December 13th, 2007


Things I heard from America as it prepared to enter election year

I heard that Republican party candidate Mike Huckabee had vaulted into the lead in Iowa and that Democratic candidate Barack Obama had taken the lead in polls for the first time in New Hampshire, a key early state.

I heard that these developments had made their political rivals' campaign managers reach in desperation for slander and slur. Bill Shaheen from the Clinton campaign raised the issue of Obama's teenage drug-taking to dent his credibility. He told the Washington Post that the Republicans would target Obama's background. "It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?"'

I heard that Huckabee, a Baptist minister, had attacked Mormon Mitt Romney by asking "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"

I heard that evangelical Christians make up about 40% of registered Republicans in Iowa.

I heard that during the first Republican debate in New Hampshire Huckabee responded to a question about evolution by saying "If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it." He, however, did not believe it.

I heard from scientists that human beings are primates.

I heard that fewer than 40% of Americans, in a 2005 survey, agreed with the proposition "Human beings, as we know them today, evolved from earlier species of animals". In Britain, Japan, Europe and Scandinavia between 70% and 90% agreed with the same proposition.

I heard Obama say, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: "Tonight there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America."

I pondered the things I had heard.

I thought that Obama's statement really wasn't true (or was only true if "tonight" was a very exceptional night, one filled with "the audacity of hope", the speech's title). I thought that, increasingly, the US is two nations divided rather than one united. One of them thinks in quite similar ways to Europe. The other is completely alien -- a place whose irrational views, given further rein or rope, will surely start dragging its economy down to the level of the other much poorer nations which tend to share them.

I heard conservative columnist David Brooks describe the split back in 2001: "In Red America churches are everywhere. In Blue America Thai restaurants are everywhere."

I thought about how there's another split that messes up modern politics. The tragedy of modern politics is that it seeks to combine two incompatible skill sets -- the rhetorical and the administrative. Is there any other job where you'd have to prove yourself rhetorically to achieve an administration post which basically requires you to be an organiser and a technocrat?

I thought about what these mismatched skills -- rhetoric and administration -- actually require. Rhetoric requires wishful thinking. It's all about the future, and dreams, and lies we like to hear, even if we know they're lies. Things like "we are united, not divided" and "we are not related to monkeys". Rhetoric is motivational, inspirational, morale-boosting, mythopoeic, tribal. As long as your fiction is moving and consistent, you can carry an audience. It's an arts skill, playing on empathy and the ability to connect. Admin, on the other hand, has to take stock of facts on the ground, inconvenient truths, existing realities. It calls on scientific skills, careful observation, rationality. Whatever Obama says about there being no red and blue states -- nice rhetoric! -- you can be damn sure his campaign organizers are being more realistic and rational. They're going to remain fully aware of the exact boundaries of red and blue America during the campaign for their candidate. Hope may be unlimited, but their resources are limited.

I wondered if Huckabee, too, would match his rhetorical side with a rational one. Should he be elected American technocrat-administrator-in-chief in 2008, would he -- at the very least -- act as if he held a rational view of the world?

And I wondered if there were some sort of google translation service available which translated Rhetorical statements into Rational ones. A service that would render "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America" into "We really wish that we could overcome the obvious and ruinous divide that exists in this country" and "I don't believe we're descendants of a primate" into "I'm fully aware of the importance of politicized fundamentalist creationist views in swing states like Iowa, therefore of course I'm going to appeal to them". A widget like that would allow us to square the circle, and transform even the craziest rhetoric into rationality.

Then I thought of a saying of Sugar Ape editor Jonatton Yeah? (a character in Nathan Barley). When journalist Dan Ashcroft tells him an article in his magazine is "stupid", Jonatton replies: "Stupid people think it's cool. Smart people think it's a joke; also cool". Applied to the things I heard about America as it enters election year, that could read: "Red states like the stuff politicians say because it's irrational. Blue states listen harder and hear rationality in it."

But then I wondered whether those blue states weren't listening -- or projecting themselves -- too hard into the craziness coming out of places like Iowa. I wondered whether they shouldn't have slightly higher standards for their red state cousins -- shouldn't demand that they actually snap out of it, shape up, and get rational. Not just "rational because we understand the appeal to stupid people of the irrational", but just good old-fashioned rational, admininstration-ready.