Thursday, September 17, 2009

What 21st Century Democrats can learn from a 19th Century Republican

In these heady days of ultra partisan bickering, where the side of the good is so clearly indicated by reason, logic, and compassion, while the side of bad is indicated by paranoia, stupidity, and misanthropy, it is worthwhile to locate our moment of history within a continuum of similar contests. If our era’s fight is for health care reform (increasingly being reframed as health insurance reform, unfortunately) then we look to the nineteenth century and a much more fundamental (but no less obviously good) struggle between those who rightly saw slavery as an abomination and those who sought to continue the vile the practice on the grounds of heritage and so-called racial superiority.

Same players, although the poles were reversed. Evil back then was courted and stewarded by those calling themselves Democrats, while Republicans, newly hatched from a crazy-quilt of third parties, Democratic dissenters, and the crumbling remains of the Whigs, clearly saw if not the moral imperative of opposing slavery, at least its unsustainability as a going concern. Then as in now, there was a cloud of unknowing between the two adversaries. There were hints of existential breakdown and whispers of civil war. The cultural differences between the North and the South (surrogated in the proving grounds of what was then known as “the West,” Kansas and Nebraska, particularly) were becoming fodder for a kind of internal xenophobia like a football rivalry writ large.

Into this scene are cast players in a war before the war. Charles Sumner, Senator from Massachusetts, a man by all accounts passionate about the cause of abolition, “a slave’s best friend,” and, also by all accounts, a wholly insufferable man to know personally. Egotistical, pretentious, and (according to an associate) “a specimen of prolonged and morbid juvenility.” In other words, Sumner was an asshole. But an asshole on the side of good. In late August of 1852, he gave a three-hour speech on the floor of the Senate decrying the Fugitive Slave Act, but the once the matter of the Act itself was exhausted, Sumner’s speech because a nasty, crude invective against pro-slavery Senators Stephen Douglas (present during the speech) and Andrew Butler. Sumner went so far as to mock Butler’s speech and mannerisms, both recently impaired by a stroke. Sumner’s speech may well have gone down as one of the lowest, most shameful moments in Senate history had that been the end of it. But what transpired next at the hand of our next player quickly demoted the speech to a distant second place.

Preston Brooks. A little nothing of a Congressman from South Carolina who held to medieval concepts of so-called “chivalry” and always quick to duel (except in one instance, as we shall see) or cop some pose of self-righteousness in a manner familiar to the aristocratic mindset of “old Dixie.” He would have made an excellent, low-ranking Klingon. Brooks got word of Sumner’s speech and wanted satisfaction. The slandered Butler was Brook’s uncle. Rather than calling for Sumner’s censure (which may have ended the still-new Senator’s career. He was not at that time well known or particularly popular) Preston decided that violence was the solution. Ironically, it is Preston’s choice at this moment that made the rather unlikable Sumner a hero in the eyes of the Union. Brooks attacked Sumner, beating him bloody with his thick, heavy, gold-tipped cane. The savagery continued for several minutes while colleagues, helpless to rescue the defenseless Sumner due to the presence of Brook’s goons, could only look on in horror.

Sumner’s injuries were enough to keep him away from the Senate for three years. Headaches, blurred vision, and a severe case of PTSD probably made the man a near basket case. By all accounts, the beating also made him a something of an anti-slavery zealot.

Enter into the scene the third part in this trio of players. One Anson Burlingame, (first picture above) a Congressman also from Massachusetts. Burlingame was a robust New Englander with a serious scholarly mind and a fabulous beard. A non-descript career in the House gave way, in later life, to renown on the international stage as diplomat to the Austrian Empire and China. The Burlingame Treaty is named for him and is perhaps one of the more forward-looking, thoughtful, and fair-minded pieces of diplomatic script written in the 19th century.

Burlingame’s role in the Brooks/Sumner affair is often overlooked by casual readers of history, but it is an important dénouement to the incident. Several days after Brooks beat Sumner nearly to death, Burlingame made what he considered “the most celebrated speech” of his career, wherein he denounced Brooks (on the Senate floor)as "the vilest sort of coward.” Naturally, and predictably, Brooks challenged Burlingame to a duel. And, in one of those historical moments I would personally loved to have eyewitnessed, Burlingame instantly agreed, knowing full-well that as the challenged, he had the right of choice with regards to the weapons used.

