Posts Tagged ‘politics’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. Every now and again I would have a student mention the Illuminati.  Once in awhile, a young man might argue that ‘9-11 was an inside job.’  Heck, one time a student even whispered to me in confidence that the Ebola virus was a creation of the American government.  When I asked that student what the purpose of such an invention would be, he told me very calmly that the government was trying to wipe out half of humanity.

How could I not scoff at such irrationality? Most people didn’t believe this stuff….right?  RIGHT? Such ideas would always be the territory of a small minority of Americans….right? RIGHT?

Well, maybe not.  Conspiracy theorists are boldly emerging out of their dark caverns. No longer found just on obscure chat-rooms, they now get the seat marked ‘expert’ on cable news’ shows. During the last decade or so, conspiracies have become disturbingly mainstream.

How did this happen?  Why did it happen now?  These are difficult questions to answer, and I will get to them eventually.  But first, I think some differences need to be identified. We need to categorize the types of theories sweeping our culture today.

Arguably, there are three main conspiracy theory categories.  Each share certain characteristics. None are to be encouraged, but only one has proven to be historically dangerous.  Unfortunately, the dangerous type has gained the most influence in recent years.  Here is a quick description, from most innocent, to most troubling:

  1. ‘Top Secrets’ Theories: These are the most commonly held conspiracy theories.  They center upon the notion that governments have secret, revolutionary information that they will not share with average citizens.  Of course, this is based upon a larger truth. ac992ee4bf0b19154f9c30554512c9adAll modern nation-states have ‘top secrets’ for acceptable eyes only. But, the ‘Top Secret’ conspiracy theorist takes this truth to unlikely, or fantastic proportions. Hence, to him/her, the US government is not just hiding a new military aircraft at the local Air Force base; they are also hiding alien life-forms and/or space ships!   Or, the government weather satellites don’t truly STUDY the weather; instead, the satellites CONTROL the weather! It’s is okay to laugh. The conspiracy theorist might laugh with you.
  2. ‘Secret Power’ Theories: These conspiracy theories are not as common, but they are gaining a larger and larger foothold amongst American citizens. These theories are usually based upon arcane notions of power and influence. Conspiracy theorists who hold these beliefs will argue that there is a secret group within a national eye_reasonably_small_400x400government (or multi-national organizations) that has undue, authoritarian power. This conspiracy may be connected to notions that there are world-wide government entities that control policy and have nefarious plans for either a utopian, or a dystopian future. The two most common groups associated with such conspiracy theories are the illuminati and/or freemasons. Both of these secret organizations have been connected to conspiracies for centuries.  For the conspiracy theorist, this historical tradition further proves the supposed conspiracy.  Though darker than the ‘Top Secret’ conspiracy, there is still a heavy element of absurdity in the ‘Secret Power’ conspiracy.  Beyonce, the CIA and the Pope inexplicably work together to rule the world. Hmmm.
  3. ‘Apocalyptic Power’ Theories: These are the most dangerous conspiracy theories.  The conspiracy theorists who hold these beliefs argue that a group of people, either large or small, is attempting to destroy the cultural, social and/or political world of the conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy theorist argues that he/she is not only ignorant of secrets, or out of the loop of secret power, he/she is actually a threatened victim of the conspirators. Usually, these conspiracies focus upon governments, but they also can tie into the ‘Secret Power’ conspiracies in the belief of a small cadre having control over levers of power. These conspiracies are the most dangerous because of their absolutist, zero-sum focus.  For the believers in these conspiracies, there is no middle ground. You either fight, or you die.  You gain your freedom, or become a slave. Every event that is read into the conspiracy is another sign of the endgame; the theorist’s world is believed to be crumbling down, and hence, it is only natural that violence may be necessary. Those who do not hold to these conspiracies then are more than ignorant sheep to be looked down upon. The person not accepting the conspiracy becomes part of the conspiracy.  This type of conspiracy theory promotes a Manichean notion of reality. The conspiracy theorist is not laughing. It is deadly serious to him/her.

In the next blog post, I will illustrate how some of these Apocalyptic conspiracies have caused historical tragedies, large and small. Then, I will investigate how and why these types of conspiracies are gaining such a foothold in our modern culture. To those who don’t believe, conspiracies can be funny, absurd or deluded. However, we should not underestimate the power of true believers.  History proves as much.

To be continued…..

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By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Political humor is a wonderful and necessary rhetorical tool in shaping our perceptions about politics and politicians.

Growing up in the 80s/90s, I was shaped in part by the many hilarious impersonations of politicians by one of America’s most notable comedic institutions: Saturday Night Live. A number of SNL’s most famous impersonations have become more ingrained in our culture than the actual politicians.

