Friday, November 09, 2007

Ill Breeding, Macbeth, and Political Thinking

The title does not imply that I will link the topics above; those are just the thoughts roaming through my mind this Friday evening.

First, I'll discuss ill breeding just to get this off my chest and think about more pleasant things.

This evening I decided to attend a local production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. I usually get one dose of live Bard a year, this was it. During intermission, I started chatting up the people around me--an engineer from NASA to my left, a couple of young ladies in the row ahead of me who were field biologists. I was doing my earnest best to be friendly and genial--this was, after all, a cultural and social event.

They were discussing some friend of theirs who was not happy about someone guessing his age wrong. I shared with them the line I'd heard from Eileen Collins about one's age could be told by the pain one experiences by encountering a new idea. One of the two--the one with the unhappy expression (either because I'd entered the conversation or because that was just her mood)--said she didn't get it, and that she'd need exposure to a new idea to see her reaction. I said, "Okay, what about using power transmitted from space as an alternative to consuming energy down here?"

Now given that I'd already guessed the lass's politics, I thought my question was as polite and leaning-her-way as I could get. Her waspish answer deserves to be quoted in full: "Well, I don't see how, when they can't find the weapons of mass destruction and NASA can't build a Hubble without the lens being out of focus. Quite frankly I don't see how it's even remotely feasible."


The first part of her answer was a non-sequitir, save for the fact that she at least mentioned NASA. The second sentence qualifies as an answer, but proved my point about age and reacting to new ideas. Since I didn't like her tone, I asked, grinding my smile in place, "So how much pain did that make you feel?"

"Oh, none, really."

At which point I turned back to talking to the NASA engineer, who, upon learning I was a writer, immediately wanted me to collaborate with him in developing his historical fiction book about the history of rocketry. It sounded awful ("Oh, I should talk about the why instead of just about the hardware? Yeah, that's a good idea, I hadn't thought of that!"). However, he was at least friendly and polite.

Now okay, I might have joined the two ladies' conversation uninvited. However, I had said nothing untoward, hostile, or overtly political. The most direct way to deal with that situation would probably have been, "Excuse me, but we were having a private conversation," and I would've apologized and retreated. But no, this stranger decided to engage and then bring out the hostility. Whence comes such hostility and ill breeding? My record holds secure: in a room full of potential people to talk to, I find the one who's evil. I have magic powers.


Now to the play itself: Not much to my surprise, the acting was better in Washington, DC, but these folks gave it their all and had a lot of creative ideas going on.

The acting suffered occasionally from line flubbing, which is the bane of any performance. One kid had a pronounced lisp that made his thick Shakespearean lines even more difficult to understand. Those were the two biggest impediments to enjoyment.

I commend the troupe, however, on the following choices:
  • The witches ("strange sisters") remained on stage the entire time, occasionally adding wicked cackles between scenes or nearly intervening in the action by reaching toward certain characters. Their makeup was outstanding.
  • The standing set was a castle-like structure with a ramp of "bricks" that served as steps for black-garbed demons(?) who made occasional appearances with the witches and otherwise banged drums or other percussion instruments, which served as the only "music" that I can recall.
  • The costumes varied greatly from person to person, most likely to help each one stand out. Macbeth's kingly tunic was perhaps the shiniest and most impressive--something like what Anakin Skywalker wore in Episode III.
  • The casting of Lady Macbeth was inspired. The young lady (younger than me = young) was a close face match for Martha Stewart, and she seemed to play that up, often sashaying across the stage as if she was showing off her furniture.
  • The guy playing Macduff was the best at delivering his lines: he had them down cold, his diction was excellent, and he was the most believeable actor. Two thumbs up!


Before the play, I was scribbling in my journal about the evils of American politics. I'd started a bipartisan rant, talking about the unfortunate split between religion and science in our country, and how both suffer from the lack of the other. However, I found myself ranting more than necessary about the Left than the Right (surprise, surprise), and I really wanted to get to the end result, which is the dysfunction that has kicked up in our political culture. The notes that follow are a variant of a discussion I'd had with one of my coworkers this week.

