31 October 2014

Ghost hunter: Ted Cruz and the quest for the hidden majority

I empathize with the despair Senator Cruz of Texas must feel at the thought of a 2016 presidential election contested by a Bush and a Clinton, even though I don't necessarily share his fear that the nomination of Jeb Bush by the Republicans would guarantee the election of Hillary Clinton for the Democrats. The country seems to be in an eight-year presidential cycle that leaves voters disgusted enough by the standard-bearer of one party after two terms to choose the candidate -- any candidate, it must seem by now -- of the other major party. "Clinton fatigue" was blamed for George W. Bush's elections by those who didn't want to blame it entirely on the hanging chads in Florida, and something similar caused by Bush himself contributed to the election of Barack Obama. By now it's clear that many Americans will be quite sick of Obama by the fall of 2016, and their contempt will most likely benefit a Republican -- but Cruz isn't so sure. He worries that Republican primary voters and power brokers will waste the golden opportunity of 2016 if they opt for the latest Bush.  Whatever Cruz thinks of Jeb's brother, he has decided that the former governor of Florida is too much a moderate, too much in the mold of John McCain and Mitt Romney, to win a general election.

Cruz presumably doesn't agree that "Bush fatigue" helped Obama win in 2008. The Senator is one of many Republicans convinced that there remain vast untapped resources of Republican voters who will only come to the surface if the GOP gives them authentically impassioned and ideological conservative candidates. He's a believer in the hidden majority that must exist if his vision of America is to be viable. Like many a reactionary or ideologue, Cruz sees America not so much as what the American people say it is, and not even so much as what the Constitution dictates it should be, but as how Crassus saw Rome in Dalton Trumbo's script for Spartacus: as "an eternal thought in the mind of God." More importantly, he sees the American people themselves that way: not as what they say they are in the evidence you can see and hear, but necessarily as they should be according to Cruz's absolute ideology. There must be a majority out there that affirms traditional values, free enterprise and limited government, in his view, and they will reveal themselves when we use the right words and the right voice to summon them. Or else the America he believes in doesn't really exist.

Reality has disappointed Cruz before. Recall his encounter earlier this year with representatives of the oppressed Christian communities of the Middle East. He seemed authentically stunned that his co-religionists, beset by radical Islam, would not recognize Israel as their natural and rightful ally in the region. He will be disappointed again, in all likelihood, if his argument against Bush is really a plea for his own nomination. As some observers have suggested, a Cruz candidacy is, if anything, more likely to assure Mrs. Clinton's election or that of any Democratic nominee than nominating another Bush. He's simply too polarizing a figure after only a short time in the national spotlight, unless you assume that the hidden majority will tip the balance toward one pole. However, Cruz might be surprised, more or less happily, by the outcome of a Bush-Clinton race. Hillary is sure to suffer for voters' "Obama fatigue," since she served in his administration, while Jeb has always been perceived as the more moderate and smarter Bush brother. More importantly, this is Hillary Clinton we're talking about -- the Devil Herself to a generation of right-wingers. If Republicans aren't motivated to go to the polls simply to vote against her, then they aren't as rabidly reactionary as we assume they are. Maybe this is what Cruz believes -- that the hidden majority isn't driven by fear but needs to hear a positive affirmation of their values, whatever that may sound like, before they'll rise in their majesty and reclaim the country.

Still, Cruz is correct to think of Bush vs. Clinton as a bad choice for the nation, if only because it would reaffirm a disquieting quasi-aristocratic turn in American politics. While both prospective candidates have won multiple elections in their own right, both still embody the clannish idea that virtue somehow inheres in families, and neither may have received a chance at election if not for their last names. This political version of brand-name loyalty has no more place in a working democratic republic than our brand-name loyalty to parties. We ought to hope that there's a hidden majority that would reject both families, but Cruz is right again if does think that any hidden majority needs to hear more than fearmongering before it will assert itself. Cruz's mistake is that his message is something an actual hidden majority hasn't already heard. Our mistake, as I've warned elsewhere, would be to assume that there's a hidden majority that can be rallied behind one platform or vision for the country -- that any hidden majority is essentially centrist or moderate. Saving our country almost certainly won't be that easy.

29 October 2014

Partyism: the new bigotry?

Cass Sunstein, a liberal scholar, makes the audacious claim in an op-ed for Bloomberg News that prejudice on the basis of political partisanship is now more widespread than prejudice on the basis of race. On the basis of various surveys, he reports that people are more likely than ever to reject job applicants, or suitors for their children, for belonging to the wrong party. Nearly half of Republicans in one survey don't want their children marrying Democrats; the feeling is mutual for a third of Democrats. Fifty years ago, the numbers were in single digits on both sides. The problem is worse in the job market; partisans are more likely to reject applicants whose opposite-party affiliation can be inferred from their resumes, even when those applicants have better credentials for the job at hand. Following up on Sunstein, David Brooks laments what he calls the "hyper-moralization" of American politics. He seems to mean that people have grown more sweepingly judgmental about politics than ever before, with ever-worsening social consequences as partisans withdraw into their own affinity bubbles and avoid interaction with different points of view. Both Sunstein and Brooks blame the political advertising complex for this alarming state of affairs, but Brooks adds the observation that politics has grown more bitter because political debates have become our substitute for the sort of moral debates he claims were once more common in our culture. As philosophers and theologians have yielded the public sphere to parties and "media provocateurs," Brooks argues, political debates have escalated in fervor and rancor beyond all proportion to the issues at stake. Political campaigns become "a Manichean struggle of light and darkness" over "the existential fabric of life itself."

In one of the local papers, Brooks's column shared an editorial section with a Michael Smerconish op-ed on political polarization that puts the other writers' concerns in a different perspective. Looking at still more surveys, Smerconish agrees that polarization is worse than ever, but notes that only a small percentage of the American population is polarized. No more than 20% of the public occupies the poles, he notes, while the vast majority don't identify with the polar positions. For Smerconish, the problem with American politics today is that "those 20 percent still hold sway over the 80 percent." He's well aware of the reason for this: the extremes on either side are more committed to voting in every election, not to mention in party primaries. As a result, the 20 percent get to choose what the 80 percent has to choose from -- and it's no surprise that many in the larger group choose "none of the above" and don't bother voting. Smerconish advises this silent majority not to "keep sleeping" but to wake up and vote in order to end the rule of the extreme partisans.

Are Sunstein and Brooks describing a phenomenon exclusive to Smerconish's 20 percent, or does much of the 80 percent share "partyist" prejudices without any other political engagement? We should be careful not to assume that the 80 percent occupy a middle ground between the extremes; many may be even more radical or reactionary than the party faithful; their complaint may be that the major parties, despite their rhetoric, still make too many compromises for the sake of elections or money. I suspect that many in the 80 percent take a more draconian point of view on political and social problems, but not in a manner consistent with major-party platforms. We might well see prejudice against both Republicans and Democrats as representatives of a corrupt establishment -- but would that be prejudice?

I understand why some pundits worry about self-segregation on partisan lines in social media and elsewhere. Brooks believes that partyism can only damage communities and institutions that are denied "the benefits of divergent viewpoints and competing thought." In the practical world, partisanship and ideology shouldn't determine or constrain anyone's ability to work with others. However, certain beliefs that grow more widespread -- that Republicans don't believe in science, or that Democrats don't believe in morality or hard work -- may make the possibility of even practical cooperation on presumably uncontroversial projects more problematic. But I also find the discovery of partyism as a new form of prejudice problematic, and Sunstein's alarmist hint that partyism is worse than racism even more problematic. Any attempt to equate discrimination based on beliefs with discrimination based on race or ethnicity is problematic because race prejudice is the definitive case of hating people for what they are rather for what they do. Racists may claim that other races all do certain hateful things, but all such claims are easily disproved. With partisanship, ideology or religion the difference is that there is a baseline of what the hated people do that can be verified. You can disprove the prejudice that all Republicans reject science, for instance, but there must be something that all Republicans believe, or else there are no Republicans -- and what they believe can be judged and found wanting. While it would be prejudicial to ostracize Republicans from whole professional spheres where their partisanship is or should be irrelevant, it is not prejudicial to judge the fundamentals of Republican or Democratic identity, as long as those fundamentals are not identified prejudicially but determined objectively by careful study of what partisans say and do on their own terms. In fact, such judgments need to be made, more so by the 80 percent than by the 20 percent. They should be made at the ballot box, and pundits shouldn't fear the possibility of the ballot box condemning certain ideologies to extinction. It's problematic enough to equate partisan hatred with race hatred, but it'd be even worse to equate parties and ideologies with endangered species on the assumption that there must always be a Democratic party, or that there must always be "conservatives" on the Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan model. I've long believed that the failure of either the Democrats or Republicans to go extinct the way the Whigs did more than 150 years ago has exposed a flaw in the American political mechanism. Did the Whigs go extinct because of prejudice? Should their extinction be lamented today like the extinction of the dodo or the passenger pigeon? If not, than neither should the possible extinction of the Republican or Democratic parties be feared as a triumph of prejudice. We should not want individual partisans to be treated unfairly, or deny ourselves the benefit of their actual expertise due to prejudice, but we should not mistake the destruction of one or both major parties down the line for its victimization by prejudice. Individuals should not suffer, but perhaps parties should. To deny that may be a form of prejudice we'd be better off without.

