Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mea Culpa

Yesterday I posted a clip from The Daily Show on my Facebook page. The clip showed Jon Stewart mocking the half-logic of various media figures, mostly from Fox News, first saying the cultural center in Manhattan is no big deal, then flipping and saying it’s a terrible idea because it’s insensitive. The clip was funny in the usual Daily Show way. It’s always nice to see media figures hoisted on their own petard by their own words caught by their own television networks. But the part of the clip that struck me most was the ending. Jon Stewart showed a clip of Charleton Heston defending the right of the NRA to hold their convention in Colorado Springs right after the Columbine High School tragedy. And then Stewart admitted the he’d made fun of Heston for that, and that he, Stewart, was wrong. He pulled the classic Daily Show gag on himself, and it wasn’t just funny (though he did his best to make it so). It also made Stewart’s point better than all the usual clip-a-thons could. But that couldn’t have made it easy. It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong. It’s always hard. It’s easier when it’s about something unimportant. Oddly, I think it’s also easier when one’s error is so patently obvious, so overwhelmingly clear, that you can hardly help it. That’s where I find myself.

I was wrong. Sure, I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. Admitting that one is a sinner, or only human, or even a bafoon, is pretty easy when it’s done in the abstract. But I’ve been wrong in a very specific way. I feel compelled to confess.

Last night I read SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I couldn’t put it down. At 4:30am I had to force myself, and when I woke up this morning I went right back to it. I loved Freakonomics, but SuperFreakonomics is better, or at least it affected me more, because the points made in Freakonomics were smaller and safer. I found them fascinating, but even having some of my “conventional wisdom” upended was pretty comfortable. SuperFreakonomics was less so, and all the more powerful for it. The book made me re-examine assumptions I’ve made about the safety of car seats, the danger of Global warming, and even the nature of human altruism. But the point that hit me hardest wasn’t something I didn’t know, but something I’ve actively chosen to forget.

I’ve argued that one of my chief issues with conservatism is that it’s regressive, dependent on a mythic view of the past as a halcyon time when people had “values” and everything was hunky-dory. I’ve pointed out that this is patently, demonstrably false; that we are, in every measurable way, living in the best time to be alive in human history. I’ve reminded people that the news media has no incentive to portray the world as safe, happy, and healthy. That doesn’t bleed, so it doesn’t lead. But, as an avid consumer of media (especially news media), I’ve fallen victim to the very fears I derided in conservatives. Only, because I tend to read liberals less critically than conservatives (I try to read both, but admit that I don’t read them the same way) I acknowledged that the present is a lot better than the past, but bought into the notion lots of people are peddling, on both the right and the left, that even though things are good, they are about to get a lot worse. Terribly worse. Apocalyptically worse.

Now, it’s fine to believe that as a tenant of a religion. You can say that your scripture or your prophet tells you that the end times are coming, and that’s enough. But I wasn’t doing that. I was accepting, and even preaching, that some kind of horrible dystopia was on its way, and that since this horror would come from some human source rather than a super-natural one, I could believe in it based on evidence.

But Dubner and Levitt reminded me that I didn’t find that evidence myself, or even read it from authoritative sources. I read it, largely, from people trying to sell newspapers, or heard it from people trying to glue my eyes to TV stations or even Oscar winning documentaries. But Dubner and Levitt are just trying to sell books too, right? True, but they are selling books with a different message. Their message is that we should look at the numbers, so their incentive is to find examples wherein the data conflicts with conventional wisdom. If the conventional wisdom said that the world is safe and improving, they would find examples that show that the data doesn’t back that up. But that’s not what the conventional wisdom shows, so those contrarian examples aren’t the examples they put on display. It’s not that they are apologists for a particular view of the future. They are advocates for the numbers themselves, and for the economist’s view that we should trust the numbers even when they go against what we believe.

So while I’d dismissed conservative fears of a socialist take-over of the government, or the notion that President Obama is opposed to private gun ownership, or that he’s secretly a Kenyan-born secret Muslim secret Marxist secret Black Supremacist, all because these notions lack any evidence to back them up, I’d bought, hook line and sinker, some liberal friendly notions of the coming dystopia. Foremost among these is the notion that global warming is going to destroy the world, and that gasoline in cars is largely responsible for that global warming. Turns out the latter is demonstrably untrue, and the former is wildly unlikely in the foreseeable future. That’s not to say Global Warming is a myth, or that it isn’t a pressing problem. It’s just not at all the problem I thought it was. It’s far more distant in time, far less extreme in its effects, and far more easy to solve than I ever would have expected. I won’t completely explain all that I learned from the book here (read the book!), but suffice it to say that some very smart scientists (not crazy global warming deniers, but respected environmentalists) have come up with a fix that will cost about 50 million dollars. That sounds like a lot, but compare it to the 300 million that Al Gore’s group is using to try to “raise awareness” about the coming apocalypse, it’s pretty small change.

