Saturday, November 11, 2006

Broken Politics? I Think Not ...

Altogether too many of us accept the conventional wisdom that today "politics in America is a broken institution." There was a recent PBS special on that very subject, with most of the panel defending the affirmative. But the historical record shows that politics has always been down-and-dirty in America ... indeed, when compared to some eras in the life of our nation, political discourse today is positively gracious and well-mannered.

For specific instance; during the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts in the administration of John Adams, one Congressman, Matthew "Spitting" Lyon, earned his colorful sobriquet by walking across the aisle of the House and spitting in the face of a fellow representative who'd just uttered the 18th Century equivalent of "There is a suspicious and unhealthy diversity of species in your family tree." The spittee then attacked the spittor with his cane, at which point Representative Lyon grabbed up the fireplace tongs and tried to give as good as he got. The two were finally separated, rolling on the floor, kicking and punching, by their fellow legislators.

Also, in the 18th and 19th centuries, some members of Congress routinely carried, in addition to their walking sticks, canes with swords concealed within, daggers and pocket pistols onto the floor of the House and Senate.

One is inclined to comment, "Walking sticks and knives and swords and loaded sidearms may break my bones, perforate my flesh and make me die, but inflamed rhetoric can never hurt me ... "

Fast-forward to the 21st century: Part of the problem of perception we have regarding the "broken politics" of our era is the availability of instant plebiscites on every single issue. Pollsters have their place, but the passions of the moment often obscure the real bones of the debate, the eventual good or ill which may accrue to any given policy. To put it another way, in the long haul, who cares about George W. Bush's approval ratings? Such numbers are ephemeral and tell nothing about the eventual consequences of his - or any other elected officials' - competence at the fine art of governance.

I seriously doubt the historical record will ever elevate our current Commander in Chief to the upper ranks of American presidents, but who can know? Harry Truman had far lower poll ratings during the last year of his administration than has George W. Bush at this point in his second term. And those of us who follow such things distinctly remember that back in the 1990s, every flipping candidate on both sides of the aisle wanted to prove he was a lot more like Give-'em-hell Harry than was his opponent.

For that matter, Dwight Eisenhower, in his day, was seen by many commentators as an "amiable dunce," the sobriquet Ronald Reagan came to be tarred with in the 1980s. Yet today, historians have more than rehabilitated Eisenhower's reputation, putting him solidly into the upper reaches of the second rank of Americann presidents and identifying him as precisely the right man for the times.

That's the thing about history; it has a tendency to rehabilitate, and sometimes damn retrospectively, some of our most beloved and despised characters.

Which brings us to the discussion of a military-political dynamic they didn't teach you in 9th Grade American History: While he was alive, a lot of Americans said terribly unkind things about The Father of Our Country. At his first inauguration, David McCullough writes that one senator was overheard muttering to a friend, "I fear we have traded George III for George I."

Also, throughout the Revolutionary War, Washington was constantly assailed, slandered and attacked behind his back by members of his own general staff, all of whom wanted his job ... and none of whom (with the probable exception of Benedict Arnold, who was a Washington loyalist before military politics drove him into the arms of the enemy) was even vaguely qualified to do it as well as Mrs. Washington's little boy, George.

One of the chief anti-Washington conspirators, General Charles Lee, was so convinced the Continentals and militia soldiers of Washington's army could never stand and deliver against British regiments, he retreated halfway back to camp when he stumbled upon a smaller force of Redcoats at Monmouth Courthouse. Washington had to personally stop the ill-advised retreat, reposition his guys and then fight the battle defensively when he could have had a decisive victory.

Had General Lee had only done as he was ordered, things might have gone far better for the Continentals on that day. Lee himself rode his horse all the way to the next town, many miles distant, then claimed he had engaged in an orderly retreat for tactical reasons. He was, blessedly, cashiered after the near-debacle.

Another conspirator in the anti-Washington cabal was Horatio Gates, a semi-competent commander who lucked out and accepted Burgoyne's surrender after Burgoyne's own hubris and poor logistical planning - plus the harassment his troops suffered at the hands of Hudson Valley militia units - had already substantially defeated the Lobsterbacks.

To sum up, history shows us that Washington was precisely the right man for the times, but during the years of his service to his country, he had plenty of detractors. History has absolved George Washington of his rumored military incompetence and lust for power ... as it has cleared Truman of his lousy approval ratings in his final year in the Oval Office and Eisenhower of his reputation as being too dim a bulb to do the job he was elected to do.

