Wherein Eric rambles for a bit about a clock radio but ends up talking about the President's critics and Shakespeare...

>> Thursday, September 03, 2009

I have this old, old radio alarm clock that my parents bought for me when I was in high school or maybe even junior high: blood-red LED, faux-woodgrain, the size of a mid-sized brick and almost the same shape except squashed a little in a way that was probably stylish twenty-five years ago. It's the kind of thing you think seems sort of silly and obsolete, the kind of thing you should consider upgrading, except I really, really love the thing and would be loathe to part with it. It's solid, for one thing, unlike the cheap little plastic radio alarm clocks I always see in hotels these days--it's not the kind of thing that the cat can bat around the room or that I'm likely to knock off the nightstand fumbling for a button; plus, you know, those modern alarm clocks just feel cheap, like silicon, plastic and puffed air, something you could break in your fists while trying to adjust it for daylight savings time. My alarm clock, despite the fact it came from the notoriously off-brand Radio Shack (or "The Shack," I think they're trying to call it now) feels like something you could throw at a wall and fear for the wall. Also, it's got dual-alarms, meaning I can set a different alarm for the weekend (say for instance) without re-setting my weekday wakeup time.

But that's really not what this post is about.

I mention the clock because the alarm I use is the setting where it turns on the radio and makes a hideous squawking noise, a hoarse beeping that could maybe be more aptly described as bleating (and guaranteed to wake the dead and damned); the radio is set to NPR because, you know, what else would a liberal intellectual have his clock radio set to? I mean, really. I'll get the hour or half-hour news update, and then maybe I'll lie in bed for a few minutes and listen to whatever story follows the update, and then I finally roll out of bed and stumble downstairs to feed the cat.

This post isn't about the cat, either.

Anyway, the first story after the update was this one: "Coveted Ambassadorships Go To Obama Fundraisers." There's a great title for a news article, by the way: tells you exactly what the whole story is without trying to mislead you into thinking it's about something else, like when a more mainstream outlet or the local TV bleach-blondes announce "YOUR HEMORRHOIDS--LETHAL ASS-CANCER OR JUST A TICKING TIME BOMB" and then the actual story is about, I don't know, a new topical creme or some drunk guy who happened to have hemorrhoids but the more immediate cause of death was that he got drunk and passed out in front of the bus depot and was run over by, like, eighty-two buses. I remember years ago, Time (I think it was Time) did a cover story on environmental disasters and (I am not making this up) on their "top-ten" list they included the eventual death of the Sun in several billion years, which I'll agree might be a little rough on the environment but, you know, call me callous and selfish, but I'm really not too inclined to worry about it. I really think it'll be some other species' problem, tell you the truth, and maybe that's irresponsible of me to slough something that big off onto another lifeform, but I'm sorry, it's just how I feel.

Sorry. Seems to be one of those rambling posts, you know.

So, I'm listening to this story about Obama engaging in the same sorts of political nepotism that American politicians have been engaging in for two-hundred-plus years, and I'm thinking it's a damn shame, you know? Not just because he kind of implied (he didn't really promise, technically) he'd handle diplomatic appointments differently, but because appointing your big fundraisers to potentially significant political offices really does seem kind of, well, retarded. I know, I know: business as usual, and all that, but it was just as dumb when Kennedy or Hoover or Fillmore or either Roosevelt did it, and if (as NPR suggests) other countries think we're kind of jackasses for still doing it, well, they're right. We are.

I started thinking about a blog post on this. Problem is, while this is something that disappoints me and I don't like it and I am critical about it, I'm not exactly incensed over it. Not because "everybody does it," which is a nadir of buffoonish jackassery when it's said or written by anyone over the age of six, but because, I dunno.... I guess I'm trying to think of the last time the United States got into a war because the American Ambassador To Whereverstan was really brilliant at rounding up donations but didn't have enough sense to realize that showing up at a reception wearing nothing but a dickey and a sock on his wang would be a grievous insult to the Whereverians--dammit, if only we'd appointed a career diplomat who owned pants instead of this, this, this pimp and presidential drinking-pal, we wouldn't be in this war with, with--who are we fighting again? Indeed, it's quite a bit easier to think of times when unlikely political appointees rose to the occasion, finessing delicate situations with a bit of grace and intelligence.

Don't get me wrong, it's a bad idea and I wish the President wasn't doing it. It's a slightly-harmless idea because American embassies around the world are chock-full of career State staff who are experts on their assignments and serve to tell the Ambassador to drink this cup of extra-strong coffee, pop a breath mint, comb their hair, put on a pair of pants and a jacket for God's sake, and if anyone asks about your eyes just tell 'em you're still not used to the climate, otherwise try not to say anything.

But then you start thinking, "Is this a good reason to bitch about the President again?" And this is the toughie, right? Because it's a legitimate complaint: giving people cushy jobs just because they collected money for you is kind of bullshit, and maybe the kind of thing that bites you in the ass if things do get hairy abroad. But you also start to worry that maybe bitching about something that is, pretty much, mostly harmless will detract from bitching about things that aren't.

And then you start to worry that that's a trap unto itself.

A friend, Janiece Murphy, recently wrote a great piece on ideology which I liked although I had a problem with one particular bit--she wrote:

Now make no mistake - there are plenty of people on the left side of the spectrum who are just as extreme, and intend to push their agenda with no thoughts of compromise. I recognize this, and understand why Republicans are feeling disenfranchised by the power shift that has occurred in the last two years in Washington. I also recognize that as a liberal, the far left is less offensive to me than the far right. These are limitations of my own perspective, and I try to take them into account.

But our president is attempting to lead from a moderate position. The far left is unhappy with him because he's not pursuing a more liberal agenda, based on their own priorities.

I think the biggest issue I have with this is that while I don't think she meant it this way, it embraces a canard that centrist partisan defenders of the President have been trying to float and that's become something of a meme in the media: people on the far left have this agenda that motivates criticisms of the President, and because they have an agenda they should be ignored and everyone should just stand back and give the President the chance to lead. Chez "Deus Ex Malcontent" Pazienza semi-consciously echoes this (I think) in a recent piece reminding everyone of the great "Chill The Fuck Out" webart that circulated during the election.

There are several fallacies in this meme, but maybe the best one to start with is the notion of the far left's agenda. Do critics of the President have an agenda--well I hope so. I absolutely have an agenda, which I'd like to think is one that's all about Truth, Justice and the American Way, and yes, I'm sorry, but I totally stole that from Superman. You have a problem with that? Superman's awesome. Seriously, though: if I call out the President on domestic spying or torture prosecutions, it's in furtherance of a personal agenda that prioritizes civil liberties and the rule of law. Health care reform also happens to be on my agenda, I'll cop to that any time you want to accuse me of it. I suspect that most, if not all of us, out here on the left wing are motivated by an agenda built around what we think is right, moral and just. Which brings us to another issue, "compromise." I'm not opposed to the idea in principle or frequently in practice; matter-of-fact, I'm all about compromise about ninety percent of the time, just like any good touchy-feelie, why-can't-we-all-just-get-along, respect-others'-beliefs liberal. But, y'know, sometimes what's right is non-negotiable. We either are a nation that values our own laws, or we aren't, and it's not like you can say we are and then not act on it and pretend we've honored our obligations in the breach. Or, to take another example, healthcare is either something that should be recognized as an obligation of the People to people (i.e. a right) or it isn't, and if it is then the People have either lived up to our obligation or We haven't; it's a complicated enough thing to say that some compromises on details might be necessary and good, but if you really believe healthcare ought to be a right, you need to admit that certain compromises will constitute failure. Pulling a half-digested fiasco from failure's gullet is not snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and if you try to claim it was, you're not fooling anyone except maybe yourself.

Is it ever right--not necessary, sometimes, but right to not criticize leaders when they're doing it wrong? Is it ever right to make a compromise that constitutes a failure of principle? I'm asking this a bit rhetorically and a bit not: it seems to me that much of the left's criticism of the President is in the spirit of Cordelia, her father's favorite, who was asked by her father for praise and returned truth. Perhaps it's not the best example--had Cordelia possessed the decency to lie or at least not say much of anything, she would have probably lived a long, happy life and her father probably wouldn't have gone batshit crazy, right? But then again, Cordelia is the hero, isn't she? Lear is a tragedy not because Cordelia spoke out, honest and true to her principles, but because Lear was a jackass.

A clever person might well tie this piece up by pointing out that Obama can listen to Cordelia or see what aligning himself with Goneril and Regan does for Emmanuel Rahm's eyesight. I'll leave it to you to tease out some kind of extended metaphor if you'd like to, merely closing with the words of another Kent (not Clark):

...Revoke thy doom;
Or, whilst I can vent clamour from my throat,
I'll tell thee thou dost evil.


Janiece Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 3:21:00 PM EDT  

The Smart Man and I have the exact same clock radio. I'm sure that has some deep, metaphysical meaning, but I'm too close to vacation to care.

Eric, I agree with you that people of conscience have a moral obligation to call out their elected leaders when they feel the leader is poking the pooch. Especially when the leader is of the same party.

In fact, I think this is one of the differentiators between the left and the right. The left bitches and cries about everything (seemingly), while the right has the whole "shut up and soldier" culture down to a science.

Regardless of where the criticism comes from, I just want it to be thoughtful and defensible, rather than the incoherent screeching of howler monkeys. Shut up - I can dream.

Eric Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 5:27:00 PM EDT  

Real quick correction/amendment to myself because I dropped a thought: I mention that accusations of a leftist agenda are fallacious without explaining the fallacy. The fallacy is that this is a bad or inherently suspicious thing, which is the point the memesters are making when they say that kind of thing. Of course we have an agenda, that's why we're blathering--we happen to think it's a good agenda. The question a listener should ask isn't whether or not a speaker has an agenda--all speakers do--but what is that agenda? The problem for some partisan Democrats isn't really that leftists have an agenda, it's that the leftists don't necessarily share the Democrats' agenda of getting themselves re-elected for the sake of the party. For many on the left, an Obama one-term presidency that resulted in a durable national healthcare system, the reversal of unconstitutional Bush-era policies and the enforcement of human rights laws would all count as a win. Naturally, the durability of reforms is a legitimate concern--one wouldn't want a healthcare plan that lasted as long as Jimmy Carter's White House solar panels. However, two terms in office doesn't guarantee durability either, especially if the second term is gained at the price of making little or no progress at all.

Personally, I think "acquisition/preservation of political dominance" is a more suspicious agenda than "to promote justice for all," but I'm probably a fool--I mean, my agenda is usually the provence of cartoon men in tights, right? And if I end up comparing certain politicians to Lex Luthor, well... maybe I'm eight, right?

Oh, and Janiece: yes, non-screechy would be nice....

Nathan Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 9:19:00 PM EDT  

A couple of things, in no particular order:

First, re: diplomatic posts as rewards: Who was the woman who indicated that the U.S. would take a "hands-off" approach if Iraq invaded Kuwait? I don't know if she was civil service or a Bush crony, but that statement certainly contributed to Iraq thinking they could grab Kuwait with no consequences. (And in hindsight, the conspiracist in me wouldn't be surprised if that was a purposeful statement ordered by the White House to set up an excuse for Gulf War I.)

Second, re: the sun burning out:

I mentioned that I'm reading some of Tom Holt's books right now. There's a great passage in Overtime discussing God creating the Earth. God's been getting frustrated because the planning and zoning committees have been dragging their heels on issuing all the permits. He finally thinks he's got everything in place so he can begin construction and is told that he'll need an Environmental Impact Study before he can proceed. He's ready to throw in the towel when his financiers save the day by pointing out that due to entropy, the entire project should be viewed as a "temporary structure" and, as such, doesn't need any more stinking permits.

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