Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dear America - what did you just do?

Before I begin, I should probably declare my personal position: I was raised a Baptist, and was baptized into my church as an adult, by my own conviction and choice. While the ensuing years have soured me on organized religion in almost any form, I am still indelibly marked by those formative experiences. I have read the bible in its entirety (King James version), and I used to be a Sunday School teacher. Politically, I lean right, and normally vote the straight conservative ticket.

However, I tend to the view that most people would do well to mind their own business, that abortion is a matter of personal choice (anyone who doubts this has never had to work in a clinical environment that cared for babies who had drawn the very shortest of genetic straws), and that as long as the gay community pays their taxes and doesn't trouble their neighbours, they should enjoy the same rights and liberties as the rest of us. Please don't bother me with "but the Bible says" arguments. The Bible, while a remarkable book, was not written in English. While large sections of it are translated in very similar ways by all denominations, many areas are distinctly vague. If you want to explore this, go get a copy of the Bible as used by the Catholic church (I would suggest the Knox translation), and compare it to the King James translation, or the New English Bible. All translations were made by people who sincerely believed that they were doing an accurate job. But still the subtle shading and variations are marked. Therefore, anyone who uses "the Bible says" as an excuse to turn off their brain is an idiot in my book. There's nothing in any version of the Bible that says "you are absolved of responsibility for the outcome of your choices if you just sign here".

Unfortunately, some people seem to have read such a statement, and to have failed to read the injunction about removing the beam from one's own eye before trying to help one's brother. Most of these people seem to be on the extreme far right of the political spectrum, and many of them are of limited education. The two almost go hand in hand. The result seems to be a person who thinks that if they make enough fuss about other people's perceived sins, their own will be less noticeable to God. In consequence they spend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying trying to regulate other people's behaviour.

Back in June, I blogged a rather grumpy item about the Presidential election. At the time I wrote that piece, the situation to my eye looked dire. I assumed that Hilary Clinton would get the Democratic nomination, and that the electoral process would then devolve into an ugly gutter fight, with innuendo, insult and accusation the ammunition of choice. This is not meant as a criticism of Hilary Clinton or John McCain, but it is a criticism of their respective supporters: that is the way they appeared to be heading to me. Hilary Clinton's supporters seemed illogically partisan in many ways, determined to support her either because she was female, or because they felt that she was in some odd way entitled to the presidency, because it was "her turn". John McCain's supporters have, regrettably, demonstrated their sound grasp of the ancient legal advice "when you have no case, abuse the plaintiff". Faced with an electorate rightly dissatisfied with the performance of the Republicans in government, the best they could come up with was feeble attempts to link their opposition with anti-American activists.

But, to my astonishment, Barack Obama got the Democratic nomination. There was a good deal of silly nittering from people who "loved Hilary". Please: the electoral process is not about fair goes, anyone's turn, or affection for someone you have not met personally. Hilary Clinton gave it her best shot, and lost. She then got herself sorted out, and weighed back in for the good of her country and her party. Certainly an element of self interest may have inspired that position, but she has done her job in a thoroughly professional manner (and a sight better than her husband in some cases).

Meanwhile, the McCain camp was completely losing the plot. Sarah Palin appeared on the stage, and I couldn't help feeling that I knew her. My hackles rose. I've never met the woman, but I know the type. It took me while to work it out, but I recognized her in the end: she's the girl in school who never did any work, because she was focused on being popular. Blessed with a good brain, good looks, and personal charm, she skated through school with the least possible study, and the help of more diligent "friends" who let her copy their work.

I've met a couple of women like this, and they drive me to distraction: they've taken the short cuts wherever they can, trading on their looks and charm to substitute for knowledge and hard work. Few of them make it through tertiary education, because that is a much tougher playing field than high school. But they tend to bob up in low level clerical and "people skills" roles if given a chance: they bring nothing to their positions but enough math to make change, a tendency to take reality TV seriously, and an approach to life based on scheming and manipulation, because it is all they have. My question here has to be not so much "how did Sarah Palin get onto the Republican ticket?" as "how did this ignoramus get elected governor of anywhere?". Good heavens, she's never even completed a college education. If the Republican party seriously expects her to stand in 2012, they should hire a couple of remedial tutors now, and try to fill in the vast gaps in her education. There's a long way to go, people, better start soon.

Sarah Palin seems to have had a negative effect on most voters: for every one who was comforted by the notion that she was "one of us", there were at least two who didn't want "one of us" running the store in an emergency. I think most people have the wits to realize that running a country is difficult, complicated work, and that the people who are entrusted with the task should have appropriate skills and knowledge. We want our leaders to be better than we are: this is why we are so unforgiving when they prove to be merely human after all. The choice of Sarah Palin was utterly disastrous for John McCain's campaign, not only because it called his personal judgement into question, but because Mrs Palin acted like a magnet for every extreme right wing nut job in the Republican movement. She drew them together, in large and noisy blobs, and gave the rest of the electorate a good look at the really unattractive face of intolerance, ignorance and vulgarity found in people who want the calendar reset to about 1910, if not earlier. Sensible, educated, moderate Republicans probably out number these loons by at least 5 to 1, but the people who made the most noise at various events where Sarah Palin was speaking seemed to be the type who represent everything the electorate and the world in general has had more than enough of in the last eight years.

