Monday, September 15, 2008

A Confluence of Hostilities

Last Thursday, I thought a simple, unadorned post of Laurie Anderson's eerie "O Superman" would be enough to mark that ugly anniversary. I thought - for once - I'd play it mature, tasteful, restrained, understated; I was almost proud for having pulled it off.

And then I had to spoil it all by idly clicking around. Tripping my hair-trigger temper (that would qualify me for the Republican candidacy), I immediately set about compiling a deliberately tasteless mix - some N.O.U. "Target USA" here, a li'l Cassetteboy there, topped off with a little BJM for good measure. But little by little, my rage dissipated between constant dashes to & from the Mr. Coffee in the kitchen. Who, precisely, was I exacting some psychic revenge upon? What would this achieve, other than making myself smug for my detached political superiority and trivially diverse music collection? By the time it came to master the mix, I felt appropriately like just another dickhead with a digital soapbox.

In an election year, it's easy to become prone to hysteria and overreaction - especially when some man-size dress-up doll has swiftly castrated liberals' momentum and lent reactionaries some inauthentic-yet-iron-thick deniability. The growing dread is that November 4th will soundly prove H.L. Mencken's cynical theorem "that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

(By Steve Bell of the Guardian)

At which point, there will be plenty of time for spittle-drenched diatribes about what a buncha blinkered rubes the American people are. But over the past week or so, I've seen enough misdirected hostility & troglodytic prejudice to have put me in an uncharacteristically conciliatory mood.

A friend of mine recently related that his own German students admit that, while exemplary as tourists abroad, Germans can be less than culturally accommodating at home - to which I'll testify.* Any derision I'd received in the past, I was willing to chalk up to the country's reputed wooden stoicism, but within a single three-day span last week, I'd found myself:
  1. having not only to delineate the difference between Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, but defend East Asians in general as having souls to a self-professed "hippie chick."
  2. arguing that, biological complications aside, gay couples should have the right to raise a child. (This, I might add, to a divorced man who has adolescent offspring he sees maybe annually.)
  3. being tongue-lashed by a cop for not speaking proper German when I was attempting to report some domestic violence in a neighbouring apartment.
Speaking of pigs, the most bemusing facet of "Palinoia" is her sex-symbol status. Her austere sense of dress coupled with her enthusiasm for firearms fits very neatly into every neocon's fiendish, two-faced S&M fantasy: a Madonna as magistrate & mother, and an M-16-toting minx in the marital bed. Meanwhile, confused confessions of attraction from the left probably owe a lot to the recent near-ubiquity of that other auburn-haired, bespectacled boss-lady, Tina Fey. I'll cop to Ms. Fey being the closest thing I've had to a celebrity crush since Melissa Auf Der Mauer** way back in high school; so I'm biased when I'd say the resemblance, though inescapable, is... er, charitable. But the brain-VS-loins cage-match has since been inflamed, as Fey's uncannily accurate impression of Palin on the season premiere of SNL "supercharged both the 'rah rah 9/11 boom bah' and the 'hate-fuck' sides of America’s collective brain" (to borrow the words of the Onion AV Club).

Tangentially, it was at the same party where I was called to argue that gays & Asians are people too that I inadvertently introduced both "hate sex" and "grudge fuck" to a friend's vocabulary. Though the concept of grudge-fucking put her right off, she immediately took an interest in "hate sex" and, ex-psych major that she is, asked me to expound. I began by reciting from memory - as best I could - this personal ad from Craigslist. (The cherry on top: "Your pictures get my smarmy pretension.") As best I could explain it, "hate sex" is the better of the two viscerally-exorcismic responses to someone utterly repellent; the other response, naturally, is violence.

While this reasonably sated her curiosity, my friend wanted an illustration more concrete than some idealised personal-ad respondent; Palin (having just won the Veep nom) was the obvious exemplar, though I hastened to endorse Dana Perino as my political siren du choix.