Still today, when I hear George H.W. Bush I first think of SNL’s Dana Carvey:

And Carvey again for Ross Perot:

Ross Perot

“Can. I. Finish?”

And Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis:

 

These days, it seems nearly impossible to separate Sarah Palin from Tina Fey’s brilliant impersonation of her:

Sarah Palin

When done well, political humor reveals critical truths about politicians, policies, laws, and societal injustices, all in a way that makes us laugh and makes topics a bit more palatable and approachable. Even scorching criticism can be made to seem charming in the right hands; Fey’s Palin is a good example. In some ways, so is Jimmy Fallon’s Trump impersonations, like when he played Trump with the cast of Full House.

 

Or back in the 90s when Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton stopped in McDonald’s to sneak food off of customers’ plates:

phil_hartman_clinton

In this way, humor invites a larger audience into important discussions. Upon taking over The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon was advised by his predecessor Jay Leno to lengthen his monologue because it isn’t just a source of laughter, but also as a way to inform people about the news of the day. And the same can be said for other famous sources of political humor like The Daily Show and The Onion.

However, I wonder if our round-the-clock access to social media, communication, and information has created a detrimental excess of political humor.

This week provided one possible example.

On Monday night, Donald Trump’s wife Melania spoke at the Republican National Convention. By the time I woke up early Tuesday morning, reports were posted everywhere that she had plagiarized a portion of her speech from a Michelle Obama speech. By the time I arrived at work, I had already seen countless posts across social media making fun of Melania and the situation. When I checked social media at lunch, the flood of jokes had not even slowed, nor had they when I checked social media again in the early evening. The jokes were coming from all levels: from regular folks to major publications and shows.

Not even 24 hours removed from Melania’s speech, I already thought, “Okay, the jokes have been absolutely beaten to death.”

Just to be clear, I have no allegiance or affiliation to either political party or candidate, and my example is not a veiled defense of Melania or the situation. I am all for anyone and everyone calling out any politician or any of their associates who do or say anything wrong, and I want people to be able to have productive dialogue about important issues. And that’s really a major part of my concern with the excess of humor.

Political humor, when done well and delivered in the right doses, inspires productive dialogue. But the well done doses are now surrounded by floods of other material, much of which is unfunny, and some of which can even be insulting and inflammatory, which just serves to shut down dialogue, not inspire it.

Partly, the poor material is a product of the “writers”; there is obviously a world of difference between John Q. Facebook trying to be witty and the professional writers developing material on shows like SNL, The Tonight Show, and The Daily Show.

Plus, on social media, many of the posts are just playing to the lowest common denominator to get attention and more ‘Likes’ while having zero concern for promoting thoughtfulness and dialogue.

Ultimately, the comedic congestion can turn important issues into white noise, meaning the inspired political humor that is aiming to be informative and transformative is getting partially (or completely) lost in the buzz. And if the flood of voices “kill the joke” so quickly, are people burning out on subjects before ever taking time to give the subject some proper thought and conversation?

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

As a student of history, I am usually pretty dubious about claims to novelty.  When someone says ‘There has never been a time/event/thought/argument like this before!!’, my first thought is usually ‘You sure about that?’ But, there are times when professions of originality are justified. No matter what the cliches claim, history doesn’t simply repeat itself ad infinitum.

This political season has had a number of ‘never-befores’.  Just because it is a ‘never before’ though, doesn’t mean that it will be a ‘never again’. The most revolutionary aspect of this election cycle, and the one that will be with us for the foreseeable future is the role social media is playing in our political culture.  This blog post will be the first in a number that will explore the sometimes exciting, sometimes troubling innovations in the quickly developing realm of social media politics.


To label social media politics as revolutionary is not hyperbole, nor is it surprising. Social media has revolutionized so many parts of our lives, why not mainstream electoral politics?  However, what is shocking is the transformative figure at the forefront twitter-social-network-icon-vector_652139of this revolution. It is not some youthful radical Congressional candidate from Berkeley or Brooklyn. No, this revolutionary figure is a 70 year-old angry dude who, prior to last year was best known for a reality television series and a combover.  Of course, I refer to Donald Trump.

Since he entered the race for the Republican nomination last June, Trump has continually been underestimated.  Over and over, political prognosticators have made two incorrect, though related projections.  One group of media fortune-tellers simply believed Trump would inevitably lose because of his ‘lack dailynewstrumpof a filter’.  According to this mainstream assumption, Trump would say too many offensive and/or ridiculous things, and the inherently moderate American voter would surely turn away in disgust.  That did not happen in the Republican primary, and these prognosticators were forced to reassess their beliefs….but only slightly. The Nostradamus crowd predicted that once Trump had to deal with the larger American general electorate, he would either veer to the center. The assumption was that Trump would batten down the hatches, go middle of the road, or inevitably face defeat. If the latest polls are any indication, these ‘expert’ opinions may be proven wrong as well.  What the nation’s political commentators never grasped was one of the  reasons Trumpists love Trump: The man never does what most rational observers would expect.