28 October 2014

Why Take Chances?

I took my mom to the hospital yesterday. Two or three times during the admitting process, she was asked if she had been in West Africa within the  past month or so. Knowing my mom as I do, I had to chuckle inwardly at the absurdity of the question. This was a subjective absurdity, however; it seemed absurd only because I know her so well as no world traveler. For the hospital staff, who don't know the absurd particulars of the situation, it remains a practical necessity to ask the question. To many health-care professionals, meanwhile, it seems similarly absurd for politicians, not to mention the general public, to demand that they submit to quarantine after returning from the West African hot zones. We've just seen the state of New Jersey buckle under the threat of litigation from a nurse who resented her admittedly crude quarantining, despite having tested negative for the Ebola virus. The medical establishment has rallied around the nurse and against the aggressive policies recently adopted in both New Jersey and New York, by a Republican and a Democratic governor respectively, while the White House backs the medical establishment. I'm no distruster of institutions or resenter of elites, but there is a whiff of arrogance in the medical establishment's campaign against more sweeping quarantines. Certainly the doctors know better than the hysterical yahoos in local governments or the national media, after all! Their case boils down to this: if Ebola isn't contagious until a patient exhibits symptoms, than anyone who has treated Ebola should have full freedom of movement until he or she exhibits symptoms. But if the doctors and nurses want to persuade the general public of this, they need to make absolutely clear how quickly infected people can begin to exhibit symptoms, and how quickly those with symptoms can become contagious. If they prove unpersuasive, the public remains justified in asking: why take chances?

The federal government prefers to amplify a secondary argument about incentives. The problem with stricter quarantines, it's argued, is that American medical personnel won't want to go to Africa to treat Ebola if it means submitting to quarantine and becoming "pariahs" at home. This is a curious argument. The claim is that people willing to risk contracting the Ebola virus can't stand the thought of a 21-day quarantine. At one moment, they're pretty brave; in the next, they're throwing hissy fits because of some people's possibly excessive concern for public safety. If they're willing to risk their lives, however, they ought to have the fortitude to stand a quarantine of some sort. But what looks like inconsistency is really a kind of professional arrogance. What probably irks these people as much as the prospect of enforced isolation is the idea that someone other than them, outside the medical establishment, wants to declare a quarantine and has the power to do so -- that someone other than them can ask: why take chances? I suspect that this will cease to be an issue before long, as Ebola seems to prove difficult to catch and relatively easy to survive in the U.S.  By sometime next year many people may feel that their fears of Ebola were silly. But until then a little more respect for the concerns of the general public would be a good idea. In return, a little more faith in the objective findings of doctors would be a good idea as well.

