The Persistence of Nonsense

An earworm is that simpleminded song you get in your head and can’t get out – and no example will be offered, as that would be cruel – and that’s matched by simpleminded notions about those we choose to lead our country. The latest research on that dumb tune you can’t stop humming seems to indicate the phenomenon has something to do with emotional regulation – you rather quickly come to hate the tune, but it offers stability in the chaos of everyday life. It’s always there. Few things are, and humming that dumb tune may prevent brooding – it may be an involuntary natural defense against the inescapable logic of despair. Consider it an existential anchor, even if it is cold comfort, and even if the research shows that tune will be gone in twenty-four hours. You won’t be singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning” the next morning, even if you live in Oklahoma – but political earworms are a different matter. That sort of nonsense persists.

Things aren’t what they seem. Dwight Eisenhower was a military man, the ultimate military man, the Supreme Commander who commanded all operations on D-Day and pretty much won the war in Europe, and then, as president, once we were enmeshed in the Korean War, extricated us as gracefully as possible, and he hadn’t screamed when Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur for mouthing off about how it might be a fine idea nuke the Chinese. And at least Eisenhower hated communism. Maybe so, but he hated that blowhard Joe McCarthy even more, and by all accounts loathed Richard Nixon, that seedy fellow who had been so nasty in that Alger Hiss business but was a necessary evil. Then, to top it all off, there was his farewell address – “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

In short, all this war stuff, our seemingly permanent war-footing, might ruin us. We have far better things to do with our resources – but then Republicans, not Democrats, are strong on national defense and would never cut a military budget one single penny. That’s the earworm, but Eisenhower, the military hero, kind of liked his Interstate Highway System and all the rest – and he certainly didn’t think much of the new massive defense contractors who were quickly developing a stranglehold on the political process, and starting to drive foreign policy too. Eisenhower had seen too much war. He didn’t like it much, and after him, Jack Kennedy, a war hero himself, was wary of getting us involved in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson, the bleeding-heart liberal who envisioned a Great Society and declared that War on Poverty, was the one who had America go all-in in Vietnam, to his eventual regret. He should have listened to a peace-and-love Republican like Eisenhower or a quite cautious war hero like Kennedy. Our fifty-five thousand dead and the hundreds of thousands wounded or otherwise ruined might have appreciated that too. Listen to the war-mongers. They aren’t war-mongers. Get that tune out of your head.

It works that way in economics too. The Republican Party is the party of fiscal discipline, so they’re the guys who will get the economy humming again – except the deficit exploded under Reagan, what with that Star Wars missile shield nonsense that cost us many hundreds of billions and could never work. Those of us working in aerospace at the time knew that from the start, but all the money sloshing around out here was kind of nice – and Reagan cut taxes as much as he could too. It’s no wonder the deficit soared. Lowing tax revenues doesn’t increase tax revenues – Voodoo Economics just doesn’t work – Art Laffer was wrong. Yeah, yeah, the Republicans, rather than the tax-and-spend Democrats, know everything there is to know about running the economy. Everyone knows this, except Bill Clinton gave us eight years of stunning growth and prosperity, and we had a surplus, not a deficit, the day he left office. You want a thriving economy, growing by leaps and bounds with jobs for everyone, and rich folks getting even richer? Elect a Democrat. Ignore that persistent nonsense you find yourself humming. It’s just an earworm.

This played itself out again in the Bush years, when Bush took the Clinton surplus out for a spin. That was your money, not the government’s, so he was going to return it to you, in two waves of massive tax cuts, mainly for the rich, who must have missed “their” money more than the rest of us missed ours. The general idea, however, was the same as Reagan’s – the economy would soar if the government did next to nothing and people could do what they wanted with their money, with no regulation of the financial system and no regulation regarding much of anything else either, like the environment. Dick Cheney also said that Ronald Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter at all – and Bush then simply fired those on his team who thought they did, and it was off to the races. The tax cuts stood, Medicare Part D was strong-armed into law, completely unfunded at an initial cost of ten or twelve billion, and we also put the entire cost of the two major wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, on the tab – funded entirely by emergency appropriations, off-budget. Where would the money come from? The Treasury could sell more ten and thirty year notes to the Chinese to cover the two or three trillion dollars involved. We’d pay interest on those notes, and worry about paying back the principle in ten or thirty years – no problem at all.