Burlingame chose rifles.

Burlingame was a world-class marksman.

Preston Brooks was in deep cotton. He knew it. Although accepting the terms initially, Brooks eventually pulled out of the duel, claiming that he feared being murdered while in route to the Canadian border where the duel was to be held. Well, it was unlikely he would return to South Carolina upright and breathing, although I’m sure safe passage could have been arranged.

In my imagination, I savor the look of clear dismay on Brooks’ face at Burlingame’s enthusiasm for the duel. This, I’m sure was not a typical response and Brooks, like all bullies, cowered at the prospect of confronting true fearlessness. And not just fearlessness, but an almost joyful, relishing confidence. This is what you want from a comeuppance. It is a shining diamond of very basic, deep-body justice. It is not civil and it had no historical significance beyond the moment, but it is one of those tales that could have come from Homer or the Grimms. It has a folk-song spirit to it and one can almost hear the young, Beatniky Dylan hammering away at long verse of The Ballad of Anson Burlingame.

Other than the visceral appeal of a story like this, Burlingame’s example should suggest a way forward for progressives and mainline Democrats in dealing with the current crop of irrational, anti-intellectual paranoids who have essentially filled the vacuum left when the fiscal, Bob Dole style of conservative was rooted out in 2006. The Glenn Beck wing of the conservative movement could not tie Pat Buchanan’s shoes laces, but somehow they are front and center in the media, calling the president a racist, making absurd, tin-foil hat assertions about his legitimacy; overblown and unsubstantiated hyper-critiques of his policies, and saddling his administration with every legacy of previous administration. What is worse, they are beginning to join in common cause with those who would very much like to kill anyone who may have a complexion a shade darker than themselves. It is not a mass movement, it is a mob. A mob itself is only big when they gather, they do not represent a viable minority much less a popular opinion. Poll after poll tells the story. Depending on which poll you read, 60 to 70% of Americans support a public option if not outright universal health care. And even with his struggles, his seeming foot-dragging, his fidelity to the Bush administrations draconian post-9/11 detention policies, and his inability to deliver on his rhetoric (well, it has been nine months. Why aren’t we rich and powerful again?), the majority of American still support Obama personally and trust his policies. (The latter number has been decreasing steadily. I guess declaring the recession over and actually collecting a paycheck are two different things. )

To confront this mob we need a legion of Anson Burlingames. Folks who are willing to meet the crazies on their ground and call them on their bunk. It needs to happen in the venue of popular “discourse.” It is already uncivil and yawping, devoid of content, and without ethos. But to get shouted down by morons while you point to a chart says more about the chartist than it does the morons. When Barney Frank calls a Martian by its name or when Katie Couric manages to expose the fraud that is Sarah Palin, we have to know that these are the outliers of what needs to become, not a movement, but a tactic. Use the moment presented by the opposition the way Burlingame used Brook’s barbarous challenge to neuter the huff and the puff. For inside every bully is a sad, stupid, self-loathing sack of fear. Marginalization isn’t enough anymore. And logic and reason are simply too sober for the drunken shouts from the peanut gallery. The sooner the children are put to bed, the sooner adults can get on with the business of governing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Swine Flu: A prediction

Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius is saying that swine flu shots will be rolled out in October.

I predict... and perhaps (sadly) guarantee, that these vaccinations will become the next crazy cause of the wing-nuts currently busy tea-bagging, denying, death paneling, and birthing their way across country. I predict that Glen Beck will dedicate one of his paranoid, moronic, hyper-ventilating, rants to a new ginned-up conspiracy that the shots have a sinister intent. Just what that intent might be will be left to his fevered imagination but I already have a few ideas for him:

- The serum contains mind control agents that will cause Americans to actually like the concept of health care reform

- The vaccine will cause Beck viewers to watch more Ninja Warrior and less of his show

- It will make Evolution seem as logical and thorough as it really is, and as a by-product will make Creationists say something like "I used to believe what?"

