Reaching Maximum Dysfunction

It was a sad day here in Hollywood. Well, perhaps every day is a sad day in Hollywood, where whatever isn’t tacky is shabby, and bewildered tourists wander around wondering where the stars live. The stars live in Beverly Hills or Malibu, or they live in Manhattan or London and fly in to make movies now and then. Hollywood is for rubes – but this is the place that generates cultural icons. Hollywood gave the world the ultimate woman, Marilyn Monroe, and the man’s man, John Wayne – or maybe that was Humphrey Bogart. James Dean will always be the troubled rebel, trying to do his best in a world full of fools, and Steve McQueen will always be too cool for words. Each of these folks may be dead, but they live on as icons – and now Spock is dead. That’s the sad part.

Leonard Nimoy was a fine fellow – but he was Spock, and Spock lives on. Nimoy finally made peace with that – his first autobiography was “I Am Not Spock” and his second was “I Am Spock” – because he came to like the character everyone assumed he was, and others did too.

Adam Vary is one of those and says Spock was our ultimate nerd hero:

The half-Vulcan’s brilliant mind was guided by a razor-sharp perception of the laws of logic that was not just enviable to nerds, it was aspirational. He could cut through the emotions that seemed to clutter up cogent thought, finding the objective reason tucked inside most any problem or scenario. Spock’s counterpart, William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk, was a different kind of aspirational figure: the virile, impassioned leader who was sexual catnip to anyone he wanted to seduce. In order words, he wasn’t a nerd. We wanted to believe we could be Kirk, but we definitely knew we could be Spock.

Though his dispassion at times deliberately read as cold, Nimoy was too adept an actor to make the character an icy, uncaring robot, no matter how often Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accused him of being one. Because, in a masterstroke by Roddenberry, Spock was more than just half-human – his veneer of Vulcan logic also masked a well of explosive emotions the Vulcan people had spent centuries striving to overcome.

That’s always a problem, unless you’re Italian, and Vary adds this:

Spock has helped expand the very idea of what it means to be a nerd, making his struggle between emotion and logic feel universal, part of the greater human endeavor to strive for something better. And in doing so, he helped to greatly improve nerdom’s cultural currency. The biggest comedy on network TV today, The Big Bang Theory, is literally about nerds who worshipped Spock as kids – and still do as adults. And President Barack Obama said in a statement on Friday marking Nimoy’s passing, “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy.” The president even flatly stated, “I loved Spock.”

Of course he did. Spock was fiercely loyal and totally honorable, and he didn’t indulge in high drama and ultimatums and whatnot. No-Drama Obama is like that too. He seems to sense that emotions screw things up, while using logic and careful thinking can fix things. People will bitch about your lack of passion, but you can be the one who shows how to fix things, or the one who actually fixes things.

This is not a new observation. Back in 2009, Jeff Greenwald, seeing that everyone was comparing Obama to Spock – most notably the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd – tried to explain the connection:

For those of us who watched the show in the 1960s (or during the countless reruns since), Nimoy’s alter ego was the harbinger of a future in which logic would reign over emotion, and rational thought triumph over blind faith. He was a digital being in an analog world; the Pied Piper who led our generation into the Silicon Age.

Anyone who followed the early “Star Trek” with regularity knows how charismatic Spock was. If there were two characters I wanted to be as a young man, they were Spock – and James Bond. Both displayed total self-confidence, and amazing problem-solving skills. Both traveled to exotic destinations, and were irresistible to women. And both shared a quality that my generation lacked completely: composure.

While Bond had his weaknesses (anything in a bikini), Spock was virtually unflappable. The most startling marvels in the cosmos were “fascinating.” Disasters were “unfortunate,” perhaps even “tragic.” The raised eyebrow, the lifted chin, the vaguely sarcastic mien – these were coins of the realm to my pubescent friends. How did we weather the terrors of grade school, and survive the irrational outbursts of parents and teachers? By invoking Spock – who served as our logical, enlightened counterpoint to the madness of the late 1960s? Who else but Spock?

America had to elect this guy:

Like Spock, part of what makes Obama so appealing is the fact that although he’s an outsider – “proudly alien,” as Leonard Nimoy once put it – he uses that distance to cultivate a sense of perspective. And while we’re drawn to Spock’s exotic traits – the pointy ears, green blood and weird mating rituals – we take comfort in his soothing baritone, prominent nose and ordinary teeth.

Spock’s appeal, according to the actor who portrayed him, came from cultivating this dichotomy.

But there was something more:

“Star Trek” fans who bonded with Spock already understood what those of us who followed Obama learned early on: that witnessing a powerful intellect can be deeply satisfying on an emotional level. We got a similar hit from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys, of course, and from Bill Clinton. But while Clinton’s administration was smart, Obama’s seems futuristic.

“Bill Clinton promised a Cabinet that looked like America,” Henry Jenkins said in a recent conversation. “Obama gave us one that looks like the Enterprise crew. In a matter-of-fact way, he’s embraced diversity at every level. No Klingons yet – but the administration is new.”

Now Obama’s administration in not new, but it is diverse, much like the bridge of the Enterprise – and Loretta Lynch will be the new Lieutenant Uhura – the black woman in a role where one might expect a wise old white man. And of course Americans are still appalled by his dispassionate logic, his methodical careful thinking. Impassioned Democratic activists think he needs to be fiery about income inequality and all sorts of things, and Republicans are appalled that he wants to use diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear program, not bomb them back to the Stone Age – the Captain Kirk thing. Obama also doesn’t use the right fired-up words to talk about the ISIS folks – he won’t call them Islamic terrorists.

Greenwald had something to say about that:

The problem with smart, thoughtful people is that you have to pay attention. Even with “Star Trek,” some viewers complained that the stories were too complicated, requiring too much focus for the average TV viewer. Nimoy sympathized. “‘Star Trek,'” he reflected, “was a language show. A lot of the ideas were expressed verbally. It has been said – and I think it’s true – that if you didn’t listen to ‘Star Trek’ you couldn’t follow the stories.”

The same could be said of today’s White House: It’s a language show. “Issues are never simple,” Obama has said. “Very rarely will you hear me simplify the issues.” The stakes are high, the narrative is complex, and no one’s talking down to us.

That’s the problem. You have to listen carefully. With immigration reform, for example, Obama isn’t offering anyone amnesty. We have roughly eleven million people here who have no permission to be here, and Congress has done nothing to address that, but it would be impossible to deport them all next week, and if we did the economy would take a big hit. Most of them are doing work that keeps things running – and we don’t have the resources to deport them all immediately anyway. Obama, charged with administering existing immigration law, has thus issued a series of directives that the resources we do have be used to deport criminals and gang members and jerks, for now. The others can register themselves and stay, for now – and continue contributing to the economy, and know we’re not coming for them. Their status will be resolved down the road. For now, they’ll know they’re safe here, and this will keep their families together, which is kind of the decent thing to do. And this is no big deal – presidents have to figure out how best to carry out the law, given the resources they have. They must enforce the law, but presidents have to have what everyone now talks about, prosecutorial discretion.

How a president enforces the law is the issue now. Obama reviewed his constitutional authority here – he used to teach constitutional law – and applied logic to the situation and came up with this. That federal circuit court judge in Texas disagrees with him, but Obama will win that case on appeal – and he has told Congress that if they have a better idea they could pass some sort of immigration reform legislation. He has said that if they do that he’ll tear up his directives – they’d no longer be necessary – but of course Congress, now in Republican hands, has decided that Obama is breaking the law and violating the constitution and granting amnesty to awful folks, and he must be stopped. Obama, however, was just being Spock. Spock is the guy who infuriated everyone each week by being so damned logical about things. Spock was also the guy who saved everyone’s butt each week.

That’s what made the original Star Trek series so much fun to watch – watching third-tier Hollywood actors let it rip and chew the scenery, playing impassioned outraged characters losing it while Nimoy’s Spock raised one eyebrow, and then did the right thing, the only logical thing. In real life it’s not so pretty:

The House of Representatives finally agreed to pay for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Friday night, just two hours before a lapse in funding that would have forced thousands of key government workers to go without pay.

But an increasingly bitter divide among Republicans forced congressional leaders to settle for just a one-week extension of the existing budget arrangement, buying them only a few short days next week to reach a longer term deal.

The dispute, which began over Barack Obama’s decision to circumvent a gridlocked Congress and introduce immigration reforms by presidential order, has reopened deep divisions among House Republicans, many of whom believe more should be done to block what they see as executive overreach.

Perhaps more should be done, but the Republicans can’t get anything done:

Earlier in the evening more than 50 of them voted with Democrats against an attempt by the House Speaker, John Boehner, to pass a three-week extension of DHS funding, angry at what they saw as capitulation toward the White House.

The shock defeat was a huge embarrassment for Boehner, whose advisers had been expressing confidence in its passage just hours earlier and left Democrats holding out instead for the House to agree to the same one-year deal passed by the Senate.

Yet with the clock ticking toward another government shutdown that was likely to be blamed largely on Republicans, the White House upped the pressure by issuing emergency instructions on what to do when the money ran out.

That wasn’t very nice, but it was logical. The Senate had passed a clean bill to fund the DHS – but the House refused to take it up – but the House wanted to fund the DHS – not doing so would look bad. John Boehner had no logical option here, so he arranged a vote on a three-week delay in doing anything one way or another. He knew he had the votes for that in his own party, if a few Democrats played along – but they decided they wouldn’t play along. Fund the DHS or don’t. What was going to change in three weeks?

John Boehner had to settle for one week:

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, began the final, if temporary, resolution to the crisis around 9 pm, passing the seven-day continuing resolution by voice vote in the Senate.

This was then followed by another vote in the House of Representatives, this time supported by the leadership of both parties that passed 357-60, but left a bitter taste on both sides of the aisle.

“This is no way to govern the nation and the American people deserve better,” said Hal Rogers, the Republican chairman of the appropriations committee as he announced the vote.

And nothing is resolved:

Before the vote, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wrote a letter to Democrats urging them to support the [one-week delay] legislation.

“Your vote tonight will assure that we will vote for full funding next week,” she wrote.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told reporters that the Speaker hadn’t committed to bringing up a full DHS funding bill next week. In response a Democratic congressional aide disputed that characterization, saying Boehner had “100 percent, absolutely” committed to bring up a “clean” DHS bill through September next week.

Well, Obama signed the one-week funding bill, such as it was, and the New York Times covers the fallout:

The strong Republican vote for the Senate bill also highlighted the deep rift between House and Senate Republicans, who have struggled to agree on a pragmatic path forward to both keep the agency running and express their displeasure with Mr. Obama’s recent immigration actions.

“We should have never fought this battle,” said Senator Mark S. Kirk, Republican of Illinois. “In my view, in the long run, if you are blessed with the majority, you are blessed with the power to govern. If you’re going to govern, you have to act responsibly.”

Just two months into the new Congress, Republicans were sounding a grim note, far removed from their triumphant election victories in November. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said Friday that “2015 is about us.”

“There’s nobody to blame but us now when it comes to the appropriations process,” Mr. Graham said. “If we can run the place more traditional, like a business, so to speak, I think we flourish. If we self-inflict on the budget, and the appropriations process – and we can’t get the government managed well – then I think we’re in trouble.”

In the aftermath of the failed vote, the Republican leadership team met for hours Friday night to come up with a new approach, but their options were limited given the deep rebellion by their more conservative members against supporting anything that does not halt the president’s immigration policies. As the legislation stalled, Mr. Boehner walked wordlessly from the chamber, his head down.

