Sunday, January 23, 2011

Characters Welcome: Fehlleistungen

Dear Children:

It’s amazing what one can learn flipping through an old and familiar book. In this case the flipping was motivated by some initial flipping through a book picked up absent-mindedly. One thing led to another. Clear?

Anyway, all that flipping lead to the conclusion our Congressmen and Congresswomen don’t deserve close scrutiny. As much fun as snark can be, it only works when we presume the butt of the joke had it coming. They don’t. Your standard Congressunit is a rather ordinary person equipped with an outsized ego in much the same way as strippers are ordinary people with underdone egos. Both stimulate assumptions that are mostly false.

Winston Churchill, when he was elected Prime Minister already had thirty electoral campaigns under his belt spanning the forty or so years he spent in politics. He reported a great regret. He had wasted a whopping eighteen weeks of his life on the stump. Winston Churchill was never ordinary and was never over worked like our politicians. Over working our Congress makes it worse. Asking them to raise money every waking moment compounds the folly. The folly issues from the need to be a reliable vote to some interest group that can vouchsafe one’s reelection. The system is nuts. No wonder much of what comes out of their mouths is garbled, monotonic and middling. It’s no wonder we can’t seem to cooperate. When there is little oxygen to the brain and one’s sense of self resides in a K Street ledger it’s hard to be thoughtful.

And, we get a big slice of parapraxis. Parapraxis is coinage from a translator to convey “fehlleistungen” a German word that literally means “misperformance”. Most people call it a Freudian slip. It’s a condition brought about by a repressed urge finding outlet in speech. A man may say to a woman, “Yes, I want bed and butter”. Dr. Freud found these utterances highly significant and worthy of our attention. We don’t give it much heed of course because it’s poor manners to point out such things in polite company. Still, one sees it every day when someone has their mouth on auto pilot – like in the Congress.

Did you hear the Congressman say, “I resent the gentleman questioning the Speaker’s mendacity”? Of course he wanted us to hear “veracity” but he said mendacity too many times, like little people exiting a clown car.

Maybe you heard a Congresswoman say, “Everyone should be an affectionado of California wine.” If affectionado were a word it would mean the same thing except the lady was so abashed, she left the lectern. Hmmm.

This stuff doesn’t happen when we write our own speeches and pore over our word’s effect on others. It happens when parrot -reading a tone poem of some junior staffer or mouthing the bullet points of a lobbyist. Just so, the conditions persist when interviewed by a talking TV head – eyes fixed on the middle distance, blinking like crazy and, God forbid, don’t answer the question directly.

We need to free up our representatives to think, discuss and agree. The corrosives effect of campaign money needs to be taken out of play. The 15 and 30 second spot needs to go the way of Mr. Ed. The campaign bus with its bloated entourage and trailing reporters is plain silly. We are wearing our leaders to a frazzle.

Let’s get our political leaders flipping though some old books to see what new might be there. Think of the potential; informed, internalized Churchill, Freud, Amos and Hosea. Let’s switch our demands from telegenic to thoughtful. Maybe we could value reasonable over intimidation. We may get those things if we turn off those soul-stealing cameras. The posturing and the vapidity just might go with them. We can’t properly judge them until they write their own speeches to justify their votes. Then we’ll have the complete package.

I’m Just Sayin’


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Characters Welcome: Spencer Bachus

Dear Children:

Today we begin in earnest to examine the potential shenanigans in the 112th Congress. At the risk of appearing partisan, we’ll start with a few of the incoming chairmen in the House. As you know, the House is a stickler for the rights conferred by seniority. The tradition can be defeated after great pains and is usually granted to a less senior member because the ranking member passes or is egregiously and publically incompetent.

There are few committees this term where seniority works to evoke that gesture with the shoulders and palms up. You remember that gestures from when Michael Jordon sunk three three-pointers in a row. It says, “Don’t ask me.”