Most terrifying is that the American election won't be a potentially historic ideological battle, but a libidinal referendum.

(*) - Obviously, this isn't making a blanket statement about Germans being latent racists. C'mon, I'm not dumb enough to fall into that hypocrisy. The degree of icy aloofness (with regard to casual social interaction) also varies rather wildly from city to city: Berliners tend to be more forgiving regarding language, and Kölners are so damned cheerful I wonder if the Rhine is dosed with Prozac.

(**) - Yes, I wrote & recorded this when I was 16. That's my buddy Dan singing.


Andrew Stevens said...

This election isn't an ideological battle anyway. This should have been the Democrats' year. I've never seen an election so stacked in their favor, including 1996. And then the Republicans nominated John McCain, the only Republican who could conceivably win, despite the fact that the party's right wing absolutely hates him. And the Democrats nominated a man whose principal qualification is that he gave a good speech four years ago. Which is sort of like had the Republicans decided to put Sarah Palin not in the number 2 spot on the ticket, but on the number 1 spot. The deck is so stacked for the Democrats that Obama might still win, particularly if he ever figures out that he's not running against G.W. Bush in 2004, but against John McCain in 2008. (However, this doesn't seem to be happening.) But that just shows how stacked the deck is. In any ordinary election, McCain would've crushed him.

By the by, it is really funny that in the link which supposedly documents McCain's temper, there's an 8 and a half minute video in which McCain never loses his temper.

Seb said...

Well, once the Democrats somehow bungled recapturing either house of Congress under Clinton, you could see where their particular, surprising genius lay: blowing it.

By the way, I'm not a fan of William Jefferson Clinton by any stretch - well done in mentioning Ricky Ray Rector in your last comment. But he was a phenomenally popular leader, impeachment and all, yet the Democrats somehow managed not to take advantage.

As for the link, yeah, the video's bloody useless. I'd wondered why it's being kicked around as an anti-McCain chain e-mail when what you're supposed to hear is said off-mic. I linked to that page more for the newspaper citations.

Andrew Stevens said...

Nobody's buying the temper thing anyway. The really dramatic examples are poorly sourced (anonymous whispering campaigns like claims that he called his wife a rude word in public) and the ones which are well sourced (the confrontation with Cornyn) are laughed off by the people involved (Cornyn himself). It's hard to see how McCain's temper is any worse than Bill Clinton's who, on many, many occasions, was known to scream himself red in the face in the White House. (Nobody has ever alleged McCain doing that.)

And Clinton wasn't that popular in 1994 when he lost Congress. Had he had to run for re-election, he might have won, but he might have lost. His first three years, his approval ratings were between 46% and 49%. He didn't come up above 50% until 1996, just in time for re-election. In fact, losing Congress was the best thing to happen to Bill Clinton. All of his important achievements were passed by Republicans, not Democrats (possible exception being the 1993 budget bill).

Seb said...

Certainly, it was no surprise that the Dems lost Congress in '94 as Clinton had sunk to the 2nd-lowest approval rating of his entire tenure. Still, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Ford were the only 20th century presidents who had higher lowest-approval rates than Clinton, and he left office with the highest outgoing rating since Gallup started the poll. Clinton's approval rating didn't even dip below 60% during the entire impeachment process; he was the most consistently-liked president since Eisenhower.

By the way, I'd be curious in seeing what polls you're reading; all the ones I can find (NBC/WSJ, Gallup/CNN, Pew, even Fox) give Clinton an inaugural rating around 55% and put him above 50% by the end of his first year - not that it lasted long.

As for Clinton's *ahem* achievements... while I agree that the antagonism between executive & legislative branches ruled by different parties often charts a better course for the country, Clinton was a better Republican president than his predecessor. The Telecom Reform Act, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, the Iraq Liberation Act, and (a massive thorn in my personal side) the DMCA - yes, these were all very enthusiastically endorsed by Republicans, and there's no surprise there.

