The Twenty-Sixth Random Thing, Ctd.

Regina Herschmann Dore, 1906-2011.

I had said “One of my great-grandfathers was a Austrian Jew who converted to Catholicism, married a Catholic woman, and raised all his children in Catholicism. One of his daughters left Germany for America within months of Hitler coming to power, and because of these facts, I am here. The ghosts of countless unborn cousins occupy the periphery of my world, and a week doesn’t go by when I do not think of this.”

And now she is gone.

I would say Kaddish, but I don’t know how.

The Political Is The Personal

[This post was originally an email to a friend, on why it is that my political centrism gets misread from the Left and the Right as farther from the center than it is.]

Well, I am still very angry at the Bush administration, both for what they did, and the damage it has done to the credibility of the institutions.

I think there are two key differences between the way I view things and the way more alienated people view things. First, my life history has given me a glimpse from the inside of people in politics: my father was the mayor of our city, and later in regional stuff. His next move would’ve been state politics but life got in the way. Since everyone who is national starts out farther down the food chain, I see no reason to think that the people in the positions of greatest power aren’t basically the same as the people I knew first hand. They were fundamentally decent people with a tinge of ambition, and while the narcissistic side came out the most during campaigns, the rest of the time was just problem solving in the context of an inherited situation. True horrific evil, I thus suspect, is more often than not Arendt-banal, not seeing the forest for the trees. There are exceptions. I think Cheney was evil.

The philosophical dimension of this: a bunch of things. First, I view the system in a somewhat Hegelian way: it has created us, we are defined in large measure by our participation in it. I really really am an American citizen just like you really really are a school teacher (and conversely). It isn’t a game or a charade that the Red Pill (or was it the Blue Pill?) enables us to wake up from. Social reality is as real as any other reality. So more “radical” stances seem to me not fully real or authentic, except when they are. And I admit that the inner progressive inside me gets very excited when I see people on the march taking back their institutions, as we’ve seen in the Arab Spring. Euphoric in fact. But it would be to efface huge differences to think that their situation is comparable to ours. If it ever is, I won’t be blogging (well, maybe I will) but will be organizing cells and risking my life. But if we aren’t there, I work within the only system I have. So, what strikes some as wildly naive seems to me anything but. When I in effect said “waitaminute! Clinton can’t perjure himself! That’s illegal!” I make a conscious choice to make those laws my own. It’s not a childlike innocence but a refusal to give up. Perhaps that’s a kind of faith? I don’t think so, because it’s not a matter of belief, but of will. I make a commitment to these institutions.

Second, law school is a very powerful experience for revealing the functions behind laws, and the reasons behind judicial decisions, and precisely because it teaches you how to see bad laws and bad decisions, it leaves you with this surprising sense of just how much rationality is already there in the system. So that’s very much a glass half full thing. What works, for most, recedes into invisibility, as it should perhaps, but it can make the occasional epiphany that it is fucking miraculous that it all works as well as it does hard to have.

Third. In college I read Kazantzakis, and though I find him bombastic and perhaps not altogether genuine now, he conveyed this notion to me: the noble man takes responsibility for everything, not just what he can actually control. Which led me to think that the outsider stance was somehow too easy, not strenuous enough. This is often misunderstood. I have no delusion of the importance of my action or thought. It has no influence whatsoever except on maybe 3-4 twenty-somethings in Portland per year. It’s that I must, as a part of my conception of my own character, regard myself as responsible for my government. This means that I do all those civic republican virtuous things we are told we’re supposed to do. Whenever a political issue appears, I strive within the limits of my ability to pretend that what the nation will do is entirely up to me, and that I will have to take the blame if I make a bad decision. I try to figure out what the best decision from the perspective of governance would be. And then once I think I have that, I tell people what I think. Because this regulative fiction governs my sense of civic virtue, people often find me overly accommodating of the status quo. But I in turn view many people as not really serious. When someone says something over the top or utterly defeated or cynical, however appropriate that may really be to their actual conditions of powerlessness, I ask myself, what would I think if, say, the president thought and acted exactly that way while in office? I’d think they were a lousy president, worse than lousy. Hugely irresponsible. So once the regulative fiction that defines my sense of civic virtue is activated, I have to think about policies and decisions from the standpoint of taking the “what would I do if I were president/senator/ congressperson/etc.” stance realistically and seriously. And what I wouldn’t do is say, as my staff was waiting for instructions, “politics is such bullshit, and it’s pointless to do anything.” Yes, but Mr. President, we have to do something anyway, so what will it be?

