Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Collapse of Politics

We like to imagine that we are capable of reason, of thoughtful, fact-based decision-making. I in particular flatter myself that I am a logical man. But I think the state of our politics is yet another bit of proof that we are in many ways only semi-rational beings, crippled by our own unexamined first principles and our loyalty towards our intellectual teams.

The latest bit of evidence I have collected for this theory came last Tuesday, when I was able to attend a Q&A given at Google by New York's junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. This was not exactly a hostile crowd, and I had the sense the senator was somewhat less guarded than she might have been, say, at a town hall meeting upstate. For example, at one point she said (this is not an exact quote, mind you), I think that if we had 51% women in congress, we wouldn't be in Afghanistan or Iraq, wouldn't be in the economic mess we're in. (This reminded me of an old Robin Williams joke: If there was a female president there'd never be any wars, just every 28 days some severe negotiations.") But the point she was trying to make was that women tend to be much more willing to work for agreement then the men of Congress (try not to imagine that calendar...), who are more dogmatic.

So I spent the rest of her talk trying to listen for a single thing she said that showed the least willingness to find a compromise with Republicans, and didn't come away with a single thing. Not, I don't think, because she wouldn't be willing to compromise, but because she's not even really thinking about trying to solve the same problems that Republicans are.

What are the problems Republicans are interested in solving? Right now, the debt, the encroachment of government into daily life, and the challenges facing small business. What are the problems Democrats are interested in solving? Improved social and economic equality, more investment in government services (infrastructure, education, etc), and protecting entitlement programs. Not only are these a completely different list of challenges, but the solutions each side offers will exacerbate the challenges the other side is trying to solve.

Recently, Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry said his goal is to make Washington as inconsequential in our lives as he can. As columnist Jeff Jacoby pointed out in his recent columns, "To a Democrat steeped in the big-government tradition of the New Deal and the Great Society, there could hardly be a greater heresy." That last word is perfect, as we are not talking about political opinion but fundamental belief. Making Washington inconsequential would violate the first principles Democrats bring to politics, just as the relentless growth of government in the last few years, and the corresponding debt growth, is impossible for many Republicans to square with their beliefs about what kind of country this should be.

Even at 31, I feel to young to say definitively if this clash of first principles is that different than the political battles that came before. Certainly the Sixties must have felt equally tumultuous, although that clash seemed more generational than purely political. The only time in American history that seems comparable are the decades before the Civil War, where it became increasingly clear that our leaders had no common ground to fall back upon. The good news is that we're highly unlikely to pick up arms over current political arguments. But it is not inconceivable that at some point, the two sides of this unending debate might, like an unhappy couple, decide that their differences are irreconcilable, and find a way to end this union.

Monday, August 8, 2011

"If design govern in a thing so small"

According to my wife (later confirmed by some Internet research) what you are looking at in the picture to the left is a cicada wasp. I was attempting to repair the bare spots in my lawn yesterday when I heard a loud buzzing, and turned around to see the tiny drama of the wasp dragging its prey back to the nest, where apparently the dead cicada would serve as the first meal for a soon-to-be-hatched baby wasp.

While I'm not generally a squeamish person, something about the scene repulsed me, and I found I was deeply disturbed by the notion that such a thing was happening right in front of me. I felt like the wasp should be ashamed of what it was doing. And suddenly I had a flashback to Providence College, and Dr. Barbour's 20th Century American Poetry class. In particular, I recalled the last line of Robert Frost's great poem, Design, which the poet wrote after watching a spider consume a similarly grisly meal. It ends:
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.
This is, as so many of Frost's poems are, much more than a bit of acute observation. In those last two lines, he is calling into question whether someone can believe the universe is designed, if it has order or meaning, when confronted even with this small-scale carnage. To put it more bluntly, why God would allow the cicada or the moth to fall victim to such ruthless predators. Frost lays out a choice: either there is evil design in allowing it to happen, or all is randomness, because the notion of a benevolent designer seems like a sick joke when confronted with the cold reality of death in nature. I have to confess that watching that scene play out on my front lawn, it seemed impossible to reconcile the death of that cicada with a merciful God.

Upon reflection, I have tried to tell myself that the physical world requires balance, and that the predator is needed to balance the prey so that the system as a whole can continue. And a part of me can accept that. But another part of me was compelled to grab my garden hose and drown the wasp in its nest, and still feels now that the punishment was fitting.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Overthought: Who's in a Bubble?


I'd like to introduce a new recurring feature I am calling "Overthought": it is a chance to briefly present both sides of an argument and share. Some of my thinking about it, without necessarily drawing definitive conclusions.

Today, I'm thinking about the commonly heard complaint, on both sides of the political divide, that their opponents persist in pushing bad policy because they are trapped in an echo chamber where falsehoods and half truths are repeated so often that they are uncritically accepted. Classically, this argument has been made by the left, as it is in this piece by Kevin Drum. A sample:

The Fox cocoon may be good for stirring up the troops, but it's almost certainly not good for the intellectual development of new ideas. And eventually that catches up to you. If modern conservatism is simultaneously politically vigorous but intellectually enervated, Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh probably deserve both the credit and the blame.

But lately, I have been hearing more often that liberals are trapped in their own distorted reality. In First Things, R. R. Reno argues that conservatives are the true cosmopolitans because they have to engage with liberal ideas, whereas liberal ideas, especially in the academic setting, are accepted uncritically. Here's the gist:

We’ve all experienced the liberal default to denunciation. Reservations about radical feminism? “Patriarchal.” Criticize multicultural lunacy? “Cultural imperialist.” Question affirmative action? “Racist.” Opposed to same-sex marriage? “Homophobic” or “heterosexist.” Worried that increased taxation will stifle economic growth? “Protecting the rich” and “indifferent to the poor.” The message is that anyone who questions liberal policies is either a bigot or out for himself, and probably both

My loyalties incline me to agree with Reno, but I think the truth is that every tribe has it's non-introspective polemicists who don't engage opposing ideas in good faith. And I also think this is largely a function of location, vocation, and inclination. If you are, say, a New York based artist, you are unlikely to have to rigorously defend liberal assumptions unless you actively seek out conservatives to argue with. Same goes in reverse is you are a pharmaceutical executive in Indiana. So, I am inclined to think that the problem is partially that we can increasingly self-select to surround ourselves with like-minded people, but mostly that our nation is split between two very different philosophies with ever-fewer common assumptions about how the world works.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Agony and Ecstacy

World, say hi to Graham. He's new. And it is entirely fair to say that he's occupied the vast majority of my thoughts for the last four days. But when I haven't been wondering what it means when he does that little shaky twitchy thing he does, or trying to figure out if he's objectively cute or whether I'm just believing everyone who tells me that because I'm over the moon for him, I have had a few moments to think about fatherhood and child rearing in this crazy world we live in.

The first thing I've noticed about having a new baby is that you are not allowed to have your own emotions about it. You are told by everyone from the doctor to your friends to the woman who cleans your hospital room that you are feeling as happy as you ever have in your life. Which is, at some level, true. But I have to admit the dominant feeling I had was one of awe. I am in awe that I could have had anything to do with making something as great as Graham. But I am even more in awe of the responsibility that has been bestowed upon me by society. How can anyone live up to the task of giving a new human being a chance to reach whatever potential he has, without smothering him in the effort?

That thought made me realize there were many times I was entirely too hard on my parents. There's no good answer to that question, so you're bound to offend your child either by not doing enough for him or by not giving him the independence he deserves. (Now, I'm still not willing to admit that I was wrong and my parents were right in any particular argument, but I can appreciate their motivations.)

I've also become profoundly aware that the world has acquired a greatly enhanced ability to cause me pain. Anything that happened to Graham would be completely devastating. In fact, I don't even want to write about this or think about it anymore: let's move on to the flip side. What's that? Simply that every achievement or triumph or happiness that Graham has going forward will provide me a deeper satisfaction than anything else I can imagine. Even the other day, when the lactation consultant noticed his fast-darting eyes and said, "Wow, he's really observant, you're going to have a smart one on your hands," I wanted to run a victory lap. I've been searching for an analogous feeling, and the only one I can think of is that sensation when you sit down to watch one of your sports teams at the start of a season, and follow them obsessively through a whole year until they win the championship. There is a feeling that you've been given happiness for free, that you've been swept up into something bigger than your own striving and seen it come to a perfect conclusion.

So that's what gets balanced in parenthood: the happiness of meeting your child with the overwhelming sense of responsibility going forward. The agony of fearing what could happen to them with the ecstacy of watching them grow and achieve. I feel pulled in both directions at each moment, and while it makes my stomach churn, I wouldn't have it any other way.