I also agree that temper shouldn't necessarily rule out a candidate. Clinton was, as you said, notoriously hot under the collar; Nixon, more smoldering than explosive, was a grade-A son of a bitch; hell, LBJ shook Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson by the throat, shouting at him, "You pissed on my rug!" Mercifully, we somehow avoided nuclear holocaust at their hands (and actually came a lot closer under smooth-talking playboy speed-freak JFK).

By the way, you'll be pleased to know that there are a few journalists who can read actuarial tables better than Matt Damon.

Andrew Stevens said...

Even that's not quite right. The public tables that I linked to (and which everybody else is reading as well) are not in fact leveraged in the industry. They're what is known as "unismoke," smokers and non-smokers are mixed together. McCain is a former smoker, but quit 28 years ago, so his life expectancy would be better than that. Moreover, he appears to be in excellent health, much better than the typical 72 year-old. Of course, I haven't seen any test results on cholesterol or blood pressure or the like, but I'd be surprised if, even with his bouts with cancer, McCain didn't have a far better chance of living out the next four to eight years than the typical 72 year-old. (I do know that both his mother and his mother's twin sister are alive and in full possession of their faculties at the ages of 96. Genetics also matters.) Some people will say that being President is bad for one's health, but I see zero real evidence of that other than the risk of assassination. (The anecdotal evidence usually cited is that the President "ages fast" when he's in office, but I don't even agree with the anecdotes. Bill Clinton aged the usual amount a man does from the ages of 46 to 54.) The risk of assassination is a non-trivial risk though, so I'd have to include it somewhere. At a guess, I'd say McCain has probably about a 92-93% chance of living out his first term, but that's being pretty conservative; it could be much better than that.

My source for Clinton's approval ratings is this article. You're right about Eisenhower, by the way, but you'll find that Clinton's approval ratings more or less tracked the exact same trajectory that Reagan's had (slow at first with Reagan's a tad worse due to a deep recession, picking up steam going into the second term and then staying uniformly high, but including the slight dip in their sixth year as they each faced down their greatest scandal - Iran-Contra and Lewinsky respectively). The numbers in fact are eerily similar.

And, yes, I agree that Clinton was very conservative (the most conservative Democratic President since Grover Cleveland). In interpreting his '94 loss of Congress, it's important to remember that he had run as a DLC Democrat. While he did get NAFTA passed in his first term (primarily with Republican votes), his most significant achievements were raising taxes, "don't-ask-don't-tell," and the failure of Hillarycare. He wasn't hated, but he was widely viewed as a do-nothing President and he was attempting to govern further to the left than he had run. Which is how we wound up with Gingrich. After the government shutdown of '95, Clinton's approval ratings rose and stayed up there.

Seb said...

"Unismoke"... what a fantastic neologism. And given that "assassination" is a oligarchically-reserved synonym for "murder," it'd be interesting to see how much better or worse the president's odds of getting capped are compared to the average citizen. (Which, again, would depend on where - South Chicago or South Dakota?)

Certainly, the misgivings I have about a McCain/Palin presidency have everything to do with ideological P.o.V. and very little to do with age or temper - so you can imagine what are my complaints about how the Dems are running the campaign.

Ah, so we were reading the same data on Clinton's approval rates - but you were quoting yearly averages, whereas I was checking weekly-charted line graphs. Therein lies the confusion. And yes, I seriously debated between anointing Reagan or Eisenhower as the most analogous to Clinton in terms of public opinion.

As for the "Republican Revolution" of '94, that's basically what I said in shorthand before: the Dems lost Congress because Clinton's ratings were so low because (as you said) all he'd succeeded in doing was instituting NAFTA (angering the both extremes of the political spectrum), higher taxes (angering everyone else), and an equally divisive policy regarding gays in the military. His rather violent swing right and steady appeal thereafter was thanks to his slavish attention to public opinion, moreso than any president prior or since.

