In Media Res

Being a teacher you get used to the whining from the kids. Yeah, yeah – this makes no sense and that is needlessly confusing, and why do I have to know this – it’s stupid – and life is not fair. That can make you defensive and eventually drive you crazy, but sooner or later you realize being upset by the whining is just a waste of time and energy. It will never end, so you just roll with it. It’s part of the job. And an ironic smile usually gets them to stop it. Yeah, they know they’ve been bullshitting you. Everyone can laugh and you move on.

But it’s harder for English teachers. It’s not like math and science, or even history, where you can say you’ll need to know this later, as it is practical knowledge. You can only make an indirect argument – learning how language works and learning to use it effectively is more useful than anything else – in fact that underlies everything else. They roll their eyes. They’re not buying it. And they bitch about the poem or the play or the novel. What the hell does this thing mean anyway? And then you can get drawn into arguing that they’re looking at something that is expression, not description – the difference between saying ouch and saying my toe hurts when you stub it on the stairs. We’re studying expression, not description here, kids. What it means – X equals Y – isn’t the point.

They roll their eyes again – tell us what it means and we’ll write it down and toss it back at you come the final exam, and you can tell us if we got it right. You tell them no – you want them to explain how it works, how the language works to get the job of this thing meaning anything done. And of course they don’t get it. It’s not fair – tell us what it means.

And of course all that goes nowhere. And you also face the secondary complaints – this thing starts in the middle. Why doesn’t it start at the beginning? So you try to explain the concept of in media res – lots of stories are told starting in the middle, with flashbacks when necessary, as life is like that. We all walked in somewhere in the middle of the story and we’re trying to figure it out – how we got here and where we’re going. And they should be familiar with that way of telling stories – Star Trek popped up on television in the middle of the sixties, in the middle of the action, and Paramount got around to how it all started in 2009 – and Batman Begins made it to the screen in 2005. Starting in the middle is no big deal, and it’s hardly unfair.

But they don’t like it anyway. When it comes to literary devices they prefer the deus ex machina in the old Greek tragedies – things are nasty and bloody and complicated, and suddenly everything is resolved when one of the gods descends from the heavens – cranked down from above the stage in some sort of machine – and says this person is right, and gets the goodies, and that person is wrong, and gets screwed. And the god doesn’t take crap from anyone – he or she is a god, after all – and that’s that.

The kids like that. That’s the sort of thing that appeals to late adolescents – no ambiguity there. Euripides may have seen that as tragic – man means nothing in the end – and Medea, who has just murdered her two kids, because she’s beyond pissed off at her husband, Jason, is whisked by the god Helios off to safety and undeserved happiness. But the kids find that satisfying – a relief – things have been settled, one way or another. They always like that play. Late adolescents loathe ambiguity. And their English teachers revel in it – they find it fascinating, and important. Of course nether will understand the other.

But here’s the deal, folks – your English teacher was right. We’re all in the middle of the story, and the heavens are not going to open and one of the god’s descend to kick some ass and straighten things out. You thought that was George W. Bush, the decider? How did that work out for you? And what about that lottery ticket in your wallet? The odds of you having the winning number are about the same as the odds of Helios showing up to fix things for you. Grow up.

And you see it playing out in the news, as on Wednesday, July 28, there was the ruling on Arizona’s SB 1070 – the anti-immigrant law that requires cops to demand papers from anyone who looks even slightly Hispanic – that put its most problematic provisions on hold, with a court order:

A judge has blocked the most controversial sections of Arizona’s new immigration law from taking effect Thursday, handing a major legal victory to opponents of the crackdown.

The law will still take effect Thursday, but without many of the provisions that angered opponents – including sections that required officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws. The judge also put on hold a part of the law that required immigrants to carry their papers at all times, and made it illegal for undocumented workers to solicit employment in public places.

Until the court resolves the legality of these issues, the provisions will not take effect.

But that settles nothing. Lawyers for Arizona’s strange governor, Janet Brewer, will no doubt appeal, and the New York Times notes here that “legal experts predict the case is bound for the United States Supreme Court.” It’s an ongoing story, and may be forever. Those who don’t much care for those who aren’t white, like them, never really go away. It’s an ongoing story, or maybe a never-ending story.

And see this odd item from CNN:

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation national survey, the vast majority believe that most immigrants are basically good, honest people who are hard-working. However, nearly seven in ten say that immigrants are a burden on the taxpayer, 62 percent think they add to the crime problem, and 59 percent believe they take jobs away from Americans.

The poll, released Wednesday, asks about all people who have immigrated from other countries in the past ten years, and not just about illegal immigrants in the U.S.

“The results may explain why most Americans think that the policies that made the U.S. a ‘melting pot’ strengthened the country a century ago but do not make the country stronger today,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

What? Digby unpacks this:

Well there you have it. “Most Americans” think immigrants are “basically” good, honest people – but they are also criminals and indolent leeches who are stealing our jobs. That makes sense.