- It will cause voters in Minnesota to finally realize they are actually smarter and have more on the ball intellectually than Michelle Bachman

- It will have a generally calming effect on those who, for whatever reason, hate the idea of an African-American in the White House

- It will awaken that part of the brain that his been has lain dormant for eight years that permits critical thinking. The first utterances after the serum takes will be "hey, we went to war on a lie! That Bush was an asshole!"

Seriously, would it surprise anyone? I predict, Beck (or Sarah Palin, or Michael Savage, or O'Reilly, or Rush Limbaugh, but probably it will be Glenn, as he has carved out a space for himself as the Art Bell of conservative discourse) will make something the flu shots. He generate enough hoopla to keep thousands of his dumb-ass viewers from getting the shot. They will get sick, and some will die. This will be then be Obama's fault because he made us choose between injections of Kool-Aide or getting sick, rather than coming up with a "real" vaccine.

The up-shot, of course, is that it may go a long way to further supporting Darwinism.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Republicans I’ve known: From Gerry to Arnold

I don’t believe I’ve ever had good feelings about Republicans. For me, growing up, Republicans were greedy old white men who liked to play cowboy. Reagan was my first real Republican. I have vague memories of Ford. I could not at the time articulate how I felt about him, but looking back at contemporary pictures or videos, he looked sad and vulnerable. That bald pate, beedy-alien eyes, and gruff, weedy voice seemed to generate an conception of a man better suited to orderly work at the mental hospital. But he was essentially a harmless man. The bridge between the odious kraken known as Richard Nixon (who I do not remember, though Watergate overlaps by toddler years) and the intellectual experimentalism and arrogant rebellion of Jimmy Carter.

Reagan, as Vidal says, was a masterpiece of the embalmer’s trade. He looked bad, but in a good way. He really did look like an animated corpse, or a sultana in a Brooks Brother’s suit. He was simple minded, politically savvy, sincerely folksy, psychopathic, kindly, parodic, dumber than a cow turd, and charismatic in the way fictional characters are charismatic. They called him “Teflon” because no scandal could stick to him. No one would believe that this tired looking old B-movie star with the hair cemented in place with Brylcreem could be responsible for death squads in Central American, arms for hostages, or placating future evil doers as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. We (Americans) wanted to believe we were good, and in as much as we place our hopes and dreams in the person of President as-Head-of-State; and in as much as we were desperate to redeem our shattered national pride after Vietnam and Nixon, we had to believe in someone.

We’ve done this time and time again. Most recently we settled for W Bush , a man not fit to serve as Reagan’s towel boy. And when I say “not fit,” what I mean to say is that Reagan was satanically magisterial, whereas W was simply craven. A bottom feeder who was propped up as figurehead for the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft/Rove cabal. Reagan, taken for all-in-all, was his own man. An operative and a player of the old school.

Reagan cut his teeth here in California before my time. I grew up with the mercurial Jerry Brown who was replaced by the decidedly non-mercurial, non-moonish George Deukmejian who I, for the life of me, cannot think of leaving a single footprint in Brown’s dust. I attempted to revive my memory with a trip to his Wikipedia page. Evidently, he was sort of an appetizer to Pete Wilson’s smorgasbord of intolerance and myopia. He put the kibosh on CalTran’s bicycle program which may have eventually helped develop something like a bicycle culture in this congested, auto-addicted state. And, naturally, he hated queers, vetoing an anti-discrimination bill in the State legislature.

But “Duke” was strictly small potatoes compared to the eight nightmare years of fear and loathing that were the Pete Wilson era. His Three Stirke’s law stuffed our prisons with pizza thieves and pot heads. He shepherded Prop 187 which attempted to deny public benefits (like medical care for, say, tuberculosis) to illegal immigrants. Yes, what we wanted in this state was a culture of terror so that no one ever helped cops with crime investigations because they feared being sent back to El Salvador. And we certainly wanted to makes sure that undocumented grandma never get’s treatment for TB because, naturally, the highly contagious bacillus knows better than to infect good, hardworking legal residents. I am assuming, too, that we all wanted to pay ten dollars a pound for the tomatoes and six dollars a head for the lettuce that would be picked by the legal replacement workers for the illegals we’d be shipping back in freight cars.

