Purposefully Disconnected

A dozen or so years ago it was working on assignment on London, Ontario – almost two years of trying to build a new systems shop at the locomotive plant there – and that meant flying home to Los Angeles every other Friday evening for a weekend at home. So it was two years of being what they call a Corporate Road Warrior – a term of infinite smugness and self-puffery – and leaving the biggest carbon footprint on the planet you can imagine. But people do live that way. The corporation flies you to where you need to be and grudgingly allows that maybe you want to spend some time at home now and then. That’s nice, but generally you live in those bland long-term suite-hotels and drive an anonymous rental car and expense your meals with the other untethered people with whom you work – meals in nice but not too expensive restaurants, where you talk shop. And you assume your actual life will resume sometime later. But the money is good and there are all those frequent-flier miles you can use later, for spending time in places you’d actually like to be.

Of course you do get disconnected. You don’t follow the news and the national dialog on the hot issues of the moment – that’s background noise. And if there’s an election you’re three thousand miles away. Sure, you can file an absentee ballot, but by then you have no real opinions on anything. You’re always in transit, and that stuff is for people who aren’t. That too is for later. And of course friends become a tad more distant – friends on each end of the continent know you’re really on the other end of the continent, so instead of being the best friend you become one of the best friends, and it slides off from there. You shrug and spend the evenings filing expense reports. Human interaction becomes circumscribed to managing your staff of twenty-two programmers, analysts and their section supervisors – trying to inspire them to do fine work and not be total jerks – and dealing with the client, the folks just trying to build the locomotives, who aren’t that impressed with the software systems or the people tending those systems. Life becomes limited. You live vicariously, when you think of it, or if you think of it. You imagine your real life later.

But the Friday evening flights home in the autumn were cool. From the short hop down over Lake Erie to Pittsburgh, and then the five hours across the heart of America to the far coast, there were all those brilliant green tiny jewels in the black down below, the high school football fields all lit up for the big Friday night game, all across the country. And since you were flying in the direction of the time zone change, not against it, is was probably always the first quarter of the game. Even from thirty-five thousand feet it felt like some sort of confirmation of one of the cultural things that binds us all together – Friday Night Lights, like the television show.

And it took you back. For most of us that Friday night game defines the essence of high school, that time when we became who we are. Seeing all those green gems far below was comforting. Everyone comes of age around pretty much the same ritual activity. There are things that bind us together. But then you realized you were in a pressurized aluminum tube six or seven miles above it all, speeding away from each game, one after the other, at six hundred miles an hour. That was to be outside it all. So it was time for another scotch. Everyone knows Johnny Walker Black cures you of feeling disconnected, and finally of feeling much of anything else.

But were those people down below all that connected? That was something to consider. Yes, they were not in continual transit, where one tends to live vicariously when one gets around to it, but there is a lot of living vicariously on Friday nights in America. It’s mainly the sports dads, pretending their football-playing sons are them, doing what they should have done so many years ago – make the brilliant game-saving tackle, catch the impossible pass for a first down, or run through and over everyone for that key touchdown. Their eyes shine. It should have been so. Maybe it is so. And there are the alumni who show up and cheer, seeking the same sort of validation. And watch out for the mom who will do just about anything to make sure Susie is the Homecoming Queen. All that stuff was going on far below too. It seems not many feel all that connected to their own lives. And the cycle repeats, generation after generation.

But as a general rule, living vicariously through others is rather pathetic. Those of us who were high school teachers – the career before systems management – try to avoid it. Yes, you’re pleased when one of your students becomes someone impressive – the doctor in Boston, the Park Avenue attorney who is the go-to guy on securities law, the drummer for Talking Heads or the guy who runs the mastering studio in Manhattan where all the big guns in classical music hang out – but that’s not you, that’s them. Good for them, but in there is the reason many of us left teaching. You want to live your own life. You don’t want to end up like that Chips fellow in the movie – a noble but actually rather pathetic man. Living through others voids the self, so to speak – although for high school teachers who keep at it for forty years that can keep you young. Whether that is a good thing – knowing which new band is hot and who has a crush on whom – is another issue. One thinks of vampires.