Mr. Spencer Bachus, a 62-year-old lawyer and Republican Representative from Alabama’s sixth Congressional District has toiled without complaint for 18 years to rise to the chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee. Take note here of the Alabama connection. The great State of Alabama has a lock on financial services legislation and oversight of financial services regulation. Richard Shelby Senior Senator from Alabama is ranking member of the Committee for Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Alabama has a financial services sector that would fit into the odd file drawer on Broad Street. Both Houses have these committees tasked:

"[To oversee] all components of the nation's housing and financial services sectors including banking, insurance, real estate, public and assisted housing, and securities."
Mr. Bachus makes no bones about the silliness of that task:

“In Washington, the view is that banks ought to be regulated, but my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”
We ought to offer the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is a principled position on the issue. Maybe we should also ignore that Mr. Bachus (like no other Representative) relies heavily on financial services campaign contributions. And, maybe we should ignore that Mr. Bachus runs mostly unopposed making it possible for him to use those millions he gets from Wall Street every year to subsidize his poor relations in the House. This has the effect of buying him influence greater than his grasp of the job and, frankly, his reputation as an intellectual lightweight. He just beat back a chairmanship challenge from Mr. Ed Royce of California on just that basis.

It isn’t those things at all. He is one who has toyed with the idea of shutting down the government this spring or summer. Never mind that a resolution to freeze the debt ceiling or failure to pass a budget has little chance of passage. Never mind that just the prospect of that sort of vandalism is enough to roil markets for months. Never mind that the American people deserve better. The suggestion is, at once, hair brained and deeply condescending.

Legislators should legislate, not be an instrument of policy. The same people (Mr. Bachus among them) who rail against activist judges are guilty of chipping away at the power of the Executive, not through law or threat of law but through harassment and disapprobation. The challenge has been laid down several times: If you haven’t got a workable solution to the debt crisis, sit back quietly until one comes along. We ought to have had enough by now of the cant and rant which offers fixes that can’t be done, won’t be done or assigns blame by the ton.

The only answer is for the adults in the Congress to put their heads together with the adults in the Administration and hammer out a program that we can follow together. The time is now.

I’m Just Sayin’,

Friday, January 14, 2011

Characters Welcome

Dear Children:

Soon we will begin a series of posts about the committee chairmen in the House of Representative as well as some of the more colorful characters who are ranking members.

For those of you waiting for snark, this will be the the place.

I'm Just Sayin',

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The King's Speech

Dear Children:
I’m convinced that Mr. Bush would have been more or less universally lauded for his mugging of Iraq had he been able to control civil society once Saddam Hussein was on the run.

You may remember the welcome our troops received on the streets of Baghdad; the triumphant pulling down of the statues and the revelation of opulent palaces. Also remember that days after the welcome, government ministries and other corporate offices were looted rather thoroughly and irreparably. Shortly after that, some old religious scores began to be violently settled. It started with Christian liquor stores and quickly spread from the Shiite slums to leafy Sunni neighborhoods and hasn’t yet stopped.

Into the chaos leaped Iran (Shiite protection) and Saudi money (Sunni and Wahabi protection) and criminals (the protection rackets and others) as well as al Qaeda (all purpose nut jobs). It made for a heady brew.

In fairness, Mr. Bush’s hands were tied because he didn’t have the manpower. Among the lies he was told was that we could leave the people without an army, without police and without civil institutions because a shadow government was already in place. He also couldn’t disarm the populous because the populous was accustomed to doing without. Oh yes, don’t forget the mantra: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. He was also told that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the war. He was told there were weapons of mass destruction on the premises. He was told all manner of malarkey and he told it to us.

Just so, Saddam Hussein made sure everyone had a gun and a triple dose of paranoia after his policy of lies and half truths failed.  Tehran licked it's chops from the beginning.  The Saudis was delighted to see Syria shut off from Iraqi oil.

Be that as it may, criminals, religious zealots, politicians with guns and kids with a zest for havoc met no opposition. A culture that raised Stone Age cities, conceived the first agriculture and actually saw the bosom of Abraham was stripped of her leaders and professional class, looted of her artistic patrimony and burdened with the burial of her dead.

To think that such destruction issued from a few words spoken in a few capitols around the globe (including Baghdad and Tehran) is no intellectual leap. In fact, to think that the damage issued from something other than words is whistling Dixie. Everything save hurricanes and bear attacks issues from words.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The quotation comes from The King James Bible John 1:1. Curiously, there are no competing translations. It means, I hope, that Moses’ big idea was that words are the source of all things. Consider Genesis 1:1-5
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Don’t get your panties in a bunch, kids. Poppy is unqualified to make a theological argument. I am arguing that the current debate about the consequences of words was settled a very long time ago. A "word" is that by which we communicate our will; by which we convey our thoughts; or by which we issue commands; the medium of communication with others.

Nor do I subscribe to the idea that anyone in particular ought to take the fall for recent events. And, while we must unreservedly protect from prosecution ugly public words on First Amendment grounds, we need not condone them. Similarly, excusing incendiary speech on the basis of frustration, anger or grief begs the question. Words matter.