So, if I was wrong about global warming, what else have I been wrong about. Upon reflection, I realize I’ve been wrong to be so concerned about the fight for gay marriage. Yes, it’s a tragedy that it may take a while for gay marriage to become the law of the land, but if trends hold it’s an inevitability. That’s not much consolation for gay couples who want to get married now, but it does mean I should ratchet down my rhetoric. And what about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The human tolls are awful, and the consequences of the money wasted are only magnified when you think of all the lives that could have been saved with that money if it had been spent here on, say, better computer systems for hospitals to reduce human error, or on HIV medication in Africa. But I need to remember that, even with two wars going on, the rate of death by warfare is at nearly historic lows. In fact, so few people are killing each other in war that it’s realistic to believe that war itself could come to an end in the future, a notion that is still unimaginable for most people, despite the fact that our species got by for most of its history without anything we would call war. (For more on, check this out.)

Does this create for some fundamental shift in my politics? Yes and no. I’m still a “progressive”, a “liberal”,a “leftist”. But I don’t need to be a panicked one, and I need to remind myself that people who disagree with me aren’t woefully misinformed fools wandering headlong over a cliff. They may be right. And they may be wrong, but about things that aren’t nearly the big deal I was trying to make them.

Levitt and Dubner point out a bunch of ridiculous, inefficient government programs to illustrate that often the best of intentions lead to fixes that are worse than the problems they are designed to address. This doesn’t incline me to abandon progressivism. For one thing, I don’t buy the false dichotomy that conservatives all want a smaller government while progressives all want a bigger one. It seems to me there are a lot of conservatives who want the government to criminalize abortion, and, one would assume, enforce that criminalization, which is quite a government intrusion on private lives. Meanwhile, this progressive has always believed that it’s ridiculous that our country spends about as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. If a conservative were to give up on their anti-abortion stance, that still wouldn’t cut nearly as much federal spending out of their vision of a better government as my cuts to defense would cut out of mine. I’m perfectly willing to admit that government is not good at some things, and that many of its solutions are bad ones. I also recognize that the public sector can be just as inefficient in some areas, and with more dangerous consequences when they aren’t accountable to anyone but a small number of shareholders. On a theoretical level, I trust the American people to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else, just like Churchill said. The same cannot be said for private companies. Furthermore, I still believe the history of the United States has been one of slow but inexorable progress away from bigotry and aristocracy toward pluralism and inclusiveness. I also believe that pluralism and inclusiveness are essential ingredients to our standard of living and our financial success, creating more economic benefits than deregulation or tax cuts for the wealthy could ever hope to achieve, because the educated, tolerant middle class drives the economy more than distant haves and have-nots. I believe that standing on the side of slowing change down has, historically, always meant standing up for bigotry, intolerance, or economic inefficiency in the face of technological change. I won’t stand on that side.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is the time in history when conservatism is correct, when we’ve gone too far and my grandkids will look back and say, “He supported gay marriage? He railed about U.S. torture policy? He thought taxes on the wealthy should go back up to the rates during Reagan or higher, and that a robust social safety net actually produced greater economic growth in the aggregate while diminishing human suffering during economic downturns? That guy was crazy!” Maybe gay marriage will have destroyed the social fabric of American society. Maybe a little more torture will have made us safer. Maybe “Voodoo Economics” will suddenly start to work. Maybe a society needs some people to starve to death or die from lack of basic health care in order to motivate everyone else to work hard. I could be wrong about all those things. Or maybe my grandkids will be living in bubble cities under the ocean due to massive sea level increases because I’m insufficiently alarmed about global warming. I just hope, when they look back, they are willing to make their decisions based on the best possible data, and when confronted with numbers that don’t fit their preconceived notions, they are willing to change their minds.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Best of OWP: Total Eclipse: The Literary Merit of the Burger King Whopper

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. We were assigned to write an essay, and this was what, er, came out.

Total Eclipse: The Literary Merit of the Burger King Whopper

Walk into any Burger King, and you’ll be drowned in a tsunami of images from the new movie Eclipse, the third part in the Twilight series. To say this is unappetizing is a wild understatement. However, the association with fast food is all too apt. I read Stephanie Meyer’s whole series, and it ran through me much as a Burger King Whopper might.

