Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Debate We Did Have

This might be an overstatement because of the contrast with the previous Presidential debate, but tonight my sympathies are entirely with the organisers, as they’ll undoubtedly be working long into the night with mops and brillo pads and rug cleaner in an effort to scrape what’s left of Mitt Romney’s credibility off the floor.

I’m not enamoured of the President, and I will not be voting for him this time around, but Mitt Romney is a contemptible individual leading an extremist party down the road towards social and economic fundamentalism.  The GOP and its candidate embrace economic inequality as a necessity for recovery, endorse corporate welfare at the expense of the public safety net, and advocate for an approach to international relations as morally bankrupt as it is violence-prone.

The Republican Party is also re-writing the book on physiology and anatomy.  Not only can women shut down their bodies when confronted by the violence of rape, an act of physical, psychological and social violence that Republican Party leaders discuss as though women have a hand in the matter.  Mitt Romney also suggested, in a slip that would have his English teacher shaking her head in despair, that women have shape-shifting properties that allow them to fit into binders.

Tonight, given the chance to expound on women’s rights, Romney declined to discuss equal pay, the right of women to control their own body, or anything else of substance, and proceeded to discuss what he takes as a key issue: the need to give women flexible working hours so that they can go home and cook dinner for the family.  If we needed any indication that Romney is a man from a different world—possibly a different planet—this was it.  I watched the debate in a room full of people in their 20s, and there was a collective gasp of horror as Romney wandered down the path towards last-century’s version of gender roles. 

Now to be fair, it is Romney’s running-mate, Paul Ryan (who referred to rape as a “method of conception”), rather than the candidate himself, who has expressed sympathy with Todd Akin’s philosophising on something called “legitimate rape”, but this is the problem with Romney: he used the Republican Party primaries to go out on a very dangerous limb.  He said things that were irresponsible (that he’d turn down a deal offering him ten dollars of tax cuts for only one dollar of tax increases).  He said things that were hateful (suggesting that Hispanics who voted for Democrats are leeching off of society).  He said things that were dumb (“Corporations are people, my friend”). 

And he didn’t stop with the primaries.  Romney, like many in his party’s leadership, is obsessed with the idea of victimisation.  Just as Newt Gingrich likes to re-write history and express dismay that Kenyan anti-colonial fighters would resist British oppression and misrule (thereby insinuating that Obama was born in East Africa), Romney believes that Palestinians—subject to decades of Israeli colonialism (something the CIA world factbook recognises)—revel in their suffering.  He believes that just a shade under half of our country is comprised of people who want to milk the system without working. 

One thing you absolutely cannot accuse the President of ever, ever having done is “pandering” to the left of his party.  Believe me, I’ve felt left out since the primaries in 2008, registered as independent in 2010 out of frustration with Obama, Jerry Brown, and Dianne Feinstein, and have been complaining ever since.  It is Obama’s persistent conservatism (in the sense that he hews to a mid-century consensus about the relationship between public institutions and the public, and refrains from making more than tentative jabs at the destruction wrought by capitalism) which makes right-wing claims about his implementation of socialist policies so laughable.  Romney, on the other hand, has endorsed the Party’s radical wing by grovelling in front of them during the primaries.  These people—ranging from the religious fanatics and the Koch Brothers to the neoconservatives and climate change deniers to the blowhards like Limbaugh and the bigots with their talk of our Anglo-Saxon heritage–will come to collect should Romney win.

Romney says, “Believe me”, but that’s the trouble.  His entire campaign strategy appears to be based around saying a series of wildly irresponsible things in one setting and then walking them back in another.  His sentences might hang together grammatically, but there is a tendency for his successive utterances to be totally at variance with one another from a philosophical standpoint.  I may not care for the President’s military policy, but at least he stands by his words.  With Romney, he says take me at my word until it stops being convenient.  And he and his party say some spectacularly ill-informed things.

The moderator didn’t mention climate change, and neither did the President, both deferring to our culture of unease with the issue.  But the real culprits are Mitt Romney and the GOP.  Romney’s party says climate change doesn’t exist.  Romney himself admits that he does believe in it, but says he won’t do anything about it. 

Representative Paul Broun of Georgia recently proclaimed, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.  And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a saviour”.  His colleague on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, Dana Rohrabacher of California,  declared that cutting down rainforests cuts down on greenhouse gas production,  Last year, the chair of the science committee denied climate change and ducked our ability to address it by saying, “I don’t think we can control what God controls”.

I have my share of difficulties with Christianity, with organised religion, and with the idea of a Church.  But the extent to which people are willing to base every last element of their worldview, suspend their senses, and embrace what they are told by people with specific social, economic and political interests at face value, is incredible and disturbing.  “I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old”, Broun spouted off to his audience; “I believe it was created in six days as we know them.  That’s what the Bible says”.  If a Congressman charged with overseeing our country’s science and technology policy—a policy sphere with deadly serious consequences for our national security, our economic development, and our social advancement—is going to quote the Bible (not, so far as I know, a footnoted resource) as the basis for said policy, he needs to have his head examined. 

Romney’s serial irresponsibility in embracing the zealots and know-nothing fanatics in his party is disturbing in another respect.  The Republican Party, betting against long-term demographic and cultural trends, is embracing multiple strands of racial and social hatred, as well as intense xenophobia.  The only word Romney said as often as “jobs” during the course of the debate was “China”, and none of the things he said about the world’s inexorably rising power was either polite or constructive.  The candidate clearly understands neither diplomacy nor the limits of U.S. power. 

And while Romney does his level best—and he struggles—to sound reasonable and humane on the question of immigration, he is trading with a party which incites ethnic hatred, and is behind policies in Arizona (which Romney has said we should extend to other states) which can only be described as bigoted in a manner reminiscent of nineteenth century scientific racism and the public humiliation of minorities in 1930s Europe.

These things are on my mind because my students have been reading about the rise of totalitarianism in interwar Europe, but I can’t help but reflect that in times of economic pressure, geopolitical shifts, and social uncertainty, when governments are increasingly not up to managing their nation’s problems, people turn nasty.  The internet, and presumably our society, is full of trolls who will blame everything from the price of gas and our national deficit to Osama bin Laden and the state of our roads on illegal immigration.  If these people believed in global warming, that too would undoubtedly be the fault of people desperate enough to come to this country to make a better life and provide for their families.  And President Obama was, to me, at his strongest when he belaboured Republicans over Arizona’s stop and search law, which sacrifices our values and other people’s liberties on the altar of racial hatred: “Part of the Arizona law said that law enforcement officers could stop folks that they suspected that maybe they looked like they might be undocumented workers and check their papers.  And you know what?  If my daughter or yours looks to somebody like they’re not a citizen, I don’t want—I don’t want to empower somebody like that”.  Romney might not support this element of the law, just as he might straddle the fence on climate change.  But he empowers the fringe in his Party, and this kind of thuggery is their solution of choice to our immigration issues.  I, for one, would rather allow any degree of illegal immigration than see ourselves descend into this toxic mix.

The debate audiences are generally pretty polite and quiescent.  But tonight they broke ranks, and they did so, cheering and clapping, when moderator Candy Crowley called Romney out on one of his lies, which seem to slip almost compulsively from between his lips.  Perhaps this is a sign that the Republican’s strategy is becoming more transparent to voters.  The attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi had barely unfolded when Mitt Romney used the President’s response to a demonstration in Egypt the previous day (a demonstration against an anti-Islamic video) to hit the President for apologising to the people who killed our Ambassador in Libya.  Mitt Romney is geographically illiterate, culturally insensitive, factually challenged, morally stunted, and 100% unsuited to lead our country.

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