The year before that, I had as downstairs neighbours a pair of Texas A&M students, one cowboy and one Pakistani. The cowboy lamented the fact that his apartment mate, a Muslim, wouldn’t eat fatback in his beans. The Pakistani griped that the law of his country was based on British law and should be replaced by one based on Islamic (Shar’ia) law. Sure enough, Zia-al-Haq did just that, executing Bhutto to round things out in 1979. (Note to college students: listen to your Muslim classmates and neighbours, you just might learn something!) Islamic law, with the madrassas to teach it, have become embedded in Pakistani society ever since.
But Musharraf, possibly the slickest politician in the world (more so than even Bill Clinton, and in a lot more dangerous political arena) did a remarkable volte-face to support Bush’s "war on terror" after 9/11. His idea is primarily to keep the "balls up in the air" and not to get crushed by the U.S. (to say nothing of India) on one side and the Taliban/Islamicists on the other. Now he’s trying to "de-Islamicise" Pakistan’s laws, especially concerning the status of women. But he’s finding out that a population drilled in this kind of thinking doesn’t go quietly.
Will he succeed? It’s amazing that he’s gotten as far as he has. But the jury is still out.
This is something that I, although certainly not comparable on a circulation level, took into consideration when writing The Island Chronicles. The notion that Webb is floating in the face of George Allen’s charges that his fiction is irrelevant to the campaign is simply wrong.
If one takes to writing fiction and having it published, that fiction is a) an expression of something inside of you and b) a part of your public record. Both of these make it a legitimate topic for discussion. Liberals may find this distasteful as it cramps their freedom of expression, but that’s just tough: if you don’t like how bourgeois our society is, don’t advocate gay marriage. (Click here for an explanation of that.)
Moreover, in the past fiction has been used as a way of expressing political opinion in a subtle way. Examples in Western literature abound, but it explains, for example, why Wu Ching-Tzu wrote The Scholars as if it took place in the Ming Dynasty when in fact it took place in the Ch’ing Dynasty. It was not a very flattering view of the current system, so it was safer to do it this way.
I don’t know if Webb’s fiction had that kind of political purpose to it, but what he writes is relevant to his seeking of public office. Perhaps everyone would be better off if he would do what Wu Ching-Tzu’s hero did at the end: “… I shall stay by my medicine stove and Buddhist sutras, And practice religion alone.”
When people think of "traditional" Palm Beach restaurants, they usually refer to places such as Testa’s (my grandparents’ favourite hangout) or the Petite Marmite. But for those of us who lived there in the late 1960’s, a place not to be left off of the list was Wert’s, on South Ocean Boulevard not far from Worth Avenue. Our family went there from time to time, and occasionally we would have a Palm Beach Day School function there. Started in 1924, the decor was "traditionally Florida" (the Bonefish Grill attempts to emulate this.) But the one thing that set Wert’s apart from any other place in Palm Beach was the fact that the walls were lined with baby pictures: babies in virtually every pose one could want (and a few one didn’t) with funny captions below. It was great entertainment for me, which doubtless gratified my parents who didn’t have to put up with hearing me at the dinner table.
Wert’s is long gone, displaced by tonier establishments such as Charley’s Crab. But now we have an election year with a voting public that is rightfully discouraged, if not always knowing why. But instead of things always going from from bad to worse, the reality is that, after all these years, everybody is still going "from bad to Wert’s." A lot of the malaise that infects American politics stems from the fact that we are at the end of a thirty year run of increasing social inequity. This has proceeded apace under both Republican and Democrat President and Congress alike. It has been masked to a large extent by economic growth and extensive borrowing, but as both home values and currency fall in value it becomes evident that the basic net worthless poverty of the average American cannot be hidden indefinitely.
Fuelling this is the dominance of one or more "me generations." When a me generation is mixed with power and money, the result is a concentration of both in the hands of a few who can manage to acquire and hold them, leaving behind the rest. The American dream has been maintained by a balance of a sense of public mindedness with the desire for personal betterment. The loss of the former is having the same corrosive effect that Ferdinand Lot observed it had in Rome. As we have noted repeatedly, the Democrat party, with the likes of Hillary Clinton, ought to be having a field day. However, its elites today, unlike Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy, have forgotten in their contempt how to connect with most people, and most people sense that. The "party of the people" that relies on the like of billionaire George Soros to advance its agenda is not the party of the people at all.
