Saturday, April 26, 2008

There's No Hope. Seriously. None.


[Yeah, it's another weekend rant. Don't know why I bother anymore.]


Maybe it's just me. Maybe things aren't as bad as I think they are. Perhaps a nine-trillion dollar debt isn't a threat to our country; maybe the rising cost and self-limited supply of oil doesn't bode ill. It could be that environmental degradation and global warming are just a bunch of hype; and, I suppose, our country is not facing the possibility of governmental gridlock and economic meltdown. Nor, it could be, is the war in Iraq leading us to self-destruction. I hope so. Because from where I sit, it's now or never.

I really thought people would get it. To me, it seemed tautological: eighty-plus percent of the people think the US is on the wrong track. Therefore, whatever direction they think it ought to take, the one thing everyone might agree on is that the politics of the last several decades isn't working. QED. If there's one kind of change behind which everyone could get, it's the way we elect people. Attack. Destroy. Make shit up. Focus on irrelevancies; distract from the important issues. Fear the impossible, ignore the actual. But no, it's clear I was wrong. Whomever we elect as our next president -- and likely the same is true for most of our congressional folk -- the decision will not turn on energy policy, the war, the unsustainability of our deficit spending. It will be about convincing the electorate (easily, it turns out) that one candidate is a closet terrorist; and/or that realigning our military priorities will amount to "waving the white flag" to al Queda, that someone wants to raise taxes (as opposed to what? Moneh from heaven?)

Barack Obama began his campaign by saying, among other important things, that he'd tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. And, to a certain extent at least, he did. For a while. But he's finding out, big time, that that's not a winning strategy. People want to hear what they believe. Which, of course, fits perfectly with the fact that more than any other developed country, we are a nation of believers.

In comments on my rantings, people tell me to cool it. Why, they ask, do I get so upset about religion? Well, it seems pretty clear: the instinct for religious belief has slopped over into politics to the extent that it's made it impossible for us to face facts without magical thinking. Honestly, if people could keep their religious beliefs and their attendant make-believe separate from their ability to confront earthly truths, I'd have no problem with it. But to me, it's of a piece: magical thinking in the face of overwhelmingly difficult problems is the easy way out. It's the equivalent of the brain going into "tilt" mode. Fear of death, meaning of life? Sure. Do what it takes. Energy policy, economics, Iraq? Sorry. We need to look at them clear-eyed. If the magnitude of these problems isn't enough for people to stand up to the muck-meisters and say, NO, not now, not ever again, then it's over. Really. It's over. It's become apparent that the only way people might wise up and say it's time to elect people willing actually to confront problems is when those problems are so unignorable there's no longer any hope of fixing them.

The reason I've been so enamored of Barack Obama is that he seemed to be getting people to understand: what needs changing is not any particular policy (although they all need changing). What needs changing is the way we do politics. Young and old, left and right, people of all colors: if they could agree on anything, they ought to agree on that. Solutions, he seemed to be saying, will come from a gathering together of people of good intent from all points of view. The answers that we find will not be the verbatim policies of any candidate; those will only be a starting point, a set of priorities. It matters less what a candidate outlines in policy papers, than it does how he or she proposes to get there. But after the last few primaries, it's clear that voters haven't bought it. It's too complicated an idea; it doesn't fit on a bumper sticker. Even when the problems are so scary, old politics still works. The middle majority of voters really don't want to hear reality. They want politicians who give permission to look away. Scare and distract. Bait and switch. And if there's one thing we know about successful politicians -- McCain, Clinton, Gingrich, and their enablers, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, et al -- they're master baiters.

I'm convinced it ain't gonna happen. For this election, and so many more that it'll become impossible to reverse course, enough people will be influenced by the usual crap that they'll take us all down with them. Of that, I'm now sure. You see it in the polls, in what people say is important, the filthy ads and the reaction to them. The only thing I can't figure out is this: those purveyors of political porn; do they believe the shit they say and do, or are they the ultimate cynics? Tell people what they want to hear, because it still works. Take what they can get; rake it in while the getting's good; protect the status quo to make their pile and screw 'em all. And if that's who they are, could it be because they're convinced they'll still get raptured up, or is their religiosity just another gimmick, too: the megachurch of manipulation.

32 comments:

Patrick said...

This is a very clever post, and I like it. It's one of the better weekend rants.

I hope the "purveyors of political porn" (POPP's?) are the ultimate cynics. It would mean there is a rational creature deep inside after all, and it might still be possible to talk to them. But my humble suspicion is that they probably DO believe what they say and do. Just like a door-to-door insurance salesman honestly believes he sells "peace of mind" (to quote from Barton Fink).

