“The Road Not Taken” Syndrome

You are probably familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” If you are, and if you believe the poem implicitly encourages taking the figuratively less well-trod path in life, then you belong to a vast majority, and you are in error.

A main point of this post, however, is not to correct your error, per se, but to use the established meaning of the poem as a reference-point as we all continue to consider the pseudocracy–the reign of seeming, government by deception and willing self-deception, and media of misinformation.

Two excerpts will demonstrate what the poem actually “says”:

1:Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

This describes the “other” road. Note that, in effect, the roads are similar in appearance and wear.

2: I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Note that the teller is speaking from the present and that he is predicting what he will say and that what he will say has no bearing on his having taken “the other” road. How could it? For in that present moment, NOTHING has resulted from his taken the road he took. In fact, the speaker is more or less admitting that whatever the consequences, if any, will be, he will say (with a sigh) what he will say. One might say, then, that the past and past choices will be what we say they will be.

However, it truly no longer matters what the words in the poem convey because the culture at large has decided what the poem means; indeed, the culture at large may not even know that the phrase “the road less traveled” alludes to the poem. The culture at large has absorbed the alleged lesson that one should take the road less traveled, even though if everyone took that advice, the less traveled road would be the most traveled one.

Similarly, in the pseudocracy, beliefs and psuedo-facts are impervious to observation and information. Thus, no matter what the Act says or what people are experiencing, “Obamacare,” to many, will be Obamacare, not the AHCA, and it will be “a government takeover,” and it will be “more expensive,” and it will be an example of socialism.

And: the Democratic Party will be the party of “the little guy.”

And: White conservative Christians will be under siege, the ultimate victims.

The Republican Party will be the party of judicious financing and small government.

The Democratic Party will be the party that protects the environment.

And: the proper foreign policy will be to make the world afraid of us, and making the world afraid of us will be a good thing.

President Obama will have been born in Kenya, and will not be a Christian.

It will be only a co-incidence that most of the U.S. Senators are White, wealthy men.

And so on.

As Yogi Berra might have said, Nobody takes the road less traveled anymore because it’s so crowded.

We shall be talking about the pseudocracy, with a sigh, ages and ages hence.

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.

David Brooks’ Faulty Reasoning About Why the GOP Lost

I give David Brooks credit. In looking for reasons why the GOP had a bad night, he’s not being as shameless as Karl Rove. I know that’s faint praise. The long-con-artist Rove is blaming a storm for his failure to deliver what billionaires paid him for. Here is Brooks’ take:

Growing beyond proper limits, government saps initiative, sucks resources, breeds a sense of entitlement and imposes a stifling uniformity on the diverse webs of local activity.

During the 2012 campaign, Republicans kept circling back to the spot where government expansion threatens personal initiative: you didn’t build that; makers versus takers; the supposed dependency of the 47 percent. Again and again, Republicans argued that the vital essence of the country is threatened by overweening government.

These economic values played well in places with a lot of Protestant dissenters and their cultural heirs. They struck chords with people whose imaginations are inspired by the frontier experience.

But, each year, there are more Americans whose cultural roots lie elsewhere. Each year, there are more people from different cultures, with different attitudes toward authority, different attitudes about individualism, different ideas about what makes people enterprising.

More important, people in these groups are facing problems not captured by the fundamental Republican equation: more government = less vitality.

The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

* * *

As it happens, I’m an expert on part of what he says. I grew up “on the frontier”–in a High Sierra town of 200, once a Gold Rush town. And, culturally, part of me came from Sweden but that part was atheist, not Protestant. Also, I saw what the GI bill did for one of my uncles, who flew mission in a Flying Fortress. It allowed him to go to a state college and get a teaching degree. He taught and coached for the next 30+ years but never gave up on the “frontier” stuff like hunting, fishing, building your own cabin, and panning for gold.

My uncle’s values were not, in fact, different from those described in the Pew poll concerning these alleged “people from elsewhere.”

Everybody in the U.S. is from elsewhere, and why begin history with Protestant colonialists? Why not start it with the slaves who were brought here in 1619? Or the Spaniards out on that frontier? Or the French in the bayous? And so on? And why not mention that many of the early members of the federal and state governments owned slaved? That’s the ultimate “government intrusion” and extreme “attitude toward authority.”