The Democrats want to take themselves the fastest "from bad to Wert’s," i.e., to the elite places like Palm Beach, where those who can live there and those who can’t cross the bridge daily to serve. (It’s also like Wert’s because most of us end up being treated like the babies whose pictures decorated the walls.) This is why the Republican philosophy, for all of the stumbling its bearers have done lately, is the only real check against boomer careerism. Putting the Democrats in power is like giving a pyromaniac petrol; expanding government will only expand their control, which is their only objective, and this in turn will concentrate the control of the country’s resources in their hands. The U.S. was founded under the leadership of an enlightened (in every sense of the word) elite. That enlightenment has long decamped from those who are in power in our country. Our only hope is in people who at least have some concept of the importance of the truly independent person, otherwise we will only accelerate our slide "from bad to Wert’s."
I recently had the privilege of addressing the Minister’s Meeting of the Church of God in Ontario, under the leadership of its Administrative Bishop, the Rt. Rev. George Peart (that’s right, Anglicans, Rt. Rev.) It was a really wonderful gathering, and I was able to address the ministers about lay and men’s ministries.
We have always said that one of the great things about Pentecostal churches is that they are inherently multicultural, and the Churches of God in Ontario reflect that. The majority of them are West Indian, with additional contributions from East Indian and a few Caucasian churches.
Most North Americans consider the West Indies a great tourist destination but not much else. However, working in the Church of God, I have found our West Indian bretheren some of the best, and their culture a treasure, and so this meeting was a special treat. Those of you who spend time on this site know that the "islands" are something of an obsession to me, from my stories of cruising in the Bahamas to The Island Chronicles. But being with these people brought back memories of an interesting incident that took place on a visit to England thirty years ago.
When things were slow, I watched the BBC. Now they were covering a "test match" of cricket between the English team and the West Indian team. (The photo I use as a cover for the Positive Infinity New Testament, shown above, shows the Nassau harbour lighthouse with the cricket ground in the foreground.) The West Indians were consistently the victors, so the Beeb dispatched a reporter to find out why they were being beaten at their own game. They interviewed the West Indian captain and his answer was simple: "We learned it the hard way." Without the fancy cricket grounds of England, the West Indians were forced to do with what they had, and the result was that they were better at the sport than the people who invented it.
Americans’ attitude towards people who learn "the hard way" is decidedly mixed these days. On the one hand we love an underdog story of someone who comes with many disadvantages and achieves something great. On the other hand we are afraid for our children to have to experience any hardship. For the last quarter century the Boomers and their successors and assigns have been obsessed with getting the children they have into the "best" schools and driving them (literally in many cases) from one high-commitment activity to another. Some of our schools have banned certain sports (like dodgeball and tag) to make sure that neither their self-images nor their bodies suffer any injuries. The environments that children are raised in are so clean that their immune systems are impaired, leading to growing rates of asthma, food allergies and other auto-immune conditions.
Such trends are reflected in our churches. In conservative churches, we see the growth of "prosperity teaching" and other like trends which tell us that we don’t have to "suffer for Jesus" or anything else, that prosperity is our right. Liberal churches continue their drift into sappy universalism (click here to find out how I was cured of that) and "anything is okay" morality.
But the truth is that the world we live in is as imperfect and sinful as the one that Our Lord came into many years ago. And, although we affirm that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was one and sufficient for the remission of sins, we also recognise that while in the world bad things will happen and that we must respond to them rather than go into denial and pretend they do not exist. In this respect the Islamic challenge is a healthy reminder of this, but it’s sometimes hard to see what lessons we are learning from it.
But while the West wallows in its own effeteness, the rest of the world struggles with economic deprivaton and a daily challenge to survive. More of this world is Christian–evangelical and Pentecostal–than many realise. Those who come to North America bring energy and desire that is decidedly lacking in the natives. In spite of the fact that those natives are given the best opportunities on the planet, there’s no guarantee that they will prevail in the world marketplace, which is one reason for the lacklustre opposition to illegal immigration.