Nothing has displayed Trumpian ‘irrationality’ more than the candidate’s Twitter account. Like all social media, Twitter allows the user to instantaneously respond to external events, or share individual thoughts and personal desires. Trump tweets have allowed America to see the ‘realDonaldTrump’.  But Trump’s Twitter has become much more than simply a tool for his personal attacks, or a display of his psyche. Trump has  transformed the social media tool into a personal permanent propaganda platform. In this, he seems to eerily understand our media saturated environment better than any major political figure in recent memory. Here is how it all works:

  1. In 140 characters, Trump shoots off 3 or 4 controversial messages a week, knowing full well the media echo-chamber will spread his message to the masses.
  2. His twitter followers see his tweet, and adopt his political lexicon.
  3. However, many of these ‘followers’ are not Trumpians. Some are social media watchdogs who wait for the candidate to write something outrage.
  4. These people then retweet the original tweet with criticism attached, sending it to a whole new audience.
  5. Eventually, social media news platforms of both political stripes pick up the tweet, share it, and pass it on to an even more diverse audience.
  6. Lastly, once these platforms are all writing similar articles, the largest outlets get involved.  When Trump’s tweets get enough traction, it gets splayed in the MSM (Main Stream Media) of major Newspapers, TV and radio. And just like that….billions upon billions of humans can’t stop analyzing Trump’s latest statement.

This methodology of political propaganda is obviously cunning.  But, there is a very strange paradox wrapped into this method as well. Trump’s social media campaign speaks to his voters and, perhaps even more importantly, he speaks in the voice of his voters. Trump provides quick-hitters in black trump-twitterand white absolutes. After all, there can truly only be absolutes in the Twitter-verse; in 140 characters nuance is all but impossible. For a very large portion of humanity living in a confusing time of change, this absolutism is obviously reassuring. However, for many of the people Trump is speaking to and for, the original medium he is using for his message is one of the most troubling symbols of our rapidly changing world. For a great number of Americans who wish to ‘make America Great Again,’ social media is an enemy. It is understood by wide swathes of Americans as THE vehicle feeding our nation’s already intense narcissistic tendencies. Even more mysterious is that one of Trump’s most important demographics has no experience with using social media at all. Last year, when Trump was still fighting for the Republican nomination, almost 40% of his supporters were over 65 years old.  These same 65 year-olds are generally the ones who, at the very least, don’t have a strong connection to social media.  According to Pew Research, only 9% of Twitter users are over 60 years old. 91% of Twitter users are ‘kids these days.’

So, what is happening?  That is a much more difficult question to answer.

I think part of the answer can be found in the duel nature of social media in our political culture. It is both a source of enlightenment, and also a source of paranoia.  Perhaps investigating this duality in my next blog will shed light on this paradox.

 

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

When Paul Gaszak and I started this blog 4 years ago, we did so with the goal of avoiding ‘controversial’ and ‘political’ topics. Of course, this has not always been possible.  Completely ignoring the aforementioned two topical realms pretty much closes off most blog possibilities.  Our blog’s discussions of race, education, food, history, science and pop culture can’t help but be political. These topics themselves are politicized in our culture.  Plus, would you really want to read this blog if those topics were never discussed? Our subjective viewpoints make this blog interesting; without them, our little venture would be pretty lifeless. All in all though, I think we have fulfilled our initial promises. We have kept out of many of the ugliest political controversies that seem to rock our world on an ever more common basis.

But, times change and so do politics. As anyone can see, this election year is unique.  I capitalhave been dying to write about it, but we have that whole ‘no controversy’ goal. What to do, what to do?

I’ve decided to start anew….kinda.  With this post, I am creating a new subsection of the Turtle titled ‘Politics 2016’.  ‘Politics 2016’ will be devoted to analyses of the coming November elections, and the state of American politics generally.  Of course, I will be voting and I have an interest in who wins the upcoming election. I fall on one side of the political divide, and I’m sure many readers fall on the other. Hopefully though, the posts that appear on our blog will not identify any Map_of_the_District_of_Columbia,_1835sort of partisan alliance. There will be no hyping of one candidate or the other. There will be no soap-box stances taken on any particular ‘contentious’ issues. This subsection will simply deal with the changing face of American politics, and our larger political culture.

This will be a challenge.  Can this challenge be faced without generating nasty political rancor?  I don’t know. But, I feel it is necessary to try, both for our few readers and for my own mental stability during this crazy election cycle.