  • The ideological extremists of both political parties now govern, not the middle. Moderates, who are now called "Independents," used to be the majority. Now they face the unpleasant alternatives of holding their nose to vote for a candidate from their own party who is too ideological or an ideological candidate from the other party--the "lesser of two evils" complaint.
  • Political maneuvering is now being criminalized, to the point where it is becoming imperative for political parties or elected officials to hold onto power at all costs--the alternative is to be prosecuted for perfectly legal political maneuvering once out of office.
  • In addition to politics being criminalized, crimes have become politicized. Drug-related and "hate" crimes are punished more severely than comparable offenses without the aforementioned stigma. Drug crimes can be addressed by other laws: property damage, murder, manslaughter, or theft--all of which are already on the books. Likewise a person killed for "hate" is no more heinously dead than someone who is murdered out of a crime of momentary passion--and we already have laws on the books to address conspiracy or first degree (premeditated) murder. Motive goes to a person's thinking, which cannot (or should not) be legislated. That is the road to George Orwell's thoughtcrime.
  • In a polarized environment like this, compromise becomes politically risky, mistrusted, and damn near impossible. The goal of legislating now is victory, destroying the opposition, not drafting sane, just laws that serve the majority of the American people fairly.
  • Loyalty to party, faction, or self-identified interest group has become more important than loyalty to the community (city, state, nation).
  • Power is increasingly concentrated in the national capital, and within that structure, increasingly within the executive and judicial branches. The Congress has become a recurring exercise in gerrymandering to ensure perpetual party privilege and control over various districts, as well as partisan gridlock. One of the reasons the judiciary has become so powerful, I would argue, is that Senators and Congressmen want to retain their safe seats, which means avoiding making hard choices or taking principled stands on issues, forcing the great problems of the day to be settled by nine appointed judges who are put into lifetime positions by (again) a polarized political environment.
  • So the winner-take-all stakes have become even greater: to control the executive is to control the agenda; to control the congress is to control the appointment of Supreme Court judges; and to control the Court is to have political control of the law.
  • The stakes are high, as is the power-grabbing potential for high officials: taxation and spending have soared to frightening and absurd levels, while foreign borrowing, a falling dollar, and inflation are putting our entire future at risk. A sweep by one party or another results in a series of political scorched-earth policies and laws that seem politically savvy at the time, but turn into unintended consequences and "tyranny" when those same laws are wielded by the other party against their originators.
  • Given the politicized environment of the capital, conspiracy theories abound. If one party is in control of a particular branch of government, the opposition believes a conspiracy or cynical "alternative theory" above any official government pronouncement.
  • Public investments in basic infrastructure (highways, housing, power systems) as well as higher technology (basic research, advanced R&D, space exploration) have declined steadily, while expenditures on direct transfer payments, government benefits, and defense and internal security continue to grow.
  • Anarcho-tyranny is rife among law enforcement agencies. This is a term invented by Jerry Pournelle. It is a situation in which major crimes and criminals go unpunished because the authorities are unable or often afraid to act, while the police continue to enforce laws when and where it is safe to do so: Murder rages in one part of the city while minor traffic offenders and scofflaws in middle class sections are sent to jail. Cherry picking by police.
  • Out of fear of group-based politics, both parties fear to close the porous border with Mexico for fear of offending a soon-to-be-massive population/voting bloc, the Hispanics.
  • "Security" is defined by how many new federal employees can be added to the civil service--with all those uniformed people at the airport, we must be safer, right? Hardly.

Okay, so these aren't the happiest thoughts in the world. And what's worse, I don't have a lot of solutions for fixing this multiheaded mess that is our political culture. But then what might be even worse than that would be if ONE MAN (or even ONE WOMAN) stands forth and says, "I know how to solve all our problems! Give me the power for one year, and I'll fix everything!" And some people, tired of all the bad things listed above, might even consider taking the Leader up on his/her offer. God help us all.

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