It works this way in the church, too. Christianity is becoming a Third World religion faster than those in the "West" care to admit. It is no longer the "white man’s religion" because, as I was reminded in Ontario, white people are abandoning at as the rest of the world embrces it. In the Anglican world, the Africans and others–including, not accidentally, the Province of the West Indies–are giving the Episcopal, ACC and CoE a fit, and justifiably so. If missionaries followed weapons and traders in the West’s colonial exploits, what’s to keep the reverse from happening from the Third World? The Islamicists are hoping it will be them, but they’d first better deal with the erosion of their position in places such as Indonesia. There is a serious possibility that the West will lose its nerve in defending its own civilisation against the Islamic onslaught. But same Islamicists need to watch their backside, too, as they face the real "crusaders" in the world, the people that learned it the hard way.
One of the long-running whines about American politics is the low level of voter participation in elections. About this time every election cycle we are regaled with laments about how terrible it is that voter turnout in the U.S. is lower than every “major democracy” that people can think of. We’re also entertained with “reasons” for this problem, ranging from the effect of television (which is on the wane, but still important) to negative campaigning to banal candidates to the sometimes arcane system of voter registration and anything else that the “analyst” doesn’t like about American politcs.
To be frank we’re tired of this whine, which in presidential election years usually goes along with calls for the abolition of the Electoral College. We’re tired of it because it doesn’t really get to the bottom of the issue. People vote primarily because they believe the results of elections–and their particiation therein–will make a difference in their own lives. The simplest way to make an election irrelevant is to place the real power of a society in the hands of people who are not elected, and that to a large extent is why people quit voting or never vote to start with.
Back in the nineteenth century, we have many of the same problems we have today with elections: banal (and frequently drunk) candidates, negative campaigning that rivals or exceeds anything we see today, and plenty of voter fraud. So why did people turn out for these elections the way they did? The answer is simple: they either didn’t have civil service at all or did not have it to the extent that they do now. When the government changed, all of the officials changed. What you could get out of government depended upon who was there, and if you were an actual or potential officeholder, the stakes got really high. That was enough to get everybody’s attention.
Civil service at the federal level was triggered (literally) by the assasination of President James Garfield by a loser in the “spoils system.” The Pendleton Act (named after the Ohio Democrat who sponsored it) created the civil service, whose objective was to create some kind of merit in government positions free from political influence. By the time of President William McKinley, about half of the positions in the federal government were under civil service. It is not an accident, though, that the growth of civil service has been accompanied by the long term decline in voter participation.
The Republicans would rue allowing the creation of such an institution in the years they were dominant. Under Franklin Roosevelt the expansion of government meant the expansion of civil service. Roosevelt’s idea was the creation of an alternative form of patronage through Social Security and other wealth transfer mechanisms, all of which was administered by a bureaucracy that was further insulated from politics by the Hatch Act. By creating a large portion of government that was both “politically untouchable” and administered by “non-political” people who nevertheless had a vested interest in its perpetuation and expansion, Roosevelt took a great deal of effective power out of the hands of elected officials, both those of his opponents and those of his own party as well. And, of course, the level of voter particiation continued to decline.
This has dampened people’s enthusiasm for voting because it has dampened the need for them to vote. Today people can go on year after year, obtaining services and entitlements from the government without having to deal with an elected official. Although, as we commented last week, there are still many important positions in federal and state governments which are appointed by elected officials, there are still more that are not. A good example of this is our public school systems. Although these are certainly subject to political pressure, any elected school board member who will be honest about the subject will tell you that the bureaucracy of the system, from the superintendent to the organised teachers and so on carry a lot of weight as to how the system is operated.
And, of course, these people vote. Since their income is derived from taxation, it is difficult seeing them en bloc opposing tax increases, and we see this pattern very strongly when referenda on additional taxation are offered.
