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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

a rule for reading newspapers

David Mamet’s convoluted op ed in the LA Times makes the valid point that the Democratic Party is not only cowardly, but unlikely to benefit from its cowardice. But I think that the point is undermined by the assumption that, given different circumstances, we would have a different Democratic party, boldly bringing us peace and universal health care.

In LI’s opinion, this confusion of the Democratic Party with liberalism has no warrant. A far better way of examining both the Democratic and Republican parties is to view them as two factions of one Court – Court in the royal, Byzantine sense. To quote Warren Treadgold about factions in Constantinople:

“This lack of ideology has long been hard for modern scholars to grasp. For instance, most have looked for an ideological significance in the Byzantines' two factions, the Blues and the Greens, whose official function was to organize sports and theatrical events, mainly chariot races and performances in which women took off their clothes. The Blues and Greens also cheered on their own performers and teams, and sometimes fought each other in the stands or rioted in the streets. Persistent modern efforts to define the Blues and Greens as representatives of political, social, or religious groups have so conspicuously failed that they seem to have been abandoned. Now, however, without trying to distinguish Blues from Greens, Peter Brown has depicted their spectacles as solemn patriotic ceremonies. Yet such a generalization seems indefensible after Alan Cameron has shown in two meticulous and persuasive books, Porphyrius the Charioteer (1973) and Circus Factions (1976), that the Blues and Greens were interested primarily in sports and shows, secondarily in hooliganism, and not at all in ideology.”

The last sentence pretty much sums up the Republican and Democratic parties. They are parts of one thing, which I would call D.C. D.C. is concerned, above all other things, to service the industrial/service network through which politicians wash. That network has done well from the war, protects the caste system of health care in this country as one of the bigger moneymakers of all times, and is only really vivified by the idea of taking away some freedom from the average citizen in the name of morality or good nutrition. And we all know that steroids as used by ball players are much more interesting to Congress than who failed to help poor folks during Katrina.

Mamet’s notion that the Dems were all secretly against the Iraq war has to be the explanation for the persistent faith of anti-war proggish people in such party luminaries as Wesley Clark, whose doddering notions about remaining in Iraq until we are truly defeated there in 2020 are somehow read as withering critiques of the War. If you are really looking for a military general to get us out of Iraq, go for Colin Powell. If Hilary Clinton, by some quirk of fate, had been elected president in 2000, I am not confident that we wouldn’t be occupying Iraq right now. If Powell had been elected, I am pretty confident we would not be occupying Iraq right now. This isn’t to argue that Powell is a progressive. One has merely to look at his son’s rule at the F.C.C. to see what the father is about – Michael Powell’s rightwing deregulatory agenda was the most radical thing to be put in place in the D.C. sphere since, say, Clinton’s Commerce department was in town. Colin Powell is merely on that end of the D.C. Supreme Soviet that is more cautious about committing American troops.

The best metaphor for the Democratic party’s political behavior, to my mind, comes from the relation between the law and a corrupt policeman. The policeman’s perks depend upon a law that he is not enforcing – and to make the price of those perks higher, as well as to disguise his activity, the policeman will, sometimes, defend the law. In the same way, the Democrats, in order to get higher prices in the Lobby and Military industrial market for themselves and their friends and associates sometimes represent the generally progressive bent of their constituency. The effect of this is generally to put a premium on the two purposes that form legislative intention in D.C. – direct legalized bribery (coming in multitudinous forms, from the board seats scooped up by politicos after retirement or defeat to lobbying jobs, etc., etc.) to corruption (coming in the form of benefits for the associates of politicos).

Interestingly, the media has a name for legislative acts promoting bribery and corruption: they call it reform. If one remembers that simple rule, it makes it much easier to read newspapers.

PS – For a hilarious dose of DC-Thought, read today’s Washington Post editorial about flood insurance.

“LIKE A RICKETY house that was already falling down, the federal flood insurance program has been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The theory of the program is that people who choose to live in areas prone to flooding should pay for that risk by buying insurance; they should not expect taxpayers around the country to rescue them from their own recklessness. But the truth is that, after a disaster like Katrina, the federal government will bail everybody out whether they are insured or not; it's humanly and politically unthinkable to do otherwise. Because the likelihood of a federal rescue is so strong, there never was much incentive to buy insurance. The huge federal effort after Katrina will undermine the program further.”

This is from a paper located in a town that has diverted literally hundreds of billions of dollars to a useless and pernicious military industrial complex – a town that is a swollen parasite of federal money at every level – a town whose booms correspond on a one to one basis with federal spending levels. It is like Simon Legree lecturing about the evils of slavery. Only a clique as vainglorious as that represented on the Washington Post editorial page year after year would have the balls to lecture the rest of the country on sucking up federal dollars. Perhaps the editors should take a peak in the paper’s tech section, sometime, to see where Federal tax money is really going.

Although somehow I have my doubts that the irony will penetrate heads this fat.


Anonymous said...