We don't live in a world of geniuses. That much is clear. So why should we carve out an exception to that rule for the POPP's? There is no need to attribute cunning wisdom where ignorance and idiocy will suffice.

kewball said...

Sure there's hope: you outlined it in the third paragraph, "...he'd tell people what they need to hear". Now imagine, if you can, either of the other bobbleheads being able, let alone willing, to tell people what they need to hear.

I'll wait for you to imagine.

...

Yeah, thought you couldn't. Not in '93 and not now.

Take those early statments (characterized as gaffes in what passes for mainstream journalixm these days) as a nudge and a wink.

It may turn out that in classic political form, he runs to the center to get elected. Afterwards....

Sure, disappointment may well follow, but the alternative interpretation is equally disappointing, no?

NB: I have an "acronym parser" running in my consciousness at all times. Part of my sub-clinical OCD no doubt, and a darn useful tic for a programmer. These past few years, my acronym parser has incorporated URL-making into its uncontrollable routine. During reading, conversation -- pretty much any activity when certain words go by, I mentally check them for URL-worthiness. The one that popped up just as I was going to click "publish" was this little gem: spitbitter.com. I haven't looked to see if it's available and can't afford any more silly URLs anyhow. Enjoy. Holler if you need webhosting on the cheap. ;)

NB2: If this somehow is offensive or insulting, well, it isn't intended to be. Imagine having such stuff playing on the backside of *your* eyelids all the time. Occasionally I like to share my wacky slice o'life with others.

Health Train Express said...

spitbitter.com is available (just a commentary to punctuate another of Sid's rants....

Sid Schwab said...

Well now, see, there IS good news.

faded said...

"The middle majority of voters really don't want to hear reality. They want politicians who give permission to look away."

Wow, your attitude towards your fellow man is pretty disturbing. The statement in quotes assumes that you know what is best for the voters. The average american voter may be as dumb as a brick, but your condescending attitude is quite frightening.

If you give into your desire to "make" the voters see your reality you will have created a tyranny.

I live in a part of the United States that is very conservative. In discussions with folks here I have many disagreements, but they have never shown me the condescending attutude you show in this post.

The more time I spend living around these "conservative" folks, I see things like courtesy, a genuine desire to help people around them, and strong motivation to have honest government.

Above all they don't whine about how bad things are, they work on fixing the problem.

Sid Schwab said...

faded: perhaps it's condescending, even whining. But isn't it true? Don't attack ads and negative campaigning work? Aren't people -- enough to swing elections -- distracted into voting based on such things as flag pins; is it not true that lots of voters think Obama is a Muslim? Doesn't Fox "news" still say he went to a madrassa? And isn't pointing out the problem a way of "working on fixing" it? Tyranny??!!! Did you even read what I said? I said we need to come together to solve our problems. That solutions would be distilled from the best ideas from all sides. If you see that as tyranny -- or worse, if these people whom you so admire do, too -- then it's even worse than I thought.

Anonymous said...

I would also note that if you read slate.com, they quite regularly point out how much more often Obama talks about saying things people don't want to hear versus actually saying them.

McCain actually went to Iowa and straight up told them that farm subsidies are BS and ethanol is BS. Unsurprisingly he got crushed in the Iowa primary. I challenge you to find one stance Obama has taken that is even remotely close to saying something so unpopular (yet true) to people's faces.

I don't think McCain would be a very good president just because he is temperamentally ill-suited for the job. But from a campaigning perspective, I will always take his actual willingness to take a hit over Obama's constant vague references to that one time back then when he told someone something that wasn't popular.

Sid Schwab said...

I don't disagree, except to the extent that McCain has backtracked on all the actually courageous stands he's taken: against torture, against cutting taxes in wartime, against hateful religious talk. And now, against campaigning on distortions and character attacks. I think some of his stuff is less "courageous" than it is having a loose tongue. But he indeed has stood out and up sometimes.