But what do you do when one of your former students is considering running for Congress? Do you warn him about the dangers of voiding the self? That is what politics seems to be about – you serve others – your constituency, or the lobbyists and corporations and special interest groups who finance your campaign, or, if you’re the idealistic sort, the nation. But everyone expects something of you, almost as if they expect to live vicariously through you. You will be their voice. You will say the things they never could manage to say, or dare not say, or wish someone would say. In short, you will be the connection for the disconnected. And if you don’t become their impressive surrogate – their avatar perhaps – you’ll catch all sorts of crap and be gone soon enough. And become a politician and soon enough you’ll find yourself in a pressurized aluminum tube six or seven miles above it all, speeding away from it all, feeling pretty disconnected. Basically you listen to everybody and try to satisfy everybody at least a little, in the unenviable position of trying to offend the most people the least.

Being a politician seems to be a matter of choosing to be a selfless compromiser, where you get done what you can get done, but never quite as you see fit. You represent others as you practice the art of the possible. It’s a matter of purposely choosing disconnection.

And of course you see it playing out with the hope of so many on the left, their man Obama. For example, Steve Benen notes in this item that there was a New York Times report – here – there’s a divide within the White House when it comes to the economy:

Political advisors, including David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, see the polling data and are inclined to respond to public concerns about government spending and deficits. The economic team, including Christina Romer, Jared Bernstein, and Tim Geithner, see the economic data and are inclined to actually try to create more jobs and generate more growth.

What do you do? Who do you represent – those worried sick over the growing deficit or those worried sick over millions without jobs? And on Sunday, July 11, Jake Tapper spoke to Axelrod about the economy, and the senior White House advisor talked about offending the most people the least:

In his February budget proposal, the president requested $266 billion for additional stimulus for the economy. And just a month ago, the President called for $50 billion in emergency aid to states alongside the extension of unemployment benefits. This morning Axelrod called again for extension of unemployment benefits, but aid to states was not on his list.

“It’s true that there is not a great desire” on Capitol Hill to spend more money, Axelrod said, “even though there is some argument for additional spending in the short-run to continue to generate economic activity.”

“There’s not a great appetite for it, but I do think we can get additional tax relief for small businesses – that’s what we want to do – additional lending for small businesses,” the President’s senior advisor said.


And that was all Axelrod was prepared to endorse – extended unemployment employments (Axelrod said it’s something we “ought” to do, as opposed to “must”), and extended tax cuts for small businesses. Axelrod acknowledged that there’s “some argument” for additional short-term stimulus, but it wasn’t an argument he was necessarily prepared to endorse.

And what you do is end up satisfying nobody. There was no talk of what Obama wants to do – the self has been voided, if you want to think of it that way. There are pressures, and a sense that one must consider what’s possible, not what is right. And Atrios – Duncan Black – is not impressed:

So let’s say Obama’s people have correctly deduced that there’s no chance in hell of getting anything through Congress. They have two basic options. First, they could get on the teevee every day and say, “This is my plan to help. Republicans in Congress won’t pass it.” They could hold rallies in Maine. Allies could run ads. At least people would know who is for and who is against… and just what it was that people are for or against.

Option two is back off proposals you’ve previously made and have Axelrod get on the teevee and say, “there is some argument for additional spending in the short-run to continue to generate economic activity.”

And the New York Times’ Paul Krugman puts it more bluntly:

I have no idea what they’re thinking. It would be one thing if polls suggested a tolerable outcome in November, so that playing it safe could possibly make sense as a political strategy. But that’s not the way it is; and it’s hard to see what possible motivation there is for pulling punches. Going for your opponent’s capillaries when you yourself are bleeding heavily?

Krugman has no idea what they’re thinking, because they’re not saying what they’re thinking. Thinking isn’t the point in politics – where you disconnect yourself from such things. Henry Kissinger once said diplomacy is nothing more than purposeful ambiguity. Maybe all of politics is. But in any event it’s no place to get connected with your core self and that sort of thing.

Digby suggests what is happening here is the return of the great Democratic strategy called keeping your powder dry:

I’m inclined to think the White House believes they’ve already lost the congress so they are cutting their losses and looking ahead two years. And that means they would very much like to take a sharp turn to the right, particularly with talk of deficits and spending, in anticipation of the predictable Village narrative that they lost because they were too liberal. (All modern Democratic presidents do this, by the way, regardless of whether or not they lost their majority in the midterms. “Center-right” nation dontcha know.)