24 October 2014

An epidemic of bad faith

The diagnosis of Ebola for a Doctors Without Borders physician who recently returned to New York City from Africa has reignited the debate over the doctor's and the government's public-safety responsibilities. One side of this debate believes that the doctor should have been quarantined for the 21 days from contact with Ebola patients during which the virus may incubate in his body. His critics contend that it's especially irresponsible for a physician not to take this prudent measure, and some make this another occasion to denounce the CDC and the Obama administration for not forcing the doctor and his peers into quarantine. The other side argues that a sweeping quarantine is unnecessary. If one side bemoans the doctor's freedom to ride the subway and go bowling, the other points out that he didn't begin to show symptoms until after his various excursions, and they're adamant on the point that he and other victims of the virus are not contagious until they show symptoms. Reading a comment thread on one news site, I saw this belief -- that asymptomatic carriers aren't contagious -- dismissed as an "article of faith" and defended as an empirical observation. The skeptics appear disinclined to believe what the CDC says on this subject. This skepticism seems based on an overall suspicion of authority, or a suspicion of the motives for not doing what the skeptics consider a matter of common sense. Common sense seems to ask "Why take chances?" while suspicion sometimes imagines sinister reasons for taking chances. An objective, nonpartisan debate on the wisdom of a quarantine should be possible, but a lot of nonpartisan things should be possible. If some people automatically denounce the lack of a quarantine (or ban on flights from the afflicted countries in Africa) because they doubt Obama's competence or question his ultimate motives, others may rush to defend his policies on a knee-jerk impulse.  The latter wouldn't say these policies are automatically right because they're Obama's, but they may say they must be right because right-wingers or apparent paranoids oppose them. Yet it seems like an argument for a mandatory quarantine could be made without being labeled paranoid, hysteric or partisan. After all, what if you start to show symptoms in the middle of a public event? A lot of variables would remain, and I suspect that there's research to be done about susceptibility to Ebola that might mitigate if not minimize current fears. As we recently learned, the housemates of the Liberian who died in Texas have passed the incubation period and are Ebola-free, while so far only two of the nurses who supposedly breached protocols in treating the victim have contracted the virus, and one is already declared cured. Many factors apart from proximity to a blatantly sick patient may make some more likely to catch Ebola, some less. But while this is purely my own speculation, there seems to be no reason to dismiss out of hand pragmatic arguments for a quarantine for doctors returning from the hot zones. It may well be that many arguments for quarantine are made in bad faith -- out of irrational distrust of authority, or for partisan advantage -- but to dismiss the idea of quarantining returning doctors because some or even many making the argument are partisans or crackpots is to make an ad hominem argument, which according to logic is a fallacy. At this time we should be careful that bad faith doesn't spread further on both sides of the debate.

22 October 2014

Philistines and Palestinians at the Opera

The Death of Klinghoffer was composer John Adams's 1991 follow-up to Nixon in China, arguably the most popular if not the best American opera of the last half-century. Nixon had already been somewhat controversial, as its title character was still alive at the time it premiered. For Klinghoffer Adams and librettist Alice Goodman raised the stakes, making an opera of the 1985 hijacking by Palestinian of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder by the hijackers of Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer. Not nearly as memorable musically as Nixon, Klinghoffer is best known for being controversial. Give a performance and people will protest. From the beginning, what's been protested is the creators' failure to sufficiently demonize the terrorists. Because the terrorist singers are allowed to state their viewpoint in their own terms instead of singing something like, "We hate Jews because we're mean," the opera is accused of "glorifying" terrorists. "Glorifying" is the standard term employed by the censorious when morally questionable characters in media aren't demonized to the satisfaction of certain sensibilities. Even though Jimmy Cagney's character in The Public Enemy dies a gruesome death, that film was accused of "glorifying" gangsters because Cagney looked cool until he died. So it has been with crime movies ever since. A certain mentality never trusts audiences to make their own sound judgments; it requires art to become propaganda, moral or political, telling audiences quite explicitly what they should think of questionable characters. Gangsters should show no appealing (much less redeeming) qualities; nor should terrorists.

The Metropolitan Opera premiered a new production of Klinghoffer this week, and the protesters were led, rhetorically at least, by Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City. Giuliani released a statement explaining his protest while defending himself against the charge of philistinism. I am not so a cultural illiterate, America's Mayor writes: "As an opera, the music and choruses are quite excellent. John Adams is one of America’s greatest composers, and I admire and enjoy his music." Alas, Klinghoffer is politically and hence morally incorrect. It is "factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging to an appropriate description of the problems in Israel and Palestine."

Giuliani's tortured explication of what's "appropriate" is revealing. He argues that the hijacking and murder must be understood as cynically motivated to promote the brand of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the organization with which the world must deal. It seems important to Giuliani that the murder be seen as a dispassionate act, not as a lashing out by angry people. The key sentences in Giuliani's screed are: " It was not the act of people feeling oppressed. This was the act of an organized group seeking international recognition, moral equivalency, and money." Therefore, any scene or aria in which Palestinian characters express feelings of oppression and grievance are "inaccurate" and "damaging." 

