Embrace your freedom from partisan political positions and knee jerk responses that the other side must be evil, stupid and almost always wrong (and when they agree with you, always for the wrong reasons). I return to this familiar topic as I watch two candidates, vocally dedicated to non-partisan, non-ideological politics, tread down the familiar paths of running for the presidency, littered with exaggeration, lies and partisanship.
I remind myself to try and enjoy the hypocrisy and that it appears to them that it is not possible to be decent and honest and get anywhere. There is an unspoken rule which successful politicians unfortunately need to internalize. People do not always appreciate your honesty. They appreciate you telling them that what they believe is true is true. Or, as America’s second greatest writer, Mark Twain, wrote “There are people who think that honesty is always the best policy. This is a superstition. There are times when the appearance of it is worth six of it.”
This is somewhat a biographical post, tracing my own political leanings and beliefs as I slowly came to grips with the fact that the political feelings I held dear in my long lost youth were quite often just “feelings” and had nothing to do with reason, and began feeling that before America can change, a break with the partisanship of our forefathers is necessary, among other things.
I imagine that disappointment with both this president and this congress has added to the numbers of self-described independents (some of whom you might describe as a partisan). If you aren’t there yet, take the leap. You will not be alone. What in the world is free speech for if not so that we can form our own beliefs? Didn’t our very forefathers warn us about factions? Well, some did, like Washington. Others like Hamilton and Jefferson were busy creating those factions. Our Republicans and Democrats are the descendants of those very factions, often arguing about the very same issues.
When I discuss my political beliefs in general with someone, I often discuss my beginnings as a liberal. Born in a liberal family (without exception to my knowledge), schooled in New York where conservative views are often hidden, and educated by the New York Times, which I consider by far the best, if editorially liberal, paper in the world, I was as liberal as they come.
In 1980 I was frightened by Reagan’s election and was sure we were headed to war with someone. How could the nation be fooled by such an insincere and obviously unqualified person? Even when he did things I agreed with (big defense budget, challenge communism, fire the FAA strikers) I felt these were the exceptions and was sure that he had nefarious purposes for doing so.
My rise from this partisan stupor (and it could have been conservative) came in the 80s as I watched the world not fall apart because someone I didn’t like was president. At some point I realized that more people agreed with him than me, and I decided to figure out why. When Pat Buchanan’s biography, Right from the Beginning, came out, I read it, because I disagreed with everything he had to say. By the time I finished the book, I no longer hated him although I certainly didn’t agree with him on many issues. I thought he was somewhat bigoted (he actually said, at least in effect, that at least blacks knew where they stood before the civil rights laws – I wonder if he would take that back now) but in nowise as much as I had thought. I also did not find him anti-Semitic as most Jews I knew who were aware of him seemed to believe, because he is not pro-Israeli. I now could see him from his perspective and began to understand him and conservatives better.
As I became more politically conscious, I started to look for arguments behind politics, for the actual reasons people believed as they did. Much of this came from the study of history, which I had enveloped myself in since about ’78. But I had not yet focused on American history and had a lot to learn. I would say that it took about 15 years of reading American history and constitutional law before I felt confident in understanding the historical forces at work and how they have shaped our country’s politics to feel secure in my opinions.
I came to recognize that politics was not all that different from religion. The deep desire of people to believe as others around them believed, particularly people they were close to (or wanted to be close to), like family or a religious group, or just to fit in, was a predominant force. A related function of this was the reluctance of people to get a political education that is only available by reading or listening to what the other side says. My conversion to a moderate and independent did not come immediately. I was still a knee jerk liberal for a few more years, but one who was willing to listen.
Here’s my conclusion. You are all nuts, and so was I. Not wacka wacka nuts, but crazy in the sense of tens of millions of people suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
Of course, it is very hard to identify yourself politically as moderate or independent, and it may be meaningless, because there is no one set of beliefs that people who identify themselves by these names share. I know extreme liberals and conservatives who tell me if they thought anyone who was a liberal (if they were really conservative) or conservative (if they were really liberal) would think they were one too. If the answer was no, then they really couldn’t be independent or non-partisan, could they? I suppose that they were really trying to say was that they felt they were reasonable and fair. Maybe they are, but that is different than being independent.
