Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Life Imitating Art, Badly

“Paul Ryan on Shithole Remarks: ‘My Family Came From Ireland’ ”
—Headline on, January 12
I am confused, but what else is new?

I thought we were all worldly wise now. I thought that instantaneous, universal access to all media outlets had made us all experts on everything, including politics. I thought that, because nothing gets held back anymore, nothing shocks us anymore. I thought we all laughed at the cable series Veep—with its profane-laden, unprincipled portrayals of government offices and back rooms—and we applauded it, as it racked up tons of Emmy awards, because we understood that this is what politics is really like. We are not naive innocents anymore, right?

The exhilarating thing about the six seasons of Veep, which debuted a half-year before President Obama’s re-election in 2012, was how it seemed to cut through all the bull about politics and media coverage. It showed us what we had always suspected went on behind the scenes, and then took it to another, more shocking level. The depth and breadth of the hypocrisy, cynicism and total disdain for ordinary citizens was bracing and strangely liberating. Please, God, let its brilliant star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, make a quick recovery from cancer treatment so she can soon begin filming a seventh season.

One of the genius strokes of Veep was that it never identified the political party of any of its politician characters. Sure, you could presume that the feckless administration of which Vice-President Selena Meyer was a member was Republican if that suited you, but there was nothing to stop others from assuming it was Democrat. That was the mesmerizing thing. The political fighting, jockeying and competition was all about the colors of the players’ jerseys, not at all about the content of their hearts. They all shared the same slavishness to political correctness—and hedges against outliers in their various constituencies—in front of the cameras, while showing nothing but contempt for everyone and everything in private. It was the kind of celebrated television series—fifty-nine nominations and seventeen wins from the Emmys to date—that seemed to be culture-changing. How could anyone look at politics and political press coverage the same way again?

Yet here we are.

Most people agree that it is wrong to deport non-citizens who were brought into the United States years ago as children. Yes, President Trump rescinded President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, but he made clear that he was doing so with a grace period so that Congress would legislate on the matter. In this instance, he is actually correct on the merits. DACA was never likely to survive to the end of the judicial review process because immigration policy is the constitutional province of Congress, not the White House. People who keep saying that they fear Donald Trump will become a dictator need to explain why they are so comfortable with the previous administration’s penchant for legislating by decree rather than doing the hard work with Congress.

Last week on Tuesday everything seemed hunky-dory for the “dreamers,” as their advocates like to call them. In the televised portion of a Roosevelt Room meeting with two dozen House and Senate members, the president suggested he would sign any immigration bill Congress sent him: “I’m not saying I want this or I want that. I will sign it.” Two days later he met with a bi-partisan group of Senators, who apparently took him at his word and who included in their proposal a few things guaranteed to provoke the hard-line elements that provide the president with his most entrenched support. Suddenly, the public debate switched from policy to moral outrage.

We do not know for sure what exactly was said in Thursday’s meeting. Different participants have had varying recollections, but it is clear the president made disparaging comments about African countries and Haiti. For days that is all anyone has been talking about. The political tactics are not hard to discern. This bolsters support among the president’s more xenophobic supporters, who were getting nervous about his happy talk on immigration compromise. Likewise, there is an ample constituency among Democratic supporters who get moral gratification at hearing the chief Republican repeatedly called a racist. The problem is that, while all this indignation may energize voters and donors, it does not solve the DACA problem. It is particularly rich to see Democrats, who have long characterized Republicans as moral scolds, now being the ones to swoon dramatically over the president’s impropriety and coarse language—which we only even know about, remember, because Dick Durbin made sure we know about it. The cable news networks are even better. Their offended-ness was so great that they were compelled to repeat the word “shithole” on air for days.

Presumably, away from all the media theater, the politicians know what they are doing and are making the necessary calculations to get the best deal they can. At least we hope that is true. But what if all these people are actually what they seem—a bunch of egomaniacs and preeners who do not care what happens to the country as long as they have job security and the donations keep flowing to their party coffers?

On Veep seeing these sorts of shenanigans exposed was funny and entertaining. In real life, not so much.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Time Long Gone

“I detest John’s views, but what I detest even more is his effectiveness at espousing them.”
—Congressman Robert Bauman, Republican of Maryland, as quoted by The New York Times in February 1980
When I came across an John B. Anderson’s obituary a couple of weeks ago, it brought a flood of political memories.

