Archive for July 2012

Why We Fight (Kind of Meta)

July 21, 2012

Attention Conservation notice [w. apologies to Cosma Shalizi, from whom the phrase is stolen]What follows is what in the newspaper business used to be called a thumbsucker  — in this case, yet another way to see the GOP as not just wrong, but so steeped in an error of principle, of worldview, as to be irredeemable.  It’s got a nice anecdote in it, lifted from someone else, but there’s no need to read on if you don’t like such stuff.  Which last is, of course, a PGO of its own.  See:  I’m fractally unnecessary.


I don’t recall an election in which two such strikingly opposite visions not just of the United States, but of human nature, so clearly set the stakes.  Let me get to part of what I see by some indirection:

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, with (thanks to the exceptional luxury of a sabbatical) much more to come.  I’ve started out by trying to catch up on some of the political books I’ve missed recently — and I’ll probably have some thoughts to share about Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites before long.  I just finished Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy too, though I found it perfectly interesting, but less compelling than Hayes’ book for a number f reasons.  Still that’s a philosopher’s take on the same problem explored in the book that prompts this post, Virginia Sweet’s God’s Hotel.  

Sweet’s work is a memoir of her doubled journey as a doctor at the last surviving American big city alms house, San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, and as a scholar trying to understand Hildegard von Bingen’s spiritual and practical approach to her form of medicine.  Sweet’s book has been enthusiastically received, and I can see why, though it didn’t move me in quite the same way it seems to have for some others.  It’s Sweet’s lack of struggle that gets me, I guess; there’s no doubt in my mind she did sweat and suffer over her 20 years caring for the poor, but in recollection the life  unfolds with an easy rhythm, no matter how tumultuous the world around her might be.

That said, though, the core message of the book is that there is a profound difference between health care and medicine, and that we ignore the virtues of the art and practice of medicine at our great cost.  As one of  her reviewers notes, this is a subversive thought:  Medicine is a craft, performed one-on-one, slowly…

…while health care is a commodity, something that can be abstracted and, in a sense, mass-produced:

Sweet doesn’t romanticize much, and she never suggests that she, her patients or anyone should trade modern medicine and its quantifying tools for Hildegard’s actual practice.  But she makes the point a good historian of ideas should: one studies the past not to recreate it, but to understand what its thoughts meant to its thinkers — and then what meaning those same insights may have in the radically different time and place in which the historian lives.  Use Hildegard as a tool to probe what the consequences may be if we commit ourselves to life within Mitt Romney’s vision of America.

In that frame, here’s just a brief passage, in which Sweet describes her even-tempered reaction to the consequences of an infestation of her hospital by the kind of consultants that Romney’s parent firm Bain produces:

Above all, the [consultants’] report said, they’d been amazed by the anachronistic presence of a head nurse on every one of the hospital’s thirty-eight wards.  As far as they could tell, this head nurse did nothing but sit most of the day in  her chair in the nursing station.  She answered the phone, to be sure, and kept the charts tidy; now and again she when out and inspected a patient with one of her nurses.  Also, she made coffee, kept the TV room and lounge neat, organized patients’ birthed parties and in general, did whatever needed to be done. It was a pleasant job [the consultants] observed, helpful, no doubt, but one hundred years after Frederic Taylor’s description of scientific management, and in a time of tightening health-care budgets, such a use of a skilled RN was excessive.  They’d even seen one head  nurse whose only task was knitting.  That’s right, a head nurse who, as far as they could tell, spent all day in her chair at the head of her ward, doing nothing but knitting blankets and booties for her patients.

So their main recommendation was to change the nursing structure at Laguna Honda.  The job of head nurse should be eliminated.  Instead, a new nose manager position should be created, where each nurse manager would be responsible for two wards instead of one.  She would no longer answer the phones, tidy the charts, or help out with patient care.  Rather she would manage the staff…

It was a lesson in the inefficiency of efficiency.  And the best way to explain is to tell you about the head nurse who knit….[hers] was a little-old-lady-ward, with thirty-six little old ladies — white-haired, tiny and old — and sure enough almost everyone one was wrapped in or had on her bed a hand-knit blanket; white and green, white and red, white and yellow.  And there was the head nurse sitting in her chair at the nursing station, answering the phone, fussing with the charts, observing her charges, and knitting one of the few blankets remaining to be done.