So, join us, won’t you?  And, if you have something to add, please do!

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I love 21st century political satire. In our 24 hour news cycle world, I feel like John Oliver, Colbert, John Stewart, Larry Wilmore and the satirical news-org The Onion are sometimes the only outlets of political sanity.  Today’s satire onion_fb_placeholdercan capture reality much better than ‘real’ news.

And so, I just about died laughing the other day when The Onion ran a faux-commentary by Donald Trump titled, ‘Admit It: You People Want to See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?’ It was the laughter of recognition.  But, after a couple guffaws, I got to thinking.  As so often happens, The Onion glimpsed an enduring truth in the Trump-capade. Donald Trump is trying to become our first ‘Reality-Show President’.

As a child of the 1980’s, Donald Trump will always be a symbol of Reagan-era decadence to me. He epitomized the ‘Lifestyles of trumpnewsweekthe Rich and Famous’ world of yachts and private jets.  Of course, by the late 2000’s Trump renewed his fame with his reality TV hit, The Apprentice.  He was the perfect candidate for reality TV.  Larger than life, flamboyant and just a bit dangerous.  You never can tell what Trump will say, or who he will destroy. Heck, perhaps he may destroy himself while we all watch. Reality television has always been about this danger, even if it is quasi-scripted. It is like pro-wrestling.  A little real, a little fake, but for so many, addicitively entertaining.

Now Trump the political candidate is using Trump the reality TV star methods on the campaign trail. These methods constantly keep him in the news.  First, he stated that Mexico is sending drug-dealers and ‘rapists’ over the border on purpose. Then he snarked on John McCain’s military record. Most recently, he gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number at a rally, and called Rick Perry and Scott Walker dumb.

After such well publicized, and well criticized gaffes, political candidates usually back down.  They apologize, and hope to move on from a slip of the tongue that caused uproar.  But, not Trump. That is not the way of reality of TV!  Trump has doubled down on all his controversial stances and statements. He will not apologize. Instead, he argues that he is simply telling the truth, and the media is attacking him for doing so.

150616161704-donald-trump-june-16-2015-exlarge-169The media doesn’t know how to respond to this. They point out Trump’s clownishness, and assume he will quickly fall from grace.  But, Trump is proving that he is no clown when it comes to understanding the American public. He understands he is a reality TV star, and reality TV is what people want. They want to see what Trump will do next; who will he insult?  Who will he attack? What ridiculous claim will he make?  Perhaps, he will self-destruct on live TV.  Grab the popcorn.

I don’t think Trump can win the national election with these methods…..at least not yet.  I think there are enough serious Americans out there who think politics must be more than an episode of Survivor.  Then again, more Americans have been known to vote for American Idol than for president. So, you never know.

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.
Rahm’s bombs fail to hit their intended target–the four challengers running to unseat him and become the next mayor of Chicago. Instead they hit Rahm himself causing considerable damage to his carefully crafted image while significantly enhancing the fortunes of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Rahm’s most formidable opponent.

Thus the obvious question is–why did he get beat so badly? Though the election proved more complicated than the media Duncan And Emmanuel Promote Education Dept's Summer Reading Initiativesuggested, a Garcia inspired consensus explanation quickly emerged. It claimed that Rahm was a narcissistic, ego manical, cold, abrasive, power crazed, ambition besotted hard head who loves doing favors for big shots and ignores the little guy–a high flyer who hob nobs in D.C., raises millions in L.A., touts Down Town, and thumbs his nose at the neighborhoods, oh, and doesn’t care for unions. Biggest piece of proof: he mindlessly closed 50 schools on the South Side! Yes, 50 schools! On the South Side!

But a translation is necessary. South Side isn’t simply a geographic designation to be contrasted with its geographical antipode– North Side. No! South Side means African American Chicago. It means black and thus not white. Or, since we’re talking politics, not geography, let’s get serious: shutting 50 schools on the South Side means racism. Period.
So Rahm is not simply an ego maniac, he’s a racist ego maniac. Well not exactly a racist because in fact he comes from an very liberal family (in the 60s, his mom participated in the big civil rights protests going to the South to work for voting rights legislation) and Rahm has always called himself a liberal. And as everyone knows, Rahm was President Obama’s first chief of staff, even getting the President to campaign for him during the last week of the election. Still while he’s not George Wallace, he did close those schools while never closing a single white school, and politically speaking, that equals racism.