The series was recommended to me in the highest terms. My students loved it. My colleagues loved it. Like the Whopper, it was ubiquitous, and like Burger King’s advertising, it was pervasive. The marketing barrage was the literary world’s equivalent of a fast food ad campaign. Pundits for the industry were talking about the series as the next Harry Potter, the next savior sent from heaven to stave off the imminent death of reading. “Look at all these kids reading,” they said. “Any reading is good reading,” they said. Imagine a PR ad wherein the Burger King, complete with his creepy, fixed-grin plastic head, came riding through the sky, swinging from the cables carrying giant crates of Whoppers, airlifted and then dropped into the barren fields of some famine stricken African nation. Because all Whoppers is better than no Whoppers, right?

But I bought it. I picked up the first book, tore through it, and enjoyed the pure speed of it. I’d purchased a Whopper, and, sure enough, it had come to the counter still heat-lamp-hot in less than thirty seconds. Twilight recreated that regret I often feel right after buying a burger and forgetting to tell them to hold the mayo. The first portion revolved mostly around romance, which just isn’t my thing, but I recognize that reasonable people can disagree about the virtues of mayonnaise. Sure, I can make a reasonable argument against mayonnaise (it spoils quickly, it can carry salmonella, it looks remarkably like puss) but it’s just a condiment. Short of a localized disease outbreak or contributing to the national obesity epidemic, romance literature poses no social ills either. Twilight was a vampire story, and some measure of whipped up, possibly infectious, puss-filled romance is to be expected in such stories. Still, I like vampires for what their stories can tell us about; the dangers of forbidden love, the curse of immortality, the Faustian bargain of power for soul. It seemed Twilight might have some things to say about these dilemmas re-set in an American high school, with all its issues, and I thought that might be interesting.

Like the Whopper, it tasted pretty good at the time. The second book introduced werewolves, predictably, but then, much about a Whopper is predictable, too. No avocado or pineapple or gruyere cheese hiding between buns made of some strange, organic whole grain. A Whopper is what you expect, and New Moon followed the same path, complete with the vampire pretending to dump the girl in order to protect her from himself. Sometimes you might belch while eating your Whopper, and this kind of schmaltzy melancholy plot twist is the hint of nausea one expects.

By the time the beef is gone and you’re wrapping up that last bite of bun and American cheese in the wax paper, you start to wonder why you bought the Whopper in the first place, and by Eclipse I was realizing the same regret. The werewolves and vampires had fought which was the event I’d come for, and I should have stopped there. But at this point I was invested. The Whopper was mostly in my gullet, though the lack of development of Bella’s character stuck in my throat like a bit of that smooshed, dry bun. I had to swallow the rest and hope for the best.

And I did. I read Breaking Dawn, desperate to know how Meyer would resolve the story (down, damned Whopper, down! Settle!) all the while hating every plot twist. I can spoil the story for you here because, like a Whopper, you’ll forget that it’s an unpleasant experience and revisit the books in a moment of weakness. To summarize, Bella, the protagonist, has been begging to be turned into a vampire by her boyfriend, but he wants to abstain until marriage, so she marries him when she’s just turned 18, she gets knocked-up on the honeymoon, and then she gets super-mom powers that save the day.

At that point the Whopper was mostly only giving me indigestion. I could feel a gurgling in my gut because of what had been done to one of my favorite myths; dangerous creatures of the nights defanged and turned into morose, whining adolescents who can’t walk around in the daylight, not because it would turn them into piles of ash, but because their skin would sparkle in the sun like they rolled around in body glitter. And the werewolves can change at will and aren’t cursed by the full moon! I tried to remind myself that myths, like Whoppers, are made to order each time they’re retold. But I also remembered that one Whopper is often one too many.

