Friday, October 20, 2006

Clank Your Chains and Count Your Change, Try And Walk The Line

On my best days, I like to believe in the ultimate ability of the human race to get it all right in the end. I like to side with the philosophy that people are inherently good, possessed of reason and the ability to govern themselves and their societies in a manner that, while not completely perfect, speaks to the "better angels of our nature." Abraham Lincoln said that last bit, in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861. It seems that Lincoln believed in the ability of people to aspire to their best not only in governance, but in society. He was, after all, the president that weathered the American Civil War and gave Americans their "new birth of freedom."

On my worse days, and an extended Lincoln analogy is useful here, I think of the other side of the man who coined the above famous seeming endorsements of the power of people to positively govern themselves. There is much that can be said to suggest that Lincoln is not as he is commonly remembered. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, had a rather checkered record when it came to "enemy combattants," and it is all but certain that the Northern States did not primarily enter the American Civil War to end slavery. Read more about the other side of Lincoln here.

Therein lies the problems I currently wrestle with concerning the nature of humankind and the issue of political organization. On one hand, I stand firmly with Locke, Montesquieu and Nozick in thinking that people, with their essential liberty, will naturally have their best interests (and therefore the best interests of others) in mind at all times. Self-interest leads to public benefits by encouraging enterprise and a healthy respect for the rights of others to do the same. It's too bad no-one reads Bernard de Mandeville anymore; he had a point with all his talk about bees.

This side of my thinking, therefore, believes that people (and the societies to which they belong) can, given an emphasis on the individual and their inherent rights, can be a force for good and that political systems can indeed be moral and ethical. From good people and their good actions should come good societies. Yay, Aristotle!

Then, there are those other days...

There are times when it seems like people will never get it right. Concerned with themselves and gain at the expense of the freedom and right of others, people seem inherently evil. The systems of which they are a part, moreover, seem to reveal this. Societal organizations from governments to corporations to interest groups seem bent on one thing: their agenda and damn all else. They are in the system for what they can get out of it and never mind the rights of others. It is a battle for survival and the normal state of affairs is a state of war and strife.

Who is my philosophical travelling partner on these days? Why, Thomas Hobbes, naturally. Hobbes argued that life is "nasty, brutish and short." He asserted that without a strong governing force that was not accountable to anyone, people would simply kill each other to get what they want or think they need. He also believed that politics, or at least most political systems, were inherently corrupt, immoral and fraught with bribery, duplicity and out-and-out violence. For Hobbes, politics was not a question of right and wrong, good and evil. It was a question of order and chaos and it is clear what side he came down upon.

It is not hard to see how Hobbes came to these ideas, given the times from which Leviathan emerged. His interpretation of English society in the years before the English Civil War, going back to the time of the early Tudors, exposes a world of corrupt court politics where favor and influence stand at the center of the system. Patronage was the order of the day and it is not hard to extend this, by way of Hobbes's ideas about governmental systems, through history to the present day.

Hobbes believed that, really, the system of government did not matter. Although an ardent Royalist himself, a government's form was unimportant; it was the fact that all subjected themselves to it utterly that mattered most.

In more recent times, an entire school of political history evolved around the notion that politics concerned influence-peddling to gain favor for political factions and members of parties and higher purposes be damned. This, the "Namierite" view of history (after Sir Lewis Namier and his landmark 1929 book The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III) is a stunning comment on political systems in general and one that it is not at all far-fetched to imagine operating in our very midst.

What stemmed all of this in me, you ask? Well, when one studies politics and society in the past, it is inevitable that connections be made between human behavior in the past and that with which one is surrounded on a daily basis. More specifically, in my extensive reading into Tudor and Stuart politics, it occurred to me that political operators like Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, John Russell, William Cecil, Robert Devereaux, Francis Walsingham and others would have been right at home in the Chicago of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

These courtly Tudor Englishmen of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries would have fit right in with the ward-heelers and machine politicians of mid-twentieth century Chicago. They would have, come to think of it, fit right in in most eras of Chicago politics. I can see Wolsey and Cromwell getting along famously with John "Bathhouse" Coughlin and Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna, the "Lords of the Levee." The boss? In one case it was Henry VIII, in the other it was (mostly) Chicago Mayors Carter Harrison, II and William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson.

New wine in old bottles, indeed.

So, what do I think about politics and people? I guess one might say it depends, as I have shown above. I would like to think that people will always, by doing what is right for themselves, also look out for the interests of others. History, however, provides many examples of people doing the exact opposite.

So, whether we clank our chains or count our change, it still depends what line we choose to walk. Robert Hunter's words outline the dichotomy at play here.

In closing, I invoke the immortal words of Bertrand Russell:

"It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

If You Hate It That Much, Move.

Living in a middle-sized Middle American city is, on balance, a great thing. You have all of the modern convienences of the city and you are not more than a twenty minute drive from, in my case, the gently rolling hills of south central Wisconsin. If you get the itch for the big city, Chicago is a hop, skip and a tollway away and Milwaukee, Madison's bigger brother, is only an hour down the road.

The real draw, and the reason that I think the Midwest is the best, is us, the Midwesterners ourselves. It is hard for me to do this, for one of the traits of our sort is modesty, but here goes.

You will not find more friendly, open, honest and genuine people than in the Midwest. Period.

We are always glad to see you, welcome all and are always ready to share whatever we have with friend and newcomer alike. We are proud of our cities, our towns and farmlands. Sure, there are differences between parts of the Midwest, and friendly rivalry between its component parts, but at the end of the day, it is no mistake why this is called "the heartland of America."

