Squalid Scalia

An online definition of squalid goes as follows:

(of a place) Extremely dirty and unpleasant, esp. as a result of poverty or neglect.
Showing a contemptible lack of moral standards.

I apply it to Justice (ha!) Antonin Scalia, in general but with regard to today’s arguments concerning same-sex marriage.

Reportedly, Scalia asked Ted Olson, a conservative arguing in favor of supporting the overturning of Prop. 8 in California (thus arguing in favor, more broadly, of same-sex marriage), “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit gay marriage?” (This is a paraphrase.) Then he offered a couple of dates when this might have (not) occurred. Olson’s answer was a question, “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit mixed race marriages?” Scalia’s answer was to tell Olson not to answer questions with a question. Ah, the highest court in the land. High on what, who knows?

Scalia positions himself as an “originalist.” He likes to go back to the original text of the C. itself, and to founders’ intent. Grudgingly, he agrees to look at amendments. By the way, wouldn’t founders’ intent require cloning? Yeah, sure, there are letters and the Federalist Papers, but still, those are incomplete. We’d have to have live cranial video of what the founders were thinking when they signed the C. Even cloning wouldn’t cut it because, for the sake of argument, let’s assume we could bring a Founder back to life. First question: How’s it going? Second question (for Jefferson): “What gives you the right to own slaves?” Third question:”What was your intent when you …?” So, Big Tom gives us an answer: “My intent was to . . .”. Why would we believe his account?

But of course one good rhetorical answer to Scalia’s question is not the question Olson asked but an imperative: “Show me when and where the Constitution explicitly prohibited same sex marriage.” Scalia would then have to talk about, well, obviously, back then, gay people didn’t get married, yadda, yadda. Yeah, fine, but show me where that gets us into the text of the Constitution, Moe. (He reminds of Moe in the Three Stooges.)

This is all a rhetorical (in the negative sense) exercise on my part because, in part, Scalia’s mind is squalid, not to mention made-up. It is dirty and unpleasant as a result of neglecting reason in favor of politics. He’s just a GOP hack. He shows a contemptible lack of moral standards. It is immoral to go on hunting trips with Cheney (also unwise) and then claim there is no conflict of interest when you hear (but not listen to) a case involving Cheney. Etc.

Please know I don’t think much of the rest of the Court, either. With the exception of Ginsburg, they all seem like robed clowns too much taken with themselves. And poor Justice Thomas has become a smoldering boulder of self-loathing. Breyer is a gasbag. So is Kagan. Kennedy sits his ass on the fence, guaranteeing no one respects him.

Still, Scalia is a cut below–especially with his lame “originalist” posturing.

What Shouldn’t Be Debated Is, What Should Be Debated Isn’t

This is a follow-up to “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Politics:

The Web today has many links to Romney’s having expressed opposition (in debates featuring fellow GOPers) to federal disaster-funding.

My main response to items like this is, “Who knows what Mr. Romney really believes?” My second response this time was “Why is this issue debatable?” Or: “Of course federal funding for responses to disasters is necessary.” It’s not appropriate to leave such responses entirely to the states, nor does it make sense to let people fend for themselves. Period.

A larger point is that way too much time is spent debating things that shouldn’t be debated. On this list I would include . . . revenue as one piece of the deficit-reduction puzzle. Want to debate how much to raise taxes on higher income brackets? Fine. What to take revenue entirely off the table? Not rational. I’d also include global warming and its effects. Want to debate how we should respond? Fine. Want to debate whether global warming is “real” and whether humans have contributed to it? You’re wasting everybody’s time.

What should be debated that isn’t? In addition to how much revenue needs to be raised and what should be done in response to global warming, I’d like to see “us” or “them” discuss how long we imagine we can sustain a defense budget that’s larger than the defense budgets of the rest of the world combined. The main question should be, “How much can we cut?” I’d like us to discuss a broad review of federal drug-laws and sentencing guidelines. I’d like us to debate whether the Senate is a viable representative body anymore; should South Dakota and California have the same number of senators, given the populations?

But as with the earlier post, the broader point here is that the pseudocracy helps to insure we focus too much energy and time on the trivial, on “dog-whistles,” and on issues that should be settled by now, and it also helps to insure that we don’t discuss crucial issues more.

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Politics

(Fans of the American short story or short fiction in general may see that the post’s title is a riff on the title of a fine story by Raymond Carver: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.)

