Thursday, January 25, 2007

Explorers and Pioneers

The American political landscape is becoming a lot more fluid than it's been in a long time, largely as a reaction to George Bush's graceless attempt to grab the country by the short hairs and drag it to the right. One of the interesting dynamics that is come out of the resulting tension is a debate about the relative merits of centrism--Save us Hilary!--and more radical agendas (national health care, global action on the environment) that have been permitted to re-enter the policy discussion, albeit still seated in a section marked "lunatic fringe."

I have no use for centrism. Pure centrism is what you want when you think the bus is headed in the right direction, but the ride is just too bumpy. I happen to think we need a significant change of travel plans. That means picking up the whole dang bucket--center, left and right--and repositioning it. So I've been thinking about the role of progressive elements within the mainstream, and outside it, in the effort to move the center.

We can think of the mainstream as consisting of those opinions and behaviors that are shared in common by a lot of people. If you plotted those on a graph, you'd end up with the famous bell curve produced by scientific studies. The bulk of data points fall in what self-validates itself as the moderate middle. The bell slopes to the sides where fewer and fewer people hold more extreme opinions. Just under the lip of the bell on the left shelters the fragile but undaunted Dennis Kucinich. And at the right lip of the bell--at the boundary where the bell ends and the void once populated by the likes of Hitler and Stalin begins--we find the aptly named Dick Cheney in his bunker stroking a cat with an eye patch and plotting the destruction of the universe.

But there are people out beyond the fringes of the bell curve with much of value to offer. In scientific terms, their beliefs are "out of range data points." In a lab experiment, these anomalous results are usually attributed to mistakes in methodology, contaminated equipment, or some indeterminate craziness. Ironically, radical opinions about public policy are often considered to stem from the same causes. Regardless, all scientists agree about what to do with out of range data points: throw them away. Thus people who express out of range opinions are called cranks or crackpots, and they and their thoughts are either dismissed or ridiculed.

But they have an indispensable role to play in the process that will change what it is acceptable for people in the mainstream to say and think. Along with less-radical but like minded folks who operate from inside the bell-curve, they can move the center.

Those who stake out extreme, out of range opinions--say, early advocates of alternative energy, or more extreme, someone like Noam Chomsky who argues (absurdly) that god may not actively desire US domination of the planet. These people are like explorers who go beyond existing frontiers. Only time will tell what they've found. Lands flowing with milk and honey? Nevada? But there is no question that the only way to get a mass of people to go to anyplace unknown is for a few brave/stupid souls to go there first and scout it out.

Consider the advantages of playing the explorer role in public debate. You get to say whatever you want, and (you think that) people think you're cool. You're a maverick, like James Dean (or more likely Fonzie). You don't have to waste your time trying to shepherd a big unruly group of people on the trail with you, cuz you're alone. You can sleep well at night because you're bringing people something valuable. And patchouli-scented sophomore college girls will make an offering of their bodies after the lecture. In support of the cause, or course.

On the con side, well, people think you're an idiot, a creep, a crackpot, unrealistic, impractical, and incapable of getting along with others. You're outside the bell curve and, frankly, the weather is frequently shitty out there. And let's not forget--you're off in the wilderness and your ability to influence events back in society, or even maintain your personal hygiene, is seriously impaired.

But let us leave our intrepid, rain soaked explorer for the time, and return to civilization. What's life like for those who would like to lead people in the same direction that the explorer has gone, but have no intention of going without bringing at least the fringe of the bell curve with them? These are the pioneers, the wagon train leaders, possessed of bravery of a different sort. In this group you will find the politicians--politics is after all the art of the possible--as well as the commentators and the most practical of bloggers. They have determined that influencing events is the greatest goal, and that the ends largely will justify the means.

The pros? People may still call you an idiot, but there will be plenty of others that will tell you you're brilliant. You will not be the only one that thinks you're cool. You might actually get to change something for the better and get to spend the rest of your life telling awed audiences how you did it. You will get invited to parties. You could get a paycheck! It will be hard work, but it will be worth it, and you can say that you fought the good fight.

But it's not all fresh young male pages, accolades and appearances on the Colbert Report for our pioneer leaders. All your bold and brilliant ideas will have to be well-larded and sweetened to have a rat's-ass-chance-in-hell of being palatable to the unwashed upon whose good graces (and votes) you rely. And that means--maybe you should sit down before I say this--that you will have to be... a hypocrite. The only other option is to partake of the Kool-Aid. Not so much as to result in complete zombification, but enough to create the gentle buzz of oblivion. But physician's warning: Kool-Aid dosage is notoriously hard to calibrate, and accidental overdoses are common. And finally--yes it is warm and dry under the bell curve, and there is an open bar--but there will be LOTS of irritating people in there with you. For instance Shawn Hannity and the aforementioned dick, Dick Cheney.

But it takes both explorers and pioneers to make change happen. The explorers to shout from the distance "Hey! I'm here! The weather's great and the surf's up!" And the pioneers to cajole and convince and get them dogies movin'. I have the luxury of being out in the wilderness politically, calling for an end to advertising in media and socialized medecine (and a personal fairy too! I want a personal fairy!) I'd much rather risk derision and hippie girls than share a roof with Sean Hannity. But I don't blame the Feingolds and the Boxers of this world for playing along. In a professional situation, you don't really have much choice. Either you get results, with whatever compromises, or you're out on your ass. Meanwhile, the explorers have the luxury of talking like a nutjob, calling for an end to advertising in media and socialized medecine.

Everybody who wants to promote change would wish for some leverage to make it happen. A smart pioneer takes up a position far enough toward the periphery of the mainstream that when he jams a crowbar under AG Mengenzalez' fat ass and steps on the back of the bar, he'll impart sufficient force to flip the torturing toady clear through the ceiling. The one thing you DON'T want is to get into a polite negotiation with him--"Hey Alberto, I was thinking we could use golden retrievers instead of German Shepherds?" No, you want to give him the full Patrick Leahy: "You knew damn well he'd be tortured! And that goes against everything this country stands for!" (The cameras had stopped before we heard Leahy's final word: "Douchebag!")

But our explorer is way too far away to have any real leverage at all. What's the old quote, "Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world?" Well, that's fine in theory, but whoever said that obviously hadn't spent much time digging ditches. A lever isn't going to do jack for our explorer--except break.

Of course, everybody inside the bell curve knows this. They don't care much about the explorers. Mostly they avoid validating them by even acknowledging them. Corporate advertisers insure that the explorers aren't heard from in the media. But the forces of darkness are not so sanguine about their opponents under the bell curve, for they are a more immediate threat. There are two strategies employed against the pioneers. The first is to wait for them to accidentally get too close to the edge of the bell curve--"If you don't go to college, you go to Iraq"--and then give them a push and thrust them out into crackpot land. The other strategy--more common--is to pull them in closer to the center of the bell curve, entangle them in nuance and negotiation. This reduces the pioneer's leverage, while at the same time legitimizing the bad guys' position.

Case in point: the SOTU address. The evil leader extends a blood-soaked hand and speaks lying words of compromise. Energy independence! Health care for all! The Democrats smile and clap. Suddenly it's all so... so... collegial. And the tigers are rendered toothless.

Drawing their enemies closer--this is what Bush tried to do with freshman Senator Webb at a recent White House even when the President inquired after the Senator's son, a marine in Iraq. Webb was having none of it, and stiff-armed the Dear Leader, causing His Irrelevancy, commentator George Will to engage in a public display of apoplexy at the incivility of it all.

Cry me a river, George.

The monsters that run this country are (please, god?) overplaying their hand. And now--have you noticed?--some of those crackpots out in the wilderness don't seeming so crazy anymore. The wagon train leaders should be rounding up the wagons and calling for everyone to mount up. The bell curve hasn't been this pliable in a long time, and now's the time to push.

This isn't the time for conciliation. If the president extends a hand, we should all take a cue from Senator Webb:

"Mr. President, fuck off."

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