Thursday, February 12, 2004

Fighting demons; the twisted role of the political shaman

Mark Dorroh

One of the silliest aspects of election rhetoric is the oft-repeated promise that candidates, if elected, will "fight" for us. Elected officials who spend all their time fighting are not what I want. What I want from my leaders is competent governance.

Unfortunately, it's not particularly exciting to declare, in a stump speech, "I'm going to Washington and competently govern for you!" Such a declaration would be truthful, even refreshing, but a guaranteed applause line it's not.

As anyone who has spent time observing career politicians knows, fighters seldom accomplish much beyond making inflammatory headlines. The leaders who get useful things done are the pragmatic idealists, driven by core beliefs but also aware that in a policy debate, neither side can (or should) get 100 percent of what it wants. Today's fighting politicians and their blinkered constituencies tend to ignore principles of rational discourse, instead wallowing in visceral reactions to real or perceived injustice. They burn with an outraged sense of entitlement and are contemptuous of mutually-respectful dialogue.

Combative, ultra partisan politicians feed upon the arrogant assumption, cherished by too many voters, that the folks on the other side of the issue have nothing of value to contribute to the discussion, so we must fight them, triumph over them and leave the field of battle with trumpets playing and ideologues braying.

Fighting, as a method of governance, is also distressingly devoid of ethical considerations. Fighters substitute rage for reason; their means of debate are the expression of righteous indignation, not compelling argument. Thus, "fighting politicians" have become the shamans of modern republican democaracy.

Shamans - the witch doctors indigenous to all primitive cultures - fight demons while currying favor with friendly spirits. A shaman whose tribe is in trouble has two basic missions: he must first identify the demon who is the source of the trouble, then engage it in battle and, hopefully, carry the day. He may enlist friendly spirits to assist him, but his first job is to name the demon.

The role of the shaman is so pervasive in human history precisely because primitive people don't understand that bad things happen to good people because reality is indifferent to the welfare of any single organism, even when that organism is one's own precious, irreplaceable self. When the rain doesn't fall and the crops wither, the primitive mind assumes the tribe has either lost favor with its gods or has engaged the attention of malignant spirits. That's when the shaman earns his bread and butter by naming and fighting the evil spirit or spirits who are to blame.

Modern shamans have modern demons to name and fight. Today's widespread and largely unchallenged belief that "special interests" are at the root of all evil in America is one prime example of the modern demon. Special interests have become the all-purpose scapegoat of contemporary American politics.

Special interests are (if the conventional wisdom of the doctrinaire Left and Right can be believed) out to rip you off, ship your sons and daughters off to be slaughtered in unjust wars, marginalize public expression of your religious beliefs, make every nation on earth hate America, discriminate against you and yours, murder your "pre-born" babies, export your jobs to other countries, destroy the institution of holy matrimony, poison your environment, impoverish your grandparents and entice your children into a life of vice and degradation.

So what is a special interest, and what makes it so scary? Upon closer investigation, we discover that all a "special interest" actually amounts to is a group of people with shared beliefs and/or means of earning a living who hire a spokesman to tell our leaders what effects new laws, regulations or tax code changes will have on them. The politicians I've talked to over the years say they use lobbyists primarily as a source of free research. The officeholder called to vote on a tricky and complex bill first acquires a position paper from the lobbyist of each interested group of citizens, then makes up his/her mind based on all available information - plus the values and principles he/she articulated to get elected in the first place.

This seems, at least to me, to hardly to qualify as anything approaching an intrinsically evil process.

The real problem with special interests is not fundamental to that process. Rather, the real problem occurs when government alters its mission from enforcing reasonable laws to legislating personal morality and/or redistributing honestly-earned wealth.

A government which has embraced those dubious missions is a government which will regularly be manipulated by the angriest minority or the most ruthless majority. That's when special interests morph from their role as rational adviser/advocates into smug, self-righteous petitioners seeking to use the power of government to bully fellow citizens into their version of utopia.

If we, the voters, would all get together and conspire to exclude government from the business of taking wealth from Citizen Group A and handing it over to Citizen Group B, or of trying to dictate matters of personal conscience (especially in regard to religious belief systems and human sexuality), the scary special interest groups would instantly lose their evil aspects and be blessedly returned to performance of their original missions; providing our leaders with vital, advocacy-based information.

Let's implore our politicians to give up their shaman's robes and masks, quit trying to name the demons and return government to the carefully limited role the Framers envisioned. Or, to put it another way, the next time a candidate promises to go to the halls of power and "fight for you," run, do not walk, to the ballot box and vote for his/her opponent, no matter what flavor of idology he/she may espouse. Do this often enough, and our twisted political shamans will finally begin to comprehend that what we want is not serial ideological dustups, but rather competent governance.

