Change Is in the Crisp Iowa Air

Looks like it’s Obama and Huckabee. If the rest of the country nominates the same way, our voting choices will be between a “skinny kid with a funny name” and a guy who doesn’t believe in evolution. Give me the skinny kid with the big ears and the sane head!

Lesser of Two Weebles

Wonder what’ll happen in Iowa tonight? But then, why should this little series of salon gatherings in the corn state have so much sway?

Don’t get me wrong, I love that Iowans have their quirky nomination process. It reminds me that Americans – unlike people in most other countries – really are pretty diverse. We’re free to be diverse and to have local traditions that others think are looney. I’m not familiar with the Iowa constitution, but I suspect that the political parties are free to have primary elections instead, if they choose. Even if they are not, I’m willing to take a bet that the people of Iowa are free – if they so choose – to enact any law or constitutional amendment necessary to allow for that flexibility.

What bothers me, though, is the impact of the Iowa caucuses’ timing on the news cycle. The reason this matters is that we have bought into this idea that what happens in each milestone on the campaign trail – and what the “experts” have to say about it – should inform our ballot choices as much or more than the results we want to see. Otherwise, Howard Dean might have been president. It’s a meta-process; too self-referential; too much of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It makes us settle for “viable” candidates instead of letting candidates become viable by our real choices based on real policy considerations.

As Dennis Kucinich once said: “I’m electable… If you vote for me.”

In the end, despite what the form of the Iowa caucus says about our diversity, its disproportional influence on the election is a symptom of our disturbing tendency to ignore the richness of political diversity and regress toward a manufactured mean.

Political strategies are important, of course. If you know your guy is unpopular, you need to figure out whether he or she has a realistic chance of overcoming that before you “waste” your vote. The Kucinich quote probably applies better to John McCain (before the latest poll surge) or Joe Biden. If your guy’s shot is as long as Kucinich’s, you might well want to cut your losses and vote for whoever is your number two. Still, this seems to me to be appropriate for the last minute and only for those who don’t see any value in symbolic voting (such as long-term transformational goals or ideological purity) as more pressing than the next president’s agenda and whether they can live with it.

But why would a pacifist liberal vote for a Democrat who is “electable” because she or he is hawkish? Why would a “small government” Republican vote for George W. Bush? Yet they do. All the time.

Take Hillary Clinton: why is she the favorite? Partly because she is all things to all people. Whew! We can relax, she won’t say too much to upset that mythical “center” of American politics and as long as we perceive her to be inoffensive to this “center” we don’t have to be offended by her either. It’s a shame that I feel this way, because I used to like her (and I may actually still vote for her). I liked her because once upon a time she seemed more authentic (if sometimes a little brash) and less politically malleable than Bill. But now people consider her “electable” precisely because she reminds them of Bill, who is every Democrat’s favorite “centrist.” He signed the Defense of Marriage Act (allowing states to disregard legal same-sex marriages from other states, which is in direct violation of Article IV of the constitution); he bombed Bosnia and Iraq while looking the other way on Rawanda; endorsed the Personal Responsibility And Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which made it harder for unmarried mothers – the people most in need of help – to get welfare; and he broke his promise to end discrimination against gay people in the military. Where was the liberal president I thought I elected? I have friends who think he had to “compromise” this way in order to be “viable.” In other words, we now accept, without a hint irony, that politicians must do what they must do to stay in office.

That’s all good for the politician, but what’s in it for me? Why should I care if an official stays in power if she will do nothing that I would like to see done (or I don’t know what the hell she’ll do, because she’s working so hard to get/stay in office)? Why should we care about the party label if the candidate doesn’t do it for us (whatever that “it” might be for any one of us)?

This is why I was baffled at the ire of my fellow Democrats in 2000 over Nader “stealing” Gore’s votes. Call me old fashioned, but I say votes don’t belong to a candidate until they are cast in his favor. I hated that Bush got in office (and he actually did sort of “steal” the votes by election “irregularities” and then had them sanitized by judicial fiat, so who knows if it would even have mattered if Gore’s lead had been larger). In any case, I wouldn’t have and didn’t vote for a third party candidate that year; it really was important to me. But I can’t get over the arrogance of concluding that others are obliged to agree with my politics and my political strategies. Criticize them for their views, sure, but don’t imagine that you were somehow “wronged.”

