Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Wisdom of the Masses

A very long time ago, I put in a month on jury duty. The law was since changed to limit tours to a day or a trial, but back then, jury duty meant getting your employer to give you a month’s leave of absence. This was rarely a problem; in fact, most employers supplemented your court per diem to make you whole.

The most memorable thing about my month’s tour in the jury pool was my discovery that my fellow man, though not always reliable as an individual, was completely trustworthy as a group of twelve. There was something about the gravity of the situation (my tour included a case of homicide) that brought out the very best in man. You come to know your fellow jurors pretty well after weeks of chatting, having lunch together, and swapping stories, and, inevitably, you find that some of them are a bit rough around the edges. But put twelve of them on a jury, and a miraculous thing happens: Everyone assumes a higher dignity, a refined sense of responsibility, a rationality that would have been impossible without the special chemistry of the jury.

That experience informed my attitude about the American electorate. I believe that, no matter how many attacks one hears and how many whackos among the candidates, the American public as a group can be relied on to deliver the goods. The larger the voter turnout, the better the odds. A five- or six-man jury is not as trustworthy as a dozen.

Much is made of voter polarization these days, and many people will indeed vote emotionally rather than logically. But the sum total will, like a jury verdict, be a true expression of the public's best reading of the situation at hand. As a compass, you just can’t beat it.

So let’s not hear any Wednesday morning quarterbacking about how voters were deceived by lies or mountains of evil money. The voters en masse will have done a good job.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Elections

The political campaigns are as poisonous in Maine as they are elsewhere. Some television ads don’t even bother to tell you whom to vote for; they just tell you whom not to vote for. Paul LePage is a candidate for Governor who came out of nowhere to win the Republican primary. He is the mayor of Waterville, and a general manager of a discount retail store. And he is apparently a monster, in the opinion of a woman who pleaded, at the end of a TV ad, “Please, don’t vote for Paul LePage.” She didn’t say who her preferred candidate was; it apparently was beside the point.

This sort of thing is going on all over the country, candidates trashing each other with half-truths, out-of-context sound bites, and the like. Their advertising gurus must tell them negative ads work, but I spent a lot of years running advertising for a fair-sized company, and I don’t know. At some point I think the attackee starts getting a sympathy vote. I don’t know much about Paul LePage, but I know less about the lady begging me not to vote for him.

The robocalls come all day and all evening. I thank God for caller ID, which catches most of them, but every now and then one sneaks through because the number is local and looks innocent enough. “I just want to ask you to vote for….” the voice says before I can hang up. Political campaign are exempt from the “do not call” restrictions, because our politicians have thoughtfully legislated themselves beyond the law.

For Congress, Representative Chellee Pingree is battling Republican Dean Scontras. Chellee is the Congressman who vented against fat-cat Wall Streeters flying around in private jets – until she was seen exiting a private jet in Portland. That doesn’t count, she said, because jets owned by family members are okay. What family member owns a jet? Her fiance, who runs a hedge fund. Oh.

The Maine landscape is now littered with political signs – not just for candidates, but for ballot questions as well. One of the more contentious battles is being waged in nearby Biddeford, an old mill city that has seen better days. Some investors want to site a trotters’ race track and casino (slot machines) in Biddeford, and the City fathers, impressed by the scale and architecture of the proposal and by the money behind it, are all for it. But any major new enterprise in Maine will trigger loud opposition, especially if gambling is involved. Those urging a yes vote emphasize JOBS, while the antis warn that slot machines spell degradation right here in River City.

Since the radio station I depend on for news and weather is WBZ in Boston, I hear the political ads for the Massachusetts candidates, too. Same thing: attack, attack. Governor Patrick, the Democrat incumbent, bad-mouths Charlie Baker, the Republican challenger, and Baker attacks Patrick. In one of the most bizarre examples of the art, Suzanne Bump, Democrat running for Auditor, cites a Boston Globe article in attacking her opponent, Mary Connaughton – although the Globe has endorsed Connaughton! Another Bay State contest to watch is Sean Bileat’s crusade to unseat Barney Frank. If he succeeds, it will be an earthquake to rival Scott Brown’s miraculous upset in the Bay State senatorial contest last year. Needless to say, Barney Frank, patron saint of Fannie Mae, is a favorite target of Republicans across the country.

The polls suggest that an enraged public is ready to make a huge change next Tuesday. (An e-mail titled “A Friendly Reminder” says “Tuesday: Throw the trash out.”) The rage has developed its own momentum, so that many voters will want to be part of a revolution whose nature they’re only dimly aware of. After the celebrating, many voters, and probably many winning candidates, will ask themselves, “What happens now?”

And two years from now, if the economy hasn’t improved, we’ll have more rage, more attack ads, more robocalls. It’s the price of democracy.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Miss Baghdad? Not.

The Vietnam War killed more than 3 million people, uniformed and civilian. The US lost 58 thousand soldiers in a war that almost tore this country apart. Why did we fight? The idea, the politicians (Democrat and Republican) told us, was to keep the country from falling under Communist rule.

Fast forward to 2010, 37 years after the last US personnel were airlifted off the embassy roof in Saigon. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to cozy up to the (Communist) government in a transparent attempt to buy the friendship of China’s neighbors. The Vietnam government, presumably, have short memories. Napalm? What’s that?