Since we mentioned schools, let’s also note that at the beginning of his term, he came down a bit hard on teachers–but again, a translation is necessary for teachers don’t mean teachers, exactly; it means the Chicago Teachers Union. 476915_630x354Moreover, in this case, it means Ms. Karen Lewis, who is one very sharp, very clever, very funny, very media savvy person and the Head of the Teachers Union. In provoking Karen Lewis, Rahm met his match. Looking back in retrospect, from that point on, Rahm’s fortunes tumbled. Like a Russell Terrier, Lewis wouldn’t let go and Rahm knew not how to deal with her.

Now the media had an even better story to tell: Rahm was a hard headed, big shot elitist who ignored the neighborhoods, had racist policies, wasn’t exactly cordial to the unions, and regularly got bested by Ms. Lewis. To further improve this neighborhood, little guy theme, slighting the Hispanic community was added to the cauldron of complaints–and we’re off to the races, which helps explain why “Chuy” decides to put his hat in the ring.

So that’s the consensus view of why Rahm bombed. While this account obviously makes sense, I don’t buy it for the rather naive and obtuse reason that I tend to be color blind and feel that issues are more important than race and ethnicity though surely there’s some relation between one’s race and one’s views on issues. But it’s not one to one. Thus explaining Rahm’s bomb using the little guy big shot theme doesn’t completely work.

My take is different; it focuses on issues and, indeed, focuses on one issue alone. The issue which I believe explains why Rahm bombed is the fact that Chicago is in dire financial straits and will likely go bankrupt if it fails to put together a serious–meaning painful– plan to address this reality. For instance, the Public School System is 1 billion in debt. And folks is screaming at Rahm for closing 50 run down half empty schools. Yet rather than strongly defending his actions, Rahm starts stuttering and flies to L.A. or NYC for a campaign fund raiser whose loot will be used to pay for a 2015 30 second ad criticizing “Chuy” for favoring a tax increase in 1986. Looney Tunes, methinks.

The real point is that Rahm claimed to be the tough guy capable of making the tough calls but the record shows he dodges them never coming clean on how desperate is the City’s plight along nor does he offer a plausible proposal to address it. Instead, he tells stories how he fixed some CTA track lines (good for you, Rahm) and got the schools to lengthen the school day (again good for you)–both, certainly, worthwhile achievements. But compared to the financial crisis he never mentions, these successes pale in significance. Rahm proceeds as if it’s business as usual. But it’s not. So I think the real reason Rahm bombed is that lots of folks believe Rahm simply fiddles while Chicago burns.

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

That’s right, my dear Turtle groupies! Kant can’t rant because, well, he was a very very intelligent, epoch making genius, while being extraordinarily profound as well and, well, at least back in the mid 1700s, extraordinarily profound German philosophers simply didn’t rant. It simply wasn’t their style. Of course styles change and by the 1820s German philosophers were starting to rant and the rants picked up a considerable head of steam until by the end of the 19th century a very gifted perhaps even profound German philosopher, Mr. Friedrich Nietzsche, became probably the greatest ranter in philosophy’s long strange history, not to mention also becoming, by definition, the greatest German philosopher of rant.

Yes, but what does any of the above have to do with you potential Black Friday shopper of gazillions of gifts for loved ones and others as Christmas 2013 fast approaches. Or as Gordon Gekko famously put it, in the mildly dated but still rather interesting finance movie called, that’s right, “Wall Street,” named after that famous street sporting the exact same name, “Why should I care?”

And my all too honest answer is probably, “I don’t know. You just should. Period.” Or maybe a better answer is this stuff is good to know because it puts things in perspective and adds some texture and, like stickums, helps things stick.

Also, I suppose, you should keep these somewhat pedantic, dry, arcane mumblings in mind to prepare you for some further background trivia l wish to share with you as you shop from web site to web site or actually leave your warm lovely roast turkey smelling abode to walk through actual stores prowling for Yule tide presents.

Indeed failing to share a few thoughts on recent political developments which is the trivia I was referring to in the previous paragraph could easily be viewed as a dereliction of duty, like a cop deciding not to chase a car going 90 down the Outer Drive where the speed limit is set at 40. For being a student of politics shouldn’t I provide a report from time to time on recent and not so recent political developments of note? Of course I should.
And so, by far the most important political happening over the past few weeks concerns Obamacare. On this topic I have much to report but I will limit myself to pointing out what is obvious and has already been mentioned a lot by friend and foe alike namely, that President Obama bombed big time with the thoroughly mangled Obamacare rollout. For not only was the rollout a bust from a variety of standpoints, both technical and political, but–and here I’m adding an original thought–the fiasco was totally unnecessary, meaning it never had to happen. And by this I mean something very simple. All Mr. Obama had to do was go on the air and say that the work on the websites hadn’t been completed. Instead he announced along with Ms. Sibelius that work on the sites were finished and Obamacare was ready to roll! OMG! (Oh My God i.e.)