If Hilary Clinton, by some quirk of fate, had been elected president in 2000, I am not confident that we wouldn’t be occupying Iraq right now.

When I find myself becoming seduced by the "pox on both their houses" views expoused here, it's nice to run into a statement like this to snap me back to reality. Roger - you can't be serious about this. Maybe Clinton would have thought it was a good idea, but think about all the things that the Bush admin had to do to make this fiasco possible:

- Wholeheartedly propagate a couple of "big lies": that Iraq was working with Al Qaeda and that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. Democrats lie like all politicians do - the gulf war lies were fascist-style "black is white" lies. I can't imagine Hilary trying it, and I certainly can't imagine the Democratic party refusing to question them.

- Ignore all competent advice. The Democrats ultimately represent the technological/managerial caste. When Democrats consider a problem the first thing they do is round up a dozen PhDs and start issuing position papers. Was any middle-eastern scholar other than Bernard Lewis saying this invasion was going to go well? Can you imagine Hilary sacking Shinseki for his prediction about the troop strength needed? "Experts" have their own blinders and agendas, but you can usually count on them to steer you away from bat-shit insane ideas.

- Ignore the international response. Can you imagine Hilary blowing off the Security Council the way Bush did? Ignore the effect on Arab popular opinion?

There really is a good reason to hold your nose and pull the lever for Hilary.

- msw

Roger Gathmann said...

Well, I suppose we would have to compare Clinton's iraqi bombing campaign and its reasons to the imaginary case, and throw in 9/11. Your alternative case leads, I think, to a different kind of invasion -- one with a stronger coalition, for instance. But if we look at what happened, because of pressure from the Chalabi lobby, during the Clinton presidency, and we look at the response of the Clintonite liberals -- the Michael Ignatiefs, for instance -- I think we can see the same elements that coalesced in the case of Kosovo. To jog memories, I found this article by Patrick Clawson, your typical hawk, in the New Republic in 1999. It begins:

"WHAT IF THEY waged a war and no one noticed? In 1999, American and British pilots have bombed Iraq three times a week, hitting 360 targets with 1,100 bombs during more than 10,000 sorties. Yet the Anglo-American war over Iraq does not often make the front pages of even the Iraqi newspapers, let alone those in America. So far, the war has received little more than a perfunctory mention in either The New York Times or The Washington Post, and there's been practically nothing about it on television.

Yet Operation Desert Yawn is no haphazard campaign: it is a deliberate Clinton administration tactic that solves the smaller half of the Iraq problem--namely, how to keep Saddam Hussein in his box. By keeping Saddam contained, we are winning the battle. But we are still not winning the war, because we are doing essentially nothing to overthrow him."

Your contention is that a Democratic administration would be untempted, with this in its recent history, to invade Iraq. Maybe. Alternative histories are, of course, dependent on what one considers plausible, given a certain indisputable past. However, my contention is that the 2002-2003 moment wasn't magical, and the D.C. elite weren't suddenly hypnotized: they were prepared. They coalesced around a goal that had been nursed in D.C. for some time. And if a Democratic administration, in the stress of the blame that they would certainly have accrued post 9/11 -- for the rightwing would certainly have taken the opportunity to blame the Dems extensively for 12 years of unpreparedness and the like -- did something to overcompensate for that blame, I would not have been surprised.

In any case, given that the war is on, I see no evidence that holding your nose and voting for Hilary will be an anti-war vote -- she is certainly frank about her own support for the war.

Roger Gathmann said...

ps -- anonymous, my above response assumes 9/11. But I should give you a point, here: it is hard to imagine that Hilary, or any president, would receive a warning that Al Qaeda was going to strike in the U.S. and then go on a month long vacation without apparently even alerting FAA or asking what had been done about the threat. Personal agency does count for something. We now know that the famous dumbfounded look on Bush's face while he was reading to a class in Florida was not about which of his friends had fucked him, as Michael Moore thought -- it was much more likely to be about the memo he'd received six weeks earlier, and the fact that people would know he'd received it. It was more likely: wow, I've fucked up. The smirk that replaced it since has been the realization that the DC establishment will never make him pay for that -- too much is invested in the myth of the president, in this leader of the meritocracy, to pull aside the curtain and reveal the imbecile behind it. Agency and character, here, do count: the Bush administration has never considered terrorism a major threat, which is why the war against terror has so little to do with, say, catching and stopping terrorists. From day one, the Bush-ites believed that terrorists were minor pests, and they haven't changed an iota. The cavalier way OBL escaped from Tora Bora, with the U.S. using less troops than they are using to put down crime on the empty streets of New Orleans, and the perfunctory search for him since, are evidences of that.
If 9/11 had been thwarted, then I think ... well, I don't know what the last four years would have looked like.

msw said...

In any case, given that the war is on, I see no evidence that holding your nose and voting for Hilary will be an anti-war vote -- she is certainly frank about her own support for the war.