1. We don’t talk about the American Empire. It never comes up, except indirectly, in the presidential campaign, for example. President Obama and Mr. Romney may squabble over Syria, but they don’t and the media don’t bring up the umbrella-topic: how the U.S. has military bases and “national interests” everywhere. For starters, I’m not really interested in a debate about whether the American Empire is good or bad or some of both. I’d just like the topic to be acknowledged, the number of bases established (agreed upon facts), the alleged purpose and the cost of the bases, and so on.

2. This is connected to #1: We don’t talk about one of the plainest and most apt warnings delivered by an outgoing president–Dwight Eisenhower, who wasn’t all that out-going. And the warning–about a military-industrial complex and its effects on the republic–was delivered by Someone Who Ought to Know, not just a general, but the general. It’s as if he’d never said the words, or as if the m-i-complex didn’t exist, didn’t determine much of our policy.

3. We don’t really talk about race. It seems like we do because it seeps into discussions of immigration and not-so-subtle attempts to make President Obama not-American. It comes into play when we talk about voter-suppression. But we really don’t talk about the lingering economic and social problems that spring from slavery and its aftermath. We don’t talk about our enormous prison-population (in general) and its racial makeup (in particular). We don’t talk about how children of color tend to suffer the most from the worst aspects of our educational system.

4. We don’t talk about the environment. It used to be kind of a big topic in presidential campaigns. The world and we are suffering some serious consequences of environmental mistreatment already–drought, fracking, running out of water, rising costs of food, and so on. How many minutes (heck, seconds) do you think will be spent on the environment in the three presidential debates.

And there’s much more important stuff (I beg the question, assuming my 4 are important) we don’t talk about because, well, that’s just how American politics and the media roll. What’s on your list?

Social Media and Propaganda

Among the key points Jacques Ellul makes in his magisterial book, Propaganda,is that one aim of modern (WWII and after) propaganda is to direct its communication to the masses so as to make individuals in the masses feel as though they are being communicated to more or less one on one.

The new social media only enhance this technique, it seems. For example, it is now routine for millions of Americans to receive an email “from” the President of the United States “signed” “Barack.” Of course, it’s a mass-email, but the tone is informal, as the signature appears to be. For another example, the cable “news” channels feature talk-show hosts and “news” anchors who routinely ask what “your” opinion is on a matter, and they invite you to send an email or to “text” (a relatively new verb) them. The effect on some people, even if they are jaded, may be, if only for an instant, to make them feel special.

The purposes are several: to raise money, to maintain ratings, to solidify a “base,” which might also be appropriately called group-think. These purposes haven’t changed much if at all over the decades, but, in my opinion, social media are something that would not have surprised Ellul (with regard to technique) but that may have astounded him, so perfectly tailored are they (email, Twitter, facebook, texting, etc.) to the mass/individual deployment of communication about which he wrote. I imagine his response (though it would be in French) to be something like a simultaneous “Of course/Wow!”

It may be important to emphasize that, with the kind of propaganda Ellul discussed and with which we are bombarded (or spammed), there is little if any difference in techniques between mass media and political communication and between any points on the political spectrum. That is, plenty of people probably receive emails “signed” “Mitt.” Also, don’t MSNBC’s ads about itself (one example) look basically like political ads? To what extent is almost anything a “news” cable channel does advertising? As they “report” (whatever!), they advertise themselves.

It may be the case that Fox News has virtually obliterated the boundary between a medium and a political party, at least compared to CNN (one example), but still, all mass media have to serve somebody (pax Dylan), such as a corporation, multiple corporations, or a corporate/political establishment. They’re not serving you and me, even though they ask us–personally!–to text our opinion.

Cattywampus Politics

“Cattywampus” means askew, and not purposely so. That is, one doesn’t want the foundation of one’s abode to be cattwampus even as one might tolerate and even enjoy a cattywampus cubist-painting.

Is the political realm inherently cattywampus? Is careening what it does “best”? Perhaps so. Even so, American politics now seems extraordinarily cattywampus because of how politicians with power and those who egg them on seem extraordinarily uninterested in agreed upon facts and, arguably, persistent crises. Let’s look at some examples:

1. Agreed upon fact: the U.S. budget is cattywampus, moreso than usual. Agreed upon fact: Congress and W. allowed two wars to be fought without raising taxes or selling “war-bonds.” President Obama and the current Congress are doing the same. Agreed upon fact: President Reagan and the Congresses during his terms drastically reduced the tax-rate on those with the greatest means to pay taxes. Agreed upon fact: successful programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are in trouble, partly if not largely because of demographics (here come the Boomers).