Then and only then will America be able to leave the "fighting" to our excellent professional military.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Sex, lies, video tape, "Nunn's Nickel" and weapons of mass destruction

Mark Dorroh

Arms Inspector David Kay has spent the past week talking about his search for WMD in Iraq, but only selected portions of his remarks are being repeatedly cited in most news reports. Kay's belief that Saddam probably didn't have stockpiles of WMD immediately prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom is something one reads and hears often. Also mentioned frequently is Kay's belief that was a failure among U.S. intelligence agencies and the information they gave President Bush.

What doesn't get mentioned nearly so often is Kay's assertion that his post-war inspections have uncovered plenty of evidence that Saddam had WMD-related projects in the works and possessed a number of missiles with ranges in excess of Desert Storm armistice/Security Council resolution limitations.

The WMD research-and-development projects and illegal missiles are significant because, according to the language of Resolution 1441, Saddam had an obligation to report them (which he failed to do) and allow unfettered access to their sites (which he also failed to do). Violation of either of those provisions of 1441 was enough to trigger serious consequences for noncompliance, up to and including armed intervention.

Also, many news reports ignore the fact that Kay has repeatedly said it wasn't just American intelligence that miscalculated the presence of Saddam's WMD stockpiles. While the Russians were publicly skeptical on the matter, they were nearly alone in their skepticism. Intelligence services of the French, the Germans and the Brits all thought the same thing as President Bush: that Iraqis probably had WMD stockpiles. The argument preceding the invasion wasn't over whether or not Iraq had them, it was over what should be done about it, another factoid seriously underreported by the media.

Heavy (and heavy-handed) media emphasis on selected portions of Kay's remarks reminds one of the way in which the infamous Rodney King beating was handled by American media. We all saw, dozens of times, the portion of the videotape in which the helpless King lay on the ground as deputies wailed away on his prostrate form with truncheons. What I saw exactly once on television was the portion of the tape in which the six-foot-something, 230-pound Rodney King lunges at a deputy, nearly knocking him down.

Apparently, network news editors didn't think that part of the tape was as sexy (or as useful for ratings) as the helpless-on-the-ground video images. That left many with the impression that the beating was utterly arbitrary and unprovoked. And while King's actions did not justify the savagery of his beating, the underreported lunge was essentially censored by members of the 4th Estate whose professional and ethical obligation is to tell the whole truth, not just the bloody, exciting bits that make police look like monsters and criminals look like victims (lest we forget, King's extreme drunkenness behind the wheel initiated a police chase with speeds approaching 100 mph, and King was so loaded when they finally apprehended him, the cops thought he was dusted on animal tranquilizer).

Another interesting feature of the reporting done on Kay's WMD conclusions is the criterion by which reflexive Bush-bashers define a "lie." By any reasonable standard, relying on (nearly everyone's) flawed intelligence - intelligence which assumes the worst of someone with a history as bloodstained as Saddam's - does not rise to the definition of a lie.

On the other hand, a few years back, chronic Clinton-bashers did in fact catch a president in a lie when he testified that he'd not done what DNA evidence later proved he had.

Unlike George W. Bush, William J. Clinton was not relying on anyone else's flawed intelligence. He knew the truth, and chose not to tell it.

Yet many who defended Clinton then accuse Bush of lying now. And the classic Clinton defense, that the flawed testimony was all "just about sex" ignores the fact that, no matter what the underlying issue, the president intentionally lied about it in a deposition to a federal court investigating an alleged civil rights violation.

Compared to accepting possibly flawed intelligence - with which three out of four major national intelligence services agreed at the time - the chant, "Bush lied, people died" becomes a curiously empty and misguided mantra … sort of like that of the sheep in Animal Farm who would lie around in the pasture for hours, chanting "Four legs good! Two legs bad!" ad infinitum.

It should be noted at this point that Eric Arthur Blair, a former socialist who saw the light after serial depredations of human rights and dignity at the hands of his coreligionists in the 1930s, darn well knew the definition of a lie … and of an empty chant as well.

In a larger sense, our treatment of presidents Clinton and Bush shows how crazy we can get when we allow gut reactions to influence our higher-order mental processes. Even when Clinton did things Republicans loved (his support for meaningful welfare reform, NAFTA, GATT) many choked on giving credit of any sort to "Slick Willie." Similarly, "Cowboy George" gets precious little credit from the other side of the aisle for his support of No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug benefit program.