That was the plan, and the economy collapsed. The deficit was huge and hundreds of millions of lives were ruined, and we still haven’t recovered, although Obama has managed, painfully, to get the deficit to drop faster than it has since Harry Truman was in office. That’s what Democratic administrations do – clean up after massive spending that created debt obligations that could bury us. Sometimes you have to spend a bit to goose the economy, but at least you don’t assume that set-it-and-forget-it is a viable model for how things work best. And you don’t assume animosity is a viable model for foreign policy either. “Projecting strength” is not only damned expensive, it creates more problems than it solves. Those who might argue, that while the Bush-Cheney years were an economic fiasco, at least we took care of the bad guys in the world may be peddling persistent nonsense too. What did we get for our eight years in Iraq? We got a Shiite strongman, not a Sunni one, still fighting a bloody internal civil war, but closely aligned with Iran, our enemy who might get nukes, and supporting the brutal Assad in Syria – and Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Sunnis in the region pretty angry with us. Our decade or more in Afghanistan had also come to nothing. Karzai, for internal political reasons, dares not ask us to stay with a residual force to make sure the Taliban doesn’t take over there, so we will have to leave the place to be what it will, which will be what is was just before we showed up. At least Obama took care of Osama Bin Laden – something George Bush vowed he would do but then let slide – but everyone knows Democrats are wimps and Republicans are the ones who really take care of such matters. They slap the bad guys silly and it always works.

That may be changing, because Rand Paul doesn’t like that earworm:

Every Republican likes to think he or she is the next Ronald Reagan. Some who say this do so for lack of their own ideas and agenda. Reagan was a great leader and President. But too often people make him into something he wasn’t in order to serve their own political purposes.

Reagan clearly believed in a strong national defense and in “Peace through Strength.” He stood up to the Soviet Union, and he led a world that pushed back against Communism.

But Reagan also believed in diplomacy and demonstrated a reasoned approach to our nuclear negotiations with the Soviets. Reagan’s shrewd diplomacy would eventually lessen the nuclear arsenals of both countries.

Many forget today that Reagan’s decision to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev was harshly criticized by the Republican hawks of his time, some of whom would even call Reagan an appeaser. In the Middle East, Reagan strategically pulled back our forces after the tragedy in Lebanon in 1983 that killed 241 Marines, realizing the cost of American lives was too great for the mission.

He’s telling his own party that they got Reagan wrong:

What America needs today is a Commander-in-Chief who will defend the country and project strength, but who is also not eager for war.

He goes on to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, telling his fellow Republicans to cool it with the tough talk:

There is a time for military action, such as after 9/11. There is a time for diplomacy and the strategic use of soft power, such as now with Russia. Diplomacy requires resolve but also thoughtfulness and intelligence.

In short, they should be more like the real Reagan, not the earworm they’re hearing, and Slate’s John Dickerson sees where this leads:

It wasn’t immediately clear who Paul was attacking. He did not name names, but that may simply have been because he had too many targets. He could have been referring to several of his potential rivals for the presidency. Sen. Ted Cruz told ABC News “I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has talked about the dangers of the isolationism running through the party (which led to a public spat with Paul months ago.) Sen. Marco Rubio has been staking out the hawkish position as a part of his effort to present himself as the foreign policy voice in the GOP field.

Paul had more advice: “I will remind anyone who thinks we will win elections by trashing previous Republican nominees or holding oneself out as some paragon in the mold of Reagan that splintering the party is not the route to victory.” That was clearly a shot at Cruz, who had criticized Bob Dole, Sen. John McCain, and Mitt Romney in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference last week.

There’s a lot going on here, but Paul added something else – “What we don’t need right now is politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers.”

That’s a problem:

Paul’s charge against his competition was a solid tremor in the vibrating football game of the 2016 presidential campaign, but it also raised interesting questions about the experience required to be president. Can you only be a legitimate foreign policy hawk if you have fought in a war? If you haven’t, and you’re behaving like a hawk, does that automatically make you a craven politician? Or does it mean you just have a higher bar to clear for the case you make?

Paul is not the only one to link the issue of sacrifice and hot rhetoric. That was a central message of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ book: Both parties are too quick to threaten war. It’s a fascinating question that should engage us between now and the next presidential election. Paul’s words pose a problem for all of the GOP’s would-be commanders-in-chief, including himself… his charge undermines his party’s foreign policy critique of President Obama, which operates on the blunt formula that if you are not rhetorically tough, you invite global aggression.

That is the formula, which Dick Cheney endlessly used, but times change:

Paul’s charge arrives at a moment of flux in American foreign policy. The question of whether a president’s posture invites aggression from other countries is open for general discussion again in a way it was not during the Bush years and in their aftermath. Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential campaign in part because voters thought the previous administration was too concerned with appearing tough. But now, only 39 percent of the country approve of the way the president is handling foreign policy, according to the recent CBS/New York Times poll. The Washington Post says Obama’s foreign policy “is based on fantasy.”