Sometimes when I am speaking with a liberal or conservative leaning person I start thinking, well, maybe I really am the opposite of what they were because I seem to disagree with him/her on all these points. Then I speak with someone on the other side, disagree with them on a bunch of issues and get back to realizing it’s not me, it’s them (although my older brother would say I am just plain disagreeable).
The truth is, I came to think of myself as moderate or independent based on what other people thought and have no problem with that basis. When they are liberal they think I am conservative, sometimes extremely so (the word “Nazi” is sometimes used, I hope comically). And when they are conservative, they think I am liberal, sometimes extremely so (the word “commie” is often used, I hope comically). Moderate and independent are obviously relative terms.
Recently, being told I was a conservative by a friend and the same day told by was a liberal by a stranger with whom I was talking politics (you have no idea how often this happens), I sat down and, mostly to avoid working, quickly listed 40 to 50 political issues and whether I agreed more with conservatives or liberals on them (or both or neither).
I counted up each side and I really wasn’t surprised when it came out fairly even. It might have been exactly even, I really can’t remember. But, that doesn’t matter much. You can be independent and agree with one side more than the other. The question is, do you actually seek out and try and understand different perspectives? Or do you automatically believe, or give more weight, to the facts on one side and disbelieve or give short shrift to those stated by the other without even examining them.
One great example of this is the recent debate on global warming. I am repeatedly given different sets of absolute facts by conservatives and liberals, who laugh and mock that the other side has it all wrong. Not one of these people can read or understand climate studies (me neither). Not one of them has really tried. Is it amazing that people actually take positions on the weather and climate based on what political party they are in? I would say so. In fact, partisanship is so extreme on this issue that people often lump together three different issues – is the globe warming? – if so, is the warming contributed to by mankind? – either way, is there anything we can (or should) do about it?
If I have convinced anyone to be less partisan and more open to opposing views, I must say, be warned. Being an independent means that you will be the political enemy of extremists on both side, and not just a mere enemy. They will hold you to be a fence sitter (often true of me – heaven forbid we actually think about something for a long time before we make a decision) and decry that as far worse than being someone they completely disagree with.
They don’t really give a reason for this, but I think it is clear. They have to feel this way, because otherwise, their extreme positions and basic unfairness makes no sense. It will be argued that you are actually unprincipled because you are not basing your beliefs on any particular ideology. Nor does being independent mean that you stand on any moral high ground or are right on any given issue.
For whatever it is worth, here is my list of the political positions I hold, leaving out those of which I completely agree or disagree with both sides.
I agree with conservatives that it was ok to go to Iraq (although I never believed the WMD argument) and that we can’t leave precipitously. But, I agree with liberals that we have bungled it horribly, not to mention Afghanistan, and we have to get out as soon as possible. Every one likes to say we are in two wars. If that is true, then we were in a dozen or so wars instead of just fighting in World War II. The truth is, we are presently in an ideological war against Islamic militants wherever they may be. Al Qaeda and their allies understands this much better than our leaders. I differ from both groups in my belief that we should have gone in, got rid of Hussein and his power base, armed the Kurds and gotten out, but stayed in the region to keep others like Iran, from interfering. Cheaper, less costly in American lives and possibly a force which might have lightened the blood shed between Sunni and Shia.
I agree with liberals that habeus corpus (the right to challenge imprisonment) should be sacrosanct for American citizens, even those who may be in ideological opposition to our country, but agree with conservatives that foreign fighters, particularly those who are not fighting for a signatory country to the Geneva Conventions, do not have the same rights; however, I agree with the liberals that they can’t be held forever without any due process rights ever, at least to challenge their status as enemy combatants, especially as we are fighting an ideological war without end. The answer -- well, they are terrorists doesn't wash. How do we know? The first time it actually came to a federal court recently, it was found that the military trial wasn't fair.
I agree with conservatives that the so-called fairness doctrine proposed to be re-established on radio is just unfair and meant to shut down Rush Limbaugh and his imitators. I agree with liberals that obscenity prosecutions that have nothing to do with child porn are morally offensive themselves. I agree with conservatives that the McCain-Feingold law infringes free speech and is unconstitutional.
