Sunday, October 26, 2008

Election Woes

I know it's a clique, but a picture is truly worth a thousand words. This presidential election is causing a lot of anxiety in my mind. It would take a lot of words to explain it all.. thankfully there is PhD comics.

These two strips explain my anxiety perfectly:

I am not a US citizen, so I can't vote in this country. However I work in this country legally and I pay taxes here. There are many ways in which the result of this election can affect me and my life directly. More importantly, for however long I stay in this country, I would prefer if the country is led by people who cherish the same ideals as I do. In this election, it means that I am hoping for a Obama victory.

I doubt it will happen. I still feel that a majority of this country will choose McCain and Palin. McCain would have been palatable but Palin is simply a disgrace. I used to like McCain before he made a U-turn on almost everything he claimed to believe in. Some of the U-turns too would have been OK with me. I come from a country full of flip-flopping politicians. However the most egregious one by McCain was the flip-flop on his views about the right wing God-nutters - the very people whom he called agents of intolerance a few years ago. To top it all, he went ahead and chose a God-nutter to be his running mate. And not just any odd God-nutter, a God-nutter who subscribes to one of the most extreme brands of Christianity that are out there. Her brand of Christianity believes in speaking in tongues, believes in witch-craft, believes in magic healing, does not believe in evolution by natural selection (although that's kind of par for the course for God-nutters), believes that rapture is imminent and will happen in her lifetime.

I don't believe that experience is the most important quality needed to be the President. No single person can have all the experience that will prepare him or her for the job of leading the USA. What is more important I believe is intellectual curiosity, the ability to seek and weigh different opinions on issues, the ability to make decisions by analyzing the implications of the various options. When I see Sarah Palin in the two interviews she gave, I see a lack of these very qualities. To me, it means that she will make judgments based on her ideology - which in her case happens to be extreme right wing religious ideology. It's not just her ignorance of issues, it's her pride in her ignorance of issues. It's not just her lack of intellect, it's her contempt for intellectuals. Elect McCain and Palin now and four years down the line, you will find Palin running for President.

The election still seems pretty close when you see the picture in the battle ground states. So the anxiety will continue for 8 more days. After that, I will either be glad that the country chose a reasonably intelligent guy over a pair of 'maverick' God-nutters or I will take solace in the fact that Jon Stewart and Bill Maher will have no lack of material for the next four years.

There are many who have said the things I have tried to say here with much more clarity and force. So I point you now to some of of my heroes:

Sam Harris: When Atheists Attack

Christopher Hitchens: Vote for Obama - McCain lacks the character and temperament to be president. And Palin is simply a disgrace.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Mavericks for Mediocrity

The more I watch the presidential election campaign the more depressed and afraid I become. Things have been going down-hill for a while now since John McCain selected Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Then came Sarah Palin's two interviews, first with Charlie Gibson and then with Katie Couric. Then there was the debate with Joe Biden. It seems to me that the politicians - especially the Republicans - have convinced themselves that most of the people in this country are dimwits who can be swayed by fluff.

Now, to be fair, the democrats are not a whole deal better, but predominantly the peddlers of mediocrity are Republicans. Consider for example the issue of off-shore drilling. John McCain and Sarah Palin have reduced it to a three word "mantra" - "drill baby drill". It is not "drill drill drill" by the way, as Sarah Palin promptly pointed out to Joe Biden in the debate, the right words are "drill BABY drill", as if it's a magic spell which looses it's effect if you don't say the right words. The oil-fairy won't give them any money if they don't get the mantra right. I think they believe that the voters in this country can be convinced about a lie if you convert it into a neat little sound-bite and repeat it over and over again. I don't blame them... it has worked for the last eight years. Consider the following examples from the not so distant past.

"Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction" (He didn't)
"Saddam Hussein caused 9-11" (He didn't)
"Tax-cuts will help the economy" (They didn't)
"We need less Government" (perhaps, but why are you running for a Government office then?)

If sound-bites like these, devoid of any analysis - any critical thinking - any logic - any substance at all is all that takes for the voters in this country to be swayed into voting for a candidate; remember it worked twice in last eight years; then I have no doubt that John McCain will be the next President of the USA.