The Illinois legislator was prominent in U.S. politics during the election year 1980. Strangely, my third novel Lautaro’s Spear, which came out in September, is set in the year 1980 and, though it makes mention of the main political events of the time, it does not mention Congressman Anderson. Nevertheless, he was central to my own political involvement at the time.

It was one of the few times in my life where I actually became enthusiastic about a politician. I had been impressed by Jimmy Carter when he came out of nowhere to become president in 1976. I even saw him up close and in person when I attended a press conference he gave on the campaign trail in Columbus, Ohio. By 1980, however, between a miserable economy and what I saw as a hapless foreign policy—exemplified by an ill-managed attempt at rescuing the Iran hostages—I had become disenchanted. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were not setting me on fire either, but then I discovered John Anderson.

I felt a natural affinity for him probably because, like my father, he was a Republican Scandinavian-American from the Midwest. With his black-rimmed glasses and shock of white hair, he had the manner of a university professor. Indeed, he spent his post-electoral career teaching constitutional law at a Florida university. Early on, he had been very conservative, a supporter of Barry Goldwater who voted consistently against Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. Over time, though, he evolved. In the wake of attending funerals for civil rights activists, he became more socially liberal and wound up being the deciding committee vote to send the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to the House floor. He reversed his positions on the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, the Vietnam War and gun control.

Something that did not change, though, was his fiscal conservatism. He understood that social programs were no good if they were not sustainable in the long run and if the economy was shackled by ballooning deficits. That notion seems so quaint these days when Republicans do not care about deficits as long as they get their tax cuts and Democrats do not care about them except when they can criticize Republicans.

He ran for president in 1980 and that—plus the fact that it was hard to find a Democratic caucus in the Seattle suburb where I lived anyway—spurred me to join Republicans by showing up at my first precinct caucus. Previously, I had voted in California, a primary state. I have never felt particular loyalty to any political party, but Washington’s caucus system forced me to pick one—at least for the duration of an election year.

At the caucus I attended in 1980, I was outnumbered by Bush people, whom I found to be bullies. They were determined that all the precinct’s votes would go to their man, and that is what happened. In one heated exchange over internal security, I found myself saying something like, “But I don’t want my country to become like the Soviet Union” to which an irate Bush supporter rejoined with the non-sequitur, “Well, if you think it’s so great over there, why don’t you just go live there?”

Anderson never stood a chance of getting the Republican nomination but, when he decided to bolt the party and run as an independent, I followed him and gave him my vote in the general election. In the end, he got 6.6 percent of the popular vote and zero votes in the Electoral College. For years after, I was berated by friends and acquaintances when they learned how I had voted. One particularly aghast co-worker held me personally responsible for Reagan becoming president. Frankly, since the Gipper carried 44 states and defeated Carter by 489 to 49 in the Electoral College, I never lost any sleep over what part my vote may have played.

By the next presidential election, I would be living in the heart of Seattle in one of the most liberal districts in the whole country and I would be attending Democratic caucuses, largely by default. I was once even a delegate to the county convention. Living abroad now, I no longer attend caucuses. I simply fill out a ballot at home and mail it in.

The passing of John Anderson is a stark reminder of how much things have changed in the past three and a half decades. As hard as it is to believe, both major parties used to have a left wing and a right wing. Political discourse centered on principles and ideas rather than reflexively demonizing one’s opponents. There used to be politicians, even liberal ones, who saw the importance of fiscal responsibility. At the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the federal-debt-to-GDP ratio was 32.5 percent. At the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, it was 102.7 percent.

In a strange way, Donald Trump accomplished what John Anderson failed to. Trump won the presidency despite the opposition of both major political parties. He did not do it, however, by running as an independent but rather by leading a successful mutiny within one of the established parties—Anderson’s old party, as it happened.

That, however, is where the similarity ends. John Anderson was a civil, thoughtful, principled debater in the public arena. His time now seems very long ago.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Broken Moral Compass

“I did three movies with Harvey Weinstein, and I knew he was a sleazebag. I knew he was a vile bully and I saw his bullying up close. I saw him be absolutely appalling, not just to women but to men as well. He had very little respect for any kind of human being. He wanted his stars around him. I had heard vague rumours—I have to stress that they were vague—of doors being locked and women being compromised. I heard that once or twice from two very well known actresses, but the problem when you hear something like that is, do you pass that on? Because if it’s not true it’s awful, and if it is true it’s not your job to say, ‘Well, I wasn’t there, the door was locked, I don’t know what happened, I just heard the story.’ But I did not know, and many people didn’t know, the extent of the violence that he perpetrated on women.”
 —Actor Gabriel Byrne, quoted in the UK’s The Times (Ireland edition) on Sunday
Here is a story my mother told me many years ago about something that happened in my home town. Since it happened well before I was born, I cannot be sure I have all of the details right, but this is the way I remember her telling it. She was raised in a church that was, in those days, very strict. Certain things that are now considered just a normal part of life, like dancing and movies, were considered sinful. Needless to day, any thought of sex outside of marriage was considered beyond the pale. In this environment, the local church minister persuaded a teenage girl to enter a clandestine sexual relationship with him, using his moral authority to convince her it was “God’s will.” Despite his assurances to her, she clearly felt what they were doing was at some level wrong because, one evening when members of the congregation were invited to stand up and publicly confess their sins, she rose and told everyone about herself and the minister.

I have thought back on this story while reading and hearing the seemingly endless cascade of reports about politicians, journalists and entertainment people whose exploitive behavior has come to light. In many cases, it is the same story as the one my mother told. An older man takes advantage of a position of authority to impose himself on someone younger and trusting. To make it worse, the behavior is cloaked by his role as some sort of arbiter of right and wrong. That is traditionally a clergyman’s role, but do not politicians, journalists and artists also deliver implicit moral judgments in the stories they tell? What is striking in all these cases is the reluctance of victims to speak out and of bystanders to take note. When suddenly and dramatically revealed, the perpetrator’s actions explode in our minds with the dramatic thunder of shock and disbelief.

I have heard people argue that stories like the one my mother told me exemplify what is wrong with religion or at least with conservative religion—moral preaching is worthless because of the hypocrisy behind it. If that is true, though, then what does it say about politics, journalism and the arts that such rank hypocrisy can be found there as well? In a society where decreasing numbers of people report church membership or attendance, one could argue the media have, by default or design, filled the gap of informing us what is right and what is wrong. One only has to scan the social media sites and the harsh rhetoric directed at opposing viewpoints to conclude that politics—with its increasing dogma and stridency—is the new religion.

In all the stories of authority abused, the question that particularly haunts me is that of the silence. I refer to the silence of the victim but also to that of the witnesses and of those who suspect or have heard something second-hand. Yes, I have heard all the explanations about fear and reprisals, about not being believed or not wanting to rock the boat or just being dazzled by someone who has been put on a pedestal. There is something dark about human psychology when we form groups or teams with hierarchies. “Mob mentality” is not just something manifested by people running around in the street but can also be found in modern office buildings. Yet it is impossible to do away with hierarchies. After all, if you eliminate the hierarchy in the name of equality, you will then need someone to enforce the equality and you immediately have a new hierarchy.

I have no answers for any of this, but here are a couple of observations anyway. Thoughtful people look at what has been happening and try to come up with new rules or practices to avoid the abuses. Is that not what traditional religions were doing when they came up with the rules that new generations, like mine, found so old-fashioned, unnecessary and repressive? People laughed when Vice-President Pence spoke of his personal practice of not meeting alone with female colleagues. That will hardly become standard practice in this day and age—even if extended in the name of fairness to male colleagues as well. At the same time, though, wouldn’t a lot of people been better off if Harvey Weinstein had the same policy as Pence?

That brings me to this thought: the media narrative of workplace victimization sometimes runs worryingly close to arguing that women need to be protected, that more rules and laws are needed to solve the problem. That not only smacks of paternalism but, in the case of assault, the behavior is already against the law. In those cases it is reporting and enforcement that are the issue. What about behavior that falls short of being prosecutable? There is no quick fix because the culture needs to change, and that requires both leadership and time. It also requires a certain level of unity and good faith so that the issue is not merely political fodder. The signs of this happening are not hopeful.

One more random thought: maybe it is a bad idea to be getting our main moral guidance from people on television or in our Twitter feed.

In the end, men need to change their thinking. So do women. Men like Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Charlie Rose and John Conyers act under their own set of unwritten rules. People in general—and women in particular—must refuse to recognize or respect “rules” that are bad rather than accommmodating them just because they seem accepted in the environment in which they work. Moreover, these guys should never get a pass simply because they are part of one’s own political tribe. This is easy to say but difficult to do—especially when there is a penalty for one’s social acceptance, career or political agenda.

In a perfect world, it would not be this way. Sadly, it is not a perfect world. Insisting that the world ought to be perfect may provide some level of moral satisfaction, but it does not really change anything. What does? Focusing on what you yourself can do—or not do.