Here's the nub of it: No matter how well or ill one performs one's duty to one's country, there are always going to be second-guessers, mostly the ever-present corps of persons blind with ambition and exhibiting levels of character disorder that would kill most folks. These misguided persons often see themselves as the Man on the Horse who will deliver us from evil, and their actions are, by their own lights, entirely logical and patriotic.

The abiding truth is that only history is fit to judge, and only after the fog of war has lifted and long-range results can be objectively analyzed.

Broken politics in 21st century America? I think not.

Rather, we enjoy nothing less than the salubrious rough-and-tumble of political discourse characteristic of any healthy democratic republic. Comity has its place, and I for one would be ecstatic if all the ad hominem attacks upon the character and intelligence of our leaders - so much in vogue in this and every other era - could be dispensed with.

And yet, having said that, I must confess that on balance, I'll take the sometimes nasty, always impassioned debates - ad hominem attacks and all - of our democracy over the illusory ideological solidarity of the totalitarian state in any civilization, in any century, on any day.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Wahhabists vs. Lobbyists

The Hated Lobbyist, and How He Saves Republican Democracy Every Day

The demonization of lobbyists in American politics reminds the freethinker - who bothers to do a little research - of nothing so much as the demonization of other faiths and sects of Islam by nutcase Wahhabists. Our good friend Wikipedia defines this violent and intolerant division of a perfectly good faith thus *(an abridged but otherwise unedited definition is at the bottom of this post):

Wahhabism is, essentially, the Ku Klux Klan version of Islam. Just as the night riders of yore spread their sick interpretation of the Holy Bible by murder, torture and intimidation, so do the Wahibbists seek to dominate through destruction and terror … as we all saw on 9/11/01.

A lobbyist, by comparison, in neither violent nor judgmental concerning the belief systems of his fellow men and women.

Moreover, far from being wholly based in the teachings of a single individual (in the case of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab), the lobbyist owes his/her existence to a carefully crafted clause of the 1st Amendment. That amendment, along with its primary document and fellow amendments, are sublime creations of some of the best minds of the Age of Reason. In case you've left your Pocket Guide to the Constitution of the United States somewhere you can't easily access it, I'll give chapter and verse:

The amendment begins with "Congress shall make no law respecting … " and then guarantees free speech, free press and freedom of faith.

The amendment's final clause prohibits government infringement upon the right of the people to " … peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." That, in the shorthand of the 18th Century, explains exactly what lobbyists do. Sound menacing? I thought not.

So who are the Wahhabists in America out to nail the lobbyists?

They are misinformed persons who think it is somehow wrong for a group of individual citizens with shared interests to hire someone to petition their government for redress of grievance.

Today, the lobbyist is portrayed - by too many otherwise intelligent persons - as first and foremost a corrupting influence on government, personified by the Gucci-loafered snake who fiddles important legislation and tax code amendments for fun and profit, somehow keeping ordinary citizens from being heard in the halls of power.

A recent Non Sequitar cartoon depicted a maze with two entrances and a politician sitting at his desk in the middle. The lobbyists get a straight shot to the "cheese" from their entrance, while regular Americans have to tread the long maze, with lots of dead ends and no clues of which way to turn at any point. How clever. And how utterly disingenuous. Wiley should know better. He's either abysmally ignorant of how government works in a Democratic Republic or is - as is his 1st Amendment right to do - pursuing his own blinkered political agenda by disregarding facts while seeking to inflame in his readers a spurious validation of their outraged sense of victimization and entitlement. I'll fight to the death to preserve his right to do it, but I'll be damned if I can approve of it.

Here's why (the following Brief History of Lobbyists may be skipped over by those of you who are well-read on the early history of the Republic and those of you holding degrees in History and/or Political Science):

In the early days of the Republic, politicians were approached everywhere, in Congress, the White House, on the streets and in the lobbies of government buildings (in case you ever wondered how the profession got its odd name, now you know) and petitioned by individuals seeking jobs, justice and everything in between. Were we still using this constitutionally guaranteed right as individuals, no public servant would have time to do anything more than sit at his/her desk and receive petitioners 24/7.

Now, I will stipulate that I am a big fan of do-nothing government, since what government does is so often overreaching, unnecessary and, even when honorably attempted for good cause, poorly executed. But locking our legislators and executives in their offices all day to receive lines of petitioners winding around the block is not my idea of the ideal way to achieve my preferred (safely gridlocked) outcome. Far from it.

No matter how valid the petition, if the elected official who hears it can't get out his office door long enough to get to his committee assignments and the floor of the legislature, the issue is not going to be addressed or debated. Nor will the process result in the delivery of redress to the honorable petitioner.