2. The responses to the agreed upon facts: Both the GOPers and President Obama seem to want to correct the budgetary imbalance chiefly by making the three successful programs less successful, in a variety of ways, including using a different (and worse) cost-of-living-increase formula. I think this is called cheating, but I’m not sure. Both are afraid to raise taxes in any serious way because they are afraid they won’t get re-elected. However, the most sensible thing to do (in my opinion) would be to go back to pre-Reagan tax-rates and stop the wars as soon as possible–and/or sell war-bonds.

3. Worse, the GOPers chief response to the alleged budgetary crisis is to make it worse, to turn it into a zero-sum game. GOPer-friendly pundits egg them on. Call Obama’s bluff, they cry. Obama, for his part, negotiates craftily, but at the same time, he is essentially GOPerish in his willingness to make successful programs bear the main burden of fixing the budget. Sure, he mumbles things about private jets, but he’s not willing even to propose the sort of tax-increases Clinton instituted. Apparently Clinton raised taxes on those of means about 3%, and that helped the economy a lot, although even I, a mere poet, realize that many economic changes are cyclical; that is, to some degree, Clinton got lucky. Still, his economic policies were less cattywampus.

The current overall response to the cattywampus economy seems profoundly stupid, almost the worst of politics. One impending result seems to be to hurt those who are hurting already: the aged, the infirm, the working class. Either the structure or the powerful inhabitants of American politics or both seem incapable of looking at a cattywampus situation and bringing it back into balance–even when their response seems to hurt them politically! That is, lots of Obama’s supporters have turned their backs on him, and in California (for example), GOPer voter-registration is down to 31%. Yep, only 31% of registered voters are Republican in California. Additionally, the Democratic Party seems to be an ineffective version of the old moderate Republican Party, while the Republican Party seems to define itself more narrowly and freakishly every day. Good grief, McConnell and Boehner are the best they have, apparently! Bachmann is ahead in the polls in Iowa.

The Pseudocracy is ascendant, or so it seems to this poet. The carpenters on the job seem unable or unwilling (or both) to correct a cattywampus foundation. Political scientists and historians may have different, less pessimistic views. I hope so–I think.

A GOP Self-Wedge?

In their new way of turning state elections into national ones and pursuing steam-roller politics, has the GOP, masters of manipulating such wedge-issues (and perhaps Frank Luntz invented the term, who knows?) as abortion, “defense of marriage,” and “gun-rights” (although the rights belong to people, not guns), wedged themselves? It’s a possibility. Consider:

Wild Bill has forwarded me an op-ed in the NYTIMES (March 22) by historian William Cronon, who notes, among other things, that Wisconsin not only has a distinctive progressive history but a bi-partisan progressive history, which includes the following:

Republicans and Democrats supported the unionization of state and federal workers decades ago–the main reason being efficiency and consistency in negotiations.

Wisconsin professors helped design Social Security.

Republicans and Democrats worked together to design the state health plan.

Republicans and Democrats worked together to design the state’s unusual open-meeting laws and other measures aimed at transparency.

Cronon’s point is that Governor Walker is not simply a radical targeting groups he and Rove don’t like, but he is also in effect attacking a history of progressive bipartisanship.

Now that Cronon has published his op-ed, Republicans want to get hold of his emails. That’s right: they’re retaliating against a professor with an opinion. About this retaliation, NY Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote (a few days after Cronon’s piece appeared):

Professors are not just ordinary state employees. As J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a conservative federal judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, noted in a similar case, state university faculty members are “employed professionally to test ideas and propose solutions, to deepen knowledge and refresh perspectives.” A political fishing expedition through a professor’s files would make it substantially harder to conduct research and communicate openly with colleagues. And it makes the Republican Party appear both vengeful and ridiculous.

Herbert may be right that Wisconsin’s (and Indiana’s and Ohio’s) GOP appear vengeful and ridiculous, but in advancing a national effort to break unions and dismantle health-care, via the election of governors, the GOP may have finally inserted a wedge between itself and “regular people.” A key to the political success of Nixon and Reagan (and of GOPers after Reagan) was to appear to represent (white) working folks. Nixon attracted men who wore flag-decals on their hard-hats. Reagan played his role as average guy beautifully. “Well, aw shucks.”