Sid Schwab said...

faded, here's a fuller answer: In an interview in the New Yorker your "hard truths" question is addressed. In part, it says: "On the increasingly perilous subject of illegal immigration, Obama favors issuing state driver’s licenses to undocumented workers, and tells voters, “We are not going to send twelve million people back home.” When discussing his energy plan, Obama says, “You can’t deal with global warming without, at least, on the front end, initially, seeing probably some spike in electricity prices,” and on Social Security he proposes what is, in effect, a large tax hike. These issues all have one thing in common: Hillary Clinton’s positions are artfully vague—aimed at surviving the general election—while Obama insists that it is more important to be forthcoming.
Obama proposes raising the ceiling on income that is subject to the payroll tax. As a political strategy, this appears to be a terrible idea. A potential crisis in the Social Security system is a long way off. Why, then, would a new President spend political capital on yet another tax hike when he will almost certainly seek to undo the Bush tax cuts for more immediate demands, like universal health care? When I asked Obama about this, he smiled and leaned forward, as if eager to explain that my premise was precisely the politically calibrated approach that he wanted to challenge. “What I think you’re asserting is that it makes sense for us to continue hiding the ball,” Obama said, “and not tell the American people the truth—”I interrupted: “Politically it makes sense—”
He finished the sentence: “—to not tell people what we really think?”

depressed said...

If Hillary wins, there is no choice. She wants to "totally obliterate" Iran if they threaten any of our allies. And McCain wants to "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran", I guess just for the heck of it.
With a heavy heart, I believe them.

Sid Schwab said...

depressed: far be it from me to defend Hillary; but I believe her obliteration comment was for more than just threat. She said it in the context of a response to a nuclear attack by them. Still, it's a little sad that she thinks she needs to out right the right to get elected.

Anonymous said...

Are those really the best examples of Obama's willingness to tell people what they don't want to hear? A tax raise (that was already proposed by John Edwards before Obama) and expanding rights for illegal immigrants? In a Democratic primary? Next he'll be boldly telling us he supports unions and affirmative action or some other heresy. Granted, they may not go over well in a theoretical general election but they are red meat to the Democratic base.

Obama's campaign has gotten a great deal of mileage out of inspiring optimism in people. That's perfectly fine, but I get annoyed when he also tries to grab the mantle of contrarian guy willing to offend people if necessary by saying what they don't want to hear. There's just no evidence for it.

Sid Schwab said...

Well, there you have it. It's my opinion that it's self-evident that our politics is broken and unable to make the sort of decisions required to solve really serious problems. In my view there's only one politician saying that, and who might make an effort to govern inclusively, unwedded to the divisiveness that's gotten us to where we are. I'm pretty sure, it's our last chance to get it right, beyond which it'll be too late. And still, people are unwilling to take that chance. Vituperation, as usual, wins the day. Partisanship prevails. And so it goes. Whether he'd accomplish what he promises is far from certain. That people argue we don't need to reach for that sort of change means it may not be possible. Tubes, here we come.

adventures in disaster said...

If America wants to survive it has to stop looking outside itself for a "leader" to solve it's problems.
Every problem that exists right now has a solution within every community. But if everyone keeps wandering around waiting for some mythical creature to rise up and show them the way it's doomed.
America doesn't need a great leader. America needs a good accountant with an ability to use logic. A guy who has mastered the english language and passed basic geography and history. Everything else can be hired out to a team of real experts. America needs a guy that can listen quietly and be able to move his or her position if change occurs. Yes..a dreaded flip flopper. A person who has the maturity to know when they are wrong and accept their mistakes and correct them quickly.
A person who has NO entrenched positions on anything ready to listen to experts and the electorate to make sound, logical choices.
But America doesn't want what it needs. It wants it's President to believe unwaveringly in what they believe despite all evidence that the belief is insane and disastrous.
Obama will be forced to find some entrenchment before the electorate will feel comfortable. Obama refuses to do this and worse he becomes petulant and arrogant when it is demanded. He isn't playing the game and he is paying for not playing. It is grotesque to watch you are right but Obama is not a babe in the woods here. He chose his persona and now he has to either sell it with everything he has or he can back down and recreate himself in the image the electorate finds palatable.
What is more important to you..that Obama loses the election because he wont bend or he plays let's pretend with the media and builds a fake Obama and gets elected?
I say do what you need to get the job. Once you are in you can remind everybody about who you are.
It's all a means to an end. Unpalatable to you? sure, but it may taste mighty good for the majority and it's the results that count here.
The global community doesn't have enough time left to fight these fights.
The US needs that accountant quickly before this shit gets any further out of hand and if some bsing is required who cares?

JP said...

I spent the day cooped up with a lobbyist. I learned a thing or two about a thing or two I thought I knew. Voters don't want direct honesty from their politicians, not like Obama delivers it -- that would lead to us doing the real work of democracy and getting this country back on track (who has time for that?).

Dr. Schwab hit it square. We need nothing short of a sea change. But I do believe there is always hope, which can surprise.

