A Mind Meld, A Grok and a Couple of Reactions
September 27, 2013 § Leave a comment
My Lucy’s Football Complaint
In July and August I spent too much time reading, thinking and writing about my country’s policies and activities that were, to me, depressing and shameful. During the Bush-Chaney-Rumsfeld-Yoo years I was angry but not depressed. I was comforted by the hope that their excessively wanton brutality would produce a commensurate degree of righteous reaction that would propel forward the forces of justice and decency.
When Barack Obama was elected I was thrilled. I thought a man of conscience and intelligence would use the ingenious organizing ability that produced his victory to transform the Democratic Party into a political coalition that could dominate American politics for a generation. He took office when the financial power brokers had been brought down by his predecessor. They were coming to Washington, hat in hand, desperate to avoid an implosion.
I assumed , as a student of history, he would recognize that he was in a position similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became President when the policies of Herbert Hoover and the Republicans had capsized the American economy. FDR used that crisis to change the relationship between capitalism and government and to brand Hoover and the Republicans for decades as the enemies of working class Americans.
Instead, Obama used the power of government to pay off the debts that profligate Wall Street bankers had incurred, restore the auto industry, and leave working class Americans without jobs or forced to accept deep pay cuts and menial work to avoid starvation. Far from identifying and branding those responsible for the economic debacle, he made speeches and spoke at press conferences about “looking forward, not dwelling on the past.”
Obama and his team used government generosity to enable Wall Street bankers to recover quickly from the near bankruptcy of their casino. The bonuses and multimillion dollar salaries have climbed to galactic heights. This was done regardless of how politically unpopular it was. No political price was regarded as too high to accomplish this feat.
That attitude was in sharp contrast to the cautious and timid attitude toward other politically difficult projects: Changing labor laws to enable and encourage the resurrection of the labor movement was not even considered – much too difficult- now is not a good time-etc. etc. etc. . Insisting on solving our health care problem by extending Medicare, one of the most popular government programs in the history of the United States, to all. No, that might be branded as socialism – not practical – would never pass in Congress. Well then, if the insurance industry must be left to make useless profits from providing health care, how about a “public option” to place limits on how egregiously they can sabotage the distribution of health care? “Well, we tried that, but couldn’t get enough votes.”
The one political strategy that was never considered: Propose fair and just policies. If they are not adopted, continue to insist on them. Attack those who oppose them. Praise and reward those who support them. Never stop organizing and attacking. Relentlessly target the leaders of the opposition. Name them. Take pains to distinguish them from those who are merely stupid, ambitious or both; they may choose to abandon their opposition, especially if it appears likely to lose.
President Obama is a reasonable person. I think his fatal flaw is his belief that proposing reasonable solutions to problems will win arguments. As a trial lawyer, I shared that belief and, more often than not, I found that juries were more likely to favor the litigant who presented a reasonable argument rather than one who relied on bombast and assaults on the credibility and good faith of the opponent. It didn’t always work, but my average was respectable. I really had no choice. Like Obama, I was never able to sell myself as a shouter, a bully or a fist-shaker.
Political contests, at least those in which I have been actively involved and the ones that have been waged in Washington for the past five years, are wars, not trials. There are few rules and the rules that apply are routinely ignored. The folk description of them is that they are fought by people “down for money, marbles and chalk.” Obama’s obsession about avoiding the stereotype of the “angry black man”, I think, led him to begin negotiations with ruthless and unprincipled demagogues with compromises that, if they were ever appropriate, should have followed, not preceded, a hard fight. I think he brought a knife to a gun fight.
His soaring rhetorical claim that we live, not in blue states and red states, but in the UNITED STATES, was a noble effort to moderate political conflicts. He should have recognized, however, that it did not describe the kind of political viciousness that characterized the political arena of Washington D.C. in 2008 – 2013,
At my age, I am not naive about politicians. No elected official has proved satisfactory to me. Ralph Yarborough came close and my admiration for him more than compensated for every instance when he did such things as sponsoring James Latane “Soapy” Noel, his college room mate, for appointment to a federal judgeship in Houston, who turned out to be an abysmal failure when Houston’s public school integration depended on his judgment. Lyndon Johnson fought every effort to create a viable and dominant liberal Democratic Party in Texas. Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” cleverness spawned the Democratic leadership Council and NAFTA without any protection for the rights of workers, not to mention his enthusiastic embrace of of Wall Street deregulation. My experience with these men taught me, once again, that Democratic Party politicians can do just as much damage as Republican politicians. Even Hubert Humphrey, after a lifetime of dedication to liberal ideals, ran for president wearing LBJ’s Vietnam warbonnet after claiming the nomination in Chicago during a police riot.
So, I have callouses on my backside from running full-tilt toward Lucy’s football during political football games. That’s why Obama was so depressing. I thought we had, at last, elected a steadfast Lucy. Like they say, “There’s no fool like an old fool” Or, as I’ve often said, “like an Old Fart Lawyer.”
