A Pox on Both Their Houses: A Political Rant

It's just not worth it.

I recently started to get into a spat with a Glen Beck/Tea Party guy. It was a mistake, and violated one of the central Nelson family mottos, handed down from my Great-grandfather to Grandfather to Father to me, which is:

“Never get in a pissing match with a skunk.”

“I’m am not anti-government,” he said to me in the course of asserting the usual litany of claims, “I’m against BIG government.”

That’s when Scott (on whose FB page we were arguing) cut us off. Smart man. This wasn’t going anywhere.

Now, let me make one thing clear: I am not a hand-wringing bleeding heart “liberal.” Yes, I’m a liberal to people like that guy, for whom “liberal” simply means “anyone who questions what I say.” That hardly counts.

Yep -- if it's a professor, it's got to be pinko.

But I am a professor, which, for guys like that, completely counts. Now, it’s true that professors as a group tend to fall left of Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and James Dobson, but that’s because the preponderance of evidence for most things also falls well left of them. I can’t help it if that’s true. And the only way to get around that fact is for such people to brand all professors as brain-washing pinko commie socialists and all science as largely driven by a vast secular leftist conspiracy. Then they can dismiss it all, saddle up a friendly dinosaur from the Creation Museum, and ride off to find a public library to read some more on the evils of progressive politics while the waters from the melting ice cap rise in God’s latest attempt to punish us all for giving homosexuals civil rights before he wipes out the world and takes all the good people home.

But I digress. Actually, as a group, professors are a lot less liberal than you might think. But you certainly can’t trust me. After all, I’m a part of the conspiracy.

But although I share some of the same values and treasure my independence as much as many conservatives, I just can’t stand to even begin to associate myself with them. Why? Because being a “conservative” these days would seem to place me on a political spectrum whose right wing includes a variety of email-forwarding Screaming Mimis whose grasp on reality I find not just questionable, but mean-spirited, myopic, ahistorical, dangerous, and just plain grating.

Now, some of the same things can be said, with slightly different adjectives, about the loony bin wing of the left. But truthfully, they’re a lot harder to find, and even harder to take seriously, because America is actually a very rightish country compared to other places. Even most of the conservatives in other countries can’t figure out why we think having government health care for all is a bad thing. In other places, that just makes good sense. Here, suggesting that our government should provide health care for citizens or that the global financial crisis might mean we need regulation of mortgage-backed securities gets you branded as another Chairman Mao.

American politics has become great theater, but lousy politics. We've got big problems, and turning the Disney dial back 200 years and cranking up the volume isn't going to solve anything.

Nonetheless, even at the far end of the rightward spectrum of American politics, no one is “anti-government.” Not even the most vociferous militias, “patriot” groups, anti-tax groups, Christian apocalyptics, border-protecting Minutement, Freedmen with their home-made license plates, or Birthers and Tea-Partiers are against government. No, they’re just against big, socialist, taxing, intrusive, liberal, regulatory, interfering, homosexual agendizing, welfare-promoting, secular, arts-funding, un-Christian, immigrant-friendly, anti-business, social services providing, tree-hugging, lying about global warming, anti-white, subversively educating, gun-registering, criminal and illegal coddling, [please continue to fill in the blanks here] government. That is, they are against our government, the one that is controlled by commie pinko leftist professors and scientists plugging the secular left homosexual agenda. But none are against government per se. You have to go to the anarchists on the left for that.

Instead, these people are ardently for their government, which means the ancient, traditional, and true constitutional government of their … I mean, our … forefathers. This is the government and country that they so angrily “want back,” after losing it somewhere between 1865 and 1965. This is the government and country of the flag that they treasure, but it’s not the country and government of the downtown federal building they despise. Burn one and they will rage; burn the other and they will show up to roast marshmallows.

Unfortunately for these people, the government and country they long for is one that they cannot have because, like the cherished ideal of the 1950s nuclear family, it never really existed, and never will. We have one of the largest, most powerful (militarily and economically), richest, most diverse (by any measure), globally important, and politically complex countries in the world. We have for a long time. We’re going to have a big, complex, and powerful government. It goes with the territory. Trying to make it into Mayberry USA, Daniel Boone, Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, Red Dawn, Left Behind, or The Rifleman just isn’t going to work.

“Politics,” Otto von Bismark said, “Is the art of the possible, the attainable – the next best.” The angry ends of the left and right are always going to be angry because what they want is not politics and is never going to be possible or attainable. Those on the right, however, are always going to be extra angry because they are extra certain that what they want is possible, since they are under the illusion that what they want has been stolen from them and that they, the true Americans, are now being persecuted. When you mix in a bunch of people who see themselves as noble warriors in a battle of good and evil, a range of people whose revenge fantasies includes God intervening to destroy and torture everyone who frustrates them, and toss in a whole lotta guns, you’re going to get something interesting if you just stir it up enough.

A bust of Thucydides. So incisive, so uncannily accurate, so depressing.

And there’s plenty of stirring these days. Angry hordes continue to be egged on by all sides of the blogosphere, talk radio, and groups like Liz Cheney’s “Keep America Safe,” whose tactics make even some “conservatives” (probably dubbed “RINOs” by the Cheneys) cringe. On TV, Glen Beck has borrowed the tactics of Jimmy Swaggart in becoming a crying evangelical telepreacher calling the faithful to his own version of a political Jesus. But although I doubt no one would mistake Swaggart for a theologian, many certainly seem to mistake Beck for a historian and political analyst, convinced, it seems, by his use of a homey chalk board.

All this brouhaha reminds me of what the great historian, Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War 3.82-85), wrote about the the dangerous and deadly political infighting within Greek city-states in the fifth century BC:

“The cause of all these evils was the lust for power that comes from greed and ambition and these passions fed the violence of the parties engaged in the struggle. Each leadership made the fairest professions: one side cried out “democracy” and the rights of “The People,” the other side argued for the leadership of tradition; but in reality each side sought its own gain amid the spoils of the public goods that they pretended to cherish. They stopped at nothing in their struggles for power … and loved to use noble phrases to justify their ignoble ends. Meanwhile the moderates perished between the extremes, either because they wouldn’t join in their quarrel, or because each side’s envy would not allow them to escape.” (Adapted from the translation of R. B. Strassler).

And so it goes. But no matter. American politics has become about as engaged with reality as reality television. It’s become an imitation of the Maury Povich or Jerry Springer Show, including the chair throwing and accusations screamed from the audience. So I finally decided to step out of the arena a while back. I turned off my TV, largely tuned out my radio, and for the most part don’t even look at the Yahoo headlines. I’ve become so disillusioned with American politics, both left and right, that I have effectively checked out and now occupy the place of a bemused and occasional observer. Sure, I can’t resist weighing in on some statement or claim here or there, but it’s because I’m a professor and can’t stand bad claims, not because I’m political and have an agenda. A pox on both their houses.

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