Unfortunately, these people seem to have a disproportionate influence in the Republican Party. Thought and logic seem to have been overwhelmed by a cabal which is more interested in ideology than in outcomes. Any deviation from the "correct" ideology is seen as evil, even when adherence to the ideology is producing unwanted results. The ideology that demands that children be taught abstinence only sex education is a case in point: it does not work. Places where this ideology is implemented have a higher rate of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases than places where proper birth control is taught. But still the proponents of abstinence based sex education insist that their way is right. I believe that this is known as the "Tinkerbell Fallacy" in some circles: you know, the bit in Disney's 'Peter Pan' where the audience is asked to clap if they really believe in fairies, and bring Tinkerbell back to life? There seems to be tendency in some people (regardless of politics) to think that if they believe in an ideology hard enough, it will work. In the last few years, the American government seems to have been less and less interested in outcomes, and more and more interested in ideology. They have disconnected cause and effect in their minds. The results speak for themselves.

I have to say, I did not initially think that Barack Obama stood a snow flake's chance in hell of winning the presidency. It just seemed too improbable that America would elect a leftward leaning, conspicuously educated and literate person who was not of strictly Anglo Saxon heritage in preference to a conservative, white, ex-military type. Surely an electorate that returned George W. Bush for a second term would not contemplate any candidate so radically different.

I missed the point: the Obama campaign team was working, and had been working for months, to change the electorate. They were working on motivating people to register as voters, and getting them sufficiently engaged that they would turn out and vote. I haven't seen any detailed reporting, but I would bet that if you did an analysis of the people who voted in the last election and the people who voted at this one, you would find that this year's voters were overall younger and better educated. They were more likely to relate to a man aged 47 than to a man who has already clocked up his "three score years and ten". They were less likely to consider a man's racial origins to be relevant to his ability to govern. And they were more likely to get their news from the Internet than from the conventional media.

The Obama campaign used technology, and used it brilliantly, to reach and engage a very wide audience. There is an interesting post about this over at oreilly.com, an interview with Silona Bonewald. She makes some interesting observations: "I think the thing that's most significant actually about Barack is that it's not so much the always knowing the newest on the technology, but he's smart enough to let a lot of us do our thing, you know, get out of the way kind of thing. That's what speaks really well about him. I watch him doing that not just in the technical arena but in a lot of others -- like how all of the issues were done. I know that he has a troop of experts that basically helped write each one of those sections on the website.

There's a lot of input that he gets in from a lot of different groups. He's definitely got this huge mass of experts that he taps into on a regular basis, not just technical, which impresses me highly."

I seem to recall that some of the generally accepted qualities of a good leader are the ability to inspire others, to recruit talented people to their team, and to delegate effectively. Anecdotal evidence indicates that Barack Obama can do this. I think that is what the world at large finds so inspiring: not just the man, but the team work. There is this amazing sense of a nation pulling together, in a way that we have not seen America do convincingly in a very long time.

The election was called just after 3PM Sydney time. I had gone up to the Optus campus in North Ryde for a meeting. I arrived early, sat down in reception which was busy as always, and caught up with the email that I had received in the half our it took to get there from the city. Optus' reception has a couple a large TV screens tuned to Sky News, and the count was Obama 207. Never having watched the count before, I had no idea how long it was going to take, so I went to the reception person to locate the person I was meeting. When I turned back to the screen it said "President-elect Barack Obama". People were standing around, gazing at the screens, and we all tried to decide what, if anything, this meant to us.

The next day I heard the counter staff in the post office talking about Barack Obama's election. I don't believe that the world at large has ever been so interested and engaged in an American election. I think this stems from two sources: first, we are all heartily sick of the way America (the country, as expressed by its government) has been behaving in the last few years (Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wire tapping, TSA goons at airports, etc, etc, etc); second, the Obama machine has done its work so well that we can't help but be engaged. The Obama campaign has reached us all - I've even seen Obama '08 stickers on local vehicles.

So what happens now? Will Barack Obama make a good president? Only time will tell: he may get to the Oval Office and be crushed by the load. He may do something really dumb, and shatter people's trust in him with one stroke. He may turn out to be merely mediocre in the long run. Or he may be able to harness the talents that made his campaign so effective, and turn them to the service of the country. If the ability to recruit good people and let them get on with their jobs can be carried into government, great things become possible.

But whatever happens, Barack Obama has changed America in very significant ways already: the next electoral campaign will probably make even more use of technology than the last one. And the electorate is likely to remain engaged in a way they have never been before: it will be harder, may be impossible, for government to conceal its doings from the voters.

If we are lucky, the Republican Party will take a look at how it got to where it is, and find its way back to a more central position. Every country needs a viable opposition party.

America now has the opportunity to hang out the "Under New Management" sign, and wash its collective hands of some of the mistakes of the last few years. There will inevitably be people who want to see America fail, or who want to see Barack Obama fail. There will always be bigots, people who hate any sort of change, and common or garden sore losers. Hopefully those people can read the words of Mike Huckabee, and at least give the new government a chance before they condemn it.

No comments:


Bookmark and Share