The New Impossibility of Seriousness

So, that Democratic congressman from the city – there’s only one real city, you know – finally resigned – over those photos of his stuff, along with supplemental text messages, that he had sent to selected ladies – or because when it all came out, so to speak, he flat-out lied about it, for three weeks – or because talk about the whole business had made it impossible for him to deal with anything else, like his job – or because his party needed to clear the decks before the next elections, and he was stinking up the poop deck. Yes, what Anthony Weiner did was stupid, and puerile, and it was sexually pathetic in a nerdy high-school kind of way, almost like one of the running jokes you might see in one of those four Revenge of the Nerds movies.

From 1984 through 1992 those movies were popular, at least with their target early-teen demographic, and probably half the adult workforce at Microsoft. There was talk of doing a remake of the original Revenge of the Nerds movie, the first one, but the project was canceled in 2006 after two weeks of filming. It just wasn’t working. On the other hand, now we have this scandal. It’ll do. All we have to do now is to wait for Weiner’s Revenge. That’s how those movies always ended – after sexual humiliation, the nerd’s sweet revenge.

But for now Weiner is gone. And oddly, he did nothing illegal, and there was no actual sex involved – and it didn’t have a damned thing to do with his how he did his job. But it was too delicious for the media to pass up. There were actual photographs of the member’s member, so to speak. Cool. We only heard about Senator Larry Craig and his wide stance in that airport restroom, and we only heard of Senator David Vitter’s many jaunts off to visit the fetching ladies employed by the famous DC Madam, and how he liked to play the baby in diapers – but there were no visuals, and no texting, providing a kind of Hollywood shooting script so you could kind of imagine it all, frame by frame. With Weiner it was all there. It was the technology. The infrastructural of the new social networks did him in. It was death by Tweet, so to speak.

And this was interesting – when Nancy Pelosi held a news conference and said Anthony Weiner could speak for himself in his resignation and that she had some important breaking news about jobs – and getting people back to work in America – all three cable networks immediately cut away and didn’t return to her. They have their priorities, or more accurately, they knew their audience. And you keep your audience watching. What keeps you in business is the number of eyeballs you command. Nancy could wait. This was the amazing and classic fall of the skinny squeaky-voiced nerd. That is what people wanted to see.

And that is what they got. And that is where we are these days. And there is the question that has been bandied about in the last several weeks – At what point did our political system become decadent? We didn’t notice before, or brushed it off before, but now it is a bit hard to ignore. As noted, E. J. Dionne takes the Anthony Weiner scandal as the moment he realized we were late imperial Rome – decadence and decline and fall – just like your read about Rome in Gibbon. But P. M. Carpenter argues that Dionne has it all wrong, as it was the Bush v Gore Supreme Court ruling – and Andrew Sullivan offers a third choice – “Personally, I think it was some moment between the Congress’s assent to torture in 2006 and when Sarah Palin was selected as a serious vice-presidential nominee in 2008.” Others say it was the Clinton impeachment, hands down, or specifically the Kenneth Starr report on Monica Lewinsky where we all giggled and snickered. Or maybe it was when Lyndon Johnson began lying to the country about Vietnam.

This is a bit of a parlor game that Andrew Sullivan started, and his readers are still at it:

I don’t believe the nomination of Palin is where our system became decadent, nor the Clinton sex scandal. VPs are often chosen for less than scrupulous reasons and Clinton just got caught on what something that has and is currently always going on with politicians. I believe that our political system hit its lowest point of decadence during the “Swift Boating” of John Kerry by the Bush campaign.

War heroism is something that all sane and rational people honor and respect. Rove’s calculated strategy to attack Kerry’s strength and besmirch his heroic acts in Vietnam crossed a line that should never be crossed, especially by an administration that started two wars and used them and the military as an advantage in every possible way. At that point, I remember thinking to myself that the floodgates have been opened to a new, bottom-feeder level.

Another writes this:

I felt that the swift-boating of Kerry was a really seminal moment, because the stories were completely untrue, and the election was close enough that I believe Kerry would have won if it weren’t for the smear. When I talk politics with people I know, I tend to give that more emphasis than they do. But I felt like a lot was riding on that election, and that it was decided by accusations that were really emblematic of the kind of decadence we’re talking about. The Birther stuff is just as crazy, but I don’t know that it’s had the same impact as the Swift Boat campaign.

But does it matter? We are where we are. And it’s is only getting stranger, as William Saletan is just saddened by Herman Cain’s Islamophobia:

Herman Cain says Republicans should nominate him for president in part because “my candidacy would take race off the table.” Cain, a former CEO and president of the National Restaurant Association, is black. Therefore, he argues, he can’t be accused of prejudice when he criticizes President Obama.

It’s a plausible argument, as far as race goes. But prejudice is bigger than race. Prejudice gets peeled one layer at a time. You give black men the vote but don’t see why ladies need it. You open the military to women but can’t imagine homosexuals defending your country. You congratulate yourself on being an enlightened liberal even as you ridicule Mormons.

Or, if you’re Cain, you rise from segregation and defy black political stereotypes while treating Muslims with the same crude bias that was once applied to you.

