October 12, 2007

Pondering the future of this great country of ours

I've occasionally tapped into the dismal spectacle of candidates' "debates," both Republican and Democratic, and like you I have become quickly dyspeptic at the unedifying spectacle of robotic sloganeering by all the "serious" candidates (the ones without any controversial ideas which could possibly have any effect on the country's real problems). The marginal candidates, such as Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, naturally have all the "radical" proposals, that is, ideas which upset America's moribund status quo. To be taken seriously in America as a presidential candidate, you have to find a way to adopt and announce "positions" which (a) retain your base without (b) saying anything so "outrageous" that you make yourself a laughingstock with the political arbiters of the mainstream media. As an example of a completely outrageous idea, take Dennis Kucinich's proposal for a "Department of Peace." We don't do peace in the United States; we are the New Sparta, and you will listen a long time before you hear Hillary Clinton, John Edwards or Barack Obama say anything about substantially reducing America's military budget. In fact, listen as long as you want; you'll never hear it. We don't say stuff like that.

I remember, as an undergraduate, becoming interested in the political theory based on the concept of the "normative tendency of the factual." Essentially, this idea is that the essential inertia of a political system derives from the citizenry's identification of what is with what ought to be. So keeping America "strong" has become unassailable gospel in American politics. Is this because America has more enemies than anyone else? Consider that 9/11 was followed by the Madrid train and London transit bombings, not to mention terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Bali, Russia and many other places where America was not the direct target. The Spanish and British apprehended the perpetrators; the United States, with the possible exception of Khallid Sheikh Mohammed, has never actually caught anyone directly and materially involved in the 9/11 attacks, though, practically speaking, those 19 hijackers must have had many accomplices for logistical and financial support. The overriding point is that virtually all Western countries are vulnerable to terrorist attack, and indeed endure such attacks. This is viewed as the essential and existential danger of the modern world. Yet the United States alone feels the need to maintain this huge military-industrial complex with such a disproportionate part of its federal budget devoted to a high-tech military designed, obviously, to fight wars in foreign countries.

If a presidential candidate were to challenge this orthodoxy by venturing the "radical" idea that this military complex is not for the purposes of fighting the "global war on terror," he (the sole woman in the race would never say such a thing) would be McLuhanesque toast by the following morning. Suppose the candidate said: I think the MIC exists because it's a business arrangement between government, military contractors and the defense industry, and because we want a big expeditionary force to protect our access to vital resources, mainly oil. We both know that would be it for that flake. Chris Matthews would bray himself scarlet in the face. Rush Limbaugh would demand a Senate resolution accusing the candidate of sedition. Game over. You can't say stuff like that and be taken seriously.

The interesting thing about the "stuff" is that it's true.
If the real threat to the USA is a band of terrorists trying to infiltrate the country with a nuclear bomb, say, then it's obvious that F-15 fighter/bombers and cruise missiles and up-armored Humvees and the rest of it aren't going to do any good. For specific example, they didn't stop 9/11. They didn't stop the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. They didn't stop the bombing of the USS Cole or the African embassies or the Marine barracks in Lebanon. The reason they didn't stop any of these things is because a huge military establishment has nothing to do with a group of terrorists fighting "asymmetrical" warfare. The way you counteract asymmetrical warfare is by making it symmetrical, the way Israel uses the Mossad. Infiltration, espionage, bribery, blackmail, assassination. All in a self-defensive way, of course. Aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean are not going to stop a group of Wahhabist Saudis sitting around a dining table in a condo in South Florida.

So we're at the point where a candidate is not electable unless they avoid saying logical and obvious things. There is a very narrow bandwidth of acceptable ideas in the presidential race. On the environment, say, the idea is to "reduce" greenhouse emissions by cap-and-trade or by voluntary reductions. Are these ideas actually related to the inexorable demands of atmospheric science? Who cares. Sound good, anyway. On oil: let's increase CAFE standards by the year 2020 so we're somewhere in the neighborhood of where the rest of the industrial world already is and has been for sometime. Let's grow some corn and make some ethanol, so we have 15% ethanol mixtures by, I don't know, 2020 or so. 2020 is a good year, since it's far enough away to avoid actually doing anything now. On healthcare: that's tough. Let's do something. We'll get back to you.

The leading Democratic candidates have these advantages: Clinton - her last name. Edwards - his haircut and boyish charm. Obama - he's African-American. Since these advantages are decisive over all other candidates, it does not matter whether their actual ideas do any good or change anything, because as long as they remain safely inside the bandwidth, they're good to go. The winner will be chosen on subjective criteria similar to "American Idol."

One might ask: but what about Reality? Won't Reality at some point impose some nonnegotiable demands of its own? Won't the country founder, and break up, and be torn asunder by its inability to adapt to changing circumstances? Well -- sure it will. But remember: that's not what the candidates are talking about.

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