I don’t know exactly why CNN thought this was worth doing, but if their polling is correct, it’s apparent that “most Americans” are a bunch of nativist jerks. Perhaps that’s true. It’s certainly always been the case that Americans have always tried to pull the ladder up behind them, whether it was the English settlers to the Germans, then the Germans to the Italians and the Slavs or everybody to the Chinese and other Asians. As for Latinos, well, they have always been here and we just use them as scapegoats whenever we feel like kicking somebody. Apparently, that would be now.

And Digby is not at all happy with CNN:

CNN’s definitely stirring the shit with this, though, at a time when it’s terribly irresponsible to do so. When they say “immigrants” in the current climate, most people think they are talking about Hispanics. If they are going to do this, they really need to get specific and ask people if they are talking about Indian doctors or Polish construction workers or Jamaican business owners when they talk about this. My neighbors are French and Irish immigrants. Are they included in this indictment? Or is this just the usual plain old bigotry against Mexicans. I think it would be very helpful to be precise in this debate. You can’t talk about this unless you understand the real issue.

But of course that will never happen. The story doesn’t have an ending, happy or otherwise. And the Supreme Court is not any political deus ex machina, nor is Janet Brewer any sort of Helios. The courts will rule, and laws will be rewritten to get around the ruling, and they do reverse themselves now and then, and there’s always amending the constitution to make their ruling moot. And Arizona’s governor is not going to declare the state whites-only and declare war on Mexico and send her troops down there. She doesn’t have any troops. This is the middle of the story, if there can be a middle when there will be no ending, ever.

And of course arbitrary endings, where some god decides everything, are inherently tragic – that was the whole point in Medea and the other tragedies of that age.

But Americans are perpetual adolescents and want an ending. So we make things up. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jay Bookman hints at that with his assessment of the current political landscape:

Here we are in the smoldering ruins of an economy recently wrecked by Wall Street greed, in a country where for 30 years almost all income growth has been concentrated among the richest 1 percent of Americans. Rising populist anger, massive long-term unemployment and record home foreclosures serve as counterpoints to soaring corporate profits, while the Supreme Court rules that corporations are people and can spend limitless amounts of money trying to elect candidates willing to serve their interests.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party defends massive tax breaks for the wealthy while blocking aid to the unemployed, fights bitterly against regulations designed to prevent a repeat of the Wall Street meltdown, blocks legislation that would at least require corporate and special interests to identify themselves when they invest in elections and does all that while proclaiming itself to be the party of the little people.

Do I have that right?

Yep – and it is like dealing with sullen and surly teenagers. And see Steve Benen here:

I’d just add two things. One, congressional Republicans also hope to block a bill to offer economic incentives to small businesses, while blocking all related efforts to improve the economy, including aid to states.

Two, they’re the party that’s expected to do extremely well in November, all of these details notwithstanding.

They will do well. Perpetual adolescents want their deus ex machina, and they want it now. They think it’s the Republicans, who will fix everything. But to be fair, many of the left see Obama the same way – their deus ex machina – even if he keeps saying no, that’s not him, and there isn’t such a thing – much to their disappointment, as Obama didn’t fix everything, damn it.

And see Matthew Yglesias on the matter of Republican priorities:

People who believe that the war in Afghanistan is important to the long-term interests of the United States of America are absolutely, unequivocally correct to vote to spend tens of billions of dollars on it notwithstanding the adverse impact that has on the deficit. I think we should be clear about that. If you think this war is important, then you should blow up the deficit to get the job done. Under current circumstances, it would be completely insane for the government to not do something important simply because of the deficit. Situations can arise when the deficit should be considered an independent consideration that’s given weight, but that time is not today.

So rather than note the hypocrisy of the several hundred House deficit-whiners who voted yesterday for a deficit-ballooning war appropriation it’s worth just worth dwelling on what counts as a priority for the United States of America today.

Is Afghanistan important? Sure. Does it matter? Sure. Is the performance of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Khost Province more important to the long-term interests of American citizens than the performance of the Riverside County Public Schools? I don’t think so. Are American efforts in Afghanistan achieving some humanitarian purposes? Sure. Is building a T.G.I. Friday’s at Kandahar Air Base a better way of undertaking a humanitarian mission than increasing appropriations to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria? It’s almost silly to even ask the question.

The item about that particular Friday’s is here – and Yglesias ends with this:

I believe that with the economy depressed it’s better to spend the money in Afghanistan than not to spend it. But it’s kind of nuts that at a time when we “can’t afford” to do all kinds of things, this is what we can afford.

You might want your deus ex machina to be a rational and competent Deus of course. It seems that’s rare.