I agree with the liberals that the civil rights laws were necessary for our country. I agree with conservatives that these laws were in some respects unconstitutional, particularly where they require private businesses to accept people they don’t like, however morally repugnant those people may be (actually, you can’t find anyone in politics with the courage to say that anymore – they’d be crucified in the press and never get elected).
I agree with liberals that the death penalty should be banned, at least in cases where there is not overwhelming evidence (and by that I mean virtual certainty) mostly because juries, or judges, for that matter are not capable of making fair decisions in emotional cases. I agree with conservatives that the argument that the death penalty is unconstitutional by virtue of being cruel and unusual is absurd, especially given that is specifically mentioned in the constitution.
I tend to agree with liberals on most environmental issues (excepting global warming, about which I plead ignorance- and so should you). Clean water and skies makes our lives better in so many ways. It is worth sacrifice.
I agree with conservatives on many tax issues. The “death tax” is unfair – it is a double tax. The “fair” or flat tax is, in fact, more fair than the progressive tax we have, which raises taxes depending on how much money you make. Corporate tax should be abolished, but, obviously, not income or benefits to the employees.
Abortion is tricky and takes some time. Although I actually don’t remember discussing it with anyone when young, there was enough pro-choice influence that I absorbed that by default and I only started to think about it in the 90s. The older I get the more sympathy I have with anti-abortion sentiment. I have totally thrown overboard the argument that since it’s a women’s body, she can do what she likes with the baby. I will give credit to Montana Don for convincing me that there just is not enough difference between a baby attached to a mother by an umbilical cord inside the womb and a baby attached outside the womb a minute later to allow abortion for one and not allow murder for the other (if you are reading this, you are still an idiot). The baby remains as defenseless outside of the body as it was inside the body. From there it is a relative thing. I can’t see much difference either between a fetus with a beating heart and brain and a baby just born.
However, as much as I have eschewed the liberal dogma I learned as a kid, I have great difficulty that ridding the body of a few chemicals is a bad thing and have never got there. Nor do I believe that since the egg and sperm have all the ingredients for the baby, it is the same thing as one.
I have come to a much more fluid concept - the degree to which someone is pro-life or pro-choice is usually consistent with the degree to which they identify that bundle of chemicals or tissues with a baby. Some of that is based on physical knowledge but some religious as well. Those who see a baby when the egg and sperm come together (perhaps they believe a soul attaches at that time) feel any abortion is wrong. Those who see a baby only when they recognize the fetus as something that looks like a baby believe at that point abortion is wrong. And those who don’t identify it as a baby until you can hold it in your hands, often do not have a problem with late term or partial birth abortion.
If I could waive a wand, no abortion after the time the heart is beating and brain is substantially developing – probably around the 5th or 6th week - would be legal with exceptions for the likelihood of real physical damage to the mother. I could be persuaded differently and there is no denial that this is an arbitrary decision. Only slightly more realistically, were I president (stop laughing) I would as a priority submit a bill to congress that partial birth abortion be outlawed with the usual exceptions. It is worth a compromise that would allow some, even if too many, just to stop most of them.
The one argument I have never understood is that abortion is wrong or even murder except in cases of incest and rape. Not that we don’t have sympathy for the victim of rape or incest otherwise, but if you believe abortion is wrong or murder because the being is a life, why terminate that life because of the fault of one or both of the parents. Does that make that life less precious?
I agree with liberals (and I admit I’m wobbly here and might change my mind) that the 2d amendment is linked with service in a state militia. However, I agree with conservatives that ownership of a gun should, as a matter of policy, be a civil right. You only have to picture yourself in your bed when invaders come in and ask yourself would you like to have a gun to protect yourself and more importantly, your family. If you did, would you not use it? I am unpersuaded by the argument that more people get injured or killed by the guns in their homes than the bad guys who invade them. We shouldn’t over-protect to the point of death those who can save themselves because just because others can’t. Virtually all liberals and most but the most extreme on the right agree that some level of regulation is wise.
