Friday, February 3

Utah Response

A perceptive friend, as an addendum to an otherwise unrelated email, pointed out that, without defending Finkel, "the quote from one of Utah's own was as offensive as anything else in the piece - 'there's a sense of loyalty and patriotism that kind of overcomes the tendency toward cynicism that is evident in the rest of the country right now.'"

I thought that this comment deserved more than a token response, so here is an edited version of what I wrote back.

I'm not sure what your specific objection is, but I agree that this quote betrays a lack of knowledge or respect of the rest of the country that is similar to Finkel's. But I think that the Ute is on to something, though he doesn't express it very well. Instead of focusing on loyalty (whatever he means by that) and patriotism, he should have offered his town's other positive traits as antidotes to cynicism (which exists in pockets across America, and obviously more so outside of Randolph than within it).

Loyalty and patriotism can go hand in hand with criticism of the government and opposition to specific policies (for example, the Bush administrations policies on tax cuts, illegal immigration, spending, the war in Iraq, intercepting calls from foreign terrorists, whatever), but a spirit of self-reliance, optimism, and of faith in your fellow citizens prevents criticism (though there doesn't appear to be much of it in Randolph) from sinking into cynicism, which is something very different.

Goldwater was a patriot even as he was powerful critic of American policy, and he was never a cynic or defeatist. Carter, on the other hand, was a also patriot and a fundamentally decent man, but he promoted (or reflected--the origins of zeitgeist are never clear) a public malaise and cynicism in the wake of the Vietnam defeat and the Watergate scandals. Randolph doesn't have a monopoly on patriotism or loyalty, but it has somehow avoided the cynicism one encounters in many other parts of the country (though not the "rest of the country," as the speaker says.)

There are many critics of the Bush administration both inside and outside the Republican party. Some are cynics and some aren't. I don't know what the roots of cynicism are (though I speculate that the traits I mentioned above are important in avoiding it), but some people seem able to avoid it while others are consumed by it (I'm thinking of Sheehan or Moore, and their surprising number of cheerleaders in public office and in the press).

Coincidentally, President Bush (I can instantly think of several of my own strong criticisms of his administration) made a similar distinction in the State of the Union address:

. . . there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.

Maybe I'm giving the Ute too much credit, but I think that this is something like what he was getting at. If he'd left "patriotism" out of his comment, and just used the fuzzy word "loyalty," and if he'd substituted "in many of the administration's critics" for "the rest of the country," I don't think that it would have been an inaccurate statement, or have sounded as offensive. But he didn't, so it is fair to take him at his word, which, as you say, is offensive and ignorant.

But enough of that. Overall, rereading my post (something I usually only do a day or two later to clean up the errors of my earlier haste), I'm not particularly keen on it. I was aiming for light, if unsophisticated humor, but it comes across as forced. Too obvious. Too easy. Though I do remove posts from time to time (in fact, I just removed one from this week that I wasn't happy with), I'll leave this one up for now because it has been linked to by some Utah website and I don't want to disappoint new readers.


Anonymous KBO said...

H - I think this discussion is interesting. Having spent the last seven years in the US, returning to Canada only recently, I think I have something to add to the debate.

In a sense, it seems to me that the very "loyalty and patriotism" that your quoted Ute cites as an antidote to blue state cynicism are, in fact, the very cause of that cynicism (if I knew how to use html, you can bet that "cause" would have been very much italicized). It's the trouble with Kansas, you know? The view from the outside, and the cause of such cynicism and desperation in opponents of the Bush administration, is the sense of hopelessness that comes from seeing people continue to support Bush (often in the name of loyalty and patriotism) and to act in ways that strike us as manifestly contrary to their own interests. In both the domestic and foreign policy realms, there is a very real belief among Bush opponents that his supporters are fundamentally wrong on so many important issues - so wrong that one can't help but become cynical (fine, it sounds elitist and is exactly the sort of attitude that would offend your Ute - so what should I do? Pretend that Saddam Hussein really was involved with 9/11? Pretend that tax cuts for the richest 5% will trickle down and benefit the poorest 20%? Pretend that distributing homeland security dollars not to the cities that are directly threatened but to congressional districts whose representatives have the most pull will truly make us safer? Pretend that donating billions of dollars a year to the weapons industry in the name of missile defense while ports remain unsecured is an effective strategy against terrorists? Nope.)

Understand, though, that such cynicism should not be equated with defeatism - no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the mobilization of all sides in the lead-up to the last election was a sign of Americans' faith in the idea (again, italicized) of America and in their belief that things can, and must, improve.

Cynicism and sadness in the face of continued support for what we view as by far the worst administration of our lifetimes are, in my view, understandable. But loyalty and patriotism are not only to be found in Bush supporters - the cynical, angry, disaffected mob in opposition doesn't love its country any less.

8:38 PM  
Blogger H. said...

KBO, thank you as always for your thoughtful comments. I don't have a comprehensive response, but here are my thoughts, off the cuff:

I certainly wouldn’t suggest that you pretend that Saddam Hussein really was involved with 9/11. I don’t know any informed Republicans or Democrats who believe this. Searching the web quickly, I can’t find the percentage of Americans who believe this, but I did find a poll taken on the second anniversary of 9/11 (which is obviously quite out of date). That poll revealed that 69% of Americans believed that it was likely that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack on the World Trade Center.* Assuming that this percentage was unchanged at the time of the last presidential election, and that every single Bush voter believed in the connection (a huge exaggeration, of course), almost 40% of Democrat voters would also have to believe it.** And if a more realistic 75% of Bush voters believed in a likely connection, then a solid majority (62%) of Kerry voters also believed it. At best, the two sets of voters were dumb and dumber on this point. Would Kerry (or Clinton?) have invaded Iraq? It is impossible to know, but regime change in Iraq was the (frequently and boldly) stated policy of the Clinton administration, and Congressional authorization for the invasion was almost unanimous and bi-partisan. Whatever Kerry would have done, the bell cannot be unrung. In the absence of any serious plan that differs from Bush’s “withdrawal when the situation on the ground permits it” (I paraphrase), voters don’t have a real policy choice on this point. If Bush supporters see this lack of an alternative and decide, out of loyalty or patriotism or any other motivation, to stick with the only party that actually has a plan (which may not be succeeding wildly, but isn’t obviously failing either) for Iraq, I don’t consider this decision irrational or against their interests.

It would also, as you recognize, be ludicrous to “pretend that distributing homeland security dollars not to the cities that are directly threatened but to congressional districts whose representatives have the most pull will make us safer.” (Actually, it may make us safer, but not as safe as an efficient allocation would.) But, as difficult as it is to imagine a worse situation, I don’t think that it would be any better under a Democrat Congress. This problem might be a cause for pessimism, but I don’t think it should have a partisan tint.

As for “pretending that donating billions of dollars a year to the weapons industry in the name of missile defense while ports remain unsecured is an effective strategy against terrorists,” I don’t know enough to comment on the usefulness of missile defense research or the state of port security. I am inclined to believe that ports aren’t optimally secured, but I don’t know what effective security would entail or cost. I also don’t see this as a zero sum game—surely more money could be allotted (efficiently, not per the distribution described in the previous point) to port security without reducing missile defense research. That said, I have no faith that the politicians and bureaucrats that developed the annoying and overly-intrusive airport security regime are capable of efficiently securing their own liquor cabinets, let alone the nation’s ports. But, again, homeland security initiatives have been broadly bi-partisan and the product of anxious group-think and a desire to be seen to be doing something, anything, even if it is a waste of time and money, so I don’t think that a Democrat congress would be any better. And, given the general Democrat fondness of regulation (shared these days by the Republican Congress), I would expect the situation to be even worse under them.

Finally, on the tax cut issue, the Randolphians may or may not believe that tax cuts for the richest 5% will trickle down and benefit the poorest 20%. There isn’t much about their views on tax in the article. Most of the people described don’t seem to make enough money to pay income tax (35.6 million Americans don’t) and, besides, Bush’s cuts took 5 million Americans off the tax rolls and lowered the lowest tax bracket to only 10%. So there are good reasons why they might favor Bush’s “across the board” tax cuts (where does the “richest 5%” come from?—more than half of the 111 million income tax payers got about $500 back, with an average of about $1,500). If they aren’t paying anything, why should they begrudge a nice tax cut for the top earners? It might be objected that the lost revenue will require a reduction in government programs that might otherwise benefit them, making their support for tax cuts irrational. There are at least three responses to this sort of outsider observation: (1) they might consider government programs unwelcome interferences that weaken their civil society, rather than an unalloyed benefit; (2) they might believe that lower income taxes will benefit their children, their grandchildren, or their progeny yet unborn, who may earn more money and be subject to higher tax brackets; or (3) they might believe that reductions in capital gains taxes and marginal tax rates benefit the economy generally and that a rising tide really does lift all boats (if respected professional economists can’t agree on whether this is the case, it is hardly a knock on the average voter that he believes one side or the other). There are other good reasons why a person who doesn’t make much money might favor income tax cuts, but any of these would suffice.

In a related vein, I think that analyzing people’s behavior by a narrow view of “interest” creates much of the confusion about why some voters appear to vote “against their interests.” For one thing, interests are not necessary personal; many people take a longer view, one that encompasses their ancestors and future generations of their family. What a person believes is in his short-term interest may not be what he believes is in the multi-generational interest of his family or his community. The idea of working hard to improve a family’s lot over several generations has largely gone out of fashion in the urban world I inhabit, and has been replaced by a demand that a person born today should have every opportunity possible in his lifetime. Trying to make this impossible dream a reality usually involves a great upheaval in traditions and social structures, including the concerted redistribution of income, which is more disturbing to many people than the fact that they may not experience the benefits of their hard work and their civic commitment, but that it may be enjoyed by their great-grandchildren. The demand for instant transfers of wealth—the public manifestation of the great sin of envy—does not necessarily rule every voter’s heart or head. I can’t possibly know if the voters of Randolph think this, or if the idea has ever crossed their minds, but it occurs to me frequently. (Not that I can vote here.)

Finally, a quick word about cynicism versus defeatism. I agree that supporters of both parties were anything but defeatist in the build up to the 2004 election. I’m not so sure that that constructive energy still exists in the heart of the Democrat party. One hopes that it will reassert itself before 2008, but my peripheral sense is that the 2004 defeat, the failure to block either of Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, the failure to make significant headway against the Republican party on Hurricane Katrina, wiretapping, the Valerie Plame leak, and the Abramoff scandal is extremely frustrating to the emotional core of the Democrats’ supporters. Reading the and websites, the literature, the New York Times editorials, and listening to Democratic politicians, I see a level of frustration that I haven’t seen since the Bush v. Gore decision came down. These sources disproportionately reflect a younger, volatile constituency, but many of the voices I’ve heard in the last few months are disgusted not only with Bush and the Republican party, but with the left wing of the Democratic party—figures like Kennedy and Leahy were drawing their ire during the Alito hearings for not turning the heat up further (apparently only the appalling smears of the Bork hearings would satisfy them). This sounds like defeatism to me, and I am disturbed by the idea that a sizeable number of supporters of either party might lose faith in the legitimacy of the democratic process. It hasn’t happened yet, but the Democrats under-perform in November and don’t win the presidency in 2008, I don’t see the situation improving.

* Also, 55% believed that Saddam Hussein’s regime gave direct support to Al Qaeda. While the terms “direct” and “support” are open to manipulation, by any reasonable interpretation of them, it has been established that Iraq did provide direct support and assistance to Al Qaeda on numerous occasions. Clinton officials and intelligence sources said as much at the time of the al Shifa air strikes and Joe Lieberman has said that “I want to be real clear about the connection with terrorists. I've seen a lot of evidence on this. There are extensive contacts between Saddam Hussein's government and al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”

** Actually, there are a number of assumption built into the numbers I am asserting here, but I think that they are reasonable.

11:04 PM  

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