Sid Schwab said...

disaster: I agree that intellect and intellectual approach is far more important in a president than any political starting point. I was with you until the last third. We have a president who said he was one thing to get elected... uniter, compassionate. I think it's up to the voters. Obama is saying what his goal is: to change how politics is done, and why, and how. If the voters reject it, well then, so be it. Our kids will grow up (if they have a chance) weighted down in debt, polluted, and dumb.

Ros said...

Your faith in Obama's intentions is the last bit of grip you hold on hope. Let it go and come all the way to the dark side. (You have to hear that in a Vader voice)

See, I pretend to celebrate the growth of cynicism because otherwise the spread of crushing hopelessness would just be another way for the poliical machine to control us. And if disbelief in the process actually helps sustain the process... then we've plumbed the depths of futility.

You have to take a step back, though, and see this as our place in the pattern of human civilization. Apex nations before us have gone this route too, we're just the latest to push the envelope of wealth and ignorance. It would be pleasant to believe that American the Great(!) could break the cycle, but it would also be staggeringly arrogant.

Trying to boil down my thoughts on old government comes to something like this:

The further a people are from the work that actually sustains their existence the less competent they become to judge their individual or collective good.

We are so very isolated from the things that allow us to live that we let the waging of an unimaginably expensive and distant war become a convincing 'need.' The same applies to 'single payer' health care, and the cheapest gas in the western world being 'too expensive,' and, well, all the claims we're sold as political goals.

Ugh, I think I've written enough. Your political rants have a way of stirring the same old bad feelings that had me writing a blog so long ago. ;)

Sid Schwab said...

Ros: very well said and provocative.

Annie said...

This is an important essay. I don't find much wanting in the logic and argument. One feature that hasn't much been bandied about in political discussions is how the vulnerable have been criminalized and so made impotent to help affect change. Over 50% of all inpatient psychiatric care is delivered in prisons. Over 1/2 of the prison population has one or more diagnoses of mental illness, and when diagnoses of substance abuse and addictions are added, I think the percentage goes up to around 75%.

We shifted over the past thirty years to a regulated free market to a Dickens regulatory free free market, and the robber barons glitter as never before, while people literally starve to death or die preventable deaths. The homeless are regulated out of existence until by virtue of their homeless state, end up charged with crimes and punished for being without shelter.
The candidate to spoke most closely to this, I think, may have been John Edwards. But his populist approach didn't garner him the financial underwriting he needed in order to compete with the leading candidates.

And one think which strikes me is that the Democratic party has no mission and vision statements. I gather it tries to imply that it represents everyone and everything, but in reality, it doesn't do enough to impart the core raison d'etre to rally people around and to garner loyalty and action.

So there are the unaffiliated and independents who outnumber the members of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Those are the people who are seeking someone with a compelling message, with integrity and with the resources to be able to affect change to meet their needs.

Instead, the two parties continue to undercut each other and play games while real people suffer the consequences. Ergo, cynicism rules.

My own small foray into politics has been to learn how the parties truly spurn policy wonks in favor of how messages are spun relative to their fundraising ability. I can write about substantive policy and issues til the cows come home, and no one reads, no one comments - no one acts.

But those sound bites that stab at the candidates garner the eyeballs, the discussion and the dollars. Who can compete with entertainment? It tastes so good - just like junk food.

Two excellent opiners on this subject are Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com and Scott Horton at Harpers.com (he's not blogging as frequently, but he also guests on the Balkinization blog, and he makes frequent media appearances).

Sid Schwab said...

annie: I think your analysis is right on; and there's depressingly little difference between the parties, in terms of dealing in distraction and diversion. It's beyond amazing, how little ink is used on real issues, and how much on the media-created trivia. That there is a wide unaffiliated middle ought to be encouraging; but it seems that even in that zone, such things as lapel pins and pastors paranoia take deeper root than reality does. Which is why I see no hope. As a nation we've been fed and have eaten shit for so long that it tastes like chicken.

Annie said...

It truly doesn't taste like chicken. ;^}

Sorry for all the typos - fingers, eyes and brain all on different channels today.

Any whales frolicking out and about your way?

Anonymous said...

It may be a little late to comment, but I feel very similarly about there being little hope. I found this blog by typing "There's no hope" into google. I barely realized I was doing it, but I'm glad I did. I remember the night Obama was elected. After the speeches my friend and I walked outside. It was very foggy in the street, and I distinctly remember feeling hopeful, like there had been a dark cloud over my view of the future for the past eight years. But now that's over. The weird thing is that I didn't really realize how bad it wast till it was gone.

It seems that GB3 will go down as the worst president ever. But make no mistake, there will be another horrible president, or terrorist act, or collapse of resources. That's the way history has always gone. It's always been about to collapse. The people that guarantee it doesn't are all those unremarkable people who go about their regular jobs everyday, doing their work and being fair and kind.