I have no trouble with the idea of affirmative action that does not punish or take opportunity from those not so privileged. It is just hard to think of an example of it. Until I do, I’m not against it in theory, but am in practice. Moreover, the idea of compensation to blacks for slavery just cannot work. It is absurd, if not in design, then in any possible practice. E.g., why should a low earning second generation Italian immigrant whose parents starved and sacrificed to make it in America should pay taxes for the entitlement of Michael Jordan’s kids. Why should a wealthy black family that comes here from France benefit. How do we prove who was a slave, or whose descendants? If blacks, why not Indians? If Indians, why not Asian? How about the Irish?
I agree with liberals that evolution should be taught in school, but it must be taught as theory (and I think it usually is). Creationism or “intelligent design” does not belong in science class, although it might merit a mention in social studies. The argument that kids need to hear that there is another theory out there is silly – nothing stops motivated parents from telling the kids evolution is wrong at home, if such is their belief. However, there is also nothing wrong with pointing out the actual problems with the theory in school. I consider that just good teaching.
I agree with conservatives that we need to control our border. I agree with liberals that gays have the same right to marry as heterosexual couples and that any argument to the contrary is either religious in nature or word play.
I agree with liberals that there is and needs to be a wall between church and state. But I agree with the little known legal theory of former Justice O’Connor who suggested that some traditional emblems or symbols of government are of such longstanding use (In God we Trust) and do not require anyone to participate in religion as an example that they are harmless and almost akin to secular symbols, if technically a transgression. However, I do not believe that children in school should be pledging “under God” just as I believe that the state has no right to force churches to advise Sunday School classes that there is no proof of God’s existence for educational purposes. Madison, not my favorite forefather, had it right. When you mix religion and government together you not only hurt government, you hurt religion. For those who believe the conservative talking points that Madison believed in mixing church and state because he once voted for a bill which included a pastor for congress, they take on act out of context, and ignore everything else he said.
I agree with conservatives that we need to drill for oil and expand nuclear energy. I agree with liberals that we also need to conserve energy, research alternate sources and find a way to safely discard nuclear waste.
I agree with liberals that there is nothing wrong with fetal stem cell research
I agree with conservatives that the government taking property and compensating the property owner is not constitutional when the property is to be given to another private citizen.
I agree with liberals that reading Miranda rights are a good idea unless the accused is otherwise protected from potential abuse, but do not believe it can be deemed constitutional to require it.
I agree with conservatives that laws against so called hate speech are unconstitutional and more so, a bad idea.
I agree with liberals that torture as a common person would understand it if it was done to them should be absolutely illegal except in the rare ticking bomb situation.
I agree with conservatives that damages in certain areas of the law need to be capped, although I usually think the suggested caps are too low.
I agree with liberals that medical marijuana should be legal and that outlawing it is probably unconstitutional and certainly cruel and silly.
I agree with conservatives that English should be the official language of the United States in terms of schooling, legal and official documents.
I agree with those liberals who believe that we need to decriminalize prostitution.
There are other issues on which I just plead ignorance, or, more accurately, I don’t feel I have enough reliable information to form an opinion. Free trade is an example. It is a great idea in the abstract, but, if it really doesn’t exist, and our trade deficits are some indication that they do not, then what do we hope to achieve by wishful thinking?
But, I just don’t know. Maybe next year.
I have one more issue. Independence Day is also a good day to talk about heroes.
I’ve never thought that much of General Wesley Clark as a politician. Not only was he a bad candidate who soon lost the instant excitement he generated just by being a new face in the ’04 race, but his own reputation came from overseeing perhaps the most one sided war we’ve ever fought since the Mexican-American war in the 1840s – the aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia. Since General Clark was in charge (as Nato’s Supreme Commander for Europe) we give him credit – that’s how we do it. We just bombed them into surrender and I’m not all that sure we needed anybody in charge. Point being, his whole shtick is that he was a general. I suppose it is just impressive that he rose to the rank he did, although I assume the Army is filled with the same politics and unfairness that everything else is.
Now, were he to read this, I’d bet he’s say that it wasn’t fair, that he had a storied career starting with being a West Point valedictorian and a Rhodes Scholar. Maybe so. Maybe he should be called a hero too.
Mostly, I find some of his political opinions ridiculous. Sometime in the past year he came out with the brilliant idea that we should censor political speech that he didn’t like (Rush Limbaugh) by a rating system like they have for tv and movies. Rush is the epitome of a partisan warrior (and his 400 million dollar contract shows that it is so much more popular than the independent position), and, although I often enjoy hearing his positions, within a few minutes the gross onesidedness of his arguments always gets to me. But, censor him? You’ve got to be kidding.