I’ve thought a lot about those blankets since the disappearance of the head nurses and their well – run neighborhoods of wards.  About what the blankets meant and what they signified.  And here’s the thing: The blankets made me sit up and take notice.  Made me pay attention. Marked out that head nurse as especially attentive, especially present, especially caring.  It put me and everyone else on notice.

It’s not that the ladies for whom they were knitted appreciated them or even noticed them. Who did notice was — everyone else. Visiting family noticed.  Looking down the center aisle, they saw two rows of little white-haired ladies — their mothers, great-aunts, and sisters — each lady bundled up in a bright, many-colored hand -knit blanket. They also saw that each had makeup on, and her hair done and her nails polished by the nurses who knew that, down at the end of the ward, was the head nurse, knitting. The Russian ambulance drivers noticed, when they rushed onto the ward to pick up one of the ladies…Even the doctors noticed.  The blankets put us all on notice that this was a head nurse who cared.

…those blankets signified even more than attention and caring. The click of that head nurse’s knitting needles was the meditative click of — nothing more to be done.  Although it had seemed to [the consultants] that the head nurse  did nothing except knit, that nothing was, as the Tao says, what the Superior Man does when everything that was supposed to be done has been done.

We did get used to the new system eventually.  The remaining staff learned to answer the phones, tidy the charts, talk to families, help the doctors, survey the ward and support one another at the same tim they were looking on the computer or filling out the forms that the new nurse managers created.  But the new system had a cost.  It was stressful. After the head nurses were cut in half, there were more illnesses and more sick days among the staff; there were more injuries more disabilities, and earlier retirements. Among the patients there war emore falls, more bedsores, more fights, and more tears.  And this, in the broader scheme of things — even economics — is not efficient.

…The [consultants’] report  taught me not only the lesson of the inefficiency of efficiency.  It also taught me the lesson of the efficiency of inefficiency.

Because it wasn’t just the tasks of the head nurse that fell by the wayside with [the] recommendations. It wasn’t even their watchful re-creation of neighborhoods within the village of the hospital.  It was the time they had, the unassigned time, that not only belonged to them but spread itself to all the staff — doctors included. That unassigned time, as inefficient as it seemed to be… turned out to be one of the secret ingredients of Laguna Honda.  With the elimination of the head nurses, so economical on paper, some of that extra time was also eliminated, and with it, some of the mental space to focus and care.  There was, I discovered, a connection between inefficiency and good care…

I don’t want to romanticize here, any more than Sweet does through her long narrative.  To channel my inner Freud, sometimes the old ways of doing stuff really are outmoded.  No one who has recently spent four years in academic administration needs to be reminded of that.

But Sweet’s point is one I’ve been thinking of more and more as each Bain vulture capitalism story makes its way in and out of the Look! Shiny! media narrative.  Sweet mentions that the consultants who got rid of half of the head nurses shifted $2 million in the budget.  They collected $200,000 for their recommendation — an agreed 10% bounty on all “savings” their study produced. They correctly determined an individual inefficiency, and missed, in Sweet’s account, the systemic advantages of what seemed to their analytical framework, their faith, to be an obviously flawed system.

And so it goes throughout the current GOP worldview.  We know that the private sector is the GOP solution to (putative) problems in the public schools [paywall] by selecting the right measurement criteria.  Bobby Jindal can determine the cost of libraries, but not the cost in money or possibility of their loss. The number wins; the uncertain future weighs for nought.  The usual catchphrase for all this is privatizing profit and socializing risk — which is what the GOP seeks for social capital as much as the financial kind.  Hence the stakes of this coming election.

But beyond that pretty familiar notion, what came to front-of-mind as I read Sweet’s story was the reminder, if any were needed that the basic worldview of the two sides in this election are not the same, for all the overlap of interest and elite corruption and all that the circular firing squads of the left can (sometimes accurately) describe. I said this was meta, and it is, and I should probably let y’all get back to your Saturdays.  But behind the consultant’s technical apparatus is a vision of a world of individual action and reaction. Cut here, save the money, Profit!

Taken to the level of politics and national elections, it’s a vision (sic!) of a country best understood as an assemblage of 300 million individuals. Hence, among the adherents of this view, the furor over the suggestion that business folk had any help building their businesses.

If you think that such a view of the lack of connection between one person’s endeavor and the next is the way to educate a population, receive health care in a timely and useful fashion, to innovate, then the GOP is for you.  If you think we live in society in which individuals  gain freedom of opportunity and access to experience supported by the links between the lives of all those 300 million — if you inhabit reality, that is — then we need to destroy the current GOP root and branch, now and for the forseeable future.