The world has scraped by disaster again and again, and sometimes even hit it head first. The earth has survived, and humans have adapted to many trying circumstances. Sure, the modern times hold scary prospects, but ultimately people move on, hoping things get better. And we continue everyday.

Hans Viertel said...

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding"
If there is a God, shouldn't we trust in him?

Sid Schwab said...

Uh, you mean the guy who lets thousands of babies starve to death every day; the one who told george bush to invade Iraq; guides priests to rape little boys; invented birth defects, Alzheimer's, cancer, halitosis; sees to it that there are hundreds of different faiths in the world, all believing they are so right that they should kill people who disagree with them; that guy?

Sorry. I'd rather not believe in such a being. If we can save ourselves, it'll have to be ourselves that do it.

Hans Viertel said...

In reply to Sids comment:
I think that there is an important difference between not believing that there is a God and being bitter with the one responsible for life.
I am reminded of the Sargent in the movie Forest Gump. When he was in the hurricane, in the crow's nest of the ship, shaking his fist at God and ranting against him for the sufferings he had to endure.

Sid Schwab said...

I didn't mean for this post to promote a religious discussion. But I will add this: I don't blame anyone but ourselves for our failures. It's not possible to be bitter with someone who doesn't exist.

Sky Minor (310) 709-8283 said...

Sid, I'm curious as to your take on Gov't bailouts.

Also, now that we are 1+ year into Obama's tenure and most of your predictions ended up being spot on, how do you think we can save ourselves? I don't mean collectively, as a nation we're finished but I mean as individuals.

Sid Schwab said...

Sky, I'm no economist, as I've said here. I'm convinced, mainly because economists I respect like Krugman and Stiglitz think it was necessary. Especially the stimulus money. It's interesting that much of the bank bailout money is being repaid, putting the lie to the right-wing nonsense that it was a government takeover. (And, of course, the TARP was begun under Bush.) I find it amazing that the banks have, evidently, not got much of a message and that those that received gov't funds gave out such huge bonuses. But I'm persuaded the essential idea was necessary.

As to saving ourselves as individuals: I suppose one can look at it all as great theater and that we are uniquely able to witness the collapse of an empire and ponder it. I console myself with the idea that when it gets bad enough all it'll take is a hose from my tailpipe into my car, a bottle of good gin, and a nice playlist on my iPod. Alternatively, I think about spending my money on fun stuff until it's gone (or down to some minimum amount to leave behind for those left behind) before I take the hose cure.

I suppose I'm not really that morbid. But I am convinced that we are now an ungovernable nation and that by the time people might get around to electing representatives that are both intelligent and willing to work toward solutions, it'll be too late. In fact, by definition, if they do, it'll be because it's already too late.

gigi said...

Regarding religion and your comment on magical beliefs....I understand that a person that has not accepted faith can view beliefs as "magical" or a blind eye to what is really happening. But to understand religion and faith is freeing.
How is your worrying about everythinig helping anything. Not every situation is for you to figure out. There are lessons and paths that others are on that are growing their souls and you are losing your soul in taking on too much.
I would suggest that you find faith and believe that the universe has a plan, of course we do not understnd it and that is frightening but it is the right plan.
Things are frightening when you feel you can't control them but who says it is you who has to control them.
Maybe you should not listen to the news for a while and just look at what is good in your own life on a small scale. Marvel at how birds fly, how our bodies work, how everything is just vibrating energy and when a negative thought comes in your head, kick it out and believe that it will all work out. Just believe that it always does.
Start looking at the positives and be grateful for them rather than letting your ego run wild trying to control everything....
Or, continue to think like you do and drive yourself crazy.

Sid Schwab said...

Right. Just believe in magic and forget about reality. It'd be fine if I could do it. I prefer to live in the world as it is; I marvel at the beauty, too. I love thinking about how birds evolved, how the universe works. I get much more thrill out of that than I would if I believed in some sort of magic guy in the sky, for which there's no evidence.

It's a gift to be alive, and I love everything about it; except the extent to which deluded people keep screwing it up, mostly in the name of their religious beliefs.

Hans Viertel said...

Robert Browning
Pippa's Song
THE year 's at the spring,
And day 's at the morn;
Morning 's at seven;
The hill-side 's dew-pearl'd;
The lark 's on the wing;
The snail 's on the thorn;
God 's in His heaven—
All 's right with the world!

Sid Schwab said...

To me, the poem is lovely, and makes as much (if not more) sense without the penultimate line.