The existence of civil service has doubtless brought competent people into government. But it has also created a patronage dynamic of its own, one which, unintentionally in most cases, creates a long-term threat to the viability of meaningful representative government. By insulating government–and the beneficiaries of its services–from “politics,” it has created a constituency of its own, and it encourages people to ignore the electoral process and to trash the “noise of the renegades,” the voices of those who see the dangers of blindly going forth as we are. In doing this it imperils not only our freedoms but our existence as a republic. The obvious solution is to return to the spoils system, but this would create a total mess in the world we live in. It would, however, bring voter participation back to a high level, but it is unlikely that we want to or or should pay the price for that distinction.
Civil service or not, as they say at the NRA, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
From a personal standpoint, such problems are too close to home because the two Catholic parishes I regularly attended in South Florida–St. Edward’s in Palm Beach and St. Thomas More in Boynton Beach–flank Sacred Heart in Lake Worth. (Click here for my reminiscence about my time at St. Thomas More.) I will say that I never had any bad experiences of this kind in either parish. But I was seventeen when I converted, and since my parish priests all looked up to me, that puts things in a different perspective. Perhaps that delay was the best thing of all.
It is the sacred duty of any man or woman who is called priest or minister to behave in a way that is reflective of the call from God that he or she has on her life. I have become hard to shock in my old age, but I find this kind of thing impossible to stomach, especially when it happened so close to home and during the time I lived “where the animals are tame and the people run wild.”
One of the enduring fixtures of American politics is that elections are largely decided by a relatively small group of “independent” voters in the centre. Or at least that’s where we think they are. One of the great principles that such voters will enunciate is that they “vote for the man (and when called upon the woman) and not the party.”
On paper, this is admirable. The personal qualities of an individual in public office are crucial to their success. Some of these transcend party and ideology, although many do not. But this thinking in practice has too many pitfalls to be relied on for superior results in government.
To start with, most independent voters rely on the media for their ideas more heavily than, say, those ideologues on the left or right. This is scary in and of itself. No matter what you think of the bias of the media, the basic problem is that more often than not the mass media frequently does not understand what it is looking at when analysing a given situation, let alone a candidate for office. We discussed this problem in the aftermath of the Israel-Hezbollah war earlier this year and it applies to just about everything the media touches.
Beyond this, however, it assumes that everything in government happens because of the direct orders of the elected officials. If we don’t like what our government is doing, we change its officials and they will in turn change the government to do things the way we like it. That’s the idea behind representative democracy, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, things in reality are a little more complicated than that.
To start with, our legislatures–state and federal–are divided along partisan lines. It isn’t the belief of the senators and representatives that gives control of the agenda to a certain leadership, but party affiliation. A good example of how an entire group of people can be sidelined by their party’s position is that of pro-life Democrats. They can be pro-life all they want but their party has hung its fate on abortion and they have no effective voice as a result, either in their party’s internal system or in the legislatures they control.
Beyond that, we have the spectacle of congressional staffers, who control a lot more of the course of legislators than the legislators care to admit. If the staffers are drawn from the pool of party activists who helped get the legislator elected–or somewhere else–the legislator’s votes will be affected by those staffers, because no legislator is able to understand each and every vote that he or she makes.
Finally we must turn to the most important group of the unelected–the myriads of appointments to federal and state positions. In addition to having a larger than average number of elected officials vs. appointed ones, American government has a large number of appointed positions which are filled at the will of the ruling party. Most of these are filled either because the person is a reliable activist or more commonly for patronage reasons. This insures that people appointed tend to reflect the controlling ideology of the party rather than the diversity of opinions that might exist amongst the majority legislators. This is especially true in the Baby Boomer era, with its deadly combination of political polarisation and control freak methodologies.
The blunt truth is that we don’t vote for just people: we vote for all of the officials that they can appoint. And those appointments are generally reflective of the ideological bent of their party.
Today many conservatives are disheartened by what the Republicans have been doing the last twelve years. Liberals are energised by that prospect. But it’s one thing to have a party that suffers from patronage issues; it’s quite another to have a party that not only lives for them but wants to expand the role of government (and thus the patronage) to more and more aspects of human life. That’s one thing to remember as we go to the polls not only to elect our executives and legislators, but all of the unelected people that go with them. Your vote counts a lot more than you think; use it wisely.