Monday, November 29, 2010

"a hypocritical and inconsistent opposition is better than no opposition at all" is a revealing motto

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My new column for Zahraničná politika "Welcome to United States of Absurdity"

Welcome to United States of Absurdity

“Absurdistan” is a term that has appeared in art and in the press as a sarcastic description of a country where absurdity is the norm.  The suffix “-stan” connotes the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc generally, so although it could be used to describe several countries, it’s etymology renders it inapplicable outside of that loose geographical context.  However, a closer look at recent events in the United States reveals that absurdity is not the exclusive domain of emerging Eastern economies with young democracies and fragile political and social structures.  Absurdity has, it would seem, found a very comfortable home in America.  

To understand the proportions of the phenomenon, let’s look at the recent congressional elections in which absurdity reached a terrific crescendo.  Only two years after electing Barack Obama the President and giving the Democratic Party historic majorities in both houses of Congress, the Republican Party won the control of the House of Representatives and significantly reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate.  While Obama remains the President, his ability to pursue his agenda is thus greatly diminished; some have even asked: “Is the Obama era over?”

There are many ways to look at this loss, but the simplest explanation lies in the economy:  persistently high unemployment rates are the kiss of death for the incumbent party, regardless of which party that is.  For many people this alone could be called absurd: Did Americans really expect the Democrats to reverse the economic collapse that commenced in 2008 in less than two years?  More importantly, do Americans believe that Republicans, who presided over the built-up to the collapse, are to be trusted with making things better?  The same Republicans, who tied the country’s hands behinds its back with two wars and a massive expansion in deficit, and who are now suddenly raising alarm about the size of government spending, precisely when the country is in desperate need of fiscal stimulus?  

In light of these questions, one might find voters’ preferences for Republicans absurd, but the truly absurd thing is that Americans don’t actually have that preference.  According to a New York Times/CBS poll conducted in October, only 41% of voters had a favorable view of the Republican party, while 46% of voters had that opinion of the Democratic party.  In other words, Americans have a more favorable view of the Democrats and yet they vote for Republicans.  What is going on?  Perhaps the vote is a referendum on President Obama and his handling of the economy?  That doesn’t seem likely: the same poll showed that 30% blame the Bush administration for the current state of the economy while only 8% attribute it to the Obama administration.  So what is it then?  Is it possible that in 2008 Americans didn’t just fall in love with Obama’s vision of “Change” but instead became addicted to change of any sort and now, every two years, we will witness a panicked move of power from one party to another?  

It is not just the voting preferences that seem to have no rhyme or reason - it’s also the discourse that surrounds politics.  While reasonable people can disagree on ways to solve the numerous problems facing the country (economy, education, health care, immigration, environment, energy, infrastructure, the list goes on and on), the debate is almost never about these policy differences.  Instead, Americans spent months debating the “Ground Zero Mosque” (does a Muslim organization that has been active for years in the neighborhood surrounding Ground Zero have the right to build a community center with a prayer room?).  Another time the whole nation is completely consumed by a debate about anchor babies - a phenomenon I covered in this column before; and who could forget the endless hours that we all talked about the plane that crashed into the Hudson river or the man who claimed his son flew away in a balloon when he was hiding in the garage?  And yes, the problem probably lies with the advertising-driven media which is more interested in conflict, controversy and soundbites which generate viewership and ad sales.  But again, this is never really discussed, nor are any sorts of alternatives.  Instead, we see Republicans calling for defunding National Public Radio - one of the few remaining independent sources of news and programming.  

And so, while the American infrastructure is rapidly falling apart and the economy is in limbo, some people lay awake at night worrying that some Muslims might be able to pray in the same zip code as Ground Zero.  At the same time that the US is committed to two large wars and potentially planning another one (because, why not?), in addition to a multitude of military bases around the world, we’re debating whether or not gays are worthy of the right to fight for their country - a question other NATO armies have settled long ago in favor of inclusion and without any apparent detriment.  Are Americans just masochistically trying to make things harder for themselves to show the world how tough they are?  

Perhaps it is not fair to talk about absurdity in American politics as a recent phenomenon, maybe it has been here all along.  The US is, after all, the oldest democracy in the world founded on the genocide of one group of people and enslavement of another.  And yet, however bloody its history may be, America has always seen dissent movements which have kept it at least somewhat honest to its stated principles.  By contrast, a quick look at today’s dissent reveals a big soup of absurdity.  The Tea Party is a pseudo grass roots anti-government movement which dates back to the early days of the Obama administration and which has since been co-opted by corporations and the Republican establishment.  The absurdity of this movement is best exemplified by the statement “get your government hands off my Medicare” - a government program, in fact.  Their supporters are routinely beneficiaries of government programs but have somehow concluded that the government is the greatest problem in the modern age.  In their rallies, the Tea Partiers have routinely accused President Obama of being a socialist AND compared him to Hitler, all for proposing economic policies which would seem conservative to most European politicians.

The response to the Tea Party is even more absurd than the Tea Party itself.  Especially after all the transgressions of the financial system and the debacles of the US military excursion in Iraq and Afghanistan one would expect a strong progressive populist movement would somehow arise to counter the agenda of the Tea Party.  And yet, the only liberal movement we have seen has been organized by the comedian Jon Stewart in his “Rally to Restore Sanity,” with the overarching message being that both sides of the spectrum need to be more civil in their disagreements.  In a sense, his rally was an “ironic rally” or an anti-rally, and the purpose was not to disagree with or promote any ideas, but instead to tell everyone that no cause is serious enough to get angry about.

The call to sanity was well received - some 250,000 people attended the rally; clearly the idea resonated with many Americans.  And while the stated goal isn’t entirely unreasonable, I couldn’t help but wonder:  is this really the best that liberals can do especially with a popular politically driven conservative movement positioned to gain meaningful control of the Congress?  Are no causes worth genuinely rallying about?  

Or am I to believe that we have reached an age where a people that has the freedom to organize and protest has nothing better to do with that freedom than to poke fun of it?  

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wassup, cupcake?