So, even in the old days, and certainly today, Americans hit upon a way to get their beefs heard while staying at home, doing their work, gently rearing their offspring and generally keeping the Republic afloat outside the Halls of Power. The ingenious solution was to form cooperatives in which members chipped in, hired somebody good at research and persuasion, and sent him/her to city council, the county board of supervisors, their school board, state house or Congress.

And the beauty part is, even if one does not personally join the cooperative and pay dues, one still gets the benefit of all that pro-grade lobbying! I have never joined the N.A.A.C.P., N.R.A., A.C.L.U., N.A.R.A.L., N.F.I.B. or a host of other worthy organizations, yet their work has resulted in the abolition of legal racial segregation, protection of my right to own firearms (until such time as I prove myself unfit to do so), keeping anti-choicers' rosaries off my wife's ovaries, and maintaining similar protections of my full and complete set of Constitutional rights, keeping them safe from the depredations of bullying majorities or noisy minorities.

This is great! And, in the aggregate, all the lobbyists in America, those whose causes I endorse and those whose causes I despise, are helping democracy work properly: They are informing lawmakers of exactly what is likely to happen - if a given bit of legislation, regulation or tax code is amended - to farmers, teachers, preachers, industries supporting tens of millions of American families, believers, non-believers … the list of infinitely righteous causes is, well, infinite.

So, far from being an impediment to us average Joes and Janes getting our cases heard by the power elite, lobbyists actually give all of us a good, efficient, time-tested process through which we may all be heard, our needs recognized, our petitions for redress of grievance presented for debate and resolution.

It gets no better than this!

The Gucci-Loafered Snakes and All Their Nefarious Works

Now, about all those corrupt lobbyists, those shysters and their clients who abuse the rights guaranteed in our primary national legal document: Am I the only one who has noticed how many people are either in prison or most likely headed there these days for lobbyist-related nefarious activities? Does the name Abrahamoff ring a bell? Or William Jefferson, Duke Cunningham, et al.?

Saying lobbyists are all bad because some of them lack a moral compass is like saying drivers are all killers because some of us tailgate, drink to insensibility then get behind the wheel, speed, disregard red lights and kill lots of Americans every day.

It's also like saying that non-Wahhabists who practice idol-worship, disrespect the Lord, drink, gamble, make out-of-wedlock babies, curse and carry on justify the attacks of 9/11.

Like the bad lobbyist, the bad driver will eventually pull one to many of his/her monkeyshines while engaged in piloting his/her 3,000 pound lethal weapon. At that point the bad driver will be caught, tried, and, if found guilty, forced by society to pay for his/her depredations of everyone's right to be reasonably safe from injury, property damage and death.

So I say, let's allow citizens continue to drive, and let's allow people to continue to hire spokespersons who will tell government what might happen to their lives if a given piece of legislation, regulation or tax code is promulgated. And for heaven's sake (literally), let's all quit demeaning an essentially honorable profession because of the hyperventingly-reported corruption of the few who don't play, or drive ... or worship by the rules.

*From Wickapedia:Wahhabism (Arabic: الوهابية, Wahabism, Wahabbism)

" ... is a Sunni fundamentalist Islamic movement, named after Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703–1792). It is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

"The term 'Wahhabi' (Wahhābīya) refers to the movement's founder Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. It is rarely used by members of this group today, although the Saudis did sometimes use it in the past. The currently preferred term [outside of standard Western journalistic use] is "Salafism". In the past, they usually called themselves the Ikhwan, the Brethren.

"The term Wahhabism was originally bestowed by their opponents … Wahhabism accepts the Qur'an and hadith as fundamental texts, interpreted upon the understanding of the first three generations of Islam … Wahhabi theology advocates a puritanical and legalistic stance in matters of faith and religious practice [italics mine].

"Wahhabists see their role as a movement to restore Islam from what they perceive to be innovations, superstitions, deviances, heresies and idolatries. There are many practices that they believe are contrary to Islam, such as: pictures of human beings, praying at tombs (praying at Mohammed's tomb, the prophet of Islam, is also considered 'shirk (polytheism)'), not observing hijab (modesty in dress and demeanor) and skipping prayers (all businesses close five times a day for prayers), invoking any prophet, Sufi saint, or angel in prayer, other than God alone (Wahhabists believe these practices are polytheistic in nature), celebrating annual feasts for Sufi saints, wearing of charms, and believing in their healing power, practicing magic, or going to sorcerers or witches to seek healing and innovation in matters of religion (e.g. new methods of worship)."