And it seems there is some dispute, as Steve Benen explains:

In politics, perceptions arguably matter more than anything, and when it comes to the federal government intervening to rescue the economy, the perceptions are less than kind.

If polls are any indication, the efforts launched by federal officials in 2008 and 2009, when the economy was teetering on the brink of wholesale collapse, were unacceptable. The financial industry bailout seems to be universally reviled, and last year’s Recovery Act is only marginally more popular. (In fact, in many instances, the public thinks both efforts are the same thing.)

President Obama and Democrats routinely, if not explicitly, argue to voters that “it would have been worse.” But is there way to prove that empirically?

Well, there might be:

In a new paper, the economists argue that without the Wall Street bailout, the bank stress tests, the emergency lending and asset purchases by the Federal Reserve, and the Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus program, the nation’s gross domestic product would be about 6.5 percent lower this year.

In addition, there would be about 8.5 million fewer jobs, on top of the more than 8 million already lost; and the economy would be experiencing deflation, instead of low inflation.

The paper, by Alan S. Blinder, a Princeton professor and former vice chairman of the Fed, and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, represents a first stab at comprehensively estimating the effects of the economic policy responses of the last few years.

“While the effectiveness of any individual element certainly can be debated, there is little doubt that in total, the policy response was highly effective,” they write.

Benen points out that Zandi was an advisor on economic policy to the McCain/Palin presidential campaign. That is odd. But these two looked at the whole federal response – TARP, stimulus, auto industry rescue, intervention from the Federal Reserve – the whole ball of wax – and concluded that the collective efforts prevented an economic catastrophe:

“When all is said and done, the financial and fiscal policies will have cost taxpayers a substantial sum, but not nearly as much as most had feared and not nearly as much as if policy makers had not acted at all,” they write.

The economists didn’t measure what would have happened if policymakers had followed the right’s recommendations – no TARP, no auto industry rescue, and a five-year spending freeze – but the word “cataclysmic” comes to mind.

Indeed, the Zandi/Blinder paper concluded, “It is clear that laissez faire was not an option; policymakers had to act. Not responding would have left both the economy and the government’s fiscal situation in far graver condition. We conclude that [Federal Reserve Chairman] Ben Bernanke was probably right when he said that ‘We came very close in October [2008] to Depression 2.0.'”

Well, it would have been an ending, one way or the other. Is that what they wanted? Some of us would prefer to muddle through.

As for what the problem might be, see P. M. Carpenter:

I largely dismiss the GOP’s exotic obstructionism as a pathological sign of party disintegration. Republican stances, say, against unemployment benefits but in support of plutocratic tax cuts, or against economic stimulus because of deficit worries but in support of unfunded wars, are indeed conspicuously daffy and manifestly harmful to the nation’s interests. But, almost any out-of-power party will get itself tied into hypocritical knots which reflect the underlying prejudices of its hardest-core base.

In short, many a GOP strategist knows the party’s official politics-as-policy makes little sense, but they’re humoring the pseudo-conservative masses, which always seem to want blood at any cost, especially logic’s.

It’s that quest for an ending, or a final solution, or something. But Carpenter says it comes down to this:

And all that is driving modern conservatism’s concentrically defined ideology: exclusion rather than inclusion, pup tents over big tents, intellectual guillotining and purifying bloodbaths. Only a tighter and tighter ideological circumference qualifies as True and Valid Belief – an absolute killer in popular politics as well as in many an actual revolution. Outsiders need never worry for too long; the revolutionaries will stupidly slaughter themselves.

OK, so all that, as noted, is rather obvious. And in some ways, for today’s liberal community, it’s gratifying, even amusing. But it’s also lethal.

Today’s conservatism isn’t serious conservatism. As a political philosophy, it’s a joke. Yet in any healthy two-party system, one of them can’t be a joke, not for long, anyway; for both sides to keep each other honest and rational, both, naturally and logically enough, must maintain at least some semblance of honesty and rationality.

Today, that requisite balance is decidedly unbalanced. One can’t debate a lunatic, someone who genuinely doesn’t give a damn about serious policymaking and cannot distinguish frivolous politics from it; therefore one is unable to sharpen one’s own policy arguments against it.

It’s sort of a yin-yang thing, but also a colossal paradox so characteristic of Eastern philosophy: The death of thoughtful conservatism could very well spell intelligent liberalism’s demise.

That’s odd – that feels like the teacher’s dilemma – dealing with perpetual adolescents who say this makes no sense and that is needlessly confusing, and why do I have to know this – it’s stupid – and life is not fair. Sarah Palin comes to mind, and in this case an ironic smile won’t get her or anyone on that side to stop the whining. No one can laugh and you all move on.

You say you want things settled, and you want the right answer. You obviously weren’t paying attention in English class. But that’s okay. No one was.

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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