Last but not least. This individual conception was later reinforced by reading Gore Vidal’s history novels, because he portrays all his political actors, knaves, saints and ordinary people alike, as presupposing this sense of ownership. For them, the government is the family business, and you don’t just let things fall apart because you don’t believe in it. You do the best you can with it. Obviously all these ideas interact and lead to a result.

The point I started with that I wanted to make is, all of this is completely compatible with being as cold-bloodedly, clear-eyedly aware of how screwed up things are, and how much lack of virtue there is, all the way up to the top. What some see as naive, and others see as wickedly complicit and apologetic, I see as a useful fiction necessary for the construction of my own sense of virtuous character. Consequently, I seldom sound truly radical, unless the actual exercise of power at the moment shows signs of actually destroying something central to our freedoms and institutions. To my own surprise, Bush managed to get my attention in just that way: he put our constitution at risk. But given all of the above, I saw him, not as the wicked tyrant above me to be rebelled against, but as the lazy brother who, god damn it, is going to destroy the family business beyond repair if he isn’t stopped. An “intervention” was called for, as the substance abuse treatment community calls it.

I’m convinced that 90% of what makes people suspect that I’m a bad guy, is precisely this “ownership” business. And that saddens me, because I think it’s one of the best things about my stance. Beyond that, my only conservative qualities at this point are that I give a wide berth to religious conviction, because that seems to be what treating people with dignity and respect requires, and I have the limited but adequate economist’s understanding of policy that says you can’t have everything you might want, that things must be paid for, that market distortions have consequences, etc. But like a sensible man I know efficiency isn’t everything either, and there are many other political goods that have to be weighed against it.

In the end, I suspect that these attitudes, in myself and others, are conditioned by fairly straightforward Freudian dynamics. For me, my father is old and failing; I have long since taken his place. And maybe that’s all that I’m really saying.

Great Moments In Cinema, IX

FOUR YEARS LATER. 1946.

Major Lawrence enters Sergeant Hara’s cell. Hara is looking out the window, then turns and smiles.

HARA
I knew you would come, Mr. Lawrence.

LAWRENCE
You’ve learned English.

HARA
Yes, very little. [indicating bench] Please? [they sit]

LAWRENCE
I very nearly didn’t get your message.

HARA
[solemn] It’s tomorrow morning.

LAWRENCE
Well if it was up to me, I’d release you today, send you back to your family.

HARA
Thank you. I am ready to die. But I don’t understand. My crimes were no different from any other soldier’s.

LAWRENCE
You are the victim of men who think that they’re right. Just as once you and Captain Yonoi believed absolutely that you were right. The truth is, of course, that nobody’s right. [pause] Do you remember Jack Celliers?

HARA
Strange. I dreamed of him last night.

LAWRENCE
Did you really? Captain Yonoi gave me a lock of Jack Celliers hair and asked me to take it to his village in Japan and dedicate it to his shrine.

HARA
It’s sad. That he was executed after the war.

LAWRENCE
Yes. It was as if Celliers, by his death, sowed a seed in Yonoi, that we might all share by its growth.

HARA
[smiling] Do you remember that Christmas?

LAWRENCE
[laughs] Yes. Yes. Yes.

HARA
It was a good Christmas, wasn’t it?

LAWRENCE
It was a wonderful Christmas. You were drunk.

HARA
May I go on and on being drunk!

LAWRENCE
Sake is wonderful.

HARA
Thank you. Father Christmas. Thank you. [laughs]

LAWRENCE
[rises] There are times when victory is very hard to take. [bows] Good bye, Hara-san. [Hara bows] God bless.

Lawrence crosses to leave the cell.

HARA
Lawrence! [grinning] Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence!

Contest!

arry on the struggle to the end to strike against the right deviationist wind of reversing verdicts

I see from my dashboard that another blogger has commented on ATP, characterizing it as “right-wing.” A free Starbucks gift card for the first person who can find five posts which satisfy any description of “right wing-i-ness.”

[Poster caption translation: “Carry on the struggle to the end to strike against the right deviationist wind of reversing verdicts!” Hat tip http://chineseposters.net/%5D

Progress

That October, the People’s representatives in this Republic were cajoled by the executive into exercising their constitutional authority by enacting the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, to the eternal regret of some and the resentment of others. Happily, we need no longer worry about that happening again. The current Consul explains.

History Lesson

I only mention this because someone else brought it up today…

Once upon a time there was a senior vice president of a major corporation. He was prone to sexually harassing his female subordinates, but so far he had gotten away with it, and his ascent up the corporate ladder proceeded unobstructed. Eventually he became the CEO. One day, one of these former victims of his harassment filed an employment discrimination suit against him (sexual harassment is a form of discrimination under the law because the assumption is that the individual’s conduct would’ve been different if the employee were the other gender, and that the environment you have to work in is a condition of employment).

Now this guy really liked being CEO, and didn’t want to get fired for cause in the short term, or fail to get his contract renewed when it expired. The problem for him was that there is a pre-trial phase of litigation called “discovery” in which both sides in the suit get to demand various forms of damaging evidence from the other side, and the court can compel its production. The reasoning here is that you don’t let the defendant win by hiding or destroying evidence of liability in his possession. Why is this a problem? Because the plaintiff can depose scads of the defendant’s former female employees about his conduct, and he knows this would reveal that, yeah, he’s the kind of guy who does this sort of thing. Instead of “he said, she said” it would become “he said, angry mob of women said.” One of the people likely to be deposed was a current subordinate of his, with whom he was currently having sex. When this came out, the scandal alone would get him fired.

So here’s what he did: he tried to line up a plum job for the current subordinate, in exchange for her lying under oath about their relationship. If no prior victims other than the plaintiff came forward, between his own lying under oath and that of his current subordinate, he was sure to win the sexual harassment suit. Read everything up to this point again. The sexual harasser hoped to cause his victim to lose her sexual harassment suit by bribing a key witness into perjuring herself. This is the stuff of which movies are made: malefactor, even in the courtroom, is untouchable, because he’s bought off or intimidated anyone who might testify against him, and so for his victims, justice is denied. Movies like this usually end with a crucial piece of evidence escaping the malefactor’s control, truth outs, the victim becomes the vindicated. Movies like this are easy to understand too: we know what corporate villains look like, we know that corporate villains abuse their power to get stuff they want, we know that corporate villains lie to cover their tracks, and we know that really powerful corporate villains can make everyone around them lie too by bribing or intimidating them, so that their own victims become victims twice over, by being disbelieved and having justice denied them.

Now we generally don’t like this sort of thing. Our legal system, whatever its many flaws, knows that the aspiration to justice is pretty hopeless if parties can lie with impunity, bribe or intimidate others into lying, destroy evidence, etc. because there can be no justice unless there is some semblance of truth first. This is why these kinds of activities are also illegal.

Well the story has a happy ending. Despite the CEO’s attempt to suppress evidence of his history of sexual harassment, in part by bribery, the truth came out anyway, and though he was able to conceal the facts long enough to get his contract renewed, he was fired before his new contract expired. The woman he harassed was vindicated, the integrity of the justice system was preserved.

Actually, that’s not quite what happened, because profits were substantial during his tenure as CEO, and a powerful faction of shareholders who had prospered were not about to let the CEO’s misconduct stand in the way of continued success, and after considerable maneuvering, they succeeded in preventing our hypothetical sexist pig, liar and criminal from being fired. The way the CEO played the “trial by media” game was relevant too: by the time the whole thing was over and done with, no one understood anymore what it had been about. People would remember that he almost lost his job, but no one ever remembered the words “sexual harassment” in connection with that. The underlying lawsuit was eventually settled and forgotten. He lived happily ever after.

Which I guess goes to show that if you want to be a sexual predator and perjurer, and make a mockery of our laws against employment discrimination, your best bet is to be CEO of the biggest corporation of them all, the federal government of the United States of America, and to be named William Jefferson Clinton.