meet a lot of “big names,” I got some close up pictures of people like Reagan and Dole.    We met a young Ted Koppel, whose “Nightline” show was only a year old (thanks to the Iranian crisis — the hostages were still being held at the Tehran embassy).

The best experience was when the Reagan people snuck dozens of us onto the floor to cheer Reagan’s speech, even though we didn’t have credentials.   Reagan’s people always understood image, and lots of cheering young people would look good for the cameras.    One security guard pointedly grabbed my badge and looked – clearly I didn’t belong there.  I ignored him, and went on waving my sign.   Back stage Illinois Senator Chuck Percy offered one of us a beer; it was fun (though I didn’t stick with the GOP).

Reagan’s charisma was real, and his speech was not about how bad Carter supposedly was, or the troubles the country faced in 1980.   Under the banner “Together A New Beginning” it was about what America could accomplish and how.  It was optimistic, inspiring, and positive.   Most importantly, it was forward looking.

Same with Clinton in 1992 – “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow…don’t you look back” – or Barack Obama in 2008, “change we can believe in.”   The Republican field lacks that kind of theme.   Talk is of American in decline, economic malaise, and various epithets hurled at “Obamacare.”   When there is a vision it’s nostalgic – a yearning for what things were like in the past, a desire to “take back” America.

Relatedly, the Republican message borders on being anachronistic — out of date.    A huge block of voters aged 18 to 30 have virtually no personal memory of the Cold War, yet Republican themes often slide into the ideological framework of that era.   Talk of ‘socialism’ speaks only to the small subset of the population, and most of those already vote Republican.  Rick Santorum’s social conservatism is even more outdated, harkening back to Jerry Falwell and the so-called ‘moral majority’ of the 80s.

There are many GOP-leaning independents who are not Republican precisely because of the religious conservatives.   Moreover, there aren’t that many ‘evangelicals’ in swing states.   Most of them live in states already solidly Republican.

The bottom line: the Republicans are unlikely to mount a serious threat to President Obama unless the economy falters again or something fundamentally changes the race.    In fact, despite the 2010 off year victory, the Republican party risks increasing weakness if they don’t retool their message for the 21st Century.

First, they need to jettison 20th Century ideological rhetoric and embrace the reality of needing a message for the future.   The Cold War is long past.   Harsh red meat negativity speaks only to a GOP base already likely to vote Republican.   Yes, it can motivate them, but if it becomes the message sent to independents and swing voters it’ll help the Democrats.

Ironically, Republicans seem to be ignoring one man who was on track to forging that new message:  George W. Bush.   As much as they supported him during the Iraq war, they now reject his notion of “compassionate conservatism” and the idea of being a “uniter” rather than a divider.   Compassion is now looked at as weakness by many in the GOP, and division is good if you define the other side as dangerous socialists!   President Bush also realized that the GOP needed to be inclusive of minorities, supporting efforts at immigration reform led by Senator John McCain that the conservative wing of the GOP thwarted.

Most importantly, President Bush’s notion of the “ownership society” had a lot of potential appeal.   At the very least, it didn’t simply regurgitate tired slogans and bland labels.    One wonders how different political discourse would be if President Bush hadn’t gotten into the Iraq fiasco!

To be sure, despite my presence at Detroit in 1980 I’m not a Republican.   I believe President Obama is a good President and should be re-elected.   But American politics is strongest when the two parties each have positive yet different visions of the future.    The Republicans need someone who transcends the pettiness of recent election cycles, much like Obama has.   They need someone who can talk in rhetoric comfortable to Democrats, just like Obama’s talk of free enterprise, markets, personal responsibility and initiative in the state of the union address echoed typical GOP themes.

To be sure, I think both parties still need to retool their messages for the new century and new generation.     But while Obama’s state of the union address emphasized Americans coming together and accomplishing great things, the Republican vision remains fuzzy and negative.   That’s not a way to win elections.


Every Sperm is Sacred

Rawstory reports on how one State Senator put in an “every sperm is sacred” amendment proposal to a controversial “personhood” bill in Oklahoma that would make all forms of abortion and some forms of birth control illegal.

The above Monty Python classic song, from the film The Meaning of Life exemplifies why I find arguments opposing contraception and abortion to be so weak.

If one really believed that all human life, even very early stages, was sacred and not to be interfered with, then one would have to question any sort of non-pregnancy related use of male ejaculation.  Masturbation, anal sex, and even sex when a woman is not likely ovulating is questionable.   One could also argue that women are obligated to have sex when they are ovulating because not to do so does not give the egg a chance to grow.   Indeed, birth control during ovulation would be a clear denial of the chance of life.

The idea that abortion or contraception interferes with God’s will is utterly absurd.   Humans do all sorts of things ranging from mass murders, wars and genocides to bad diets and dangerous sports.    If those things don’t hamper God, not having a baby isn’t going to be some kind of disaster.

The claim that human life is inherently valuable is also a canard.  Consider: why do we choose to consider human life valuable?   It can’t be valuable just because cells with human DNA are reproducing and creating the building blocks for a later human birth.   There is nothing inherently different about those cells than any reproducing cells of any creature, except that given time they will become something else.   Moreover, in terms of feeling, intelligence, and capacity to endure pain, the born creatures we slaughter and devour are more like us than early stage human fetuses.

So when someone gets indignant about how abortion is murder, I simply shake my head and think “their imagination is running wild.”    The cells that get aborted are no more human or inherently valuable than any creatures early cells.   One can imagine a child, a baby, and think about what it could achieve and say that this is being ruthlessly stifled.   The same when an ovulating female gives her partner a condom to wear before sex.   Or when that same woman chooses not to have sex.

Life is valuable because we choose to value it.   Humans have value because they have emotions and thoughts, we can empathize and imagine what it would be like if it was ourselves being killed and not another.   Humans ban murder because they want to live in peace, and murder creates threats to our existence.   We choose to have a world with stable social systems, customs, traditions and laws.

Abortion and contraception do not kill or harm anything that is truly human, at least in the sense of what it is about being human that causes us to consider human life valuable.   The fact that cells can become humans does not alter that fact.

Forcing women to keep a pregnancy to full term or not to use birth control is a violent and repressive form of control, one that does real harm to human dignity and value.    Real existing humans are repressed in such cases, and often psychologically abused in order to be made to feel guilty about their choice.

I realize that religious and philosophical reasons many people disagree strongly with what I wrote.  I can accept that and respect the difference of opinion.    I also find the arguments against abortion when the child is viable outside the womb to be persuasive for a variety of reasons.   But the radical anti-abortion argument just seems inherently weak.