Put another way:  we need to recall that I didn’t build this blog…without the internet, without its readers, without…you get the idea. 😉

And that’s enough meandering.  I’ve just finished my next, post-Sweet book in this orgy of reading, Elaine Pagels, Revelations. Interesting, culminating in a very good explanation of what from my perspective I read as the reason Isaac Newton so excoriated what he saw as the theft of Christ’s church by Athanasius, his imperial patrons and his allies.  Not sure what to grab next.  No matter.  What a joy it is to read and read and read…

Images: Jan Steen, The Sick Woman, ​ before 1679.

Max Liebermann, The Canning Factory, ​1879.


Dunbar Loved Shooting Skeet: Boring Republican Edition

July 18, 2012

I know DougJ hates (most) process stories, and so do I, usually. Doug calls out one claim in particular, the suggestion that how a campaign operates offers much or any insight into how the candidate would govern.

Again, I think there is some force there.  Being President is not actually a managerial job; if that duty falls to anyone in the White House (as opposed to the departments and other units of the Executive Branch) that’s the job of a the chief of staff.  Bill Clinton couldn’t manage his way out of…well, I’m not going to supply a noun there, I think.  But the government he headed was remarkable effective.  Bush the younger headed (and did not run) a pretty damn good campaign in 2000 — and his administration was crap, leaving aside the policy differences I and pretty much everyone reading this may have.

But even so, at least some of the time the decisions a candidate takes during his campaign and the impact of those choices on how things run does provide some information that is of real use in imagining the presidency to emerge from one side’s victory or the others.  Tell me that Obama’s discipline vs. McCain’s flailing at the point of the Lehman collapse didn’t offer some real insight.  You can talk Palin all you want, and the fact that the electoral environment for McCain in the ruins of Bush’s presidency was incredibly hostile, but the crazed “suspension” of his campaign was a real blow to his chances.

So with all that as prelude, consider this NYT story on Mitt Romney’s VP search.

Amateur pundit fail disclaimer: Let me remind  you that the political navel gazing below is worth precisely what you paid for it.  It is exactly the kind of musing that both DougJ rightfully sneers at.  You have been warned.

OK…back to your regularly scheduled programming:

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I read this as one of the most subtly devastating indictments of Romney as a potential president I can recall reading. Consider this, high in the piece:

Mr. Romney’s possible running mates, who have handed over reams of documents to the campaign, have probably opened themselves to  a greater level of scrutiny than the candidate himself, especially on the thorny question of taxes. Mr. Romney has said he will disclose federal tax returns covering two years by Election Day, far fewer than the 23 years’ worth that he handed over to Senator John McCain as a possible vice-presidential pick in 2008.

Heh indeed, one might say.

Then, there’s this:

Friends and advisers say that after assessing basic qualifications and personal chemistry, Mr. Romney has been guided by a simple principle: do no harm to the ticket.

It’s not so much that trying to avoid hiring the next Sarah Palin is a terrible idea (the context for that concluding sentence), but as a glimpse of the thought-process of a man who would lead, I read a clear hint of someone deciding out of fear, not confidence.

And how about this:

Determined to avoid the frustrations and tensions of the past, Mr. Romney’s team is taking steps to ensure that the eventual running mate — and his or her staff — functions as a true extension of the campaign, not as an autonomous political operation.

Again, on the face of it, this is an obvious thought.  But the choice is once more framed as a negative — “I don’t want no rogue, get me a lapdog.”  That’s a crap message to project to the American people about the person Romney’s campaign alleges has, if needed, the stuff to be the Leader of the Free World.

Then there’s the stuff that reinforces what is slowly becoming another theme in the coverage of this campaign, that Mitt Romney delegates poorly, micromanages, gets deep into the weeds of decisions in ways that constrain his organization’s ability to act swiftly, nimbly:

Many hands are involved, but the research is done by separate teams, so that only Ms. Myers and Mr. Romney have access to the full picture at all times.

Mr. Romney has taken a hands-on role. He checks in with Ms. Myers roughly every other day to discuss his thinking. And the candidate, a Harvard-trained lawyer, reviews some of the background information himself.

At the end of every day, confidential materials (tax returns, investment records and real estate documents) are returned to a vault at the Romney campaign headquarters in Boston.*

Read those short grafs again.  Tell me what you see there.  For me, I get a picture of compartmentalization, organizational secrecy, no chance for anyone within the organization to cross-fertilize thinking, and, most important, one in which all the lines of information and power are absolutely retained by one man only.

That may work in business (though it very often does not).  It may be easier to get away with in finance than in any actual operating enterprise. But one thing is for sure — this is a what the boss from hell looks like…

…which is to say it’s not a profile of a [successful] President.

Then there’s the Romney operation’s approach to the real job they have for the Veepster unit:

 Aides have begun discussing how to deploy Mr. Romney’s running mate on the trail and at fund-raisers. Campaign officials envision having the candidate headline a combination of $30,000-per-couple dinners in big cities and smaller events in second-tier locations, to gauge which proves more lucrative.

Ah, yes.  RomneyBot 2000 will assess the performance of its wholly-owned subsidiary, the better to assign an appropriate functional matrix to that operation.  Now it’s hardly a new thought that Vice Presidential candidates are supposed to take some of the fund-raising grind off the back of their headliner, but I have to think the NYT folks know exactly how unpresidential that sounds.  Good for them.

Finally, there’s the matter of where all this meticulous preparation and organizational engineering gets team RMoney:

In a recent interview with CBS News, his wife offered a slightly deeper insight into their thinking.

“I think it’s going to take someone else that’s going to be there with Mitt,” she said, “with the same personality type that, that will enjoy spending time with them and also competent, capable and willing to serve this country.”

So, after all that, in the Romneyverse the first and most important criterion for a Vice Presidential candidate be that he (almost certainly “he”) be of the right sort (right height?) to hang with the fellow at the top of the ticket.

Which is why, as the Times reports, the campaign has ended up with TPaw and Portman at the top of the short list, Paul Ryan (oh please..) and Bobby Jindal as less likely choices, and Condi Rice still getting courtesy mentions because, the Times suggests, Ann Romney thinks well of her.

What a pallid set of options!  And worse — yet entirely predictably, given its nature:  look at how Romney’s process (appears) to have landed him with a selection universe that does not allow him to shore up any meaningful weakness in his own candidacy.

For example: not enough has yet been made of how incredibly weak are Romney’s foreign policy and national security chops.  I know that such concerns are way down the list for most of the electorate — but still, not for all, and not for a critical subset of elite “independents.”  Romney has zero experience in either of those areas, and we are, after all, still at war in Afghanistan, dealing with a truly dangerous conflict in Syria, concerned about Iran and so on — not to mention the tricky policy issues of how to deal with China’s emergence and so on.  Big stuff. Stuff that matters to both lives and the global (and American) economy.  And Romney has a resume in which the closest he comes to international affairs is outsourcing Olympic tailoring to Burma/Myanmar.

Obama, recall, was similarly poorly prepared for the international side of his job.  So who does he hire?  Joe Biden, long time head/ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Someone who could indeed have drawn invidious comparisons with the man who selected him — older, very experienced, all that.  But Obama had the confidence to pick someone who could enhance his candidacy, rather than merely echo it.

Romney’s pursuit of mini-me’s?  Makes him look cautious, predictable, small.

*Note yet further evidence of the absurdity of the idea that the sole stockholder, chairman of the board, president and CEO of Bain Capital was somehow utterly uninvolved with his firm’s decisions for three years.

 Images:  Francisco de Goya, They Sing for the Composer, 1796-97.

Diego Velasquez, Portrait of Philip IV, 1656.

Unreal Americans

July 17, 2012

Just to pile on the Sununu meltdown– as one must, in this case:

John Sununu does us all a favor.  He comes ever closer to the moment when some prominent Republican just up and says it.  Not Ni-Clang! exactly — but the underlying conviction that lies behind that word.

As everyone reading this no doubt knows by now, Mr. Sununu, former governor of one of the whitest states in the union, former chief of staff to Bush the First and now one of Mitt Romney’s official surrogates, said this today (via TPM):

John Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire and a leading Romney surrogate, told reporters that Obama’s recent defense of public infrastructure shows he “doesn’t understand how America works.”

“I wish this president would learn how to be an American,” Sununu said later.

I’m white.  Have been all my life.  Haven’t had to put up with the daily tests that attend being nonwhite in America.  So I’m not going to go on long about this.  But I can tell you that you don’t need to be African-American to ask yourself what you are hearing when John Sununu tells you that Barack Obama, President of the United States, born here, educated here, married here, raising two kids here, the whole run — doesn’t know how to be an American.

I think I can guess:  hell — I don’t need to guess.  As I said, I’m a white guy, but I hear Sununu loud and clear, and what I pick up is a prominent Republican saying pretty damn clearly that African Americans aren’t real Americans.  They need to learn how to pass…

One could say that I’m being overly particular here.  To Republicans, as we’ve seen over several administrations now, Democrats aren’t real Americans.  When on occasion some Democrat manages to dupe the electorate into sending someone with a “D” after their name into high office, that’s simply an error to be corrected, by restricting the franchise to the right people — real Americans — if need be.

But just because a result is over-determined, that doesn’t mean that the most grotesque explanation isn’t true.  As here, IMHO.

Is John Sununu — surrogate to Republican presidential nominee-presumptive Mitt Romney — a racist?

A simple yes or no is not quite the right way to respond to that form of the question.  Rather ask:  Did John Sununu just say some racist shit, dog whistling to that portion of the electorate that responds to such filth?

I stand within a tradition that weighs works, not any inner manifestation of piety.  By that standard?

Now the question answers itself.

Image:  Jan Steen, A Class with a Sleeping Schoolmaster, 1672.


Moral Compasses. Can I Haz Pleeze? (Paterno/PSU Edition)

July 15, 2012

This item in the Times yesterday caught my attention:

In January 2011, Joe Paterno learned prosecutors were investigating his longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for sexually assaulting young boys….

That same month, Mr. Paterno, the football coach at Penn State, began negotiating with his superiors to amend his contract, with the timing something of a surprise because the contract was not set to expire until the end of 2012, according to university documents and people with knowledge of the discussions. By August, Mr. Paterno and the university’s president, both of whom were by then embroiled in the Sandusky investigation, had reached an agreement.

Mr. Paterno was to be paid $3 million at the end of the 2011 season if he agreed it would be his last. Interest-free loans totaling $350,000 that the university had made to Mr. Paterno over the years would be forgiven as part of the retirement package. He would also have the use of the university’s private plane and a luxury box at Beaver Stadium for him and his family to use over the next 25 years.

The university’s full board of trustees was kept in the dark about the arrangement until November, when Mr. Sandusky was arrested….

Anyone care to defend Paterno on this one?  PSU?  Best keep this in mind then:

The university’s full board of trustees was kept in the dark about the arrangement until November, when Mr. Sandusky was arrested and the contract arrangements, along with so much else at Penn State, were upended. Mr. Paterno was fired, two of the university’s top officials were indicted in connection with the scandal, and the trustees, who held Mr. Paterno’s financial fate in their hands, came under verbal assault from the coach’s angry supporters.

Board members who raised questions about whether the university ought to go forward with the payments were quickly shut down, according to two people with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

In the end, the board of trustees — bombarded with hate mail and threatened with a defamation lawsuit by Mr. Paterno’s family — gave the family virtually everything it wanted, with a package worth roughly $5.5 million. Documents show that the board even tossed in some extras that the family demanded, like the use of specialized hydrotherapy massage equipment for Mr. Paterno’s wife at the university’s Lasch Building, where Mr. Sandusky had molested a number of his victims.

I’m reading Chris Haye’s Twilight of the Elites just now — highly recommended btw, from a just over half way perspective — and one of his key points is that disintegration of a viable polity or society is driven in part by the discovery that those at the top play be utterly different rules than the rest of us.


One more thing:  the claim routinely made by academics — and especially by the leaders of the Academy — is that in a complex and here-and-now society, universities teach and embody not just knowledge, but values — or rather, an approach to living that makes it possible to lead an ethical life, one of value. Obviously, everyone reading this can come up with examples in which such claims are honored only in the breach.  But still, that’s the point of the liberal arts, and have been claimed as such since the days of the trivium and quadrivium (and before).

That means to me that there really is a higher obligation here — just as there was and is for, say, the Catholic Church when confronted by the abomination of child rape.  The Church conspicuously failed in its duties to its own claims of virtue, and it continues to do so, which is one of the reasons why someone like me, not a member of the faith, so deeply resents any assertion of moral authority in politics by the princes of the church.

In that context Penn State/Paterno scandal only makes it easier to lump the universities in with every other failed institution in our society — at a time when the importance of knowledge and its interpretation/application to the great problems we face has never been greater.

Hence, it seems to me that Penn State needs demonstrate that it’s not just another Lehman/Boston Archdiocese.  How to do that?  I don’t really know — I haven’t thought hard, nor talked to people who really understand how institutional cultures change.  Suggestions?

Image:  Francisco de Goya, The Great He-Goat or Witches Sabbath, 1821-1823 (worth the click through for seeing it at a readable size.)

Federalism For Me And Not For Thee…Food Safety Dept.

July 14, 2012

As long as we’re talking about food….

Government by referendum is not a great way to run a railroad, IMHO.  Certainly, California voters have wandered down some deeply damaging alleys with the referendum process in that state.  (The referendum-induced 2/3rds majority required to raise taxes has been a stunning success, for example, if by success you mean rendering the world’s 8th largest economy largely ungovernable.

But there is no doubt that if you are into federalism and the return of power to the most local level possible, then it ought to be hard to find fault with the notion  that citizens of state ought to be able to decide that they want there food supply raised under certain regulatory conditions, and they want to ensure local standards of food safety.  So, who should object to this:

A California voter-approved law…requires that caged veal calves and breeding sows as well as laying hens should be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and freely extend their limbs.

The initiative was approved by 64 percent of California voters after animal rights activists released undercover videos of strangled, deformed and mummified hens in cages.

This isn’t even that controversial among at least some of the affected producers, according to reporting at

The egg industry, in a landmark agreement with the Humane Society of the United States, has embraced the hen law and enlisted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to enact it nationally so that all egg producers operate under the same rules.

Other states have similar laws, but all that may change (cue the usual suspects music) if the House GOP, fronted by poster child dangerous idiot Steve King (R-salmonella) have their way:

The latest salvo came in a midnight vote in the House Agriculture Committee on an amendment to deny states the ability to regulate any farm product, potentially overturning not just California’s farm laws but animal welfare, food safety and environmental laws related to any farm product in all 50 states. [King introduced the amendment]

Read that again:  “potentially overturning not just California’s farm laws but animal welfare, food safety and environmental laws related to any farm product in all 50 states.” [Emphasis added, obviously]

For just a taste of the implications, here’s a California egg farmer who supports the law:

Riebli, the Petaluma egg farmer, said that if King’s amendment survives, “California also has pesticide laws for fruits and vegetables. They’re gone. California has its own standards for fluid milk (requiring fortification with vitamin D). They’re gone.”

Who needs a race to the bottom when Congress can just teleport us to the floor of the Marianas Trench?

There’s a lot more to this issue — we’ve got a pigs vs. chickens battle going on; an argument over what states can regulate that has genuine complexity and so on.  But look at what the GOP is trying to do (to be fair, along with Democrats from some ag/agribusiness heavy states): deny the ability of any state to regulate the health and safety of the food it’s citizens consume.

John’s running tagline is basically right: anyone voting Republican now and for the foreseeable future is voting to turn the United States into  Somalia.


Image:  Gustave Klimpt, Garden With Roosters, 1917

The “Have A Beer With Primary”…

July 14, 2012

…is over.

Well, actually, it’s been over since Mitt clinched the increasingly poisoned chalice that is his nomination, given his religion’s prohibition on consuming alcohol.  (See:  Mitt and Osama do/did have something in common…)*  But this piece in Mother Jones by Tim Murphy (via Ed Kilgore) captures yet one more reason to believe that Mr. Romney is not in fact a human being, but rather a strangely ill-designed bot intended to simulate human behavior.  Consider:

Mitt Romney has a complicated relationship with fast food. He likes pizza, but insists on scraping off the cheese before he ever takes a bite. He likes fried chicken, but only when the skin has been removed. He likes Big Macs, but only after removing the middle bun. He likes Coca-Cola because, he explained in his 2004 book Turnaround, it reminds him of polar bears, but he rarely drinks it because he can’t have caffeine. On the trail, Romney has name-dropped Carl’s Jr. and spoken of the wonders of WaWa but subsists mainly on granola he carries around in one-gallon Ziploc bags.

Anne Laurie blogged on this general topic this morning, quoting Taibbi on how most presidents have some capacity for engaging other human beings — a liberal could enjoy watching football with George Bush and so on.

That seems basically right to me, at least in principle.  I’m not sure if I could at this point stand being in the same room with 43, but I can at least see how it might be possible to have a reasonably pleasant interaction watching my team shred whoever it is he supports.

This is more of the same.  I’ve spent plenty of time in red states or settings, surrounded by folks who are as different from me politically as it is possible to be, and had absolute common ground in the matter of getting elbows deep in food that’ is gloriously bad for us all.  I’ve been taught to suck the heads of crawfish in rural Lousiana with folks with whom I dared not mention politics or faith.  I’ve done double duty at one of the true Meccas of American junk food, the Minnesota State Fair, (bacon ice cream? cheeseburger sticks?) where the proposition that there is nothing that can’t be improved by immersion in vats of fat is annually put to the test. I’ve…well, you get the idea, and we have ample evidence from this blog that lots of folks here take enormous pleasure in dining high and low.

But then you read Mitt’s preferences — or rather I do — and what I see there is someone who’s hinky.  A bit weird.  A control freak and someone deeply uncomfortable — unprepared, even — for the daily reality of, well, just being.  And hence, in some deep way, unprepared, unqualified for the job he seeks.

Seriously.   Put youself in the scene:   imagine you’re at parlous sitting at the counter when Mitt Romney of the Perfect Hair And Teeth walks in.   The guy behind the counter hands you a fresh pie, and a few minutes later RMoney gets his.

You grab a slice (the one you have to kind of torque so the cheese doesn’t slide away), and you get that first bite when the cheese hasn’t fully set yet and it’s still hot enough to burn the tongue if you’re not careful, and it has that same satisfaction that one gets from the very first gulp of a very cold beer on a day as hot as it is as I write this — and then you look up and there’s RMoney, delicately picking at the mozzarrella with a fork as he tugs and pulls with precise movements until the surface of what he’s about to eat is pristine, utterly free of dairy products.  He completes his task, and all he’s got left is a drooping triangle of bread slathered in tomato goop.  A perfectly innocent morsel of wood-fired arterial disease transformed into something miserable, mutilated; almost an atrocity worthy of the folks at the Hague.

By this time, if the “you” here is me, I’m (a) done with my first slice and grabbing more and (b) nervously realizing that there’s something really wrong with the guy next to me.  I’d start to edge away from the counter as I watch him consume in perfect, portion controlled bites the entire tomato-crust exercise in pointlessness.  Horrified, fascinated, I’d find it hard to pull my eyes off him as he takes the next piece and does it again.

Finally I’d come to my senses. That’s when I grab the counterman’s eye and ask for a take-out box.

All of which is to say that Mitt Romney has all the money it takes to become president and then some.  He has the advantage of a complaisant and oligarchic media whose owners have a direct interest in a Romney victory.  He has the challenger’s advantage that the economy still sucks while his allies try to make sure that it continues to do so through November.  And yet I’m not at all sure he can overcome his greatest problem:  he can’t cease being Mitt Romney, and that is someone — or something — that is deeply weird, and not at all in a good way.

Oh — and go read the rest of Murphy’s article; it captures a microcosm of who wants Romney to win and why.  The shorter:  Romney is the candidate for those who think the minimum wage is and ever was too high.

*BTW — I don’t think I’ve seen it written, and it hasn’t occurred to me till now, but how do the geniuses of the birther crowed line up Barack Hussein Obama’s not Islamic and very public pleasure at hoisting a brew and his Sekret Moooslim status.  I mean, I can guess — it’s not a lie if it’s intended to deceive the infidel and all that, but still, I’m not sure there’s enough tin foil in the cosmos to channel the mixed messages those folks must process.

Image: Pieter Breughel the Elder, Peasant Wedding, c. 1587

July 8, 2012

First:  a must see.  Seriously, put this one on your bucket list:

This is what’s left of ancient Mycenae, as you follow the ancient way, travelling east until you come to the Lion Gate.

Play with the name of the family whose home this was:  the Atreidae, (not to mention House Atreides…).  Think Agamemnon, passing beneath those two stone beasts, home from ten years of war, with hours left to live.  Remember the blood Cassandra saw before it was spilt, and it’s impossible (at least it was for me) not to think of the horror and terror of war as it touches every sphere of human fellowship….

I stopped at the top of the citadel for as long as my 12 year old traveling companion would let me, looking down on the Plain of Argos west to the mountains, south to the sea.  The myths of battle flow from here, the call to glory, and as well, always — if your mind is set to the right resonance — the bitter truths that the original singer-writer slipped past his hero-drunk audiences.*

All which is to say a couple of things.  First, and less, I’ve been on the road with my family, trying to remember what this thing called Vay-Kay-Shun might be, taking off without showing Mistermix’s courtesy in saying see-you-in-a-bit.

Second, and more, I came to Mycenae right around the time the ‘tubes were all snarled up in reactions to the Supreme Court decision upholding the Obama administration’s health care reform law.  I was utterly unsurprised by the flood of wingnut tears, of course, and I’ve grown accustomed to the radical destructiveness of what now passes for acceptable rhetoric on the right.  But perhaps because of time spent in a country so thoroughly and brutally conscious of the costs of violence unto their children’s’ children’s’ generations, this and this tripped my disgust reflex in a way that I haven’t been able to shake.  Y’all saw these, I’m sure — ABL blogged them here, and even from my distance from reliable internet, I’m guessing this was a pretty well discussed issue.   But anyway, money quotes:

When a gang of criminals subvert legitimate government offices and seize all power to themselves without the real consent of the governed their every act and edict is of itself illegal and is outside the bounds of the Rule of Law. In such cases submission is treason. Treason against the Constitution and the valid legitimate government of the nation to which we have pledged our allegiance for years. To resist by all means that are right in the eyes of God is not rebellion or insurrection, it is patriotic resistance to invasion.  (Mississippi Tea Party Chairman Roy Nicholson, emphasis in the original.)


If government can mandate that I pay for something I don’t want, then what is beyond its power? If the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday paves the way for unprecedented intrusion into personal decisions, then has the Republic all but ceased to exist? If so, then is armed rebellion today justified? (Michigan former GOP spokesman Matthew Davis.)

So much prologue to the obvious point:  Mr. Nicholson and Mr. Davis are gutless fools.  There’s a certain vicious pleasure in the hope that they — and only they — might actually get to experience the reality of armed insurrection against the established authority of the government of the United States of America.  Plenty of folks — and not just our Confederate friends — have tried that one on, and it hasn’t worked out well for them from the Whiskey Rebellion** forward.

But I can’t take any joy at imagining the comeuppance that delusional keyboard commandos would face if ever they — or more likely, the fools they “inspired” — actually took violent action.  Not with Mycenae so present before me.  Wars are not Homeric poems, which is something Homer himself clearly understood, if Odysseus’s conversations with the heroes who preceded him into Hades offer any hint.  They wreck people, and not simply those who are obviously war’s casualties. I’m not going to belabor that thought in this forum, because so many here know this as well or better than I.

So: idiots will be with us always, and two otherwise utterly inconsequential folks like Messrs. Nicholson and Davis — barely public figures at all — aren’t worth the spit it would take to express my true opinion.

No: what matters is that this kind of talk can’t take place without the tacit permission of actual leaders — informal ones, like Limbaugh, and the actual political actors on the right, figures like Boehner, McConnell, Cohen, Ryan, McCain, whoever.  First among them, of course, is the man who would be president, Mitt Romney.

Leaders shape the frame of argument.  They delineate the forms of dissent and opposition.  They define, both by what they say and by what they fail to rule out, whether we have a small “r” republican approach to government, or rule by the manipulators of the manipulated mob.  When they stay silent they are the cowards of the headline, passive bystanders as their followers betray the basic principles of (small “d”) democratic politics.

Greece is a good place from which to think about this.  You don’t have to go back to Agamemnon or to Plato; living memory — the civil war, the colonels, very recent memory indeed offer regular reminders of the fragility of government by consent of the governed.  Words matter here, and have for millennia.

So it is in this place, with that history in mind, that I am reminded once again that the habit of dismissing crap like that spewed by Nicholson and Davis as wingnuts being wingnuts is not acceptable.  The speakers themselves may not count for much, but for a nominally civil society to allow such speech to pass without massive retaliation, actual leadership from those who would lead from that side…well, that’s how individuals get hurt, and democracies die.  It’s happened before, not many miles from where I sit as I write this.

That’s enough.  I’ve committed once more the sin of belaboring the obvious. Catch y’all stateside soon enough.

*I know that this is an anachronistic reading.  Sue me.

**It’s interesting (at least to me) to discover in the course of writing this post that there exists a libertarian alternate history that imagines a leader in the Whiskey Rebellion persuading the federal militia not to attack them, instead turning around to march on the capital, capture and execute George Washington for treason (sic!) and then swap out the Constitution for what would become a The North American Confederacy (sic!!).  Who knew it was Washington, and not Lincoln, from whom all our troubles flow…