The Party is Over

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses (Juvenal, c100 CE: Satire 10.77-81)

A public that pays more attention to reality TV than its status as free citizens cannot withstand an unremitting encroachment on its liberties by calculating, unscrupulous and power-hungry leaders (Mike Lofgren, The Party is Over, 2012 CE)

The party is over

I haven’t even finished reading this book yet, and I may well have more to say about it later.  It is packed with sharp, pithily expressed and extremely scary observations about the break-down of the American political system and its corruption by corporate money.  A Republican who worked as a staffer in Congress for nearly 30 years, Lofgren is pretty scathing about the Democrats, but his most bitter attacks (at least so far) are directed against his own party which he describes as becoming less and less like a political party and more like ‘an apocalyptic cult’.

What he really exposes is a kind of doublespeak in which strident claims to be defending something – the constitution, liberty, democracy, the national interest- are used to conceal attacks on that same object.  ‘Let us now dispose,’ Lofgren writes, for instance, ‘ of the quaint notion that the present-day Republican Party is conservative.’   He defines the GOP, as it now exists, as a ‘radical right-wing party’, which doesn’t really conserve and protect anything, for all that it invokes the memory of a romanticised past, but seeks to completely transform society in the interests of the very wealthy* using whatever means possible and with a kind of Leninist ruthlessness.

The American political system works in a very different way from the British one, but there is much here that is familiar to a British reader all the same.  For instance:

The GOP reflexively scorns so-called elites (by which it means educated, critical thinkers) to mask the way it is utterly beholden to the true American elite.

I am particularly struck by Lofgren’s observation that the current Republican Party deliberately seeks to undermine the credibility of government itself:

Should Republicans succeed in preventing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. In such a scenario the party that presents itself as programmatically against government – i.e., the Republican Party – will come out the relative winner.

Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy.

A UK parallel is the relentless attack on the quality of public services, which is always ostensibly in the name of making them better, but which in fact reduces the standing of the services themselves.   But we also have a culture of cynicism about politicians and government in general, and I’ve long thought that (for instance) leftish comedians should be more aware of whose interests such routine and unfocused cynicism actually serves.

*Interesting fact: according to Lofgren under Eisenhower’s Republican presidency in the 50s, the top rate of income tax in the US was 91%.  Even the new leadership of the British Labour Party, characterised by many as unelectably left-wing, only proposes a top rate of 50%.

Freedom is slavery

Politics is a rough business everywhere but, from this side of the Atlantic, the tone of political discourse in the US can sometimes look particularly ugly.  One of the worst examples I’ve ever seen, was the suggestion by Senator Rand Paul that a right to free health care is equivalent to a belief in slavery.  The quote in question was the following:

 With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.

Basically, once you imply a belief in a right to someone’s services — do you have a right to plumbing? Do you have a right to water? Do you have right to food? — you’re basically saying you believe in slavery.

I’m a physician in your community and you say you have a right to health care. You have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free health care would be.

(If you think this must be some crude spoof, by the way, here is a clip of him saying it.)

By way of information to US readers, we have a free National Health Service here in the UK, meaning that everyone has a right to healthcare, and my mother and my maternal grandfather both worked for it as doctors.  They were not forced to be doctors, and they were not forced as doctors to work for the state. They were paid well enough to lead prosperous middle class lifestyle.  They were free to resign whenever they wanted.  They could go and work for private healthcare agencies, if they prefered, or for themselves.   There’s absolutely no sense at all in which their condition could be described as slavery, or indeed as different in any fundamental way to the condition of anyone else who works for an organisation of any kind.  When you think what slavery actually means (and the Senator represents the former slave state of Kentucky, so he should know), the very comparison is obscene.

You might say that US politics is not my business.  But actually it is because the US is a global superpower, and what happens in the US matters everywhere, and perhaps especially in the UK, where there is a common cultural heritage, and no language barrier to filter us from its blast. However I freely admit I know very little about the personalities involved, and almost nothing about Senator Paul.  So here are a couple of questions.

Is Senator Paul an extremely stupid man, so lacking in curiosity that he hasn’t bothered to look into the many free health services around the world, and so lacking in imagination that he can’t figure out for himself how such a service might work without breaking down doctors’ doors?

Or is he cynical and mendacious man, who in order to serve his own political ends, tries to besmirch something that, whatever its snags, is basically benign (a community agreeing to club together to provide healthcare for everyone) by equating it with something that is evil and foul?

Echoing in the back of my mind are the slogans of George Orwell’s Oceania: WAR IS PEACE.  FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.  IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.  Not an exact parallel of course, but what Orwell was warning about was the misuse of language to destroy our capacity to think.

A rigged game

monopolyIn my other life (I work part-time as a lecturer), I’ve sometimes used a rigged monopoly game – a game where one person starts off with, say, ten times as much money as the other, as a way of representing the unfairness of life.  I used it in a text book too.   The point I wanted to make was  not only that life is unfair, but that it is so unfair that, if it was a game, most of us would refuse to play.

I only recently found out (thanks to Thure Etzold) that a rigged monopology game has actually been used as the basis of a psychological experiment to explore the effect of wealth on human behaviour.  Paul Piff observed games of monopoly between pairs of players, randomly assigned to advantaged and disadvantated positions.   Even though they knew the game was rigged to make it virtually certain that they would win, advantaged players would start to act in a more arrogant way towards their adversary.  If we are doing better than another person, the experiment seems to suggest, we start to feel superior to them, even if our rational head knows that our success is none of our doing.  Financial success means status, and status means we can push other people around.

This is consistent with other studies by Piff in which he found that, for instance, expensive cars are less likely to stop at pedestrian crossings than cheaper ones, and that better-off people in psychological experiments are more likely than poorer ones to help themselves to sweets that they have been specifically told are there to give to children in another study.   If you haven’t come across this work, there’s a PBS video here, and an article here.

A ridiculous comparison

When Michael Gove, The Education Secretary, states his ambition to make state schools indistinguishable from private ones, he is of course saying that they’re not as good.   Politicians sometimes say some fatuous things, but this pretty much hits the jackpot.

What he’s doing in fact is pointing at the teachers who take on the harder job and unfavourably comparing them with the teachers who have it easy.  It’s as if someone set up a hospital which only ever admitted patients who had an excellent chance of recovery, and its higher recovery rates were then held up as evidence that other hospitals were failing.

I went to private schools.  I got good A levels.  My kids went to state schools.  They got good A levels too.  I dare say my old school gets better overall results than their school , but so it bloody well should, seeing as it has an admission process that allows it to pick and choose which pupils it takes, and, except for a few exceptionally able kids who win scholarships, it can only take pupils anyway from the kinds of family who can pay.

I do worry about young Michael’s thinking skills.