I’m just sayin’,

Monday, January 10, 2011

Comments on Comments

Dear Children:

It’s natural to be upset about the recent events in Tucson, Arizona where a gunman killed six people and wounded a dozen more. While the police may know his motives, we know this gunman went to a public place with the intent to commit murder.

We also know from his writings in social media that he exhibits a deeply muddled sense of causality and discrimination. But, being confused does not make for murderous intentions. Don’t look over here for an explanation of murderous intentions.

Nevertheless, I was struck by a couple things found in CNN,s “This Just In”. You may know that This Just In puts out raw and unfiltered reports about breaking news stories for those people who like to be up-to-the-minute. It also provides a place for people with a computer to put their two cents worth in. I almost never look at This Just In for those very reasons. Still, I was motivated to both go there and to read the comments.

The local Sheriff rated a paragraph:

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik used a nationally televised press conference to condemn the tone of political discourse in his state. He charged that public debate is now "vitriolic rhetoric," which has rendered Arizona "the mecca for prejudice and bigotry." Dupnik suggested that such rhetoric can have deadly consequences.
At first glance it seemed incredible that a Sheriff answerable to the voters would use such words to describe his community. Plus, after all we’ve been through with hypersensitive Muslims; somebody used a holy place to describe a magnet for prejudice. But nope, come the next day, he upped the ante:

“I think we're the tombstone of the United States of America," Dupnik said of The Granite State … “
He also had lots to say about ideology-based radio and television. We’ll save the question of idiot fringe media for another day. On the question of whether Pima County residents are particularly susceptible to vitriolic rhetoric he is clearly and naively wrong. We know that because of what’s in the comments -- hundreds of them. Loonies are found in every county, city and hamlet in this land.

There is no way to characterize the commentary on political grounds. Of course there were conservatives, liberals, libertarians, LaRoucheys, trivializers of all stripes, strict constructionists, very strict constructionist, super strict constructionists, progressives, populists and maybe even a whig or two. What can be said about a super majority of them is a meanness of spirit; that vitriolic rhetoric Sheriff Dupnik was talking about. Their purpose is blame. Their currency is blame. Their scriptures are blame. Someone or some system must carry the responsibility for anything that works contrary to their wishes.

Boy oh boy, do they have their stories. Sarah Palin is to blame because she “targeted” the 20th Congressional District of Texas. Progressives can’t stand the Bluedogs. Psychiatry coddles the dangerous. The cops have been disarmed by bleeding hearts. Conservatives are heartless haters. Schools have let us down. Churches are no longer relevant. The patriot movement preys on the weak. Government is too intrusive or not intrusive enough. There was a lot of blather about guns. Television, video games and popular music are tearing at the fabric of society. Glen Beck is a cretin. If only we’d listened to Glen Beck. You get the idea.

What was missing in these comments was a sense that something dreadful had happened; namely murder and maiming by glock and narcissism. Beyond ruining too many lives, no ideological, political, religious or social purpose was served. And, while there were strictures offered there was no horror at the gravity of the crime.

There was plenty of thoughtful reaction by our political leaders. Make no mistake, though, a way of speaking has taken hold that is ugly and pointless. The republic is the lesser for it.

I’m Just Sayin’


Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep

Dear Children:
Our politicians don’t quote poetry any more. Senators Everett Dirksen, Robert Kennedy, Alan Simpson and Robert Byrd were about the last of those who could be counted on for appropriate verse.  We’re not sure whether this state of affairs is a result of current politico's assessment of our capacity to understand the art form or if they’ve taken an assessment of themselves. Either way, the loss to political discourse is profound.

Granted, poetry requires learning a short glossary. Let’s be confident, though, that anyone who can learn fo’ shizzle, gym hares and ROFL can learn metric foot, consonant cluster and synecdoche.