However if they do pursue a rhetorical conservative political strategy, they will be stuck with failed conservative policies, which they know are not going to be popular with anyone but the wealthy. It’s a conundrum, at least when it comes to pesky voters (as opposed to pesky major donors.)

So she suggests this is one of those gut check moments:

The administration can make a real argument as Atrios suggests and do the right thing for themselves and the country – or they can follow the demagogues, the Masters of the Universe and the Villagers and keep hoping that everything magically turns around so all those vaunted, precious Independents will come back in 2012 without them having to take any risks to Obama’s personal popularity. (The liberals are expected to fall in line in the face of the inevitable GOP freakshow.) If Axelrod is the spokesman for the political team in the White House, and I assume he is, it appears they’ve decided to take the second course.

The congressional Dems are on their own for this one. “The legacy” is on the line and as with all recent presidents that takes precedence over anything else.

And somehow it all seems disconnected from real life – from the massive numbers of Americans with no job and no hope of finding one and all support being cut off, and the issue of how much debt we can handle to be incurred to avoid further cascading collapse. And it also seems like looking down on it all from six or seven miles up, finding it all curious, but not immediate or personal – like flying over all those tiny football games.

Benen sees it this way:

My sense is that President Obama really hates – and actively avoids – picking fights he fully expects to lose. Based on his public comments and proposals, I’d say the president really does endorse his economists’ approach and wants additional stimulus, but doesn’t want to go the mat to fight for spending he’s not going to get. The defeat would leave him weaker, exacerbate intra-party tensions, and at the same time signal that the White House lacks confidence in the strength of the economic recovery.

But think about those three things and how disconnected they are from actual life – worries about appearing weaker and thus being weaker, making tensions with the Republican Party even worse (if that is even possible) and making it seem like you don’t believe in wonderful capitalism recovering from disaster all on its own – and because it’s left on its own – if you imply it cannot by extending unemployment benefits and aid to small business and the states laying off teachers and policemen and firemen. Those are all one step removed from the actual problems. But of course politicians must think this way. To be a politician is to choose to be disconnected, and live there.

Benen adds this:

But the current alternative is far worse, especially given the fact that the White House should lack confidence in the strength of the economic recovery. It makes a lot more sense to push an ambitious jobs bill – like, now – invite Republicans to do what they always do, give Democrats something to fight for, and have the debate.

Benen does not think like a politician. He wants things to be connected, even if he knows that’s not how things work:

Of course, the problem isn’t exclusive to the White House. Indeed, the problem didn’t originate with the White House at all – Axelrod said frustrating things on “This Week” earlier in large part because there are more than a few hand-wringing Democrats on the Hill afraid to prioritize the economy over the deficit.

But fear is smart politics, isn’t it?

Benen also recommends Ezra Klein’s latest piece:

Political scientists have a pretty good handle on what wins elections, so I began asking them the question that some say is bedeviling the White House: Should the White House focus on polls or paychecks?

The answers were unequivocal: “A policymaker reading polls who finds that people are concerned about the deficit and says I should rein in spending and I’ll get credit for that, I don’t think there’s evidence that’ll move voters,” the University of Denver’s Seth Masket says. “You want to get as much money in voters’ hands in the months before the election as possible.”

John Sides, of George Washington University, helped me run the numbers on presidential elections: We made one graph comparing the share of the vote the incumbent party got with the change in the deficit that it had presided over. It looked as if we’d spilled a bag of dots onto a piece of paper. The next graph plotted vote share against change in real disposable income. The line showing a correlation fit perfectly – more perfectly, in fact, than I’d anticipated.

In short, disconnect yourself from the problem, and from what you really think. Go where the votes are, or do as Benen says:

Yes, Republicans will block any measure intended to improve the economy, and it’s largely too late for a new stimulus effort to boost the economy before November. But it’s still worth having the fight – force the GOP to stand in the way of job creation, and show the public that Democrats are prepared to fight to improve on an unsatisfactory status quo.

In other words, work the perception, not the problem, and stay in power. You can do good later, or something.

But for disconnected people it’s always later. And the former student wants to run for Congress. What is there to say to him? Perhaps he needs to know what it feels like to watch the world form seven miles up over Kansas, for the fortieth time, and not feel part of it and just generally disconnected from everything, the self voided long ago. Alienation is too strong a word – it’s not even that interesting. But some choose it.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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