There is a moral here, which is not lost on President Karzai of Afghanistan. Three decades from now, a future Secretary of State may be in Kabul, making nice with the Taliban leadership hoping to lure them away from Iran. If you were Karzai, you would be looking for all the friends you can get – in the Middle East, not in Washington.

The Vietnam tragedy was dramatized stingingly in Miss Saigon, a musical that opened on Broadway in 1991. It is an achingly poignant musical, underappreciated despite its long run (over 4000 performances), perhaps because it lies in the shadow of Les Miserables, created by the same team, Schönberg and Boubill. The essence of the play is stated in the second-act song, Bui-Doi, which is an elegy for the Vietnamese children born during the war and destined to be the dust of life. “They are the living reminder,” the lyric groans, “of all the good we failed to do.”

The parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan are haunting. We are trying to withdraw from Iraq, now a fractious state with sectarian violence still a fact of life. Saddam Hussein’s pistol is mounted as a trophy in the new George W. Bush exhibit in Dallas. Tariq Aziz, a spokesman for the old government, has just been sentenced to hang, despite an appeal for clemency from the Pope. Anbar Province is aboil over control of a natural-gas field. There is still no functioning government in Baghdad.

There will be no musical called Miss Baghdad. Miss Saigon had the advantage of a template (Madam Butterfly) against which Alan Boubill could create a love story about a Saigon bar girl and a GI. There is no template for Miss Baghdad. No one wants to see Abu Ghraib played out on stage.

But rest assured, the mess in Afghanistan and Iraq will be all right in the end. That is the real lesson of the sight of Hillary Clinton clinking cocktails with the politicians and business leaders in Ho Chi Minh City, only blocks from where the last helicopter lifted off, leaving panicked crowds of civilians behind, in 1973.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thoughts While Looking at the Moon

I was looking at the moon tonight, high in the sky over the ocean, and it occurred to me that what I was seeing was exactly what a Roman citizen saw at the time of Christ. Now, if I were able to communicate with that Roman, as we both looked up at the moon, and I told him that in my time man traveled to the moon, landed on it, walked around a bit, and then returned to earth, he would not have believed me. “No way,” he would say (or “nulla via”). In fact, I find it hard to believe, too. Jill had serious doubts and suspected that the whole “one giant step for mankind” scene took place on a huge sound stage in Hollywood.

Now, if we could communicate with a person living in 4000 AD, what would he or she tell us that we would find impossible to believe? That genomic science extended the average life span to 200 years? That we would regularly communicate with beings on other planets? That we would use intelligent holographic “friends” as servants and entertainers? That the dominant transportation vehicle would be personal airmobiles powered by rechargeable hydrogen modules?

Of course, The Time Machine told a different story, in which the eloi were bred as food sources for the morlocks, long after the world as we know it had been destroyed by nuclear war. In the book, the time traveler (George in the 1960 movie) lands in the year 802,701, by which time we in 2010 would be regarded as the equivalent of cavemen. The movie is fascinating, and at the fifth or tenth viewing we still root for George to find his way back to Weena. Unfortunately, the grim future that H.G. Wells paints is at least as plausible as the tomorrow described in the previous paragraph. Mankind does have a way of botching things, even while he pushes technology ahead.

There is no record of Roman or Greek literature speculating on life 2000 years in the future. That’s too bad, because it would be interesting to read where Plato or Aristotle imagined mankind was heading. In their wildest dreams did they ever envision flying machines carrying hundreds of people across the oceans? In the night sky I see their flashing lights, just as I see the far off moon, and it all seems hard to believe, even today.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thank You, Readers

Yesterday, this blog recorded its 10,000th "hit." That's a small number, compared with many blogs by celebrities. but its a big number in my league. I'm also floored by the number of countries represented by the total - evidence, I guess, of the world-wide popularity of search engines. Anyway, to all who have clicked their way through the literary beachcomber, thank you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cogito Ergo Sum

Philosophy joke: René Descartes entered a restaurant in Brussels, was seated, and after a while a waiter approached and asked him if he would like an aperitif. “I think not,” said Descartes.
And disappeared.

Does the fact that we think really mean we exist? It’s a good question, and I wish we were spending our time arguing about existential matters instead of quantitative easing or politics. The political discourse is getting heated, if you haven’t noticed, and it often centers on philosophical niceties worthy of a Descartes. In Massachusetts, a candidate for auditor, of all offices, tries to explain away her claim of two Massachusetts homes on tax returns by saying one was her principal home and the other was her primary home. In Maine, a Democratic congresswoman known for lashing out at Wall Street fat cats who fly around on private jets is seen exiting a private jet on a local runway. The jet is owned by a hedge-fund operator to whom she is engaged, the Congresswoman explained, flying on a private jet is okay if the plane is owned by a family member, and fiancés are family members, sort of.

The Barney Frank who was such a rabid cheerleader for Fannie Mae when the lender was making crazy loans doesn’t exist. The Barney Frank who now exists says that mortgages should be given only to buyers who can afford them. So in January, this January, Fannie launched a program that allows first-time home buyers to put down $1,000 or 1% of the purchase price, whichever is greater.

Or how about this return to insanity: In the first half of this year, credit card companies sent out 84.8 million offers to American subprime borrowers, up from 43.7 million a year ago.

I think, therefore I qualify for a mortgage or a credit card.