Anyway, back to the present. I don’t know what y’all think, but it seems to me that most candidates (even those who tout themselves as candidates of “change”) are so squarely playing to the perceived “center” that we all kind of give in to this bland game of judging candidates by an invisible checklist of the “right” things to say. The right way to be “American.” I love how candidates say with authority “the American people want” – like there’s some ideal monolithic “American” mean to which the rest of us are obliged to defer. And the candidates prance around in a pageant where each of them has to prove to this “American” that she or he is the least unusual. The most centrist. They have to be, as Stephen Colbert once said: “extra medium.”

So we must choose from the Weebles. They are firmly rooted in the political center of electability. And while they wobble to the left or right depending on the audience, they don’t fall down off the center.

Cops & Robbers

I just saw the critically acclaimed 2005 film “The Constant Gardener” today. In a nutshell (spoiler alert): an idealistic young woman and her sensibly well meaning diplomat husband learn the fatal lesson that their good intentions are no match for immense corporate greed and government corruption on an international scale. Some mega pharmaceutical companies essentially run human testing of shoddily designed drugs for tuberculosis on terminal AIDS patients in Africa. The patients’ “informed consent” is obtained by offering them the choice between AIDS treatment if they participate in the TB trials or no treatment if they don’t. Of course the AIDS treatment is supposed to be provided by completely unrelated foreign government sponsored humanitarian aid programs. But they are all in bed together. The trial results are slanted so that the patients who experience adverse effects — and die from them — are quietly removed from the records as ever having existed. The drug companies pay off the governments in their home countries. The governments look the other way when the falsified research data (not to mention the morally questionable research methods) are presented for the purpose of regulatory approval.

I don’t really know whether this story is based on real facts, but we all know that governments are very frequently instruments of material gain for those who can afford to buy their cooperation. On this topic, I would highly recommend Tim Carney’s well researched book “The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money” although I have a few significant disagreements with its conclusions (look for my review of it some time soon). But for today, my question is what would happen if there were no government oversight of corporations? Carney and others focus their suspicions on government. To an extent that’s sensible. For example, if there were no regulatory approval to seek, would those pharmaceutical companies in the movie even feel the need to put on this elaborate ruse in the first place? Some say that oversight mechanisms are so pervasively vulnerable to abuse that they become not much more than excuses for bribery and patronage. Again, in our movie example: without government complicity the companies may not have had the enormous resources and power to operate such a large scale scam.

But I’m not sure the answer is as simple as just getting rid of the governments. Doesn’t that sound a bit like scrapping the whole idea of policing as a “solution” for a city where criminals have become powerful enough to buy off the cops?

For tonight, I’m just raising the question. More later.

Old Years’ Eve

The “New Year” thing is so old, isn’t it? Starting from the banal (resolutions to do what you wanted to do last year) to the quietly sublime (not being able to help contemplating the drowsy but inevitable passage of time).

The idea of there being a “beginning” of a year is completely arbitrary, of course. Yet we have endowed this one day with the history and traditions that make it impossible not to feel a sort of significance.

I remember a conversation with my father, the last complete conversation I had with him, when he gently refused to commit to spending the “big new year” (2000) with me. My family had repatriated to India where both my parents were born. I was the only one left in America. I saw a lot less of them than I’d liked, especially at that time, when I was in law school, always short on both time and money. But I was going to be with my family on the “big” new year come hell or high water.

I was on the phone with Dad in late September, 1999. He said “come see me soon.” And I said yes, I’ll be there after my exams we’ll all spend the big new year together. He said that was just a construct and the important thing was that we would be together soon. He was a very rational man and this was just the sort of thing he might have said in another context, but he also had an emotional richness about him that was very generous toward the sentiments of others, so I’m not sure it was in character for him to dampen my enthusiasm in that way. In any case, a chord in his voice struck odd in my ear.

So I insisted. I know it’s a construct, but it has a value, doesn’t it? Aren’t most things we observe constructs that we have somehow found useful? I know it’s not even technically the new millennium, but it’s cool that the date format will change… and everyone in the world will be celebrating…. I wondered if he would tell me that millions of people in the world would have nothing to celebrate that night. He thought deeply about those things, but again, it wasn’t at all like him to dim someone’s joy.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but he didn’t argue with me. He didn’t humor me either. He just gently floated away from the whole new year thread of the conversation. He told me to come see him soon. But I just couldn’t get him to commit to the date. He was absolutely firm on that point. Looking back, I wonder if he had a premonition that it would have been a promise he couldn’t keep.

He died on December 2, 1999.

And while the Y2K fears turned out to be baseless, my world had changed utterly and forever.

That was eight years ago.

This is what the new year is about. Counting how many years it’s been since one thing or another. Counting the passing of years generally. It’s really all about the old years. It’s quite fitting that its anthem is Auld Lang Syne.

Koli Mitra

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