Monday, August 11, 2008

The Theft of Thought

If I were to write a book on politics in my adult life, this title, "The Theft of Thought", would get real consideration.

Since the 1981 Reagan Revolution, discussion of policy, especially civil consideration of the best course of action, has become increasingly rare.

Bill Bradley was on Bill Maher's show recently - and said something I've felt for a while - namely that the inherent qualities which draw people to the Republican or Democratic party are not irreconciliable, they're not even opposed, but we've made them so.

Bradley postulates the primary ethic of Republicans is self-reliance, or even more clearly, personal responsibility.

He said he feels the primary ethic of Democrats is decency and concern for 'your fellow man.

I think both are correct and fair, and yet, like Bradley, I see that the politically active members of both parties show real contempt for the politically active members of the other party. This didn't use to be so, in fact, in the 60's (or 50's) there was vastly more civil discourse, and work toward effective comprimise, than there has been in the 90's and certainly more than today. Paul Krugman feels this is because during that period, the parties were not far apart on policy, so there was little need for the kind of invective and venom we see today. He's right of course that there was less divergence on policy, and he's also right that the Republicans have shifted FAR right from then, while Democrats, if anything, have become more moderate as compared to the days of the New Deal or the Great Society.

Yet, I don't feel that's the full explanation. Krugman's explanation seems to say, because John became more radical in his political position, John and Jane treat each other contemptuously. I think that the contempt was part and parcel of the radical shift, in fact, I think it caused and was the genesis of the shift, not the other way around.

Political discourse in this country became highly beligerent starting in 1964 with the Goldwater campaign. The rhetoric of Barry Goldwater - which even he felt was over the top later in life - was belicose, was full of the kinds of finger pointing and red-baiting that only McCarthy had really used since the 1930's.

Then, in 1976, and gaining ground in 1980, 1994, 2000 and 2004, a series of political attack apparatus and persons appeared, nearly all of them on the right, whcih instead of talking about policies, talked about 'character', and not in a nice way - started saying things like 'aiding and abbetting' the enemy - when someone dissented - and the chilling effect it had on the press, and on Democrats as well, was palpable. Democrats became defensive and beligerent in response, but now, to very little less degree, than Republican extremists, and it's repulsive.

Does anyone truly think someone like John Kerry (or John McCain) truly would willingly do something to jeapordize the national security interests of the country? If so, why? What inconceivably foolish notion other than animosity could drive such hatred? George Bush didn't blow up the World Trade Center - and Barack Obama isn't going to trade Israel away to terrorists.

However, rational, clear debate is the nemesis of the radicals. Because rational debate debunks the mythology about the opposition they've built up in recruiting followers. Try suggesting sometime to a staunch party loyalist, that a moderate from the other party is preferable to radical from your own and see what you get. Try to discuss, for example, whether our approach in how to secure Iraq was well planned, and you'll either get called a traitor (by the reactionary extremist Republicans) or a warmonger (by rabid anti-war radical Democrats). Even the terms which used to mean the more centrist elements of the parties 'conservative' and 'liberal' have supplanted the terms for the extremists (of radical and reactionary).

No, no longer do we have clear, reasoned debate. Instead it's sound-bites like "he's a celebrity", or "the One", which the right (and now the left) hammer home like some high-school bully, completely uninterested in the actual facts, any debate or discussion. The message apparently is, we want victory, not skillful policy or diplomacy. We are here to blugeon you - to belittle you personally, to create contempt, even hatred for you.

Thoughtful purpose, development of sound fiscal policy, for example, or even just a sound discussion of fair tax policy, that's for only an internal crowd. Thought, it seems is dead, is in fact, even outlawed. It has been stolen away, stolen by zealots who care less about finding a solution that benefits all, except in that they are convinced the ends justifies the means, and thus, anything in the middle is fair game until the end is achieved. It is reminscent of the Soviet communist theory, totalitarianism until the utopian state arises.

The only problem of course, in this Benthamite ethcial world, is that the state never arises, and of course, no one group of people has EVER had the right answer for everyone else - without including everyone else's wisdom in the decision.

So instead it's down with thought, the death of the American experiment soon to follow.


  1. Dang right. And instead of news, we have whatever sensationalist crap will titillate the masses, and the most popular thing on TV isn't even acting anymore, which could be construed as a form of art, but rather we have reality TV with a high catfight quotient. We are getting what we deserve, I'm afraid.

  2. Indeed..

    And of course, much of reality TV is selected scenes designed to highlight the frailties of others, I suppose to make us feel better about ourselves by laughing at others.

  3. or is it that we've gotten what we chose. The American drive through, instant gratification, gotta have it now life style that only has time for a sound bite campaign. It seems easier to control the opinions of folks with short attention spans using scare tactics and labels through the mass media. It reminds me of the book Hope for the Flowers. Most of the caterpillars climb a column formed from the bodies of other caterpillars hoping to reach the top so they can live the "best" life and be "fulfilled". The few who make it to the top discover there's nothing there and are eventually thrown down by the striving masses below. One odd caterpillar decides to climb back down and discovers the true path to fulfillment is to follow her own path; transformation into a butterfly. But you know you can't pick that up at the drive through.

  4. lhbinshi,

    I think the caterpiller analogy is an appropriate one, in that we all seem to have bought into the idea that WE (ourselves) deserve better than the rest for some particular talent, and that we are better or special, in our way.

    There is little wrong with having a positive self-image - as long as it doesn't become base hubris - but in the 1960's (and 50's) there was little class envy, because there simply were very VERY few wealthy people- we were able to access the same goods, same vacations, and live in a pretty similar lifestyle, as our neighbors. We didn't drive by mansions, or hear about the lavish lifestyles of lottery winners or CEO's. While I'm not advocating universal equanimity - I do think we'd be a far better place if the spread between the 'haves' and 'have nots' were smaller. BTW, this isn't a Utopian theory, it IS what we had, and it is what Europe, by and large, has now.

    Where we went astray is that we bought a line of intentional propoganda suggesting we 'worked harder' than the next guy, so we were rightfully jealous, resentful of them getting what they got (through unions, or even through public OR private pension programs, or a host of New Deal initiatives). The right preyed upon our baser nature to 'seek to do better than the jones' and called it good ole' competition.

    In the end, though, that competition simply destroyed labor's power, and created a nation where the vastly powerful are vastly rewarded, and the shift of profits has gone from something which was reasonable, to what it is now, which is rapacious. The culprit, however is as you say, ourselves. WE strive up and down that pole, only realizing late in life the hollowness of it.

  5. Good read. Almost as good a read as your comment over at Berg's blog.