Why I hate politics

January 17, 2010

There’s an old jibe directed at the passionate, idealistic revolutionary:  “Oh, him, he loves humanity – it’s people he can’t stand.”  I always reverse it:  I like people, it’s humanity that repels me.  That’s why politics is so depressing – it is collective action by humanity.  One-to-one, you can reason with people.  In politics, the game is to win, to gain power, as in warfare, and individuals are the least of it.  The compromises and contradictions can be disturbing.

A case in point:  The special Senate race for the seat vacated by Ted Kennedy on his death.  Martha Coakley, the Democrat is being pressed into a surprisingly close race by a Republican challenger.  Obama is stumping for her, mindful of the tremendous importance of maintaining a Dem lock on the Senate in this day of 60-votes-or-nothing.    Why am I so troubled?

Martha Coakley played a despicable role in the ruination of individual lives in the aftermath of the daycare witch hysteria of the 80s.  She refused to release Gerald Amirault long after it was very clear that he was a victim of a modern day Salem witchcraft hysterial episode.  His case, and others related to it, are some of the more shocking miscarriages of justice to be found in recent history.

Does she deserve to be Senator?  I’d still vote for her because I despise the Republican party and its stalwart who is “running against healthcare.”  Does he deserve to be Senator?  Not in my book.  That’s party politics, the balance of power, the greater good of the country.  After all, I support Obama’s program.  Still, it makes me ill that Coakley isn’t being called to account for her actions.

Right-wing, conservative, Republican critics will, of course, talk as though this cynical realpolitk is limited to the Democrats, the liberals, the Left, yada, yada, yada, and that they alone understand principle, and the importance of the individual.  Utter rubbish.  They make their own horrid compromises and amoral calculations, not to mention that they pursue policies that run roughshod over these things. That’s politics.

Crucible – what makes a classic?

April 12, 2009


After reading John Demos’ new book, The Enemy Within, I finally went and read Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. It tells the story of the rising hysteria leading to the Salem Witch Trials in Puritan Massachusetts.  First performed during the 1950s when the McCarthy Red Scare was in full swing, it’s relevance to the politics of the time was obvious and it gave American popular culture the term “witch hunt”, as in political witch hunt. The play is immensely powerful and disturbing.

Reading the play now, although I was fully aware of its political connotations, I read it as a comment on the endlessly recurring situation of group hysteria, trampling of rights, triumph of fear over reason and the toll in death and ruin it takes, the ease with which we humans loose our footing in civilization and slip into mental barbarism. Thus a classic – eternally relevant, solidly of its time and of ours, always.

The edition I had contained a vast amount of critical material, including many reviews of the day, positive and negative.  It’s strange reading them – so many are battles over the validity of the play’s critique of McCarthy and the HUAC.  The funny thing is that some of the reviews seem to imply that if Arthur Miller’s politics could be discredited, if the reviewer could demonstrate that there really was a threat from Communism, that there really were Communist spies among us (obviously, there were some) then the play’s message was invalidated.  Witch trials were just irrelevant!

…But they come back, over and over again.

Crystal Ball

March 30, 2009


Friedman’s column in the NYTimes today, Mother Nature’s Dow, was typical of his work – filled with “big” ideas, poorly thought out, emotional, enthusiastic, and totally superficial.  One commenter suggested that he was rallying the Global Warming troops in the wake of the article on Freeman Dyson, the world-famous skeptic, that appeared in the Times Magazine and the recent cold weather!  (Hot weather is always evidence of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) – cold weather is just a random variation…)  What really got me was the comments of this sort, which were many:

the skepticism toward climate change never ceases to amaze me. the weight given to climatologists who discount man-made climate change is horribly out of balance with those who are sounding the alarms (and have been for a good decade – with increasing intensity). we are witnessing earth’s change at a rapid rate. we already have irreparable damage to some ecosystems. now is not the time to be an ostrich. and the apathy of many people who do recognize this truth is deeply disappointing.

Yes, the planet is changing, it always is changing.  Yes, many ecosystems are being damaged, mostly by destruction of habitat as a result of human settlement.  And why does the increasing intensity (stridency?) of the “ones who know” mean that they are right?  Often that signals that a person is wrong!


Human Beings and Original (Environmental) Sin

Among the comments I read were many that seemed to stop just short of calling for forced population control.  Humans are a harmful virus, you see.  This is part of the “religion of environmentalism” that Dyson talks about, often sympathetically.  I noticed another example of it on walk through a nature preserve near my house.  Some trees there have metal plates with messages on them about ecology that were done by local school children.  One stated that we are destroying our source of oxygen every day by a given amount (I forget the figures.)  This was a reference, I believe, to deforestation, but were these children also apprised of the growth of oxygen producers in some areas?

Having just finished reading about Cotton Mather and his role in the Salem Witch Trials, and having my head filled with thoughts about Old Time Religion, the plaque seemed a lot like an old fashioned religious motto intended to make you feel bad and remind you of your essentially sinful nature…so you could think of this occasionally after you go back to your normal life.  Yes, walkers will see this plaque and shake their heads:  “How true – out of the mouths of babes…”  And they will climb  back into their cars (maybe a Prius) and drive away.

Let’s get real.  I make a few predictions and such:

  • Human population will continue to grow for a long time, although the rate of increase is likely to continually slow.  This population will need lots of energy.  I suspect that coal, for good or ill, is going to provide a lot of it.
  • Saving energy is good for all sorts of reasons – why waste it or anything else?  But we are not likely to be 100% energy self-sufficient here in the USA, not if we don’t want our economy to grind to a halt.  Priuses and coiled light bulbs, and more efficient homes and transit will use vastly less energy, if everyone used them now, but they don’t, and by the time they do, if they do, there will be more of us.  So at best, we can hope for a slightly decreasing rate of increase in our energy consumption in the near term.
  • Stopping population growth won’t happen, and isn’t a realistic goal for any near-term, unless we are willing to resort to a police state.  At least that would have the added benefit of putting the lid on our consumer culture so that the fewer people wouldn’t continue to consume more, but I’m not looking forward to it.
  • Everyone says nice things about “sustainability” but few really think it through.  What does it mean?  How much are we willing to NOT have as we move through the 21st century?  How thoroughly can we rework our societies, and not have massive civil unrest, in our search for clean energy?  Not much, I think.  After all the “cosmetic” green stuff is worked through, short of social breakdown or revolution, we will need more energy.  I bet coal supplies a lot of it throughout the world.  Coal can produce electricity, and electricity can replace oil.

Not too pretty, eh?

We are so rational…

March 29, 2009


[January 17, 2010:  I find I am getting a lot of traffic to this site because of the current Senate race in Massachusetts.  I have commented on the issues this raises for me here.]

This is Gerald Amirault, victim of the child care sex abuse hysteria that swept the nation in the 1980s and 90s.  Have you forgotten it?  Did you think that witch hunts were a thing of the past, or a just a sharp metaphorical way of speaking about people who try to suppress dissent?  No.  This was a real witch hunt.  Child care workers were accused of all sorts of bizarre behaviors – animal sacrifice, flying, using children in Satanic rituals, orgiastic sexual abuse in underground caverns – and more.  No evidence was ever found.

Children were made to overcome their initial reluctance to accuse their teachers with the help of experts who led them to “recover” memories.  Judicial norms were set aside in the interest of the children – “Believe the children” was the slogan – and some lives were ruined before it all wound down.  Amirault, was in prison until 2004, steadfastly refusing to confess – “impudence” as one justice put it – although all the other cases led to nothing but blasted lives and wasted money.  The unanimous recommendation that his sentence be commuted in 2000 was rejected by then-governor Swift for political reasons.

How did it happen?

For parents so educated, it was possible to be convinced by social service workers, the prosecutors’ abuse investigators and other counselors that their children had daily suffered unspeakable atrocities–whose effects they themselves simply lacked expertise to see. It became possible to believe that their children had been tortured sexually, been forced to watch animal mutilation and to ingest urine, and been threatened with death for two years–and that the children could continue, nonetheless, to go to the school happily every morning and show no fear of their alleged torturers. Just after the first allegations against Fells Acres became public, the papers were filled with quotes from parents telling of their children’s love of the school and worry that they wouldn’t be able to attend anymore.

We really do have to watch ourselves closely – it is so easy to stumble into primal madness, the insanity of the spooked herd animals.  Refusing to listen to rational contrary arguments and insisting that some tremendous moral issue is at risk if we even consent to doubt for a moment is one thing to avoid.

I like to post now and then about how silly our notions of ourselves are, the comforting thought that we are sensible and reasonable, but reading about this case makes me want to run screaming into the night.

My recollection of these events was stimulated by reading John Demos’ new book, The Enemy Within.  Dorothy Rabinowitz won a Pulitzer for coverage of this case – read about a new book of hers here.