Republicans see a chance to regain their foreign policy edge with voters, and hawks see a chance to regain ground in the debate over how to approach the world. Paul is providing an inadvertent defense of President Obama’s foreign policy in this debate.

That is odd, but the man may be right, this once, which will do his party no favors:

Perhaps even less helpful to Republicans is that Paul’s argument would seem to offer aid and comfort to Hillary Clinton. She, above all likely 2016 candidates, has had actual experience with the topics of war and peace. That’s part of what gives the Benghazi attacks their potency. She was in a position of responsibility when one of her ambassadors died in a terrorist attack. But if Paul is claiming that seeing war gives you some special insight, she has seen its costs from a closer perspective than anyone in the Republican field. It would be cleaner for Republicans if the Obama team, including Clinton, could just be labeled weak.

Yep, get everyone humming that simpleminded tune and all will be fine, but now Rand Paul has messed that up, and in the American Conservative, W. James Antle III sees what Paul is saying this way:

Rather than get into a shouting match with more hawkish Republicans over Russia – though he has condemned Vladimir Putin as often as he has tweaked the thinly-veiled Cold War nostalgia masquerading as foreign-policy thought in some corners of the right – he is making his case from a strong, limited-government conservative perspective.

What Paul has been saying ever since he filibustered John Brennan’s CIA nomination over drones is that the Lindsey Graham view of foreign policy – a permanent war in which the American homeland is a battlefield – is incompatible with constitutionally limited government. You can have a national-security state of that scope or you can have the Bill of Rights, but you can’t have both.

Eisenhower was saying much the same thing back in 1961, but then no one remembers Eisenhower now, or he’s not a conservative hero, like Barry Goldwater in 1964 was, and everyone who followed. Marco Rubio, whose star is fading fast, is one of those, and Alex Pareene lets us know what Rubio thinks we need to do now:

Take a look at his handy list of things “Obama must do” about Ukraine, which includes expanding NATO to Georgia and also stating “unequivocally” that Putin is a mean jerk. (When Tough, Muscular Foreign Policy types think calling for actual war won’t be received well, they usually fall back on demanding that the president say Tough things unequivocally.) Now he’s at CPAC, telling people that North Korea will nuke California as Iran is nuking New York as we wage a global struggle against China and Russia and “totalitarianism.” Sounds like fun!

If this is what the Marco Rubio comeback is going to look like, I’m not convinced it’s a wise strategy. Republicans may be obsessed with the image of our “weak” president “folding” before “tough” Vladimir Putin, but Americans in general are not hugely interested in picking fights with other countries at the moment.

That leaves Ted Cruz, and Matt Lewis explains how Cruz is dealing with this:

Cruz is making a bet that Paul’s more libertarian positions on issues like non-interventionism aren’t a mainstream opinion. So he will set up shop just on the other side of Paul. Anyone who says, “I really like Paul’s position, but I think we need to stand up to Russia,” now has a home. Or the guy who says, “I hate drones, but I don’t want Iran to go nuclear,” has a candidate.

Or the guy who has a persistent earworm that been around since the seventies or so. It’s that catchy little ditty about slapping the bad guys around and being the hero, or talking tough and saying you could, really, and you might, maybe. There is an earworm for that. Try My Boyfriend’s Back from 1963 – “My boyfriend’s back, he’s gonna save my reputation… If I were you I’d take a permanent vacation.” You watch out, you’re gonna be in trouble! It’s like that. Our big bad military is coming, really, honest, and you’ll be sorry. Now try to get that song out of your head. Hard, isn’t it?

Condoleezza Rice has been singing that song:

The immediate concern must be to show Russia that further moves will not be tolerated and that Ukraine’s territorial integrity is sacrosanct. Diplomatic isolation, asset freezes and travel bans against oligarchs are appropriate. The announcement of air defense exercises with the Baltic States and the movement of a U.S. destroyer to the Black Sea bolster our allies, as does economic help for Ukraine’s embattled leaders, who must put aside their internal divisions and govern their country. …

The events in Ukraine should be a wake-up call to those on both sides of the aisle who believe that the United States should eschew the responsibilities of leadership. If it is not heeded, dictators and extremists across the globe will be emboldened.

Also in the American Conservative, Daniel Larison isn’t buying it:

What Rice et al. perceive as “inaction” in Syria, Russia and Iran likely perceive as ongoing interference and hostility to their interests. The crisis in Ukraine also looks very different to Moscow than it does to the Westerners that have been agitating for an even larger and more active U.S. role.