The Affordable Care Act
I am hopeful that the ACA will not be a “train wreck”, as predicted by its critics. I am sure the GOP will do everything it can to sabotage it and call attention to every negative aspect of its implementation. The fact that thousands of Americans die each year due to lack of health care makes the stakes too high for betting against it, a mere detail that will have no influence on those who want it to fail. The only human life that concerns them is life in the womb.
Having said that, I believe the ACA is a solution that would have made sense in 1942, but is inappropriate in 2013. When millions of men were withdrawn from the workforce to fight WWII, America was in desperate need of manpower to produce the goods and services vital to the war effort as well as the sustenance of the civilian population. Competition for workers was fierce. Wage levels were frozen. So, employers, primarily industrial employers, began offering health insurance as an inducement to attract and retain workers.
During the New Deal years, as a result of the Wagner Act, many industrial workers were represented by unions. So, a pattern of negotiated arrangements for job benefits was developed. Neither employers nor unions wanted to create machinery for handling and adjusting claims, so a large health insurance industry was created to handle this new demand for health insurance.
If the ACA had been adopted then, it would have been a sensible legislative regulation of these new arrangements. Dramatic changes have occurred since then. Many of those industrial giants no longer exist. The vitality of unions has disappeared in the face of changes in federal law and a failure of the Democratic Party to insist on protection of the rights of workers to organize for collective bargaining. What we now have is a giant insurance industry, regulated lightly by state governments, and employers free to make choices regrading health insurance for their employees, usually free from any significant bargaining through unions. The Employment Retirement Income Security Act, usually designated ERISA, does not require employers to make health insurance available to its employees, It does include some requirements if the employer chooses to do so. It does not, however, prescribe minimum levels of benefits which must be offered.
Another dramatic change occurred when Medicare was created to guarantee health care for those over the age of 65. That law has become a model of government service and is wildly popular. It proved that government can establish and implement a successful program providing health care to a large population, even a population of elderly people whose health care needs are well above those of the general population. Choosing to leave health care in the hands of insurance companies instead of extending an already established model government program was dumb.
Having stated my now-irrelevant bitch, I acknowledge at least two positive developments resulting from the flawed process that produced the ACA. First, the Republican Party has obsessively and enthusiastically branded itself as opposed to the law. That means that, when the law becomes effective, and millions of Americans discover that they have access to health insurance at prices they can afford, they will, perhaps, begin to question their loyalty to Republican politicians who tried to prevent it. I am not sure about this. American voters are notoriously willing to vote for politicians whose policies are harmful to them. This masochistic stupidity is an endemic mental disability linked to American politics.
The second positive result is that Barack Obama has, finally, responded with some degree of anger and moral outrage to the attacks on the ACA . This morning, September 26, 2013, less than a week before the ACA becomes an active program affecting every American, after years of hysterical assaults by the GOP, thousands of hours of lies about the law, and a twenty-hour harangue by a Jackass Senator from (of course) Texas, our President, in a speech to a community college crowd in Maryland, displayed a little bit of outrage and struck back. He didn’t name anybody. He wouldn’t want to spoil the collegiality he enjoys as he works with his “friends across the aisle”. But he did mention that the Republicans have been lying about the ACA. That is a step forward.
Here is my hope: Americans have now been promised health care. The promise has been made by their government. When the insurance industry allows its greed to interfere with providing that health care, the people will demand action from the government. At some point it will become so obvious that even American voters will realize that health care for which government is responsible should be managed and administered by government. The ACA will transition to Medicare. As usual the question is: How much pain will be necessary to energize the electorate to demand it?
A Mind Meld and a Grok
As stated, after reading about the NSA trashing of the 4th Amendment; the secret FISA court and its secret jurisprudence, I was angry and depressed. The consensus seems to have been accepted that, given our modern technology, we are doomed to submit to government’s limitless access to our private lives, all in the name of protecting us from a constantly expanding array of terrorists in a state of boundless and endless martial law.
I followed that investigation by reading Jeremy Scahill’s book describing the government’s “global war on terror” in which the bombing of innocent civilians is accepted as collateral damage. Bypassing the Bill of Rights and assassinating American citizens without warrant, indictment or trial is explained as an acceptable tactic in the GWOT. “Signature strikes”, firing missiles and dropping bombs on people based on the “life pattern” of some in their midst is said to be justified on the basis of the probability that terrorists will be killed.
These revelations about the policies of my President and my country depressed me. After a few days, I tired of thinking about them. One of my favorite bumper stickers states, “Reality is for People Who Can’t Handle Drugs and Alcohol”. I am one of those people, so a bottle of Jack Daniels was not an option.
I remembered that, for most of my life, beginning in Elementary School, I was almost always in the middle of reading a novel. That changed a few years ago and I began reading non-fiction. I decided I needed a break from all this serious stuff. I needed to escape.