Partisanship can get ugly, and seldom respects the truth. That was sadly illustrated by this week's funeral, in Kentucky, of former Governor Louie B. Nunn. I lived in Kentucky when Nunn won the race for governor in 1967. If memory serves, it was about a week after the vote was certified that the lame-duck, 100-year-old, opposition party administration announced a state budget shortfall of something in excess of $10 million. The week before Nunn took office, there was a second audit that put the total deficit at $20 million. When Nunn took office and did his own audit, the deficit turned out to be more like $24 million. A hundred-year reign of any single political party (in the case of Kentucky in 1967, the Democrats) will nealy always engender such monkey business … as will a 12-year reign, as Republicans in Congress are so busy proving in 2006.

Faced with the prospect of, among other things, being forced to throw mentally retarded adults out of state homes for lack of budgetary ability to continue caring for them, Nunn supported a two-cent increase in the existing three percent sales tax. It came to be known, in the bumper-sticker wisdom of the day, as "Nunn's Nickel."

So, just for grins, let's review the circumstances behind the promulgation of the "Nunn's Nickel" sales tax hike.

Former one-party administrations caused the deficit that made the tax increase necessary; 3/5 of the final "Nunn's Nickel" state sales tax existed long before Nunn ever even ran for office; a legislature controlled by the loyal opposition approved the two-cent increase.

But Louie Nunn, because of "Nunn's Nickel," never won another election. Once again, the hoary and cynical adage that "in the Real World, no good deed goes unpunished" has been certified Q.E.D.

The common denominator in these stories is that perception does not equal reality. Lamentably, truth becomes a dispensable luxury when partisan rhetoric and editorial agendas taint the delivery of information to the public.

We'd do well to remember those sorry facts when trying to wring the truth from stories about sex, lies and weapons of mass destruction.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Constitutionality, lifestyle choices and the sex police

Mark Dorroh

I've discovered doctrinaire liberals believe two things:

1. Most people aren't very smart, and

2. They, the clever liberals, must make certain decisions for us, lest we injure society through our stupidity.

That's the main reason the average American worker pays out in taxes 40 cents of each dollar earned. The assumption is that we would not make wise choices on how to spend our money, so the government has to do it for us.

But before we condemn liberals too harshly, we must recognize the unfortunate fact that these days, many supposed conservatives are every bit as willing to use the power of government to tell citizens what to do with their property, up to and including their own bodies. Since one's body is one's most fundamental possession, anyone who believes in property rights must find such strictures offensive. It's bad enough to be told what you must do with nearly half your income, how much more ridiculous and wrong is it to be told what you may not do with 100 percent of your own body?

Court decisions decriminalizing sexual activity between consenting adults have been derided as "judicial activism," but they're really just recognition of the fact that government has never possessed any Constitutionally-derived power to regulate what goes on between consenting adults behind closed doors. The reason the rulings are happening now is, legal awareness is finally catching up with the outrage of gay and lesbian citizens, who are justly sick of government usurpation of unwarranted control over their private lives.

There are those who say the court rulings open the door to legal child molestation, bestiality and incest. But anyone who claims they can't see the difference between adults having sex with each other and adults preying on children, animals or their own siblings is being deliberately obtuse.

Children are not mature enough to make decisions about with whom they will engage in sexual activity: They are also not old enough to sign binding contracts or vote, so a clear precedent is established in regard to what adults can and cannot do with kids.

Bestiality violates laws against cruelty to animals.

And a quick study of the egregious genetic mistakes birthed in the final generations in ancient Egyptian royal dynasties will make evident the biological necessity of leaving in place our laws against incest.

There are no such reality-based reasons to forbid homosexual or lesbian romance, or even marriage. If the members of a given church decide they want to honor marriages between same-sex partners, isn't their right to do so protected by First Amendment guarantees against government interference with free exercise of religion?

Yeah, I know, Mormons had to give up polygamy before Utah could join the Union, but there have been precious few polygamous, polyandrous, homosexual or lesbian unions that have done anything like the damage to society as that done by one man/one woman couples having out-of-wedlock babies.

Letting government remain in the business of prohibiting homosexual and lesbian behavior makes about as much less sense as the welfare state practice of paying heterosexual parents to sit home, unemployed, having baby after baby for us to support. Charity should be voluntary, neither mandated nor prohibited by government. So should love, sex and marriage.

Finally, there's a fairness issue here. It flies in the face of everything we know about human nature to think sexual orientation could be the result of a "lifestyle choice." Ask a gay guy when he first became aware of his proclivities; he'll tell you between the ages of about eight and eighteen. The same thing goes for his lesbian gal pal. And honestly, can anyone make a lifestyle choice at that age? Even if they could, kids and adolescents are notorious conformists, wanting nothing more than to be exactly like all their friends. The last thing one of them would ever choose to do would be to act different in such a basic and despised way.