072413_al_obamacare2_640Now a commentator far more insightful than my poor self might point out that the President’s failure to make such an announcement was rooted in at least one earlier decision which on a moral or metaphysical level was far more complex than the most complicated aspect of the computer screw up. I’m referring to the fact that the President was completely dishonest about another key aspect of Obamacare. This concerns his repeated pledge that if people wanted they could keep their existing policies. He knew and his policy advisors knew his pledge wasn’t true. Obamacare would require insurance companies cancel policies because the administration wants to beef up the rolls as quickly as possible. Once their plans were cancelled, people would have no alternative but to sign up for Obamacare or pay a penalty.

When you add the computer breakdown to the President’s false pledge that Obamacare would allow people to keep their current insurance I think it’s fair to conclude that the Obama and his administration has failed to provide the electorate with an honest account of what Obamacare entails.

I have much more to tell you, if you’re still with me, about aspects of Obamacare I find troubling, but instead I’ll quickly touch on another issue which seems totally unrelated to Obamacare, but to me smacks to the same kind of politics. In this morning’s Sun Times, you’ll find a ringing eloquent plea for the passage of a new pension reform bill which was put together under the leadership of Mr. Michael Madigan. Among the many questions I could raise about this editorial, I’ll only mention one strange fact: it never mentions how this Reform Bill will be financed. The editorial does state the new bill will save taxpayers 160 billion dollars over a 30 year period, but not a word on who and how this legislation will be paid for? Of course not. Why in the world would that be of any importance?

Citizens of Illinois don’t need to know how they’ll be paying for this magnificent brain child of Mr. Madigan any more than they should be told that Obamacare will cancel millions of people’s current insurance so they can buy a more expensive policy through the good offices of Obamacare once the websites are up and running . End of rant.

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

My very dear Flanuering Turtles, have you ever felt behooved? If you haven’t, do you ever wish you had? This question burns in my sweet breast for I’m looking for soul mates, in this case people who have felt at one time or another quite or even very behooved because I believe I’ve been smitten with a feeling of behoovement. Never having experienced being behooved, I’m feeling both elated and a bit uncomfortable unsure if it’s really behoovement I’m feeling.

Amidst this uncertainty, I’m going to proceed on the assumption I am, indeed, feeling behooved and what I’m feeling behooved about is my wish to provide some expert thoughts on politics, and political activity given the increased acrimony our political system seems to be generating and the area of my academic expertise which is supposed to be in political science.

The simple point I wish to make which hopefully will help clarify the muddy debates currently raging abroad the land is that the principles upon which our country is based are exceedingly complex and so we shouldn’t be surprised if at various times in our history we find our politics rife with controversy.

On this my maiden voyage out, I’ll briefly take up only one such principle namely, the core idea our political system depends on which is equality, the principle first expressed in the Declaration of Independence, one of our country’s most important founding documents. And there it says that it’s a self evident truth that all men are created equal. Before proceeding further, let’s rid ourselves, at least for now, of one possible controversy and agree that the word “men” means human beings, or all men and women.

Now let’s examine this statement more closely, naively asking ourselves if we think this statement is really, really, true. For instance, let’s look at the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson. Does this man appear today or way back in his time to be every other person’s equal? Well, what about IQ? Probably Jefferson’s IQ was higher than most folks living in Virginia in the year 1776, especially in July of 1776, and it’s a good guess it’s higher than most people’s IQ even today. I mean honesty compels me to admit it’s a lot higher than my IQ, seems to me.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

But also Jefferson was much taller than I am; he was a far better writer, thinker and, overall, a much more creative person than I can claim for my poor person. So trying to understand how I’m Jefferson’s equal presents a challenge to me, and to you too, my dear Turtle Dove, for you’re going to have at least as difficult a time as I’ve had showing how we (Jefferson and myself) were created equal. And for all I know he was also created a better athlete than I am, not to mention being better looking while enjoying a better sense of humor than I have.

Indeed if we look around the room–any room– we’re likely to find people who are more creative, more intelligent, more athletic, and better looking than we are and maybe a fair number also enjoy better health than we do. Yet we might also notice that we’re ahead of the pack in a number of these areas. So a not surprising conclusion we might come to when we think about equality in terms of the gifts we’re created with is that their distribution isn’t equal, the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding.

declaration-of-independence-1776But to fully appreciate the complex nature of equality we also need to survey our world in terms of the conditions in which we live our lives. And we’ll quickly find these conditions, like the gifts we’re born with, don’t seem equal. In fact, they display a remarkable degree of inequality. For instance, we see, hear, and read about large inequalities of wealth, health, status, power, recognition, and achievement.