Take the Saturday afternoon I enjoyed last week. Breakfast with friends before heading to Camp Randall Stadium to watch the Badgers play Northwestern. An absolutely ideal fall afternoon with the leaves falling and the sun making one last hurrah even as the wind reminded all that the changing of the seasons was upon us. Afterward, pitchers of Blatz beer and conversation topped off with prime rib at the supper club and more good talk and friendliness. What could be better? Not much, if you ask me.

You see, we know that we are not the "coasts," and we like it that way. A lot of educated people sneer at the idea of coastal elitism, but it is a real thing and Midwesterners (and Southerners) feel it all the time. That is part of my reason for writing this.

As a graduate student at a large public university, I am constantly in contact with people from all over the country and all over the world. It is fascinating to see how different people, especially from "the coasts" react to moving to the Midwest. For other Midwesterners, it is like moving but not really. Not so for others, and this is where the elitism comes in.

These sorts of people cannot get it through their heads that things here will never be like they are in Boston or New York or Los Angeles. Ever. What's more, we are happy about this and will fight tooth and nail to keep it that way. Alas, the more we Midwesterners try and welcome these newcomers in our open and friendly manner, they refuse and push back and will not immerse themselves in the culture of their new home.

The accusations and stereotypes are easy enough to recount. All Midwesterners are: hicks, bigots, ignorant, small-minded, fat, crude, beer-soaked buffoons who just do not get it. We Midwesterners would be utterly lost in anything approaching REAL civilization and what we hold dear as the components of our way of life are but laughable shadows of a real culture. The food is terrible, the weather is worse and overall, if everything west of the Appalachians and east of Las Vegas were to vaporize tomorrow, that would be better off for the whole county.

Yep, I'm sure you have heard it all before.

With many of my colleagues, I am running out of answers or witty comebacks to defend my Midwestern home region. I am not sure what to say anymore. So, here is the ultimatum:

Either stop judging, open youself up to us and our ways and maybe, just mabye, allow yourself to be seduced by our charms or leave tomorrow. Simple as that.

If it is indeed so much better where you come from, don't let a measly job or academic appointment here in Dogpatch keep you here. You must have better schools where you come from, right? I mean, you can't take a piss in Boston without hitting a college or its students and UC-Santa Barbara is on the ocean. There must be something there for you, right?

Meanwhile, we will continue to enjoy football in the fall, bratwursts, small towns, manageable cities and most of all each other. The people are really, to again quote Lord Buckley, the flowers of life and we sure do enjoy our garden of life here.

If you cannot see us for the plain and honest people that we are, well, that's really a shame. We tried and tried. What more can we do?

Well, I would be glad to offer you bus fare to the airport. Make sure to just buy a one-way, O.K.?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Going From Worse To Catastrophic?

I had planned to post my big pre-election prognostications, but there may be some changes due to, surprise here, current events.

I am sure that, unless you have been in a coma or undersea or something, that you have heard of the sordid tale of former Congressman Mark Foley (R-FL).

Now, as in any politicomedia scandal, the fallout is spreading. There have been calls for Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) to resign because he may have known about the alleged abuse as long as a year ago. This touches other members of the Republican majority in the House, such as Rep. Thomas Reynolds (R-NY), who may be implicated in a cover-up of Foley's alleged disgusting behavior. Others in "backpedal" mode because of alleged knowledge and a possible cover-up are Reps. John Boehner (R-OH), who is the House Majority Leader, and John Shimkus (R-IL), who oversaw the page program when Foley was, ahem, active with it.

Naturally, this is all made more interesting in an eletion year, especially one when there has been so much talk about the G.O.P. losing ground and the chance of them losing the twelve year hold they have had on the legislature.

What do I think of the whole thing? First off, no-one should ever make light of an adult making untoward advances on a minor. Ever. Secondly, Foley's hypocrisy exceeds even that of most pols with his record of legislation to protect children from predators. His claims, thirdly, made all at the same time that he is gay, was molested by a clergman and is an alcoholic seem like a whole bunch to admit at once.

Realizing that one is homosexual does not happen all at once, nor does it help to explain alleged sexual advances on children. Having been molested as a child is a grave tragedy, but one that seems to have been revealed at just the right time. Also, I don't buy for a second the "I was drunk" defense. I have tried it to get out of stuff that was, well, not a felony and it never works. Seems that some of Foley's colleagues think so too.

Should Dennis Hastert be forced/compelled to resign? I think not right now. Why, if he knew? First, nothing has been proven, no-one has been charged and the speculation is so deep you could fish for marlin in it. It has been clear for a while that the House G.O.P leadership needed a change after things like the Jack Abramoff ordeal and the bribery scandals of Bob Ney (R-OH) and Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA). Clearly, a change is needed.

Why not now? With the real possibility of the G.O.P. losing its hold on the House, the problem might just take care of itself. Different sorts of leadership are needed in oppositon than in majority and Hastert and Boehner (who himself took over for the disgraced Tom DeLay) might not be the guys for the job. My advice: wait until after the election is over and go from there.

Will the Foley ordeal be seen as the last nail in the G.O.P Congressional coffin? Things looked bad before and, in my opinion, this cannot be helping them get any better. This midterm election will be a headhunt against incumbents, as people seem to be losing confidence in their leadership. This effects the G.O.P. more because, well, there are more of them. Seeing as people are not willing to look beyond the two-party system and see that there are other options, they will vote for "the other guy."

Will this keep the so-called "values voters" (read Christian fundamentalists) away from the polls in November? Here again, Foley cannot be helping in any way garner the megachurch, creepy evangelical crowd. Voters are so flaky when it comes to turning out, though, so who can say? Foley is a sufficient condition of a G.O.P. downfall, not a necessary one.

Will a Democratic Congress make it all better? Now, let's not be silly.

Would you really feel any better in knowing that a different group of lunatics is running the asylum?