As the Whopper proceeded through its journey, the experience got worse. The further I got from that Burger King, the more I regretted my choice to enter in the first place. Sure, the vampire community had a right to be pissed about the way they were depicted in the books, but I became more and more concerned with the messages the books sent to my young female students. I hesitate to even mention the word “diarrhea”. There’s just no mature way to discuss “the runs”. Maturity is expressed in our culture by refraining from discussing diarrhea above all else. But Whoppers can have a stool-softening effect, and Stephanie Meyer’s series was a Whopper that sat under the heat lamp just a little too long. Bella, the protagonist, begins by describing herself as perpetually klutzy, and throughout the series she always requires rescuing. In fact, her first meeting with Edward, her vampire love interest, is the occasion of her first rescue when she walks across a parking lot without paying attention to oncoming traffic. From then on, she’s being saved, and not just from cars, enemy vampires, out of control werewolves, and her boyfriend’s own dangerous passions. More than anything, Bella needs to be saved from herself. For every admirable thing she does, she makes three boneheaded decisions, fails to communicate openly and honestly with the people who care about her and can help her, and stumbles into life-threatening danger because she’s swooning about a boy. But the biggest danger of all, we’re told, is Bella’s own sexual desire. Sex is simultaneously represented by the metaphor of a vampire bite and by sex itself, and Bella wants both. While some might say it’s a kind of progress to depict a girl who wants sex, this is always presented as negative in that it’s life-threatening. If Bella gets her boyfriend too turned on, he’ll kill her. Luckily, she’s rescued from this by his strength of will. She’s found a boyfriend who will say no to a hot girl begging to have sex. This might be a fantasy of a particular kind of religious, conservative girl, but I would bet good money that girl will find a vampire before she finds a human boy with such restraint.

Of course, if abstinence is the real conflict, then marriage is the resolution, and when Bella gets married the danger of her sexual desire disappears. Now sex is the vehicle by which she can find satisfaction, right? Ha! She gets laid once. Once! Then she’s knocked up and… wait for it… her pregnancy is really dangerous. I wonder how Bella will pass through that danger. Oh yeah, she’ll be rescued, once again, by her husband.

And then she’s a mom, and since motherhood is the measure of a woman’s worth, she gets super-powers and saves the day. Yea.

If you aren’t sympathizing with the burning sensation yet, check this out: The boyfriend who keeps saving Bella from herself because he loves her so much is 87 years older than she is. That’s right, girls, if you want to find a nice guy who will protect you from your own sluttiness, make an honest woman out of you, and then give you the baby and super-powers deluxe package, just keep your eye out for the town pedophile.

Now those clever marketing guys in Hollywood know that it’s important to keep the Twilight films dribbling out just slowly enough that you can’t quite get off the toilet before the next wave hits. So here I am, still on the pot, my elbows propped on my knees for so long I’ll have bruises. But I’m over-analyzing the situation, you yell through the door. Why can’t you just enjoy it? I’ll tell you why. In the long run, the Whopper is generally not the pleasurable experience we’re told to expect. And Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series really chaps my hide.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Best of OWP: "Self-Portrait Across the Street from the Art Museum"

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. I wrote this one during one of our field trips at Willson Park on the west side of the Oregon State Capitol grounds.

Willson Park - Share on Ovi

Self-Portrait Across the Street from the Art Museum

I almost fall
Folded up into a broken bench.
Startled smoke from my cigarette
Wraps around my head
Before I can ground the butt under the ball of my foot.
The fountain shouts, “Shush!”
Or maybe “Shame on you!”

I don’t know if it’s talking to me
Or the noisy buses on the street
Or the gaggle of teens juggling
The hacky-sack with their skate shoes
Or the twin turbo prop cutting and clawing sky
Or the politicians in the capital building behind me
Who certainly don’t care what the fountain thinks.

Maybe it’s shushing the strange sculptures
Of dark metal animals
“Animals on Parade”
A beaver, ferrets, two alligators, a pair of frogs sharing stilts.
The parade needs no shushing because it doesn’t speak to me.

At least not as loudly
As the empty gazebo
That needs a paint job
And a purpose
Out of place in time in this park.

As the next cigarette catches fire
And holds it
The gutter-punk kids startle me
Toss a firecracker
Yellow and white sparks darting off
To high pitched popping and a tired, bored “woo.”

I remember an overheard
“Your self-portrait is way off.”
And I know that is possible.

Maybe everyone’s self image is
A decaying gazebo, a self-important fountain
A capital building without a dome
Metal animals in a motionless parade
A discarded firecracker interrupting the arc of a hacky-sack
A ring of fancy flagpoles
Holding up unintelligible fabric limp in no wind.

If so, I’m no exception.
I am Dr. Watson
In the Sherlock Holmes mystery of my self,
Feet buried three cigarettes deep
Falling ass-first
Through a broken park bench.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Best of OWP: "Grandpa's Ring"

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project.

Grandpa’s Ring

His ring was very thin by the end.
The gold wore down
As he moved around the world
Did amazing things
Lived a life too unbelievably full for fiction.
When he was gone
My mother wanted me to have it.
We put two white-gold bands on either side.
I slid it on my finger on my wedding day
Twisting it over my knuckle.
Talismans skip a generation.
My parents own their objects of power.
I have mine because Mom gave me her father’s.
The ring cannot fit over my knuckle.
My son will not wear it while I am alive.
After I am gone
Will a grandchild carry my grandfather
To far away places
And take me along too?