Andrew Stevens said...

Not sure about any President. LBJ was fairly beholden to opinion polling. (It didn't work; didn't even make him popular.)

My earliest point about McCain is that he (probably) doesn't have the ideological POV you think he does. Of course, there's no question he's far too right-wing for your tastes anyway, but then I imagine so is Barack Obama. This election is not really an ideological struggle along the lines of Reagan-Mondale. Obama hasn't figured that out yet, but he will before the end.

Oh, and, out of forty-two Presidents of the United States (Grover Cleveland is counted as the 22nd and 24th Presidents, but only forty-two men have been President), four of them have been murdered. (Assuming that you don't believe the stories about Zachary Taylor and you shouldn't since there isn't any evidence for that.) This is enormously higher than the murder rate for ordinary citizens (chances: the trivial risk of one in 18,000) and higher still than it is for men of "Presidential age." (Men of age 25-44 are at far more risk of being a victim of homicide than any other group.) Even if we leave aside all Presidents before, say, Woodrow Wilson as coming from a different age of less security (which I am inclined to do though the two Presidents prior were both shot, with McKinley dying and Teddy Roosevelt surviving), the President has a one-in-twenty-four chance of being killed in any given term, a two-in-twenty-four chance of being shot, and at least a 50% chance of somebody's trying to kill them. Attempts were made on FDR, Truman, two on JFK (one successful), two on Nixon, two on Ford, one on Carter (debatable), one on Reagan, two on Clinton, and two on G.W. Bush, though some of these attempts were rather pathetic and had little chance of actually working. (One attempt on Clinton and one on Bush consisted simply of firing shots into the White House from a distance.)

President is probably the single most dangerous job in the country.

Seb said...

So that's the macro of assassination-as-occupational-hazard. Now, it'd be too mammoth a task for our little comment thread, probably a grant-worthy research project unto itself, but I'd like to compare the presidential murder-risk to many, much more finite & precise demographics, broken down along municipal residence, economic status, age, gender, etc.

For example, how much more likely is the president to get whacked than a 33-yr-old hedge fund manager in the Mission district of San Francisco? What about a bouncer at a downtown Atlanta nightclub?

Anyway... when you say Obama needs to realise he's not running against Bush in '04, you're absolutely right. But I still think he'd do better to dare frame the electoral choice ideologically. Letting it boil down to identity politics leaves Obama in a far more tenuous position to win.

Oh, and I've been asked to throw something your way: user value. Thoughts?

Andrew Stevens said...

You're not going to find any demographic group with a murder rate of 10%. That is, unless you count fetuses or start data mining and discriminating at such a fine level that you're only referring to about a dozen people (of which, it just so happens one or two were murdered). E.g. "stars of Hogan's Heroes" probably has a higher murder rate than President since Bob Crane was murdered. (So Richard Dawson had better watch out.) There is one profession which is probably more dangerous than President - that of astronaut.

I doubt Obama should turn it into ideology (America is a center-right country and he would lose). However, identity politics certainly isn't the answer. Specific plans, particularly an economic plan is probably the best bet. (This probably does drag some ideology into it, but I'd place it in a pragmatic, not an ideological, framework.) The content-free rhetoric he's had until now isn't such a great idea, though it might have beaten Bush in '04. People generally vote for plans, not for men. (And if they did vote for men, Obama, as charismatic as he is, can't compete with war hero John McCain.)

"User value" is a new term on me unless it refers to Marx's distinction between "use value" and "exchange value." If it is the Marxist theory that is being referred to, rather than some new theory, then I don't disagree that Marx might have been identifying something real, but I don't know how relevant it is. In pricing theory, marginal utility seems like a much more useful concept which is not to deny that Marx may have correctly identified a real property in use value. However, if "user value" is some new term or what is being defined here, then you're beyond my competence. (All I can say about that link is what is being said in the quoted passage sounds like bafflegab to me.)