Saturday, July 18, 2009

End of a Despot

I write to bury Walter Cronkite, not to praise him. I almost did not write this article, since it is unseemly in the main to speak ill of the dead. What’s more, Walter Cronkite was undeniably a pioneer in broadcast journalism and many of his works and actions are worthy of praise. But then, we could say the same of Richard Nixon.

I mention Nixon because Nixon is rightfully stained forever for his actions in the Watergate scandal. Richard Nixon was also a pioneer in many ways, perhaps most notably his diplomatic strategy which set Beijing against Moscow in the Cold War. Nixon’s 1972 re-election victory is still the most second-most profound popular vote landslide in the history of presidential elections, Nixon having captured 60.7% of the popular vote (FDR in 1936 claimed 60.8%, the only time a presidential candidate ever got more of the popular vote). While no darling to Conservatives, Richard Nixon infuriated the Left, who looked long and hard for something to use as a political weapon against him. President Nixon handed his enemies that weapon in Watergate. There is a broad consensus that if Nixon had not resigned the Presidency, he would have been impeached, and if impeached he would have been convicted. Nixon was not nearly the only politician to abuse his power, but there was no real doubt that Nixon did abuse his office.

And this brings the story back to Walter Cronkite. Ordinarily, members of the press enjoy a certain celebrity and influence, but rarely is one journalist considered to speak as the complete authority on the nation’s welfare and direction. Cronkite built his credibility to the point, where for many Americans he spoke with indisputable authority. Cronkite played on that trust with his tag line each evening, saying ”and that’s the way it is.” A man never elected by the public, and answerable to no one, could say what he wanted and have it taken as absolute truth by many millions, simply because he was the person saying it. There is no indication that Cronkite ever stopped to consider the moral obligation he carried, or to balance his broadcasts in order to make sure he was as objective as his image. Instead, in interviews many years later, Cronkite admitted his liberal agenda and that he saw his role as an advocate for that agenda. Where politicians were known for their bias according to ideology and party support, Cronkite chose to hide his in order to falsely portray his opinion as established fact and popular consensus. In this, Walter Cronkite became a media despot, able to direct national opinion without any checks on his power and privilege. He was able to convince Americans that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, by hiding facts which worked against his argument and distorting the significance of events in Vietnam. Cronkite helped build public support for politicians and programs he liked, while helping build opposition to politicians and programs he opposed. For all the talk from the Left in favor of the Fairness Doctrine, Cronkite had no intention of letting both sides be heard on key issues on anything like even terms. The man was a despot who cost lives and money and damaged the balance of power in America, showing that unelected dictators could claim influence and power here through sheer lies and trickery. In that regard, Walter Cronkite should not be compared to Richard Nixon, after all. Nixon, in the end, resigned and went away, and his actions were properly denounced even by his own party as wrong and against American ideals. Walter Cronkite could not manage even that much honor or integrity. He did much good, but far more damage.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Right to Make Bad Decisions

When I was young, my father made a point about the importance of looking at things from other points of view. He believed strongly in Dr. King’s dream that all people should judged by their character and work, not their race, creed, gender or any superficial aspect. I was a bit disappointed, therefore, to find his ideals a bit inconstant when I told him about my fiancĂ©, shortly after I proposed to her. My wife, you see, is of a different race, and while in theory my father was a man of broad mind, in the actual event he was far narrower in his tolerance. As time passed, he came to respect my wife and when we had a daughter he was delighted, but I recall the incident as an example of the distance between ourselves and whom we would like to be. I have met some very fine people in my lifetime, some of whom were people of great integrity, courage and ideals, and some who dismayed me with their attitudes and behavior. I notice that as I got to know people better, while some were clearly better or worse in their morals and actions, none were completely worthless and no one was perfect. Also, some people whom I could not stand in one way, were good people in others. You have to really get to know the person to see more than one dimension of their character, and over time many of us learn from mistakes and our judgment and behavior improve. That should not really surprise anyone; the whole automobile insurance industry is predicated on the belief that experienced drivers are generally safer and better risks than new drivers, and that education and time will improve the skills and habits.

I have also learned that some folks have to find things out the hard way. Having just completed my MBA, I went looking around for advice on the classes I still need to take in order to sit for my CPA license. Along the way, I found an interesting website which had a number of college forums. I visited the section on business schools, and found some lively discussions, including a number of prolific members with strong opinions but poor experience. It’s fascinating in a way, how people will voice an opinion on something they have never done and about which they really know very little. Part of that, I suspect, is the attraction of online forums, where you can writer as long a post as you please without fear of interruption. Sure, you may get a sharp retort, but the thing there is that it comes in response to your article or comment, and that means you are making things happen. In blogging, that’s pretty cool, but it’s far less cool when politicians start doing it.