If, by "anti-war", you mean "most likely to withdraw immediately", maybe so. I'm willing to believe that only Bush can withdraw immediately, since the media would most likely fall in line behind the "after our great victory, it's time to let the Iraqis manage their own affairs" spin if Bush were the one delivering it. A Democrat who tried the same thing would be crucified.

If by anti-war you mean, "unlikely to invade Iran/Syria/Venezuela/the Neutral Planet/etc", I think you're wrong. Even if a Hilary admin were extensively staffed with TNR-style psychopaths, there's no way the rest of the party would fall in line (and the Repubs would oppose it just out of spite - remember their response to the 1998 attack on the Al Qauda training camp).

I don't see Hilary as a whole-hearted supporter of this fiasco - I suspect that she's simply too calculating /cowardly to risk being labeled "against our troops". And I'll take coward over lunatic any day of the week.

Roger Gathmann said...

msw -- the problem is that there is no chance that the lunatics are going to be voted out any time soon. Given that the response to the Republican lunatics by the Dems (to grant, for a moment, that the Dems have a secret affection for rational liberalism and a non-aggressive foreign policy, which I don't believe) has been to surrender every time -- the Daschle policy -- your logic leads to the question: why not find non-lunatics in all the DC factions, instead of betting on just one faction, and one that is most likely to remain a minority in the legislative branch? Republican or Democratic, what does it matter?
Personally, I think what matters are the movements out there, like the anti-war march in D.C. this morning, than the parties. Which is why progressive NGOs should quietly but firmly disassociate themselves from the Dems -- the associate works simply to capture the agenda of the NGOs in the machinery of the party. What is the point of that? The Dems, so far, have laughed at the threat of voting for some pure third party. Well, I think their minds would be concentrated by the attempt to fund and grow a Weld wing of the Republican party. That would be a real threat.

msw said...

Are we talking about William Weld? Is it his support for boondoggles like No Child Left Behind, or atrocities like the Patriot Act that you find so appealing?

Right here is the problem with your theory - there's *no one* with a (R) after his name with whom you can make common cause. As justifiably disgusted you may find yourself siding with that fucker Leiberman, you have to remember that it's all Leibermans (and worse) if you pull the other lever. It's nothing but lunatics in that party - as the fact that the best you could come up with was Weld should indicate.

Roger Gathmann said...

MSW -- The argument surely isn't that the Republican party, as it is constituted at the moment, is the perfect vehicle for redistributing wealth to the working class and legalizing marijuana. Rather, it is that the No Child Left Behind act (endorsed by Kennedy and opposed by the very Republican governor of Utah) and the Patriot act are not blocked partly because of the lack of membership between Reps and Dems to block it. The patriot act is a good place to start -- Weld, by the way, is up there with Hillary C. in supporting the bill, which the Senate unanimously re-authorized this June. But the CNN report on the House vote this June reads:

"In the final tally, 14 Republicans bucked Bush and the party leadership to vote against the Patriot Act renewal. Among Democrats, 43 supported it, while 156 voted no.

However, a number of top Democrats supported the bill, including five members of the party's House leadership -- Steny Hoyer, the minority whip; Robert Menendez and Jim Clyburn, the chairman and vice chairman of the Democratic caucus; John Spratt, assistant minority leader; and Rahm Emanuel, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The ranking Democrats on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees -- Reps. Jane Harman and Ike Skelton -- also voted yes."

Those 14 Repubs could have been 28 or more if Southern Republicans -- and the South is a one party region of the country -- were infiltrated with more Weld Republicans.

What this is a plea for is real politics, rather than the pretend politics that demonizes the GOP while supporting a minority party that makes a habit of genuflecting to the GOP any time it feels frightened. And it feels frightened all of the time that it is a minority party, and half the time that it is a majority party.

In Massachussetts, you can do much better than Weld, so there's no reason to go Republican -- but in Texas, South Carolina, Florida, etc., a Republican in the Weld mold is an excellent candidate. Instead of, for instance, the last Dem who ran for governor in Texas, who was touted as a moderate, and spent much of his time publicizing the fact that he gave Bush 250,000 dollars in campaign contributions in 2000. Wow, just what I want. Or his Senator counterpart, who was also touted as a moderate and was defeated by a genuinely extreme rightwing Republican. The Rightwing doesn't have much competition in the Republican party, and liberals think that is just fine. Which is nuts. Conservatives have the better sense to try to pick conservative dems, because it increases their chances for passing Conservative legislation. Is that simple, or what?

ps -- I found an old news story about Ron Kirk, the Dem Senate candidate from Texas: here's a quote from it: "Kirk has supported the president's education initiatives and has said he supports the war effort."

Anonymous said...

Great essay. I've read Noam Chomsky repeatedly say that the Dems and Repubs are just 2 wings of the same party -- the business party. I really think it's true. And there are differences between the two (especially since the Bush administration is so radical), but a lot of the "debate" among the chattering classes is just so much theatre, keeping the realm of options safely within the center right far right range.