If all the above is true, cold hard logic would probably force us to conclude that basing a political system on the concept of equality would prove a very difficult undertaking, which I believe it is. And it wouldn’t be surprising to find lots of issues people would be concerned about become very controversial because in many important ways people aren’t created equal. Consequently treating people equally isn’t always such an easy thing to do. Moreover, determining exactly how equal people’s living conditions should be is also difficult, even for people who are created with far more intelligence and creativity than the majority of folks, which includes me, seem to enjoy and make use of.

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

We humble men and women of the good ship RMU Eagle are justly noted for our very admirable commitment to teaching students in a wide range of subject areas and for our miraculous ability to successfully steer students through immense oceans of ignorance until they acquire the skills they need to master the area they’ve chosen to specialize in; however, I must report that I now find trying to understand current developments in my area of expertise an increasingly difficult challenge.

Let me attempt to explain what I mean. For some unknown reason, I’ve always been interested in politics. I can remember reading newspapers and magazines at a reasonably early age looking for info on politics be it about issues or individuals–presidents in particular. The names of every member of Congress were known to me as were all the Supreme Court Justices. Usually, I also knew the names of all the individuals who served as members of the President’s cabinet. In high school, I wrote articles about politics in the school newspaper and participated a bit in student government. I continued following politics in college, and majored in political science. When I went on to graduate school, my goal was again to get a degree in political science, though I varied my concentration a bit by specializing in political philosophy.

Now as I leap forward an immense amount of years and enter the sunset of my career, I believe I have a fairly solid grasp of my field, even as my interests broadened after leaving graduate school, but increasingly I realize that developing a firm grasp on current political developments seems more difficult than it was in the past. I’m not sure if this is because my brain is slowly and sometimes, to my immense dismay, quickly unraveling, or because, instead, political developments today have become more complicated than they were a few decades ago. Of course a third possibility is that both factors are at work.

Let me give you, you heavenly Turtle gourmets, a relatively simple example of the frustrations I run into analyzing the current political landscape. Let’s say my goal is to determine how our famous city of broad shouldered hog butchers is fairing at present. Well, candor compels me to confess that I’m having an absurdly difficult time answering this question. On the surface, things seem fine. The lakefront looks great; in fact it’s never looked better. North Michigan Avenue appears to be thriving, buses around town seem full, more people are going to movies; they’re also starting to buy more cars, and reports indicate that the housing market is finally opening up.

On the other hand, the city’s budget gives some cause for concern. Once again on the surface, our mayor, Rahmbo, the Extraordinarily Magnificent, submitted a budget for next year that didn’t cause budget experts to sound anxious alarms. Yet whether the alarms should have gone off is a question which lingers, given the enormity of the pension problems the city faces, and the public school system’s very substantial debt–by substantial I’m talking about a billion dollar debt with rating agencies recently downgrading Chicago issued bonds.

Rahm-Emanuel-007

These issues sound relatively objective and adult, but I’ve not yet mentioned another factor, one quite bizarre and surely not brand new, which plays a mighty role in the governance of our so called toddling town. I’m referring to the disturbing fact that Chicago’s been governed (run) for over a 100 years by a one party machine organization making our city one of the most corrupt in the country. The machine knows no real outside control which helps explain why the city’s finances seem so shaky for the machine cuts deals which often benefit itself at the city’s expense.

A wacko example of such dealings hit the front page of the Sun-Times last weekend, though it had been already been in the papers several times over the past two years. The story involved a major league law suit that our mayor initiated against owners of the Park Grill Restaurant located on the edge of Millenium Park. Why did Rahmbo the Extraordinarily Magnificent sue the Park Grill owners two years ago in a case that’s already run up over 2 million dollars in legal fees, and has seen part of the suit go all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court where a majority of the justices ruled against the city?

Park Grill at Millennium Park in Chicago.

Park Grill at Millennium Park in Chicago.

The altruistic reason the mayor gives for the suit is that the restaurant’s owners won a sweetheart deal from the city because they’re clout engorged cronies of Chicago’s ex steward–yes, I mean they’re close pals of our beloved, revered, and respected ex mayor, originally of Bridgeport, who now resides somewhere along the corridors of the trendy well healed precincts of North Michigan Avenue. Yes, he said Yes, and again yes, yes! Yes, the Right Honorable Richard M. Daley approved an absurdly favorable deal for the Grill Restaurant owners which included The Grill getting free utilities for between 20 and 30 years, and paying peanuts in taxes on the revenues the restaurant earned over this extended period of time. But why the over qualified, immensely talented, and hugely public spirited current Chicago mayor is going for blood here is a question I can’t answer since deals like the one given to the Park Grill owners represent a 100 year Chicago tradition. All anyone can say for sure is that Rahmbo, the Extraordinarily Magnificent, has made this suit a priority item.