Clark has so little charisma (possibly why he had some political problems in the military) and is so politically obtuse, that I would put up money that even George Bush would win a third term if Clark was his opponent. My point of all this is, should he be out there criticizing John McCain’s credentials?
Yet, after all my tarnishing of this extraordinarily accomplished man's reputation, his comment about John McCain the other day sounded perfectly fair to me. He’s right. It is true that being shot down and made a prisoner of war doesn’t make you a good president. It was McCain’s reaction that was overstated. He suggested that Obama should drop the general from his campaign. I doubt he was complaining that Clark also said that McCain was a hero to him. This whole - get rid of anyone who says anything controversial routine - is old. Obama said he thought that the people of Ohio wouldn’t be losing sleep over it. Point Obama.
Not that Obama’s campaign and supporters aren’t just as ridiculous in its attacks on him too. If I hear one more time that McCain wants us to stay in Iraq forever I don't know what I will do. But, Obama is better than McCain in defusing controversy, just as he was better at it than Clinton. McCain should figure this out and try doubly hard to steer the issue to policy grounds.
What is it with the captured soldier or shot down pilot = war hero routine, anyway? Nowadays, everyone who sees combat is deemed a hero. Don’t get me wrong. They are entitled to some respect for that service and I am glad we have GI bills and that they get medical care (such as it is) and the like. But, they are not all heroes, unless we just agree to water it down to the level of pre-school sports where everyone gets an award. It's like the evil Syndrome said in The Incredibles: "If everybody is special, then nobody is."
But that doesn’t mean McCain in particular wasn’t heroic in his captivity and didn't show us something of his character that might make him a great president. He was held for 5 ½ years and repeatedly tortured, at one point to the degree that he agreed to make an anti-American statement to stop the pain, something which obviously caused him great emotional pain. But he was tortured more when he resisted making similar statements in the future. It is apparently true that he refused early release ahead of those captured before him because he knew the Vietnamese would use it as a propaganda tool in that his father was an important Admiral. He was already severely injured when his plain crashed and was left untreated for a long time. He has gone through the rest of his life unable to lift his arms above his head and was severely crippled when in jail by a botched operation. He dropped to under a hundred pounds and had to be restrained from killing himself.
I dare anyone but the sickest partisan from reading an account of what he went through without becoming emotionally upset and filled with admiration that he survived. You have no idea until you do. It surprised me and I already liked him.
Now, maybe that doesn’t mean you will be a good commander-in-chief, but reading about those 5 ½ years tells enough about his character that I think him three times the man Clark is for all of his accomplishments. Although McCain has other qualities that make me feel (hope) he would be a good president even if he were a model plane enthusiast instead of a pilot, I’d take him over Clark even if the General had seven stars.
You know who really upset me with his criticism of McCain? Obama partisan and former presidential candidate, John Kerry, who managed to lose to George Bush on his second term, and that wasn’t easy (he is in a select circle of bad presidential candidates Dukakis, Dole, Quayle, Lieberman and Kemp). Kerry said that McCain sounded “confused” when he was talking about Iraq, obviously implying that age has affected his mind.
Now, forget for a second that the much younger Obama has made much worse factual gaffes than McCain (see last month’s update). That’s not what bothers me. McCain bravely took political hits from his own party in the ’04 by showing his respect for his friend, Kerry, even saying he would be a good president, when almost everyone else in his party was making fun of him. I would have had no problem with Kerry saying he disagrees with almost everything McCain stands for, but the cheap shot was really despicable.
So, situation normal in D.C. A capacity for hypocrisy and disloyalty are requirements for office. Of course, Kerry will keep getting elected in Massachusetts no matter what he says. I may regret voting for Bush in ’04, but I am not sorry I didn’t vote for John Kerry. If McCain gets elected, he is going to have to get a thicker skin (he could take a lesson from Bush in that department).
By the way, wasn’t it Clark who had to apologize in ’04 when he criticized Kerry while running against him by saying that he was only a lieutenant and not a general? Why, yes it was.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .