Universal Translator

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

GOP: Gang Of (adolescent) Punks

Back in my college days I read a line by P.J. O'Rourke that stuck with me ever since. P.J. was explaining the allure of being a 3rd World freedom fighter and observed (paraphrasing from memory): "It will always be more fun to run around in the mountains with a Kalashnikov and sleep with ideology-addled college girls than it will be to spend your life in a rice paddy staring at the ass-end of a water buffalo." Of course, what is implied but not stated is that "staring at the ass-end of a water buffalo" is what actually keeps people from starving to death.

Generally speaking, it is the sober, plodding work that people do that produces more overall benefit, and does so more reliably and routinely, than does the rousing, romantic, exciting confrontation that we all tend to find so viscerally appealing. This is why - in the Real World - most people end up in jobs that do not provide much in the way of excitement but do pay better than any reasonable alternative: boring, routine work produces the most benefit to society. This is also why they don't make movies that are only about people doing boring, routine work: we may all of us be stuck doing that sort of stuff, but we don't enjoy it much and our dreams are always of things a lot more fun.

One of the marks of being an adult is recognizing a univeral truth: if you really want to accomplish something worthwhile, doing so will involve a great deal of hard, mostly boring work. On the other hand, if you care more about "striking a blow" or "making a statement" for whatever cause you've decided to make your own, then you are still pretty much an adolescent who really just wants to star in a movie.

Sometimes it seems to me that America is becoming more and more a nation of adolescents. Even scarier, there seems to be an increasing likelihood that these adolescents have actually seized control of the country.

The Teabaggers, of course, are the most visible example of this. At first blush, it might sound strange to call these people "adolescents"; after all, they skew heavily toward middle-age and older. Who can forget Matt Taibbi's description of a Tea Party rally for Sarah Palin?
A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential hand-puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it.
But the salient descriptor here is not "elderly," "Medicare" or "scooters" -- it's the phrase "imagining themselves revolutionaries." And, seriously . . . think of the images associated with the Teabaggers. Would someone who wasn't an adolescent at heart ever even contemplate dressing up in 18th century garb, hanging a bunch of Lipton teabags from a tricorn hat, and start screaming that they are going to "take their country back" while holding up signs -- now, when taxes are at their lowest ebb since Harry S. Truman -- that read: "T.E.A. Taxed Enough Already"?

More ominously, who but an adolescent would ever consider it a good idea to show up at a Presidential town hall meeting with a gun strapped to his leg?

Of course, there is always the danger of violence when adolescent passion is wed to political causes. We saw that with the Weatherman bombings a generation ago. We witnessed it to a tragic degree just four days ago, in Oslo. But as terrible -- and as tragic -- as sudden outbreaks of violence can be, their capacity to do real and lasting damage to any nation as a whole is as nothing compared to the amount of damage that can be wrought when adolescent passion is able to seize actual political power. As the deadline for reaching agreement to raise the debt ceiling gets closer and closer, the United States is getting closer and closer to learning how seriously wrecked the ship of state can be when emotional teenagers are able to seize control of the wheel.

And is there any doubt the House GOP is now controlled by emotional teenagers? According to Nate Silver's number-crunching, it was high turnout by the Teabaggers last year that secured 63 new seats for Republican candidates -- as opposed to the 27 seats they otherwise would have gained. Sure, the Teabaggers may have lost some higher profile races -- Christine O'Donnell comes to mind -- but they won the House, and they won the House not for the Republican Party but for themselves, the most extreme group within the Republican Party. Moreover, the debt ceiling talks have exposed Boehner's complete impotence over that group. It is Eric Cantor and the Teabagger bloc that is driving the GOP-controlled House, which means that if they are feeling suicidal we all get to drink the Kool-Aid.

And with a week to go before Defaultageddon, it looks right now like they are getting ready to pass out the cups. To a certain extent, this may be because these know-nothings really don't understand what is at stake. Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party's standard bearer, has repeatedly told her followers "not to believe it" when they hear that failing to raise the debt ceiling will be an economic catastrophe. A letter has been circulating in the House among Republicans pledging that they will not raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances; the last I heard, it had secured more than 80 signatures.

And the ever-horrifying Steve King (R-Iowa) suggested just yesterday that Obama would be impeached "if the United States falls into default on its debt"; King apparently is simply incapable of understanding that if Congress --which is Constitutionally responsible for raising and spending the nation's money -- doesn't provide him with that money then Obama cannot avoid defaulting.

But I think something more fundamental than simple ignorance is at work here. You can generally rely on adolescents to be dumb, but you can always rely on adolescents to be lazy. One thing that P.J. O'Rourke didn't mention about the allure of being a freedom fighter: not only is it more fun to be a freedom fighter than to be rice farmer, it is easier too. In fact, this is true of any opposition role. Building a bridge can be hard but satisfying work; blowing it up is always easy and fun. Keeping the trains running on time requires paying attention to a lot of boring detail; derailing one involves nothing more than a coupla pounds of chemicals and a reasonably good detonator.

And actually governing a country often involves work and compromise and sometimes making painful choices. Keeping a country from being governed involves nothing more than saying "No" to everything and preening for the cameras afterward.

If the United States ends up defaulting on our obligations, it will be because a bunch of petulant teenagers-at-heart decided to elect adolescents to positions of real power, who have no ideas about or interest in actually doing the work required of them.

Truly, we are ruled by children.

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