These old fashioned realities combined with new political developments is what makes analyzing current politics increasingly difficult. I believe that most of the difficulty is rooted in the introduction of new strategies for dealing with government budgets which make it easier for politicians to evade or ignore budgetary constraints, at least in the short run. The odd thing is that a phenomenon which in the past seemed very objective and real–namely individuals and organizations knew whether or not they were solvent– no longer appear so clear cut.

Moreover, the higher the level of government, the less budget numbers assume an objective status. To me, this change goes a long way towards explaining why Congress had so much difficulty negotiating a reasonable budget agreement which would have avoided shutting down the federal government, even though the shut down lasted for a very short period of time. As far as our legislators are concerned, when push comes to shove, the government–especially the federal government– can always take on more debt particularly when the government can borrow at rates it keeps artificially low.

And this is also why relatively intelligent folks like myself now find keeping up with political developments much harder than they were in the past.

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

An old adage has it–old? adage? isn’t this an oxymoron or redundant? or just simply unnecessarily wordy, I ask myself anxiously. No, it’s fine! Keep writing. OK, thanks, methinks!–old adage has it that politics makes strange bedfellows. Strange bedfellows! Politics. Wow. Very interesting. Very exciting. Then studying and following politics must be great fun, must it not? I’ll bet no one ever said physics or sociology or history makes strange bed fellows.

And the phrase is relatively easy to remember. Nonetheless, though well known and easy to remember and though I’m now a seasoned watcher of politics with hard earned academic credentials to match, I usually have difficulty coming up with good examples of strange politicians getting in bed together. For in my laterally structured mundane mind, people who oppose each other head off in opposite directions and stay out of each other’s beds. For example, think of Hamilton and Burr, or Adams and Jackson, or Truman and Dewey, or Nixon and Kennedy, or Gingrich and Clinton, or Obama and Bonheur and tea party republicans.

C-T-SYet candor does compel me to confess I do eventually end up remembering one super famous example of strange bed fellows; it’s the alliance forged between Churchill and Roosevelt and their polar opposite, Joseph Stalin. Difficult would it be to find two more opposed individuals than Churchill and Stalin. Yet we must all thank our lucky stars for these two (or three) politicos getting together for defeating Hitler may well have failed if they hadn’t. So strange political bed fellows do indeed exist.

And, dear reader, early this morning in my steaming pre dawn bath, roaring into my dulled, tired and beleaguered brain is the extraordinary realization that another example of strange bedfellows is taking place during my bath as I try removing my peach shampoo’s nasty sting from my now (i.e. then) burning eyeballs: to wit, President Obama’s new Syrian policy is based on the same principle and uses the same lingo President Bush (i.e. 43) utilized when he announced his Iraq Plan. Lest this similarity be missed, soon after Obama explained why we had to bomb Syria , he welcomed to his bed two of his most despised Republican rivals, John Boehner and Eric Cantor.

This development significantly ratchets up the increasingly quoted Apppple Goooogle amazement/incredulity factor or, if you prefer, the more familiar strange bed fellow factor, when we realize that Obama has been busy relentlessly attacking Bush’s foreign policy principles since he began his run for the presidency back in 2008. I mean, dear reader, these guys do indeed represent a gaggle of exceptionally strange bed fellows! No political savant–whether sane or insane–could have possibly predicted such a development which is why methinks President Obama’s Syrian strategy will long remain a hugely bewildering event.

obama-putinBut wait! Go not into that good night too quickly for, as of mid week, one further strange bedfellow event has exploded unto the Syrian Scene: The President’s most hated international antagonist, Russia’s Mr. Vladimir Putin, signaled his willingness to lean on the Syrians to surrender their chemical weapons. And as Mr. Putin hits the Moscow mall looking for an extra large king size mattress to share with the President, the President announced he’d be happy to join Mr. Putin in bed, the sooner the better.

Once again, no pundit in this here Milky Way could ever have predicted Putin and Obama would soon be in bed together. Putin was (is) notorious for going out of his way to mock the President. Then, all of a sudden, he’s pulling Obama’s well roasted chestnuts out of the fire and unto dry land (if you can send mixed messages why not mixed metaphors, is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot of late).

So if you read in the paper or hear on the tube that the old adage about politics and strange bed fellows no longer enjoys much currency, please dear reader, don’t plead ignorance and don’t play dumb. Instead, get on your smart phone, check Facebook, or pound out the Flaneur’s Turtle on the web, and re-read this post. For I hope I’ve shown even the most ardent strange political bed fellow skeptic that politics really does make for strange bed fellows with results that remain awfully hard to predict.