Crime and Punishment
In 1997, my mother-in-law, whom I loved and admired, gave me a handsomely bound copy of “Crime and Punishment”, Fyodor Dostoevsky”s psychological novel. It had lain unread on a bookshelf for sixteen years. I chose it to begin my recovery. Dostoevsky was a remarkable person. He was a dissident in the 1850’s. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death. He and two other prisoners were taken to the prison yard, tied to stakes, a firing squad was assembled and the first two of three orders were given to carry out the sentence, when a messenger from the Tsar arrived breathlessly to announce that their death sentences had been commuted to terms of imprisonment in Siberia.
[Spoiler Alert. I assume that most of you have read this classic, so this is probably unnecessary. But, the following paragraphs will disclose the ending of the novel.]
Dostoevsky became a popular writer after surviving that term of imprisonment. “Crime and Punishment” was published in 1861, when our civil war was beginning. The main character, Rodion Roskolnikov, a young penniless lapsed student, uses an axe to kill an old lady who operates an amateur pawn business, as well as her mentally disabled sister who unexpectedly witnesses the murder. The novel describes Roskolnikov’s struggle with his conscience and the fear that ultimately drives him to confess to his crime and accept imprisonment in Siberia. The novel is actually two narratives. One is in Roskolnikov’s head and the other one involves his family, his friends and a number of protagonists in the government’s criminal justice establishment.
The psychology is presented in terms of a philosophical conflict. Roskolnikov initially tries to convince himself that he is a member of an intellectually superior group of people, whose talents entitle them to ignore ordinary rules of conduct applicable to their inferiors. He tries to analyze his crime as the just sacrifice of a couple of worthless women in order to enable him, a person of significant potential, to survive. This hubris is a barrier that prevents him from having an intimate relationship with either his male friends or a young woman, Sonya, who falls in love with him.
The novel, set in St. Petersburg, is an engaging description of a part of Russian society. There are lengthy passages describing Roskolnikov’s thinking, similar to “stream of consciousness” narration, except that it is written in the third person rather than as a transcript of the thoughts going on in Roskolnikov’s head.
Reading the book had its desired effect. For several hours I was in Russia, feeling the cold, tense as the main character edged closer and closer to a resolution of his inner conflict, while a parallel effort was going on as a smart law enforcement official came closer and closer to trapping him.
After his confession and banishment to Siberia, Sonya moves there to be with Roskolnikov. Finally, after several years, he accepts her love, casts aside the heartless intellectualism that kept him aloof and alone, accepts responsibility for the crime he committed and becomes an adult human being.
Lie Down in Darkness
Over fifty years ago, Larry Goodwyn gave me a priceless gift. He told me about William Styron. I read his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness when I was thirty-one or two. As part of my recovery from too much reality, I re-read it. It still blew me away. The astonishing thing about it is that Styron wrote the book in two years at age twenty-two to twenty-three. How he managed to acquire, at that young age, the knowledge and insight to describe, in words carefully crafted and filled with imagery, the musings, dreams and fears of a fifty-year-old woman and her twenty-year-old daughter, is beyond my understanding. I don’t pretend to have that ability, but Styron’s descriptions have the feel of absolute authenticity. As I re-read them, at age 82, having had lots more experience with lots more people of different ages, than Styron had time to have had when he wrote this novel, his descriptions were believable to me.
His writing was compared to Faulkner’s. I don’t know about that. To me, the tenderness and understanding of human fears and weaknesses he describes made me think of Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night . After grabbing me and telling me a long story about death and loss and love and betrayal, Styron ends his novel with a penultimate section, forty-nine pages without a paragraph break, in which he transcribes the thoughts in young Peyton’s head. Unlike Dostoevsky, Styron does not stand aside and write about what Peyton is thinking. Peyton herself lets you into her head and allows you to think with her, feel with her, remember with her.
Grok and Mind Meld
A.E. Heinlen invented the term grok in his novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, a science fiction fantasy based on a Martian who visits Earth. The visitor has the ability to relate to another person by communicating between his own and his or her minds. The process is called groking. It obviously enables a degree of intimacy otherwise impossible to achieve. As I read Crime and Punishment, I realized that Dostoevsky was enabling me to relate to Roskolnikov’s mind,, rather than merely with his actions and statements. It reminded me of Heinlen’s groking.
Styron, on the other hand, took me a step closer than Heinlen. Throughout his novel, and especially in the 49-page internal monologue, he enabled Peyton and I to communicate through a mind meld, a Vulcan ability introduced to Earthlings by Spock, an officer in the Starship Enterprise, commanded by Captain Kirk.
I don’t intend to escape from reality permanently but I have decided to temper my dabbling in reality by vicariously experiencing other people’s lives through the pages of well-written, or just moderately well-written (I’m not very discriminating when it comes to fiction) novels.