Best of OWP: Dancing in Pink and Green

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day, but due to a congenital lack of discipline it seems I'm posting them every other day. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. For your Friday the 13th pleasure, a horrific visual image inspired by the prompt to write about dancing.

Dancing in Pink and Green

Dancing, for me, has so often been about a mixture of feelings, fun and self-consciousness, curiosity and a sense that I am out of place. I remember the sixth grade dance when I attended a school where I was an ethnic minority. My mom bought me the most awful outfit. I can’t remember now if it was pastel green pants, a pink shirt, and a pastel green tie, or the reverse, but she thought it was something out of Miami Vice and would be really cool. So here I was, one of the few white kids, dressed in the worst clothes I’ve ever worn in my life, trying to copy the dances of my peers who knew all these moves I’d never even seen before. That sense of awkwardness is the feeling I associate with being white, more than anything else. When my friends got tired of laughing at me, they made a project of teaching me these dance moves, the kid’n’play, the bone breaker, the butterfly, the pop-n-lock, the kid’n’play 2 (yes, a dance move from a movie sequel), and by the end of the event (I think it happened during the school day, come to think of it) I was having so much fun and felt so included that I can almost forget the discomfort of those first few minutes. At one point, my friend Darius even expressed some admiration for the way I performed some move, and I still remember that to this day, though now I realize he was probably being kind, or perhaps mocking me in a way that was too subtle for me to get. Still, it gave me the confidence to keep going to dances at schools where I was one of the only white kids, and it gave me a sense of freedom to know I could make a fool of myself and never look quite as awkward as I did in those terrible clothes my mom bought.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Best of OWP: A Rainy Night in Paris

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day, until I've shared them all. Then I went to a conference in Portland and immediately missed a day. So much for blogging discipline. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. This piece was a product of a prompt to create a "super-sentence". I've heard them described as "one sentence stories", but mine's more of a one sentence essay. We were provided with some titles to write to, and I chose "A Rainy Night in Paris" since it was the day after Bastille Day.

A Rainy Night in Paris

Last night I learned that, on the day of the storming of the Bastille, Louis the XVI wrote “Rien” in his diary, shorthand for “Nothing happened today”, which we might dismiss as the scribbling of an out-of-touch monarch, but that would be a mistake, because it illustrates the way the things we overlook, some poorly planned act of rebellion on a rainy night in Paris, or flipping-off the wrong person on the freeway, or writing a single strong sentence, can change the course of history.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Best of OWP: I Loved the Noise

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day, until I've shared them all. Some were already posted as I wrote them, and I won't republish them with their minor revisions. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project.

I Loved the Noise

I loved the belted-out answers
Students abandoning raised hands
The wide grins because their thinking was good
It was good!
And someone finally told them so.
I loved the side conversation
The speed of the cellphones whipped out and hidden again
when I scowled
The kid who wrote down things I said out-of-context
and read the list at the end of the year.
I loved the groans about reading Shakespeare
The laughter about the innuendo
The lust for violence
The heartbreak at all the right places
The gnashing of teeth when we had to close the book for the day.
I loved the writing
And the writing
And the begging for a little more time to write,
The desperation to share
The feigned reluctance to do so
Which, when overcome, melted like wax
Remolded into something obviously rehearsed
Beloved, approved of by all.
But mostly I loved the noise
The energy expressed in an increasing buzz of volume
And the challenge of giving directions
Without making that urge to noise
That will to think out loud
Go away completely.
“But” they said.

“Everyone seemed to be on task
Interested, engaged, invested

It was too loud in your class.”

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Party of No, Never, Except Sometimes