Nor is poetry inaccessible. It doesn’t have to be snooty. Consider Ogden Nash,

Praise the spells and bless the charms,
I found April in my arms.
April golden, April cloudy,
Gracious, cruel, tender, rowdy;
April soft in flowered languor,
April cold with sudden anger,
Ever changing, ever true --
I love April, I love you.
Or Louisa May Alcott

Little shadows, little shadows
Dancing on the chamber wall,
While I sit beside the hearthstone
Where the red flames rise and fall.
Caps and nightgowns, caps and nightgowns,
My three antic shadows wear;
And no sound they make in playing,
For the six small feet are bare.
Or that master of the clerihew form, the champ

Who floats like a butterfly
And stings like a bee?
It is me
Poetry celebrates paradox and recognizes ambiguity as natural. Maybe that’s why we don’t hear it so much. The holding of paradox in one’s mind might be the definition of maturity; to at once adore the beauty of God’s creation and recognize the importance of competing responsibilities. Robert Frost inspired a generation of political leaders on both sides of the aisle with words like these:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
As the mouth fills with stunning sound and the mind fills with the ache of  contradiction each of us knows so well, we have the stuff of poetry.

This is just a thought: Poetry requires carefully chosen words as well as an appreciation for carefully chosen words. Maybe we should settle for a little thought before we demand that any of it rhymes.

The opening ceremonies of the 112th Congress had a certain – let’s say – inanity the Sominex people would love to bottle. If the words were carefully chosen, they were arranged leached of all soul, promise and meaning. Wallpaper music, stripped of melody, drooled from the podium of the House to form a puddle of vapid insignificance. There was no poetry and nothing quotable.

I’m Just Sayin’


Monday, January 3, 2011

Crowd Control

Dear Children:

Many times on these pages I have asked you to watch out for certain people. Mostly we have talked about the avatars, those with special knowledge, the simplifiers, the slick promoters, the bowdlerizers and those whose only plea is to trust them. This is an important topic and, if you’re tired of hearing about it – tough. The world is ripe.

History is rich with guidance in this matter. Too many times we have looked back at those we followed so blindly and asked: “Why did we do it?” One supposes that to be a legitimate-enough question. A question more likely to get at the truth is, “Why did we love him so much?” Do you get the distinction? Categorical obedience comes from love, unenthusiastic obedience issues from cynicism or gutlessness. Put that way, it’s easy to pick oneself out. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a churchman and great conscience of the mid-twentieth century, put it this way from his Nazi prison cell:

"If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted or destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and ... give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves."
Even as his assassination drew near, Dr. Bonhoeffer put the case mildly. H. L. Mencken, a journalist and anti-cleric, never suffered from such modesty:

"The individual man, cheek by jowl with the multitude, drops down an intellectual peg or two, and so tends to show the mental and emotional reactions of his inferiors. The crowd, as a crowd, performs acts that many of its members, as individuals, would never be guilty of. Its average intelligence is very low; it is inflammatory, vicious, idiotic; almost simian. Crowds, properly worked up by skillful demagogues, are ready to believe anything, and to do anything.
The numskull runs amuck in a crowd, not because he has been inoculated with new rascality by the mysterious crowd influence, but because his habitual rascality now has its only chance to function safely.
What happens when a crowd cuts loose? ... The few superior men in it are not straightway reduced to the level of the underlying stoneheads. On the contrary, they usually keep their heads, and make efforts to combat the crowd action. But the stoneheads are too many for them. ... And why? Because they are suddenly conscious of the power lying in their numbers. The third rate man, though he may wear the false whiskers of a first rate man, may always be detected by his inability to keep his head in the face of an appeal to his emotions. A whoop strips off his disguise."
Just this morning the Mencken quote flew overhead quite by chance as this topic again cried for attention … funny how that happens. And, accounting for the age in which the two quotes were crafted, young ladies may not think it applies to them. It does.

All this talk of the mob and herd-mentality begs the question of the alternative. The truth is that shouting “Heil Hitler” is easy as is drinking Kool Aid offered by some huckster or following a smooth talker to a commune. There are lots of lesser examples not the least of which is empty-calorie partisanship. It is difficult, on the other hand, to be in relationship with another individual person. It is hard to be responsible for a family. Friendship is often dodgy. Sharing can be risky. Faithfulness is not for the faint.

You gotta wonder when you see someone who prefers his dog to human interaction. Wringing one’s hands over the faceless poor is not the same as feeding and clothing real people. Carrying a placard one time in a billion got someone out of jail. These also are pale substitutes for individual responsibility.

Just in case you’re interested, there is much research that confirms the idea that, despite the proximate cause, riots and tumult are generally for fun and profit and have little to do with improvement.

Here again, Dr. Bonhoeffer is instructive:

“Being free means ‘being free for the other,’ because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free"
Here’s hoping you can hold these words dear. When we free ourselves up to think for ourselves, our thoughts do not turn to the hubbub but to each other with real and addressable needs.

I’m Just Sayin’