Of course, both did the bidding of Big Money (as do Democrats). But as a result of the grand Rovian design to use thuggish governors to break unions, take money away from education and healthcare, and never, ever examine the revenue-side by increasing taxes on wealthy persons, there is a chance the GOP has shined a bright light on its disdain for wage-earners, working families, run-of-the-mill (so to speak) union members, farmers, senior citizens, and so on. Luntzian re-labeling (“death panels,” “defense of marriage,” “right to work”) may not be so effective in this context, and the old wedge-issues may not overcome the new
solidarity Walker and others may have created accidentally.

So it’s not just that the GOP my look vengeful and ridiculous, but it’s also that they may finally look like who they are. I don’t think that’s supposed to happen to politicians from either Party. They’re supposed to look like who they wants us to see.

Because the GOP has so much money (Rove’s alleged target is 120 billion from his billionaires club) and is so good at running campaigns (if not running governments and parts thereof), one would still have to think they will succeed. But the possibility that they are wedging themselves away from big parts of the electorate is substantial enough to ponder. If you’re a professor who sometimes ponders in print and happen to live in a state current hosting one of these new-GOP-governors, I reckon you have to expect some retaliation. Professor are so very dangerous, you know.

Of “Doctrines” and “National Debates”

Online, in print, and from TV/radio, I’ve heard references recently to “a new doctrine” of foreign policy advanced, implicitly, by President Obama’s decision to help European air-forces bomb Libya. For a longer time, I’ve heard commentators and politicians suggest that “we” have a “national debate” on this or that issue. My listening has led me to ponder the value of the two words, “doctrine” and “debate,” in connection with American politics. Both seem highly problematic because of the state of American politics.

The Monroe Doctrine–no more colonizing the Western Hemisphere, Europe–was probably worthy of the term, as it was written down, established a clear point of view regarding Europe, and articulated to Congress. But “the Bush Doctrine” or “the Obama Doctrine”? I don’t think so.

There certainly was Bush Behavior: reckless, arrogant, probably counter to international law (debatable; however, several countries now regard Bush as a war criminal), and slippery: the reasons for invading Iraq kept and keep shifting, and markers of success in Iraq and Afghanistan kept and keep shifting. Christopher Hitchens and others supported the wars because it was (I paraphrase) better to fight “them” over there than over here; that line of reasoning made me think that there was an impeding invasion, and it also reminded me that the terrorists responsible for “9-11” and the Iraqi regime had nothing to do with one another. In other words, the line of thinking didn’t and doesn’t make sense–to me, at least. It does, I realize, to others.

At any rate, if impetuous, hasty, illogical, dishonest, and ill conceived translate into a doctrine, then there is a Bush Doctrine. And is slightly more cautious and cooperative translate into an Obama Doctrine, well, there you go.

I think the more pertinent issue may be that presidents don’t need no stinking doctrines anymore. They can order an invasion or bombing missions whenever and against whomever they want, without consulting Congress. When was the last declared war, after all (duly declared by Congress)? It was World War II, as you know. Congress’s weakness in this area keeps getting worse, to the extend that shaky old Robert Byrd had to be the one to ask why Congress didn’t even discuss or debate the invasion of Iraq. How sad is that?

Which brings us to “national debate.” Maybe one was possible once, but I can’t see how one would be now. The rise of the pseudocracy means almost all discourse is subject to constant manipulation, distraction, and spectacle (thank you, Murray Edelman). There are no agreed-upon facts with regard to most if not all important issues, and once “counseling in connection with terminal illnesses” becomes “death panels,” there can be no debate, only a kind of improvised playground scrum.

Into the debate-vacuum strolls the Executive Branch, especially with regard to foreign policy. Into the debate-vacuum strolls whoever happens to be in charge of Congress for a two-year span–to address problems that require sober thought and action over many years. Into a debate-vacuum strolls the Supreme Court, who may turn a corporation into a person and unleash a flood of cash from unknown headwaters–cash that will make the manipulation, spectacle, absence of agreed-upon facts, and so on even worse.

To deploy a Nixonesque term (Nixon seems so charmlingly amateurish by comparison these days), “doctrine” and “national debate” no longer appear to be “operable.” Have a nice day.

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