And Saletan reviews the whole bad business. Cain was asked if he would be comfortable appointing a Muslim, either in your cabinet or as a federal judge. He said no, he wouldn’t. At the debate in New Hampshire, Cain denied having said this, and that the transcript shows he said no such thing. But there is the video. It’s right there. And Saletan has all the specific links and adds this:

Cain is familiar with this kind of group exclusion. It was done to him 60 years ago. He had to sit in the back of the bus and drink from “colored” water fountains. He graduated second in his high school class but was refused admission by the University of Georgia. It didn’t matter how smart Cain was or how hard he worked. He was black, and the white society around him had decided that blacks were inferior. He was treated as a member of a group, not as an individual. In a word, he was prejudged.

And now he doesn’t get it. Any Muslim would have to show “loyalty proof” to serve in a Cain administration – oaths or something or other. Glenn Beck pressed him on that – “Would you do that to a Catholic, or would you do that to a Mormon?” Cain as clear – “Nope, I wouldn’t.”

And Saletan makes clear what is going on here:

When Cain was growing up, whites used their majority status not just to hold power but to claim authority. Now Cain is in the Christian majority, and he’s leveraging that power to keep Muslims in their place. “We are a Judeo-Christian nation,” he told Christianity Today. “One percent of the practicing religious believers in this country are Muslim. And so I push back and reject them trying to convert the rest of us. … I do not want us, as a nation, to lose our Judeo-Christian identity.”

And Saletan notes Cain’s distrust doesn’t stop at Muslims:

He’s skeptical of foreign heritage in general. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Cain called President Obama “an international” and argued that “he’s out of the mainstream and always has been. Look, he was raised in Kenya, his mother was white from Kansas, and her family had an influence on him, it’s true, but his dad was Kenyan.” Speaking at a Georgia church, Cain recalled the time he went in for surgery with a doctor named Abdallah. Cain asked the doctor’s assistant: “That sounds a little foreign. What is that?” She replied: “He’s from Lebanon. … But don’t worry, he’s a Christian.” Upon hearing this, Cain told the congregants: “I said Amen. I felt a whole lot better.”

But Saletan say that feeling better is exactly the problem:

It isn’t Cain’s discomfort that should worry us. It’s his comfort. He thinks he has risen above prejudice. He thinks his experience of discrimination protects him from doing to others what was done to him. He doesn’t recognize in himself the same habits of group judgment, blindness to individual differences, and majoritarian claims to national identity.

Sigh. But Cain is just part of the larger crew, and Joe Klein offers this on the Republican candidates:

Some presidential campaigns – 1960, 1980, 1992, 2008 – are exhilarating, suffused with hope and excitement. This is not likely to be one of those. It is likely to be an election that no one wins but someone loses. It will be a reversal of politics past: a pragmatic Democrat will be facing a Republican with all sorts of big ideas, promising an unregulated, laissez-faire American paradise.

Well, at least now they won’t be able to talk about the Big Weiner in the room. Still, with that business now old news, it hard to see things turning serious. And in the new issue of Time, Fareed Zakaria thinks he knows why:

“Conservatism is true.” That’s what George Will told me when I interviewed him as an eager student many years ago. His formulation might have been a touch arrogant, but Will’s basic point was intelligent. Conservatism, he explained, was rooted in reality. Unlike the abstract theories of Marxism and socialism, it started not from an imagined society but from the world as it actually exists. From Aristotle to Edmund Burke, the greatest conservative thinkers have said that to change societies, one must understand them, accept them as they are and help them evolve.

Watching this election campaign, one wonders what has happened to that tradition. Conservatives now espouse ideas drawn from abstract principles with little regard to the realities of America’s present or past. This is a tragedy, because conservatism has an important role to play in modernizing the United States.

Example:

The Republican prescription is to cut taxes and slash government spending – then things will bounce back. Now, I would like to see lower rates in the context of tax simplification and reform, but what is the evidence that tax cuts are the best path to revive the U.S. economy? Taxes – federal and state combined – as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest level since 1950. The U.S. is among the lowest taxed of the big industrial economies. So the case that America is grinding to a halt because of high taxation is not based on facts but is simply a theoretical assertion. The rich countries that are in the best shape right now, with strong growth and low unemployment, are ones like Germany and Denmark, neither one characterized by low taxes.

And there is this:

Many Republican businessmen have told me that the Obama Administration is the most hostile to business in 50 years. Really? More than that of Richard Nixon, who presided over tax rates that reached 70%, regulations that spanned whole industries – and who actually instituted price and wage controls?

In fact, right now any discussion of government involvement in the economy – even to build vital infrastructure – is impossible because it is a cardinal tenet of the new conservatism that such involvement is always and forever bad. Meanwhile, across the globe, the world’s fastest-growing economy, China, has managed to use government involvement to create growth and jobs for three decades. From Singapore to South Korea to Germany to Canada, evidence abounds that some strategic actions by the government can act as catalysts for free-market growth.