A consistent part of the right-wing reaction to terrorism against its interests or allies is to deny the legitimacy of grievances. The right-wing argument is always that terrorists hate their targets not for what we do, but for what we are. A corollary argument is that the terrorists, rather than making reprisals against perceived oppressors, are always the aggressors. This fits a popular picture of Islam portraying the religion as always hostile and always on the offensive against infidels purely by virtue of their faith. From this standpoint, to let a terrorist character on stage say or sing what an author might fairly imagine is on his mind, even while making his terrorism obviously odious, is always subversive. Instead, the terrorist, or the enemy agent, must be motivated exclusively by hate, fanaticism, or selfish personal ambition. Anything else might make audiences think, even if the authors clearly don't intend audiences to take the villain's side. By protesting The Death of Klinghoffer, Giuliani claims he wants people to know the truth about the story behind the opera, but the truth about him is that he doesn't want people to think. He wants them to hate. I imagine most people who watch the opera will hate the terrorists anyway, but for people like Giuliani it has to be the right kind of hate, and it's up to him, apparently, to teach us how to hate properly. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote on a lower rung of musical-theater ambition, "you have to be carefully taught."

20 October 2014

Unfit to keep and bear arms in New York State

A local paper reports that not only gun-rights advocates but mental-health advocates are protesting the designation by the state of New York of "some 34,500 persons" as mentally unfit to have firearms. Most of these people apparently self-diagnosed themselves, since it turns out that less than 300 people will have to give up their guns after these findings. Nevertheless, a Queens doctor, representing other mental-health advocates, worries that "too many people are being deemed dangerous." This doctor worries that some genuinely troubled people will be discouraged from seeking help because it might mean losing or being denied guns. He doesn't like that he has to report "any kind of dangerousness," which begs the question whether he believes in acceptable levels of "dangerousness" in mental patients. By comparison, the NRA looks almost reasonable in asking that decisions on mental fitness not be made "capriciously or maliciously," though their measures of caprice and malice may differ from other peoples'. Amid these concerns, it seems only fair that someone ask whether the number is actually too low. I concede, however, that other measures of fitness may be too subjective or controversial for psychiatrists to address scientifically -- even if those others may be the ones that count most.

17 October 2014

What ails America?

You don't have to be irrational about the prospects of the Ebola virus spreading across the U.S. to be appalled at the poor handling of the initial outbreak. Two people may not make an outbreak -- not counting the Liberian who brought his infection here and died earlier this month -- but compared to the efficiency shown in treating American aid workers who contracted Ebola in Africa, the performance of that Texas hospital and the CDC are troubling. The two infected nurses may be the end of the chain, but Americans need to think about alternate scenarios, yet may have a hard time doing so. As Charles Krauthammer notes, "In the face of a uniquely dangerous threat, we Americans have trouble recalibrating our traditional (and laudable) devotion to individual rights and civil liberties. That is the fundamental reason we’ve been so slow in getting serious about Ebola." Nothing taken to excess is laudable, however, and in facing the prospect of pandemics that American devotion may prove a handicap sometimes. Back during the George W. Bush presidency people worried that a pandemic might be used as a pretext for martial law; the advent of Barack Obama only changed the identities of some of the worriers. But you may not need to be paranoid to take an "I don't have to do that" attitude toward recommended precautions or protocols. Krauthammer writes that "choosing between security and liberty ... is the eternal dilemma of every free society," yet our entire culture, it sometimes seems, conditions us to prefer liberty every time. It certainly seems to discourage us from recognizing inherent obligations to our fellow citizens, yet our obligations only grow more obvious as a virus grows more virulent. Ebola has raged through Africa because of inadequate infrastructure and bad cultural habits, we're told. American habits may prove nearly as harmful in the absence of an ethical infrastructure suited to the challenge. This alarmist tone may prove premature insofar as this outbreak may peter out after a handful of cases. But if a wider outbreak, now or in the future, can be blamed on people failing or refusing, from a desire to stay "free," to do the right things, more Americans may finally question whether "freedom" really should be any culture's supreme value.