I should not overlook Wilson’s positive achievements in the state, leaving it with a massive budget surplus. Fiscally, the man was an effective with a calculator. It is this aspect of budgetary discipline that somewhat counteracts the cowardice and lack of vision that are the hallmarks of the 20th century Republican’s economic philosophy. The current crop of spend-and-scare GOPers don’t even have this to recommend them.

Wilson also championed an initiative that I fully supported in his case. Prop 140 set term limits on the state’s executive. Thus, he termed himself out.

After the tragic boom and bust cycle of the Gray Davis administration, the man who seemed to take into his political body, an analogue of the era and false, Clintonian prosperity, we in California were ready again to flirt with fancy, caprice, and self-parody. For the second time, we elected a bad actor to the state’s highest post. Well, at least Ronnie could give a speech. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term in office has been highlighted by mugging, posturing, bad jokes, bad speeches, hubristic abuse of the initiative system, and an utter inability to properly pronounce the name of the state he governs. That being said, the man is like no Republican I’ve ever seen. He is personally pro-gay rights (although cowardly when it came to Prop. 8), pro-universal health care (as befits his European heritage), and a frequent lip-server of environmental reform. He is also, by marriage, a Kennedy (via the Shriver line) and probably has not a single Southern Republican friend. He makes a lousy Republican, if by Republican, we are going by the hard cases California has seen in its history, or the more recent examples of paranoid foil-hatters and brain trusts that currently populate the ranks of the Grand Old Party.

Truth to be told, Arnold would probably be much more comfortable in the company of Reagan or Teddy Roosevelt than Dick Cheney or Rush Limbaugh.. He is basically a gregarious “guy” who prefers cigars and glad-handing to demagoguery. His cowardice on the issue of gay marriage and silence on immigration reform is unsurprising. As a western European and a member of the Hollywood crowd, assuming the de rigueur posture of the “pro-family” Christian would seem as foreign to him as his accent seems to us. And he is smart enough to know that Austrians are not the go-to folks for discussions of race. (But what a signal that would have sent to the crazy-right in this state, the Minutemen. Their masculine fantasies would be challenged by Conan himself!). He likes the idea of the Republican party, at least the old idea. The decidedly Eastern, Rockefeller, old-money idea of low taxes, privileges for the wealthy, and a beefy, flexing military. That, joined with the Western, folksy sensibilities of Goldwater and Reagan, caught Arnold’s imagination at a young age. It suited his testosterone dreams. But that Republican party is gone. KBW – Killed By W. In its place, the Southern Republicans. A vile pack of unreconstructed, dumb-as-pig-shit, racists, xenophobes, and misogynists. I am thinking Arnold would like to never meet one of these bumpkins. Perhaps he’s run into one or two of their Golden State cousins. The northeast and the southeast of the state are stuffed with similar types.

The biggest difference between Arnold and any of the other Republicans who have spent time in the governor’s seat in Sacramento is that I cannot muster the righteous antagonism that comes so easily when I meditate on the legacy of Reagan, Wilson, and the Bushes. Were we in prosperous times, he would be an innocuous placeholder, happy to cut ribbons and promote gym class. In other words, a lifestyle politician. A Warren Harding or, to be more generous, an Eisenhower. But Arnold took the reigns as things went from bad, to worst, to a point where we are nostalgic for the bad. Now the essential absurdity of his election is starting to take on tragic dimensions. And Californians have no one to blame but themselves, which is why no recall election is forthcoming in his case. Plus, who wants the job of selling seat belts while we’re in freefall? It is easier to hate the legislature. That feels like bureaucracy rather than the populist democracy that put Arnold out head of a diminutive child actor, a porn star, and a loopy political commentator with an accent even thicker than his. But then again, Californians usually go with their “feelings,” don’t we?