And one must mention the obvious:

The Office of Management and Budget has said that a vote to increase the nation’s debt limit will be necessary by mid- to late summer, and lawmakers were also hoping to take up trade policy, as well as at least a modest overhaul of the nation’s tax code – undertakings that now look increasingly imperiled.

Mr. Obama has already vetoed the Republicans’ main legislative achievement this year – a bill to start construction on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The fight over the homeland security funding – coupled with a separate revolt by House conservatives – also upended Republican plans to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the 2001 education law that was a signature domestic achievement of President George W. Bush.

Republican leadership had expected to pass a new bill on Friday to reduce the federal government’s role in public education; Mr. Obama has threatened a veto. But the vote was put off after Heritage Action, the conservative advocacy group, waged a campaign against the measure, saying it does not do enough to limit federal authority.

There will be more of this, and Gail Collins looks at the players:

There was absolutely no agreement on what will happen next. We look back with nostalgia on the era when congressional leaders would get together in secret and make deals to pass big, mushy pieces of legislation that were littered with secret appropriations for unnecessary highways and a stuffed-owl museum in some swing vote’s district. We complained a lot at the time, but that was because we didn’t realize it was the golden age.

Do you think it’s a little worrisome that the powerful right flank of the House is made up of people who believe a good way to show their opposition to Obama’s liberal immigration policy is to cut off the border patrol’s paychecks? That the critical role of speaker of the House is held by a guy who doesn’t seem to be able to control his membership? Or even count votes?

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas,” said Boehner when reporters pressed him about his plans earlier in the week.

That used to be a saying he kept for special occasions, but now it seems to be cropping up a lot. I take that to be a bad sign.

The man is in trouble:

If the Democrats don’t bail him out, Boehner can only afford to lose about 27 Republican votes on any issue. And he’s got a new group called the House Freedom Caucus that was organized to mobilize about 30 Republicans who feel the regular conservative caucus is too mainstream [conservative] …

The writing is on the wall:

This take-no-prisoners right wing is a large part of the reason the Republicans can’t come up with their own policies on anything. It’s embarrassing. They hate Obama’s immigration initiative, but they’ve never passed an immigration bill of their own. They’ve voted to repeal Obamacare at least 56 times, but they’ve never come up with a replacement. Last term, the guy who chaired the committee that writes tax bills produced a tax reform plan, and it went absolutely nowhere.

The list goes on and on, but we have a one-week reprieve, and Steve Benen notes the problem now:

The obvious flaw is that this wouldn’t solve the underlying problem so much as it delays the inevitable for no apparent reason. The less-obvious flaw is that the Speaker’s office is effectively abandoning the whole idea of leverage.

From the outset of this mind-numbing fight, the Speaker felt he had the upper hand: he’d hold Homeland Security funding hostage, threatening Democrats with a shutdown unless Congress were permitted to destroy the White House immigration policy. Under the ham-handed plan, Dems wouldn’t want a shutdown; they would be convinced that the GOP isn’t bluffing, and they’d give in to Republican demands.

Except it was all a sham. Boehner is making it abundantly clear he doesn’t want to cut off Homeland Security funding, which means, of course, that Democrats have no incentive to pay the ransom and free the hostage.

Perhaps one shouldn’t mess with Spock:

The Speaker set the rules for this game, but he’s not playing it well. Boehner is simultaneously telling the political world, “Give us what we want or Homeland Security is in deep trouble,” and “Don’t worry, we don’t actually intend to hurt Homeland Security.”

Benen suggests the guy should look up words like “blackmail” and “leverage” – as Star Trek was a language show, after all. Someone on the bridge of the Enterprise has to make sense, or terrible things will happen.

Leonard Nimoy may be dead now, but Spock lives on.

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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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One Response to Reaching Maximum Dysfunction

  1. Rick says:

    I never liked Star Trek.

    It’s not really that it was too wordy — which it was, of course, and with never any believable action, but mostly just outrageously overly-made-up rubberized aliens on some rocky sound-stage set, lobbing papier-mache boulders at that nerdy crew of the Enterprise — it’s that the words seemed as hollow as those boulders, bouncing around inside some platitudinal 4th-grade morality play. I still can’t figure out what the Big Bang Theory geniuses see in that show.

    In fact, the show’s story-lines weren’t too complicated; they were the opposite. They were shallow. Whenever I think of the show, for some reason my mind’s eye sees Frank Gorshen in alien makeup that shows his face as exactly half-black and half-white. Maybe that never actually occurred in the show, but for some reason that’s what I remember.

    But I did like the Spock character, although I never quite understood the logic of what his deal was supposed to be: half-Vulcan, he was totally logical and incapable of experiencing emotions, yet he was also half-human, which means he was — what? Totally illogical and too ruled by emotions to ever know what to do? Yeah, I guess it was supposed to be more nuanced than that.

    And Captain Kirk was his opposite? I would have thought Spock’s opposite would be Steve McQueen, but William Shatner was no Steve McQueen. Still isn’t. Can you imagine a pudgy Steve McQueen, had he lived long enough, acting in commercials for a company that finds you cheap hotel rooms?

    (By the way, have you ever wondered why Gene Roddenberry named his character after a famous baby doctor of the 1940s and 1950s? Well, according to Spock’s Wikipedia article, Roddenberry had never heard of Benjamin Spock when he was thinking up his Spock — he just picked the name because it was “alien-sounding” — and only found out about the doctor’s existence after it was too late.)

    And yet, the reason I like the idea of Mr. Spock is that he seemed like a good and moral man, and the kind of no-nonsense guy who got stuff done, without all the fuss. And yes, that means he was just like Barack Obama, somebody who has so much in common with the character.

    In fact, here’s the title and subtitle of that Jeff Greenwald Salon article, back in May or 2009:

    Obama is Spock: It’s quite logical
    Our president bears a striking resemblance to the rational “Star Trek” Vulcan whose mixed race made him cultural translator to the universe.

    See that? He even mentions his “mixed race”!

    So my question now is, do Republicans and conservatives see the resemblance? Or is this like that dress in the news that some see as gold-and-white, while others see as black-and-blue?

    But come to think of it, how could conservatives see Spock the way we do? After all, they hurl all sorts of vitriol at the president, but would they do this if they realized he was actually Spock? I mean, who can actually hate Mr. Spock?

    While I’ve never seen a poll on this (maybe somebody should do one!), I would bet conservatives don’t really like Mr. Spock. He was the “Science Officer”, after all, but was also way too pragmatic to be an “American Exceptionalist”, and also lacked the capacity to act shit-kicking angry about stupid stuff, just to make some point. Can you imagine Congressman Spock wasting over 50 empty votes to repeal Obamacare?

    And can you imagine him voting to defund the Department of Homeland Security just because he wants the president to know how utterly pissed off he is about something or other?

    “We should have never fought this battle,” said Senator Mark S. Kirk, Republican of Illinois. “In my view, in the long run, if you are blessed with the majority, you are blessed with the power to govern. If you’re going to govern, you have to act responsibly.”

    Or, to put that another way, you have to act logically.

    And if the Republicans were willing to all engage in more of that, they might realize that they, in fact, are not a majority, they are only a coalition of two minorities — Establishment Republicans and Tea Party Republicans — sort of like, but not exactly like, two parties of a parliamentary system who agree on some things while disagreeing on others, who are forced to join together to rule. If they look at their situation that way, they might be able to see they’ll never get their way on anything without compromising with each other.

    Sure, they could split into two separate parties, but that would lead to their mutual doom, leaving the Democrats with most the votes — unless, of course, we somehow come up with an instant-runoff system in America, in which voters get to cast a first and second choice vote, but that is not likely to happen very soon.

    In the mean time, both Republican ideologies need to understand that, rather than being a majority, they are really two minorities, and that, unless they work together, two minorities don’t make a majority. It’s their only logical way out.

    Rick

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