I notice a strong anti-intellectual, pro-mediocrity streak in the McCain-Palin rhetoric. The "real enemies", we are told repeatedly, are "east-coast-elite" and "Washington insiders" (John McCain for example.) and " the liberal media". The best people in the country, the crème de la crème, live in a place called "small town America" and have names like "Joe Six-pack". All the women in small town America are either "hockey moms" or "soccer moms". Small town Americans are big on "family values". Perhaps it is because I have spent most of my time here in a liberal college town in the middle of Pennsylvania and the rest amidst "east-coast-elite" Bostonians, these caricatures seem a bit too distant and shallow to me. Furthermore we are told that small town Americans prefer candidates who they can "identify" with, someone who they can go hunting with (they love hunting), or have a beer with. It does not matter to small town Americans what these candidates think about important issues the country faces, they just want a "Joe six-pack" or "Hockey mom" like them in office. Apparently the last two times they elected a Joe Six-pack to the Oval office, things went spendidly. As far as I can tell, Sarah Palin does indeed believe in these crude generalizations of the American electorate which don't quite stand up to even the most simplistic analysis. I am not so sure whether John McCain himself truly believes in them, perhaps he doesn't, but he peddles them with equal glee and enthusiasm nevertheless.

Most of these caricatures are obviously code words to appeal to a very particular group - the mythical "base" of the Republican party. The "small town America" is composed mainly of evangelical Christian extreme right wing of the Republican party. The "family values" they cherish include among other - an opposition to a woman's right to choose abortion, opposition to equal rights for homosexual couples, opposition to "affirmative action", opposition to immigration and a wish to turn America into a Christian nation. Everyone is in on this game. Everyone knows this, I just wish that they were simply honest and open about it and stop speaking in code.

The more nefarious thing about the McCain - Palin campaign though is the deep anti-intellectualism. Their message to all the Joe Six-packs in America is, "Don't be like those college educated, east-coast-liberal-elites. They are the enemy. They are what is wrong with this country. They are the ones to blame for your woes and they want to take your guns (Joe Six-pack likes his guns more than anything in the world) and your God away from you." With this platform, any nuanced rhetoric is treated as "waffling" or "flip-flopping". Thinking with brains (like most normal people do) is for those elite liberals, Joe-six pack and his leaders think and make decisions based on their gut instincts. They make decisions in a swift second and pack it into a neat sound bite. Critical thinking is for sissies. Take off-shore drilling for example. Most experts (including those in George W. Bush's administration) have said that it would have no immediate impact on oil-prices or price of gasoline at the pump. Furthermore it would do nothing significant to make America less reliant on foreign sources of oil. But that doesn't matter, Joe Six-pack wants answers that he can easily memorize and anything more than "drill baby drill" is just too much to remember.

This tactic has worked before for George W. Bush and it may as well work for McCain - Palin. In four more years (irrespective of who wins the election this November) we may be seeing Sarah Palin again, this time running for President. If the portrayal of Americans in this crass way is what she really believes (which I think she does) then I think it represents a grave danger to the future of this country. The country is in further trouble if she actually believes that "east coast elite" are the source of all woes in this country. Another dangerous quality she reflected in the debate is the denial to look back and learn. "Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backward," Palin said in the debate. "Now, doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future.", she said before starting to ramble on about something else. Joe Six-packs of small town America, consider your selves warned. As George Santayana put it, "Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it".

Critical thinking, a curiosity about how the world actually works, an openness to learn, receptiveness towards new ideas and imagination to think new solutions is what is required in future leaders of America (or any other country for that matter). Instead we are getting "gut instinct" which more often than not, turns out to be pre-cooked, ideological answers to every question. Instead of admiring education and intellectualism, we are told that it is the problem. Instead of receptiveness towards new ideas we get scorn and ridicule for the other views. I pity the Joe Six-pack who may get his "maverick" leaders elected to the highest office in the country only to find that his job has been shipped to someone in China, India or some other country in the world where learning, education, intellectualism are valued and admired, not scorned and ridiculed. If that happens (or perhaps when that happens) he may as well realize that the prosperity in this country is a result of the "ideas" which were a result of rational thinking, reason based discourse and profound intellect of the founding fathers of this country who were indeed the "east coast elite" at that time.

Most Americans think that terrorists driven by a hateful religious ideology are the greatest threat to the country. A greater threat to this society is a culture that has started to ignore the value knowledge, intellect and education. A culture that values sound-bites over reason based discourse. A culture that seeks quick answers rather than well-thought-out solutions that can actually make a difference. A culture that ignores history and fails to learn from it. The strength of this country lies in it's productivity and it's capability to innovate. The world is itching to take over America's lead in these domains. Where ever and when ever it is possible, this is already happening. The big corporations and companies know this and they are not going to stay here for the sake of some Joe Six-pack if Joe is unable or unwilling to learn long division.

The greatest threat to this country is not some Mullahs and their followers in some country in the middle-east or Persia following some bizzare bronze-age ideology. The greatest threat to this country are the home grown "Mavericks for Mediocrity" and their Joe Six-pack followers. They will continue to erode America's leadership in the world with their "shoot from the hip", "gut instinct" leadership.