And there is this:

When considering health care, for example, Republicans confidently assert that their ideas will lower costs, when we simply do not have much evidence for this. What we do know is that of the world’s richest countries, the U.S. has by far the greatest involvement of free markets and the private sector in health care. It also consumes the largest share of GDP, with no significant gains in health on any measurable outcome. We need more market mechanisms to cut medical costs, but Republicans don’t bother to study existing health care systems anywhere else in the world. They resemble the old Marxists, who refused to look around at actual experience. “I know it works in practice,” the old saw goes, “but does it work in theory?”

Who is being serious here?

And that sets off Andrew Sullivan:

It’s funny that Fareed Zakaria and I are now seen as beyond the conservative pale. We were both Harvard immigrants at the same time and definitely right of center (although I always had more libertarian impulses). The core reason I became a conservative was government over-reach in my native land – try a 98 percent top tax rate and direct government ownership of entire industries and nearly every hospital. I thought this violated a core fact about human nature: that collectivism fails to generate the dynamism that individual freedom and ownership do.

But as I studied political philosophy more deeply, the core argument for conservatism was indeed that it was truer to humankind’s crooked timber; that it was more closely tethered to earth rather than heaven; that it accepted the nature of fallen man and did not try to permanently correct it, but to mitigate our worst instincts and encourage the best, with as light a touch as possible. Religion was for bishops, not presidents. Utopias were for liberals; progress was not inevitable; history did not lead in one obvious direction; we are all limited by epistemological failure and cultural bias.

So – mitigate our worst instincts and encourage the best, and don’t do anything rash – and cut people, maybe like Anthony Weiner, some slack. What’s not to like?

But the devil is in the details:

On taxes today, a conservative would ask: what have we learned about the impact of lower rates over the last two decades – now the lowest as a percentage of GDP since the 1950s? In healthcare, what have we learned about the largely private system the GOP wants to preserve? A conservative would look at home and abroad for empirical answers, acknowledging no ultimate solution but the need for constant reform because society is always changing. On gay rights, a classic social change, he’d ask what a society should do in integrating the emergence of so many openly gay people, couples and families. On foreign policy, he’d move on a case by case basis, not by way of a “doctrine.”

On these terms, today’s GOP could not be less conservative. I’d insist it’s less conservative than Obama. It does not present reality-based reform for emergent problems. It simply reiterates dogma and ruthlessly polices dissent or debate.

But these folks, not sending photos of their private parts to strangers on the web, say they are the SERIOUS people (when they say it you can hear it in all-caps). But Sullivan is not buying that:

So no tax increases are allowed, period. Why? Because they “kill jobs.” So why do we have record unemployment after a period of unprecedentedly low taxation? No answer. If lower taxes have led to stagnation, the answer must always be: lower taxes some more. Why not end them all together?

On gays, we hear actually nothing about gays, our existence or our lives. We hear a tautological irrelevance: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” What do they propose positively for this emergent social reality that men like Burke or Lincoln or Disraeli would have seen as an opportunity for conservative reform? Nothing. No civil unions, no civil marriage, no military service … just nothing but a piece of doctrine: gay is bad.

On healthcare, have you yet heard a single practical proposal to help the uninsured? Or assist seniors with health needs in ways that don’t break the bank? Nope. But in a society that won’t let people die on the street, these are real and tough problems we cannot just wish away. The Ryan plan solves the problem the way leftists used to: by a radical ideological shift. It just cuts off aid at a certain level and says government is not responsible for the rest. This will never get past the public and would never actually cut costs. It simply places an arbitrary marker on when the government tells you that you are on your own. Again, this works as dogma but not as politics.

Sullivan is on a roll:

Back in the 1980s, conservatism was a thrilling empirical, reality-based challenge to overweening government power and omniscient liberal utopianism. Today, alas, it has become a victim of its own success, reliving past glories rather than tackling current problems. It is part secular dogma – no taxes, no debt, more war – and part religious dogma – no Muslims need apply; amend the federal constitution to keep gays in their place; no abortions even for rape and incest; more settlements on the West Bank to prepare for the End-Times.

Although there were inklings back then … they were still balanced by empiricism. Reagan raised taxes, withdrew from Lebanon, hated war, and tried to abolish all nuclear weapons on earth. The first Bush was an under-rated deficit-cutter and diplomat, a legacy doubly squandered by his son.

But now we have something else:

…either total freedom or complete slavery and a rhetorical war based entirely on that binary ideological spectrum. In other words, ideological performance art: brain-dead, unaware of history, uninterested in policy detail, bored by empiricism, motivated primarily by sophistry, Manichaeism, and factional hatred.

And here is what Sullivan thinks of these SERIOUS people:

Today’s un-conservative “conservatism” is a movement held together by cultural resentment and xenophobic panic. Until it wrests free of this trap, it deserves its Palinesque fate: an ideology wrapped in anachronism, and laced with venom.

Neither Herman Cain nor Michele Bachmann will seek his endorsement, obviously. And shouldn’t he be outraged by Muslims, in general, and Anthony Weiner, in particular? He isn’t. There is just some disagreement about what the serious matters are these days, and what is kind of tiresome.

But Weiner is gone now. Fine – but just remember how those Revenge of the Nerds movies go. He’ll be back, if life is basically a shallow and formulaic teen flick. And it very well may be.

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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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