Western hawks were frustrated by how slow their governments were to throw their full support behind the protesters, and as usual wanted the US and EU to take a much more adversarial and combative approach with Russia because they see Western governments as being far more passive than they want. However, Moscow doesn’t perceive the U.S. role in Ukraine to be a limited or benign one, and the toppling of Yanukovych has been fitted into their view that the protests were a Western-backed plot from the beginning. The idea that Russia would have responded less aggressively to the change in government if the U.S. had been giving the opposition even more encouragement and support is dangerously delusional, but that is what one has to believe in order to argue that the U.S. “emboldened” Moscow in Ukraine.

On the liberal side, Kevin Drum sees the same thing:

Putin didn’t invade Crimea because the decadent West was aimlessly sunning itself on a warm beach somewhere. He invaded Crimea because America and the EU had been vigorously promoting their interests in a country with deep historical ties to Russia. He invaded because his hand-picked Ukrainian prime minister was losing, and the West was winning. He invaded because he felt that he had been outplayed by an aggressive geopolitical opponent and had run out of other options.

None of this justifies Putin’s actions. But to suggest that he was motivated by weakness in US foreign policy is flatly crazy.

But that’s the problem with earworms. The song you’ve got stuck in your head makes no sense, but there it is, and perhaps the only way to make sense of this political stuff is to refer to the current research on musical earworms, that they have something to do with emotional regulation, that they’re actually a subconscious prophylactic that prevents brooding and existential despair. Maybe so, but brooding isn’t all that bad. Some people call it thinking.

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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1 Response to The Persistence of Nonsense

  1. Rick says:

    A few thoughts.

    Firstly, I disagree with you about this:

    “We’d pay interest on those notes, and worry about paying back the principle in ten or thirty years – no problem at all. That was the plan, and the economy collapsed. The deficit was huge and hundreds of millions of lives were ruined, and we still haven’t recovered … That’s what Democratic administrations do – clean up after massive spending that created debt obligations that could bury us.”

    Need I remind you that “debt obligations that could bury us” is a pretty much uniquely Republican “earworm”?

    As much as I don’t like any of that stuff, what with those tax-cuts for so-called “job creators” and expensive wars being put off-budget as if they didn’t exist — it all sure was a pain in the ass, and a good example of Republican hypocrisy — but I don’t think most economists think that is what caused the economy to collapse. Not that the Bush tax cuts didn’t, in their own way, help it along, I think the crash had more to do with a giant real estate bubble that was aggravated by Wall Street machinations.

    According to the economists I read, any “debt obligations” that were “burying us” were not from our national debt, they were from private household debt. Consumers, many with upside-down mortgages, got so swamped that they no longer had the money to spend on consumer goods, so demand sank and the economy slowed to a crawl. It wasn’t because taxes (needed to pay back “China”) were too high, it was mostly because spending was dropping, making jobs disappear and paychecks to shrink.

    But secondly, something I do agree with you on, which is the idea of Republican “earworms” — that is, thoughts that get inside of their heads, and only their heads, that are resistant to being altered or dispelled from those of us on the outside.

    These earworm thoughts are legion, ranging from Benghazi to Obama taking away your guns to an imaginary national “debt crisis”, but probably the best recent example is the idea that Obama is a “weakling” on foreign policy. Because they can’t hear you over that tune in their heads, forget trying to remind them that our last Republican president was, when it came to “projection of strength”, a blusterer who famously talked-the-talk about catching Osama bin Ladin, at least until he thought nobody was paying attention anymore, at which point he dropped the idea, leaving it to his “weak” and “naive” Democratic successor to actually walk-the-walk — that is, to kill the guy and have his body dumped at sea.

    So it’s not just their inability to compromise — not with Democrats, nor even with themselves — that keeps them out of power, it’s also their propensity to live in an imaginary world that exists only inside their own big collective Republican head. In this alternative reality, which they’ve convinced themselves is far superior to the actual reality, all Americans despise this weak and naive president who wears “mom jeans” and hates Christians, and are sure the only way he won the election was by promising poor (i.e., black) people he’d have his government give them more food stamps. In fact, listening to the way they talk about Obama, I keep wondering whether, inside their collective consciousness, they even realize that bin Ladin ever did get caught and Romney ever really did lose that election that they were so sure he would win.

    Now I know Republicans think they somehow win points by poo-pooing public opinion polls, probably because polls carry absolutely no weight inside the “virtual reality” that is their collective brain, but they really need to come out into the real world and start paying more attention to real things if they want to have any chance whatsoever of winning the real White House.

    As for the question of why they’ve allowed their mind to more-or-less sleepwalk into this imaginary dreamworld? My guess is, maybe it had nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.


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