So I assert that Brooks’ argument is based on a false, White-centered, nostalgic view of history. I also assert that the GOP had a bad night (but only narrowly, let us remember) because it has been begging for one. Look who speaks for them mostly loudly, hear how much hate is in the speech, and see how weird the stances are: abortion banned even in cases of rape; denying global warming; claiming “trickle down” economics is anything more than a long-con (70%+ of economic growth is driven by consumer–middle class spending, not by how much dough rich people get to keep); wanting government to intrude on two adults’ decision to spend their lives together (what’s more “American” than that?); and treating the first Black president like a you-know-what.

I also assert Brooks’ argument hinges on a false dichotomy: either government helps the economy or private enterprise does. They both do, and they both must. If these “new people from elsewhere” don’t work with the same fallacy as Brooks does, it may simply mean they are reasonable. Government can raise the taxes or sell the bonds necessary to build schools, bridges, sea-wall, an electric grid, and so on. Who does the work? Private contractors. So enough of that dodge, please.

If government has grown beyond proper limits, then why not question the proper limits of the defense budget, which is the most out of whack part of our budget when compared to all other countries?

Is a national health insurance program–operated by private insurance companies–and improper intrusion of government, or just something my practical uncle would see as necessary?

Barack Obama as Big Government Lefty is one of the larger straw men the GOP has built. On what issues is President Obama to the Left of Eisenhower or Truman?

I think the GOP decided to see how far right it could go on a range of issues, and so it went too far. I think it decided long ago to be a White party. Lindsay Graham has admitted as much, and we all know about the Southern Strategy, which is race-based. That’s the short version. There’s more to it than that, but it isn’t the more that Brooks cites.

The Core of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

Devotees — I make bold to use the plural — of this blog know that the pair of us routinely pore over George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”  We are critical of the essay.  As a result of our criticisms, we may obscure our admiration for Orwell’s thinking.  It behooves us, then, to reiterate the essay’s virtues from time to time.  This entry is one such time.

In my view, the following passage is the centerpiece of Orwell’s insights:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

I confess that every time I read these paragraphs, phrases and clauses leap from the screen — seldom from pages these days although from the pages in the collection Shooting an Elephant in 1976 when Professor Lance Bennett sent me Orwell’s way — as fronts of T-shirts.

My favorite sentence in the essay was initially and remains today “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”  What a bounty that hucksters such as Dr. Frank Luntz should expose themselves as liars and cheats even as they ply the polity with soothing phrases and soulless palaver!  Dr. Luntz and other politicos wield calculated vagueness and crafted equivocation with frightening effectiveness, which makes them at once enemies of understanding, rationality, and democracy.  Their expedients win elections and shape policies at the expense of self-governance.  The dark arts of political grifting enrich the grifters even as they impoverish the polity.

Another T-shirt aphorism aligns with the foregoing maxim: “Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.”  To me these first two sentences mutually reinforce.  Because the insincere manipulator or audiences must avoid clarity in favor of euphemism and other “swindles and perversions” [Orwell], the con artist must assemble words and phrases into slogans, bumper stickers, and spot ads that withstand mindless repetition but not critical scrutiny.  Apostles of orthodoxy intricately arrange words and phrases — but not usually sentences and paragraphs lest  complicated, modulated expression induce thought and skepticism — into towers of babble that bear repetition much better than they weather reflection.  Orthodoxy and conformity, it follows, not only encourage but also depend on rote expression(s) that mask motives and hide sinister designs behind dextrous expression.  Insincerity is a great enemy of clarity because clarity of thought and expression threatens the insincere.

As insincerity begets strategic and tactical unclarity and as prosaic, hackneyed strategic and tactical words and phrases repeatedly hide motives and designs unbecoming to partisans, ideologues, and other scammers and shammers, political messages becloud minds.  “And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity,”  Orwell notes.  Orwell’s “model” of language and politics seems to me to be that propagandists enthrall followers and thereby make their followers far less even as they may make followers believe that followers are becoming far more, perhaps, even that followers are becoming part of leadership.

 

 

Another Triumph of Appearance Over Actuality

Yesterday morning [13 May 2012] I was listening to “Weekend Edition Sunday” on NPR when Rachel Martin* spoke with Walter Isaacson about the many patents that the late Steve Jobs had registered for artistic creations.  Mr. Isaacson published a biography of Mr. Jobs about the time Mr.Jobs died.  Mr. Isaacson summarized the matter:  “You know, he was taught in the early 1980s by a great guy named Mike Markkula that the packaging really matters. You have to impute a beauty to a product from the moment people see the box. And so he has a design patent with some other people at Apple – I think Steve’s name may be first on it – of just the way you open the box to the original iPod and how it is cradled. And you open it and it hinges like a jewel. There’s a certain theater, an emotional theater in the unpacking.”

As I listened I thought that Mr. Isaacson deftly summarized modern impression management:  Sellers manipulate impressions via packaging unrelated to content [if indeed the packaging does not substitute for content, as in political speeches].

And attend to Mr.Isaacson’s phrasing [transcript courtesy of LexisNexis Academic]:  “You have to impute a beauty to a product from the moment people see the box.  … And you open it and it hinges like a jewel. There’s a certain theater, an emotional theater in the unpacking.”  Mr. Isaacson’s ode to adornment encapsulates the age.  Emotional theater indeed!

* Rachel Martin was my student in Politics and Government at the University of Puget Sound.  She has since grown way past anything I might have taught her!

 

 

The Unintended Literature of Politics

Here is a brief quotation from a story in the San Jose Mercury News about Senator Santorum’s quitting the primary-campaign:

Bridget Nelson, a Tea Party activist who co-hosted a March 29 fundraiser for Santorum in Alamo, spoke with him Tuesday and said she’s “bummed” but will soldier on.

“I felt that for the first time in a long time, here’s a presidential candidate the conservatives can get behind who loves God first, country second,” she said. “He just said he wants to be involved still in politics and hopefully in the future possibly running again in 2016, but right now this is the best decision for him and his family.”

If this conversation were depicted as “overheard” in a novel like WAR AND PEACE, we’d be fascinated by all the ironies and nuances. Consider just the mixture of language itself:

“Tea Party,” “Alamo,” “bummed,” “soldier on,” “loves God first, country second.” The first two samples are often interpreted simplistically, but anyone who looks carefully into the Boston Tea Party and the defeat at the Alamo will ponder the unintended complexities in Ms. Nelson’s statement. Then comes “bummed,” straight out of “bum trip” or “bad acid trip,” from the 1960s. “Soldier on”: voters as PFCs. And finally, “loves God first, country second.” I don’t mean to be difficult, but shouldn’t all voters want a candidate who respects the country and more or less keeps his or her faith to himself? Aren’t a hefty number of Americans perturbed by some Muslims, who indeed love God first and country second, as their faith instructs?

If you haven’t read the first page of WAR AND PEACE in a while, you might give it a go. There’s a party going on–a high-class one–in St. Petersburg. War is about to happen. But the odd entanglements of language, egos, and petty desires–as they often do–intrude.

Another Bad Analogy: Social Security = Ponzi Scheme

Wild Bill has this to say (to write, actually):

I had assumed that, when Ann Coulter(geist) asserted that “Social Security is a governmental Ponzi scheme,” that such an assertion would resound only among the unschooled and the feverish. Now that Gov. Perry has taken to repeating the claim, I guess I should direct you where to read up on it “economically.”

Please read the contributions at

to see how deficient Coultergeist’s proposition was.

However, take cautions.

First, Coulter and Perry have repeated a talking point. Talking points resemble Pavlovian cues more than civic propositions. They are not true. They are not false. They neither enlighten nor clarify. They are shibboleths — expressions that mobilize “us” and demonize “them.” It follows that to engage the talking point is to succumb to misdirection and to mistake eristic disputation for rational discourse. [I am of course sorry to inform you that Ann Coulter is neither engaged nor interested in rational discourse.]

Second, Coulter and Perry have spoken/written in metaphoric language. They thus may retreat into similes or similar defenses. “Social Security much resembles a scam” or “There are many elements of Social Security that are common in or to Ponzi schemes” are merely two of the retreats available to them.

Third, please do not imagine that, if Social Security were a Ponzi scheme or nearly a Ponzi scheme, Coulter’s or Perry’s contention would necessarily have relevance or consequences. If retirees were long ago taken in by a Ponzi scheme, they would have been victims of con men in high places. The misplaced reliance of our elderly on schemers would NOT justify cutting or eliminating Social Security benefits.

An appropriate reply to “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme” would be “You may want to study up on Ponzi schemes so that you can learn why Social Security is different from Ponzi schemes and why likeness to Ponzi schemes has few or no implications for policy.”

%d bloggers like this: