Saturday, July 30, 2011

how pig wrestling has led to the worship of jackals

Long ago, I was a divorce lawyer.  During those five years I learned some of the most important things I know about people and the way we function--what we are wiling to do-- when we are laboring under the control of our anger, fear, pain and desperation.  Most divorces end without turning into full blown wars, but all are on the same  continuum.  The closest I ever saw to an "amicable divorce" was one in which both parties actually took  ten full paces before they turned and fired.  Some day I may write a book, but there's one aspect of this dynamic of conflict I want to write about at the moment because it is relevant to what has become of American politics.

In a divorce there is no referee until, and unless, the case gets to court.  The law doesn't really care, in the end, about the things many people care the most about--proving that their soon-to-be ex-spouses are bad, bad human beings.  All that means that people are free to say pretty much anything they want to say about these soon-to-be ex-spouses until one is front of the judge.  Some of them are devastated that, at this point, Her/His Honor tells them to put a sock in it.

All people going through a divorce develop a narrative.  It is probably a psychological necessity for one's self esteem and for how one thinks one's friends, family and even children view them.  The more hurt and threatened (or guilty) one is feeling the more extreme the narrative becomes. 

One of the ways some people deal with a narrative of their soon-to-be ex-spouse that threatens their own sense of being in the right (or deal with their own guilt)  is called "parrot-ing."  It's simple, really.  If one is accused of something by one's soon-to-be ex-spouse then one will turn around and accuse that soon-to-be ex-spouse of being the one who is actually doing that.   The accuser becomes the accused, the victim becomes the perpetrator.

"Me? You're the one who ... "

Most often this is done cynically, to confound the accuser, to deflect blame, to prolong and escalate the frustration of the victim.  It also inflates their attorney fees if the victims allow themselves to get caught up in it (or their lawyers encourage them to do so).  The idea is to keep the conflict alive and punish, punish, punish the victim.  Interestingly, this was most common in my cases where the "parrot," and not the victim, had initiated the divorce. 

Having seen parrot-ing time and again in my cases I began to warn my new clients about it (along with other predictable horse-play).   When they would call me later and tell me, for example, that their soon-to-be ex-husband was bringing the children home late from weekend visits and not returning their clothing with them, I reminded them of my warning and predicted that if we complained about it I might well soon receive a call from his lawyer accusing my client of being the one really causing the problem.  Time and again any harassment my client suffered would, in the end, bring about the counter-claim that she was the perpetrator and that he was the victim. 

I advised my clients to ignore it and concentrate on the legal issues--which except in the most rare cases have nothing to do with "fault" on anyone's part.  Proving one is the victim and not the perpetrator (of stuff going on now or things that happened years ago) has nothing to do with the outcome of most cases.  Unfortunately, at such a fragile time in one's life, not many of us are able to ignore malicious harassment.  In the midst of divorce one is even more than usually concerned about  how one is viewed by others, especially one's friends and family. 

Never wrestle with a pig, I used to advise, you'll both get dirty and the pig likes it.

Last night I heard John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, accuse the President and the Democrats of being "unable to say yes" to a deal on raising the debt ceiling.   He went on to say that he stuck his "neck out a mile" to try to make a deal, that he even put "revenues" on the table but the President refused to take a deal that gave the Democrats everything they said they wanted but that Mr. Obama refused to take the deal.  Mr. Obama just wanted to make this all a political issue.

I remembered Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor claiming time and again throughout this passion-play that "the American people" were on their side when, in fact, polls show that the majority of the American people support a balance of revenue increases and spending cuts to reduce the deficit.   I also remember Senator McConnel repeating, several times over the past 18 months or so, that the primary concern of the Republicans in Congress was to make sure President Obama was a one term president.

As I thought about this I realized that the Republicans are parrot-ing the President and the Democrats.

I don't say that the Democrats' or the President's point of view on this is necessarily correct.  I am only looking at the way that the game is being played.  The fact is that after years of hearing the Democrats call the Republicans "the party of no" the Republicans now call the Democrats the same thing--and "prove it" by saying that they did what the President actually did, and that the President did what they actually did.   Whether it's best to try to lower the deficit by cutting spending alone, or lower the deficit with a balance of spending cuts and raising taxes, my point is simply how the parties tried to prevail--and the Republicans parrot-ed and are parrot-ing. 

This is different in politics than in divorce because, as I say, in a divorce none of this stuff matters.  In politics, though, this is huge, because as this goes on one of two things happens in the minds of the American people.   Those in each "base"  will believe that their champions are the victims and the other side is perpetrator.   On the other hand, those who are not part of either base become more alienated from all this pig wrestling and less inclined to participate in this dirty process and less inclined to believe that the government can do anything right.

(You can readily identify those in either base, by the way.  They are the ones saying that they have been victimized by the other side's dirty tactics and therefore they are ready to escalate the dirty tactics to get even or even the odds.  You can also recognize those who are not part of either base.  They are the ones saying "a plague on both their houses.")

Which side do we suppose benefits from this hardening escalation that sends those in the middle to the sidelines?   Which party wins when voter turn out exceeds normal levels?  Which party wins when people stay home?  Look it up.

So the cynical point of view that drives awarding the Lily, here, has to give it to the Republicans, but must add an honorable mention to all of us.   The refusal of Republicans to compromise--to recognize that the Democrats also represent real people in this country who deserve to have outcomes shaped by their interests (how the Constitution is designed to work)--is probably going to have an impact on how Democrats in Congress function in the future.  There is, in fact, a narrative that argues with some justification claiming that the D's actually started this by freezing out the R's in the past.  

The R's may win in 2012 but there will be still be D's in Congress.  Will they insist on 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate?  Will they put secret holds on the Republican president's nominees or on bills they don't like?  And if they do, what will it look like the next time the R's ride into power?  An eye, it is written, for an eye until the whole world is blind.

The ante will just keep going up and up--and so does the gridlock, along with the amount of wealth concentrated in the top 2% of the population.  A co-incidence? 

This means Americans will continue to turn off to politics making H.L. Mencken's assessment more and more accurate:  American politics is the worship of jackals by jack asses.

It also means that the quotation attributed to Benjamin Franklin--"We have given you a republic, if you can keep it"--is looking less like the warning it was meant to be and more like an indictment. 

Just saying ....

Friday, July 01, 2011

So, what do we do, then?

In a Facebook exchange about mandating the saying the pledge of allegiance--which I think would not be helpful in any way--I was asked what I would suggest to help to unify the country.  I answered (more or less) as follows:

At this point in our history our political narratives make national unity impossible.

Both of our major contemporary factions (remember how the Founders warned about the evils of factions?), both R and D bases/factions, believe that there is no living with the other. You see it on this Facebook page and every where else--if one side is for something the other is automatically against it. People on the "other side" are not only wrong--they are evil. People will even change their minds about issues just to stay on the other side from their "enemies." 

I have lots of ideas about getting out of this situation--none of them original with me or novel or practical, given the thickness of the tar in which we are stuck. 

First and foremost would be to remember what we learned in civics at Washington Elementary, Hedrick Junior and Medford Senior High School (class of 66) --that the hallmark of the American political system was compromise. That's what our Constitutional structure (separation of powers) requires in order to work. No compromise and there can only be...well, look at your compromise means gridlock. 

The Founders were mutually suspicious of one another (you can look that up; e.g., big states and small states) and set up a system to balance interests--not to give one sway over the others. They understood (as we have forgotten) that anyone who gets too much power (government or economic) would cause problems for the general welfare (for everyone else). 

Now it's all about pushing other people away from the table and expecting them to starve quietly while those remaining consume the share of those excluded as well as their own. It's about forgetting how we are all a part of a system that depends on everyone doing well enough to want to stay in the game. If we don't get back to that kind of understanding that we are all in this together and we can't succeed without each other then ...  we are toast. 

Regardless, requiring schools to display flags in every classroom and students to say the pledge of allegiance is not going to create some kind of a unified national identity. That wasn't what created the degree of unity we had in the fifties, the one that started to come apart in the sixties and is now completely unraveled. Sure, we said the pledge, then, but saying it wasn't what created our national consensus. 

Far too many of us, even those who recite the pledge and stand for the national anthem at ball games, these days, don't really believe that the United States is about liberty and justice for all. Far too many of us think that we are being taken advantage of by some "special interest." No amount of reciting a pledge of allegiance is going to change the fact that way too many of us--rich or poor--think we don't get the share of the pie we deserve and that the only way we will get it is to identify who stole it from us and take it back--at gunpoint (or with the flourish of a pen) if necessary. 

I don't know if that's the kind of thing you wanted to hear from me, Cyndi, but it's what I can say.

I am the most cynical person you'll ever meet and, at the same time, the most optimistic.  I never underestimate and can thus try to account for the depravity in my own heart, and in the hearts of everyone else. That's something else the Founders understood (reading what they wrote instead of what others write about them increases one's understanding of where they were coming from)--they understood human nature and what we were all up against trying to create republic on the principle of self government given what a sinful lot we actually are. 

Do any of the ideologies you hear out there today really describe how things actually happen in this world? Really? or do they all just describe utopias, things that those who believe in them think SHOULD be reality, what they want reality to be--to suit them and people like them?

"Darn," said one economist (or politician, or one of anything else any one of us is) to another.   "According to my map we are on top of that hill over there." In saying that he was more honest than most of the ideologues who are driving our narratives--and driving us apart--today.