No, our gay and lesbian fellow citizens are that way because that's how God made them. And unlike some folks who apparently know more than I do, I don't make a habit of criticizing God's work.

On the other hand, if you're put off by freakshow gay pride parades, welcome to the club. They are held mostly to freak out the straights … and they'll disappear when the straight community quits being freaked out by them.

All this yadda-yadda will eventually sort itself out, as the elder generation dies off and is replaced with people who have had openly gay and lesbian family members and friends for years. Their parents (and grandparents) knew plenty of gay and lesbian people too, but in the old days, they used to stay in the closet, if possible, their entire lives. Strangely, this was regarded as honorable. It was also terribly dishonest.

Traditional American values are and always have been those of honesty and forthrightness, not the furtive hiding of one's genuine nature to satisfy someone else's expectations. The only thing these anti-gay bashing rulings of federal and state courts have recognized is the fact that our Constitution does not now and never has had provisions for sex police.

Mandates, pledges and honesty in government

Mark Dorroh

Prince George County District 2 Supervisor Henry Parker wants localities to consider just saying "no" to partially-funded federal and state mandates. "Just tell them we're not going to fund them," he said recently. "Look at all the good things our minority citizens have achieved that way."

Parker's right. Nonviolent resistance has a proud and successful history in the American civil rights struggle. Could it be used to put an end to this sorry game of Pin-The-Costs-On-The-Locality?

Of course, as Parker is well aware, unless nearly every city and county in the country participated, it wouldn't work. Those that did would lose their share of state/federal funding, money their own taxpayers have sent in and wouldn't get back. That would provide a powerful incentive for other localities, especially less affluent ones, to not join the resistance.

But even if that idea wouldn't work, Parker's got another one that would. Unlike nonviolent mandate resistance, it wouldn't rely on any level of governmental participation. It would be done at the ballot box by individual voters.

Want more honest government? Then begin demanding of legislators a pledge to raise taxes as much as necessary to fully pay for any program implemented by subordinate levels of government.

Honoring such a pledge would force state and federal lawmakers to start being brutally honest about what new programs and services really cost. No longer would they reap the glory for supporting bills to authorize popular measures while passing the buck (or, more accurately, the lack of bucks) down the line.

Any candidate who won't take the no-unfunded-mandates pledge should be rejected by voters on grounds of essential dishonesty. Those who take the pledge then don't honor it should be recalled.

And as long as we're on the subject of honesty in government, here's an idea of my own; isn't it time to end the blatant dishonesty about who pays corporate and business taxes? I think it would be very refreshing, not to mention truthful, to quit pretending taxes on corporations and small businesses come from some magical pool of money. That seems to be the primary assumption of those who say, "tax the businesses, not the people."

Taxing businesses is a sneaky, fundamentally dishonest way of taxing individuals and families while telling them you're getting the money from someone else. That's because tax bills paid by businesses and corporations can come from only three sources; customer product/service prices, worker wages and benefits and/or investors' interest and dividends. Last time I checked, customers, workers and investors were all "people." "Aha," I hear you cry, "why not take the money from fat-cat investors?"

There are a several excellent reasons to not take more money from investors. First, American investors already pay a higher capital gains tax rate than investors in most other industrialized nations. Also, it has yet to be demonstrated that government is any better at spending money than businesses. Putting aside the minority of high-profile exceptions like Enron, the opposite seems to be true. Businesses are constrained by market competition to reduce waste and deliver quality. Government is under no such strictures. Sure, most government employees are conscientious and competent. But the bad ones (bureaucrats who spend most of their work time fighting internecine turf wars, rude and careless public service types, etc.) are nearly impossible to fire. In the business world, unless you treat your good workers well and get rid of your bad workers, you'll lose market share to those competitors who do.

Another good reason to not take even more investors' money through taxes has been illustrated by the woes of investment markets over the past few years. Have you noticed how many pension funds and 401 (k) accounts have been hurt? That's because pension funds, retirement accounts and lots of other financial instruments used by working-class Americans are dependent on investment markets.

Ironically, it is American capitalists who have made the Marxist ends (workers owning their means of production) achievable. Meanwhile, corporate money managers who invest our insurance premiums and loan payments give us all an interest in (and benefits from) capital investment markets.

The tax-the-businesses crowd has used a classic Marxist means (getting people to believe mammoth, counterintuitive lies) to achieve their ends (redistribution of wealth based on subjectively-defined "social justice"). It's the same game state and federal leaders have been playing for decades, pretending, through semi-funded mandates passed down the levels of government that tax-supported programs and services cost less than they really do.

It's time to stop the serial lying. Send this column to your state and federal legislators. Tell them the game's up; they can be honest about who pays corporate taxes, take the no-unfunded-mandates pledge, or pack it in.