In case you missed it this week, the House of Representatives put on a circus of shame, dysfunction, and bombast. The Democrats put forth a bill, called the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2009, to pay for the health care of 9/11 first responders. Fearing criticisms that it would increase the deficit, they even put in a mechanism to pay for it, offsetting the cost by closing offshore loopholes for multinational corporations. Since both these should be slam dunks with the American people, they put in on the fast track, preventing anyone from adding amendments to the bill but requiring a two thirds majority to pass it. Some admitted they were afraid of poisoned pill amendments that would prevent them from voting for their own popular legislation. This begs the question: Were they naïve, cynical, or cowardly? Throughout the history of this congress, the Republicans have voted “no” in lock step on almost everything. Therefore, an argument could be made that the Democrats were naïve to think that this bill would be so popular some Republicans would cross the aisle to vote for it. Or maybe they were cynical, believing that they could score a political win by forcing Republicans to cross the aisle or be branded as heartless corporatists who put the tax status of wealthy corporations against the most obviously heroic patriots the country has to offer. Or maybe they were just cowards, so afraid of attack ads pillorying them for voting for or against the bill due to poisoned pill amendments that they couldn’t just bring it to a normal vote and pass it. Considering the Dems in Congress, I’m willing to believe all three about different representatives. They all seem to me to be starry-eyed optimists who keep foolishly expecting bi-partisanship, cynics who talk a good progressive game but keep voting for special interests, or cowards who are so afraid of courting controversy that they can’t even frame issues effectively and continuously cede the language of the debate to the Republicans. Shame be upon them all.

But I think the Republicans in Congress were worse. Some claimed they were voting against it because they were upset by the procedural maneuver that prevented them from putting amendments on the bill. As the bill was pretty straightforward, this is a pathetic excuse. Either they are for providing health care to 9/11 first responders and paying for it by closing a tax loophole on multinational corporations, or they oppose one of those things to such a degree that it outweighs their support for the other. I guess there is a third option. They could oppose both. If they truly support both these portions of the law, there is no need to amend it. It doesn’t need to be qualified to create loopholes in the closing of loopholes, or to have pork added by the party that claims to be for fiscal responsibility. The procedural argument is a canard, a hoax, a falsehood, a lie, a sham, complete and utter bull.

Now, some Republicans had the integrity to voice real concerns. It’s too bad that integrity wasn’t joined to real honor or compassion, because the concerns were shameful in their own ways.

Some were concerned that a fraction of the money might go to first responders who were illegal immigrants. That’s right, they are so hateful towards illegal immigrants that if someone chose to run into the burning World Trade Center to save their fellow human beings, or was willing to wade through the rubble of those two buildings looking for survivors, breathed in the toxic fumes, and is now coping with debilitating health complications as a result, but that person had overstayed their work visa, that was cause enough to prevent all the people who made the same sacrifices from receiving care.

Others stated boldly that closing the tax loophole for multinational corporations constitutes a tax, and they are so religiously anti-tax that they could not support it regardless of where the money would go. Now, you could argue that making a person pay a tax they’d fled is somehow a new tax, but that’s pretty weak. Making that weak argument at the expense of people who ran into burning buildings to save the lives of complete strangers… that’s the kind of principled heartlessness one normally only sees in Mafia movies. Its not personal, 9/11 heroes. It’s just business.

Regardless of their stated reasons, no matter how odious, you have to give the Republicans credit for one thing at least: their unity. 155 Republicans voted against the bill, with only twelve in favor. I guess you could say the Democrats were more unified, since 243 of them voted for it and only four against it, but it was their bill and the notion of caring for the 9/11 first responders is wildly popular. I’ve tried to find some data on just how partisan this Congress is compared to others (someone please post a link if you can find something objective), because I’m always skeptical of such claims. They remind me of claims that certain political races are particularly negative, ignoring the degree of mudslinging that has gone on historically. Sure, people perceive this to be a hyper-partisan Congress. Polling numbers on this are very strange. People claim to want bi-partisanship. But, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, voters find the Republicans to be slightly less partisan, and the number of self-identified Republicans outpaced the number self-identifying as Democrats (though both increased). But here’s what’s weird: 66% of people believe that the partisanship in Washington will increase over the next year. Now, unless those new Republicans all fall in the 13% who think it will become more cooperative, they are telling pollsters that they will vote for the party they find to be more bi-partisan, but that the country will be more partisan. Are they saying they expect their candidates to lose? Has “bi-partisan” simply become a way of saying you like a party, regardless of their voting history? Do they expect Republicans to take one or both houses of Congress and then butt heads against a lot of White House vetoes? That sounds very reasonable, but let’s remember that Americans have historically admired bi-partisanship and voted for gridlock.

Despite public perception, gridlock is not what we’ve achieved so far. As John Dickerson pointed out on the most recent Slate Political Gabfest, history will look back at this partisan Congress and realize how remarkably productive they’ve been. Yes, they’ve failed to produce meaningful energy legislation. Yes, they haven’t even touched immigration reform. But they did pass health care reform, and as much as I think the product was weak to the point of being pathetic, it was still a minor improvement and that’s more than any Congress or President could claim in a half a century. They also passed regulatory reform for Wall Street (again, weak legislation, but it was still a hard fight against a lot of Wall Street pressure), and the Economic Recovery Act (too small according to almost every reputable economist, but as big as they could get once Republicans rediscovered religion on the deficit). All this in the midst of The Great Recession (or the Bush Depression, or the Larry Summers Big Banks Free-for-All, take your pick), two inherited elective wars, and the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. They’ve done it by the thinnest of margins, but they’ve pulled off the legislative trifecta that Obama ran on. He’s done what he said he’d do. And, increasingly, people hate him for it, and hate the Congress that made it happen.

Now, maybe people are just simple. Maybe they just want unemployment to stay low and the economy to grow at a fast pace, and as long as it’s humming along they don’t care about anything else. But I have a feeling there’s more to it. Commentators have been debating, since the presidential election, whether or not this is a “center-right” nation, as many on the right kept saying over and over. The left would counter that a center-left politician was elected by popular vote (as well as by the wacky, vestigial electoral college), and that if you measured by certain bell weather issues (abortion, gay rights, etc.) Americans actually favor the left side of the spectrum. The right would counter that on other issues (national defense, tax policy) America is on the right. But when I look at the vote in Congress this last week on the Zadroga Act, I wonder if it’s not more complicated than that. Sure, we could debate which issues are most important, and how many should be considered to sum up the national political preference, but I expect we’d still get the wrong answer, because my theory is that the country shifts, and shifts pretty wildly, depending on who is in power. Here’s why: The Republicans, and Conservatism in general, makes for a better opposition party, but a terrible party in power. The Democrats, as weak-kneed half-Progressives, make a terrible opposition party. They are actually the better party in power, but always fail to meet expectations and do a pathetic job of arguing for themselves, especially in the face of strong opposition. Add to this recipe Americans remarkably short memories, and you create a kind of jello that wobbles back and forth along the political spectrum during each election cycle.

Why are the Dems a better governing party? Let’s look at their accomplishments. In the last century, the wars we won (WWI and WWII, Kosovo) were all started by Democrats. So was Vietnam. Quagmires are losses. Dems 3 and 1. Republicans have one clear victory in Grenada, arguably a tie in Korea, and a seeming win in Kuwait that turned out to be a loss in that it left Saddam Hussein in power and led to another quagmire. That’s Repubs 1-1-1 if you don’t count two quagmires in this century and illegal wars in Chile, Cambodia, El Salvador, Iran, etc. etc. Now, the Repubs may claim the Cold War, but if Reagan’s deficit spending the enemy into bankruptcy gets him credit over Truman then that’s not the kind of victory any fiscal conservative wants on his record.

Now let’s look at domestic programs. The Dems have the New Deal, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, The Great Society, and Desegregation. Republicans will remind you that desegregation was largely a battle with southern Democrats, and that’s true, but those Dixiecrats left the party and were welcomed with open arms into the Republican party, and I’m sorry to say that racists are like vampires; if you welcome them into your home you get what’s coming to you. Republicans will also remind you that they have Lincoln on their ledger, and that’s true, but he was in every way a Progressive, and is still hated by many conservatives, so, though Dems can’t claim him on their scoreboard, conservatives can’t have their stovepipe hat cake and eat it too. Similarly, Nixon gave us the EPA, though I’m not sure conservatives want credit for that. Teddy Roosevelt gave us the National Parks, but he left the Republican Party to start the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, which would certainly prevent him from passing the modern litmus test for conservatism. Gingrich and Clinton both should get credit for welfare reform in the nineties, but then they should both get credit for the millions wasted on the Lewinskygate scandal, so that’s something of a wash for both parties. Now, maybe I’m forgetting the wonderful domestic accomplishments of conservatives. Please remind me in the comments section below. But I know I’m being inherently unfair, because conservatism doesn’t measure its success in new programs. Conservatives say “No!” It’s just that Americans like new programs, new services, new benefits. By and large, we want a safety net. In that way, we are center-left, if not outright left as a country.

We just don’t want to pay for programs/services/benefits. In that way we’re center-right if not far right. And this is why the conservative position appeals right up until it doesn’t. William F. Buckley Jr., the father of modern conservatism, most perfectly described what conservatism should be, and what it is whenever the conservatives are out of power. “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!'” I not only love the poetic beauty of this quote, but even as a liberal I can respect the need for this position in our political system. Progressives, no matter how hard they try to be fiscally and morally responsible, can only produce social change through the political system by producing new government services. These cost money, and even if they are fully paid for by cutting in other areas, they do so by cutting out ineffective but unobtrusive services in favor of ones that will more firmly entrench the power of government into the lives of citizens. We do need progressives to keep government relevant, and to force it to meet the needs (and selfish desires) we ask of it. But without conservatives, government will inevitably encroach on our money and our freedom.

This need for balance causes various types of dysfunction. Government doesn’t work when we need change but have conservatives in power. It also doesn’t work when we are changing too much, need someone to cry, “Stop!”, but have progressives in power. But these two scenarios aren’t the reason for America's vacillation between the sides of the political spectrum. If they were, America could remain centrist and the parties would dance around at the middle as the circumstance changed. Unfortunately, our political system doesn’t allow conservatives to remain conservative. Crying, “Stop!” in unison is a great strategy for an opposition party. They remain unified, somewhat ideologically pure, and can present themselves to the electorate as the stronger, more principled party. Progressives, who innately want to get something done, have a very hard time saying no to everything. It’s just not in our make-up. But we can’t agree on what kinds of change we want, so we often find ourselves forming circular firing squads (or, in D.C. parlance, “going off-message”). But the party of “Stop!” can’t remain so once they are in power if they want to hold on to that power. If the Dubya years aren’t enough evidence of that, we can go back further. During the reign of Bush I, that president not only increased taxes (fiscally responsible, but not fiscally conservative), but started an elective war and waffled on NAFTA. Reagan ran up a huge deficit, and only set the top marginal tax rate lower than Obama’s proposed 39.6 during his last 13 months in office. And that was an anomaly for Republican presidents. Low top marginal tax rates are the exception for Republican presidents, not the norm:

Taft: (1909-1913)--income tax began in 1913 at 7% for top rate
Harding: (1921-1923): 56%-73%
Coolidge (1923-1929): 24%-56%
Hoover (1929-1933): 24%-63% (63% after Roosevelt took power)
Eisenhower (1953-1961): 91-92%
Nixon (1969-1974): 70-77%
Ford: (1974-1977): 70%
Reagan (1981-1989): 28%-69.13%
Bush I: (1989-1993): 28%-39.6% (39.6% after Clinton took power)
(source: Tax Policy Center)

Republicans generally exceed Democrats in their appropriations of pork for their districts. And why? Because voters love pork. According to a PEW research poll conducted in July and August of this year, a Rep. who brings lots of pork back to a district gains a greater advantage than considerations like his/her association with Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, his/her support from the Tea Party, or his/her independence from the Republican or Democratic Party. Cry “Stop!” at History all you want, but it won’t get you re-elected. Tell your constituents that you brought home the bacon, and they’re your biggest fans.

In fact, when examining our history since the rise of modern conservatism, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen true conservatism as a ruling philosophy. What, exactly, would “Stop!” look like? Would the government shrink in size and power? That hasn’t happened. Would personal freedoms increase in relation to federal authority? During the Bush II years, the government was simultaneously trying to encroach on people’s right to marry, their right to protest (remember “Free Speech Zones”), their right to habeas corpus, their right to privacy (the “Total Information Awareness” program) and on and on. I know it’s not fair to evaluate conservatism by the government’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina, but if the conservatives could point to a history of limiting the government in areas beyond tax policy, how would that response have been different? If Ron Paul had been president, rather than Dubya, and he’d spent the run up to Katrina abolishing FEMA along with the Department of Education and the IRS, there might have been more resources (no Iraq War or Department of Homeland Security, remember) but would that have translated into an active and effective response by a Paul Administration? Or would they have put that responsibility on states? Or on individuals to take “personal responsibility” and “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”?

Perhaps I’m blind to a similar kind of incongruity on the left. To me, FDR’s administration seems pretty consistently progressive. Johnson’s legacy was betrayed by his own folly in Vietnam, but his Great Society was unarguably progressive. And, as much as I’ve been disappointed by the emphasis in privatization in the latest health care reform, the tepid nature of Wall Street reform, and allocation of TARP funds to “too big to fail” banks rather than a massive investment in high speed rail and renewable energy technologies, I have to admit that the Obama administration has been predictably center-left. How have progressives failed to be truly progressive when in office? Do their failures constitute the same kind of disconnect between their ideology and their outcomes?

If not, this isn’t a simple case of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. The case of the Zadroga Act might illustrates the weakness of the Democratic Party, but it points to something more fundamentally flawed about the Republican Party. It’s a case of a party that grinds the nation to a halt when it’s at its best, but, when it’s rewarded for it by the voters, it drives it into the ground.