Laws. There’s no doubt that we need them, but at some point they get to be burdensome, especially when the guys passing the laws make sure that they are not forced to abide by those laws. And at some point they become unreasonable, ridiculous, and cross the line into tyranny. Take the seat-belt law, for example. I’m all in favor of people wearing seat belts, they are a great invention. But a law requiring everyone to wear a seat belt? That, to me, is over the line. Think about it – if I have an accident and I am stupid enough to not wear a seat belt, who does that hurt besides myself? It does not increase the danger of the situation for other drivers or pedestrians, or the public at large. So what is that law meant to do? It’s a law meant to keep us safe. That may sound good, but nowhere in the federal or any state Constitution does it say that the government can pass laws in order to make us safer from ourselves. That’s why it makes no sense to ban trans-fats. Yes, it’s stupid to gorge on things that will give you a heart attack, but the government has no business choosing the meals of honest citizens. It’s one thing and a good idea to require restaurants to tell is what’s in their foods, so we can make informed decisions, but quite another to tell us we cannot make those choices ourselves.

The government passes more and more laws every year, and for what? Some of them are necessary, but in truth most are not at all necessary, and more and more of them take away our choices in order to protect us from the consequences of those choices. The thing is, if we are not allowed to make our choices, to face natural limits to what we can do and to see the direct consequences of our actions, instead being told by the nanny state that others will decide for us, then how do we learn? People today decry what they see as environmental threats, but they fail to realize that humans have faced such threats before – efforts to eradicate rats began when it was discovered that they carried plague, sanitation of the water supply began when it was discovered (then forgotten and later rediscovered) that there was a way to provide a clean water supply and remove foul waste, and coal was largely replaced with oil as the new energy source proved more efficient and cleaner. All of this happened without a single environmentalist agency. We are quite capable to seeing and addressing our needs through our own faculties and efforts, if only the government would stop pretending we cannot. Our economic markets can repair themselves, indeed history shows they always have, if only the government would stop borrowing generations of future earnings to try to create a solution by artifice. And the voters can be trusted to find and support the best candidates and political platform, there is no need or cause to keep presenting us with a PR-spun packaged candidate as fake as the late MJ’s nose.

We will make mistakes, to be sure. Some of them will be huge blunders, and that’s a fact. But that’s how we learn, and for all the best intentions of government, it’s more than time for these esteemed politicians to stop spending our children’s future, stop pretending they can control everything and prevent any bad news, and just go home to do some honest work. They do far more harm than good, and it’s apparent they are learning nothing themselves.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Nasty Politics

The word “nasty” was first used somewhere around 1400 CE, probably derived from the Old French word nastre which meant something bad and strange. But when used in conjunction with politics, the word ‘nasty’ puts me in mind of the political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Nast was the most famous cartoonist of the 19th Century, and is commonly regarded as the man who affixed to the Republican and Democratic political parties their mascot animals of elephant and donkey, respectively. Nast built his reputation and success on political attacks in his cartoons. His most common theme was to cast a well-known politician as a crook or predatory animal. That’s not to say that many of Nast’s targets were not the villains he cast, but Nast’s cartoons were effective partly because there was no forum for debate, no available recourse for the target – if the public believed the cartoon, you were toast. While many political historians lionize Nast, it should be remembered that he introduced a new dimension to character assassination, legitimizing the caricature of people as inhuman monsters in order to persuade his audience, without any sort of debate on the facts or evidence. In many ways, the rants of Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann simply carry on the tradition of Thomas Nast, the petty venom of Peggy Noonan and George Will carry on the same behavior of an earlier flame-thrower from their party (Nast was an important player in Lincoln’s 1864 re-election, and he was particularly savage in his malignment of George McLelland).

To some degree, such artists of malice are an evil we must endure; the same protection of freedom which allows one idiot to dress up as Hitler and stomp down a street on the one hand, allows David Letterman to prove himself a moronic misogynist and thug on a nightly basis on the other. But a line has been crossed when elected officials act in such manner. Without naming names, it is sadly obvious that the political world has degenerated to such a condition. We now have the closest thing to one-party rule with deliberate public disparagement of all disagreement for the first time in two generations. And as long as the public puts up with such behavior, it will remain the new standard, or become even fouler.