Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Seeing Sophistry

   If the government funds you, 
the government owns you. 
 Those words are attributed by GreeneLander James Varelas to Charles Krauthammer, the columnist and Fox News commentator, and they are hailed by him as “a brilliant statement.”  In nine subsequent paragraphs of a letter to local papers (Daily Mail, 6/9/11) Mr Varelas hammers the Obama Administration, but he does not undertake to clarify the Krauthammer statement’s terms or to support his evaluation of its thesis.  I shall attempt here to identify properties that generate its rhetorical glitter.
       Pithiness. The Krauthammer statement is a model of brevity and rhythm. It seems to load a great deal of experience into a neat package.
Gravity.  Manifestly crucial to the Krauthammer proposition are the final words “owns you.”  Those words express the idea of being a serf, a slave, a disposable piece of tangible property.  Thus, the consequence of being funded by the government, as alleged in the “brilliant statement,” seems portentous indeed. 
Taken at face value, that proposition is false.  Few if any governments hold ownership papers on the people they fund.  But taking the proposition literally or legalistically would be imprudent and shallow. What is offered essentially is a strong quantitative claim.  It is a claim about variations—big variations—in degrees of servitude. Thus we have the still-portentous proposition that If the government funds you, you occupy a state of dependence and servitude that is far along in the direction of serfdom. 
Contrast.  Basic to such a proposition is a distinction between spheres of existence:  government, also known as the public sector, and non-government, or the private sector.  Invited by If the government funds you, the government owns you is the inference that if a non-government agent funds you, he or she or it does not own you.  Accordingly, If the government funds you, your state of servitude is much more complete than if a company, foundation, union, client, parent, church, bank, or paying customer funds you. 
     Conglomeration. Implicit in our “brilliant statement” too is denial or belittlement of differences in the status of people who are funded by different types of government. Denial is conveyed by the absence of differentiating adjectives such as despotic, autocratic, feudal, Fascist, theocratic, Communist, strong, republican or democratic. Denial is conveyed too by context: delivery to subjects of governance by elected representatives. Respondents are invited thereby to recognize that if the government—any kind of government—funds you, the government owns you; differences in degree of servitude under different forms of government, are trivial. (This leaves room for the possibility that, for occupants of the private sector, different forms of government do cause variations in degree of servitude).
    Personation.  Crucial to the power of the “brilliant statement” is treatment of the government as a sentient, willful, demanding actor. “The government” here is not an institution, a set of procedures, a mechanism.  It is an agent who (sic) can speak, think, pay, hire, fire, sell and boss people (including “you”).
    Diversion.  Thanks to its pithiness, its categorical distinction between government and non-government, its inclusiveness with regard to forms of government, and its treatment of government as a willful actor, our “brilliant statement” serves to divert attention from everyday experience.  As a routine matter we know people who are, so to speak, government-funded.  They are police officers, soldiers, sailors, engineers, clerks, lawyers, judges, bailiffs, mayors, pensioners, nurses, teachers, letter carriers.  They also are manufacturers, researchers, landscapers, and other private-sector workers who are funded by way of contracts with government agencies.  These people are not paid, however, by “the government.”  They are paid by various public-sector employees, who are constrained by regulations. They are supervised (governed!) not by “the government” but by various authority figures (governors) whose power, again, is constrained by regulations emanating from other authority figures.
      A common complaint about public employees in general is that they are too secure.  Rarely can they can be fired or demoted or transferred without an elaborate hearing. Never can they be auctioned off.   They may be redundant but, under established tenure rules, they cannot readily be discarded.  To think of them as government-owned chattels is quite a stretch.  Our “brilliant statement” seems to be reducible to initials: b.s.
     [BTW.  Mr Varelas's letter also was published in The Daily Freeman (7/21).  And although Mr Varelas did respond by e-mail to the above critique, he declined an invitation to have it, or a revision,
posted as a Comment here.  7/21/11]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Baby Blog

BEST OF SENIORS (students, not retirees).  In Catskill High School’s graduating class of 135 students, 44 received special awards.  At a ceremony Tuesday night, they collected a total of 94 awards for scholarship, for sports, for music, for improvement, and for a variety of services.  The top recipient, as it happens, also is this year’s top student: Valedictorian Sierra Rocco, whose nine prizes attested to a broad range of achievements.  Also outstanding in terms of versatility of achievements were Caitlin Coughlin (eight awards), Mike Cothren (seven), and Paul Sira and Lauren Mansey (five apiece).

JUST OUT:  historian Regina W. Daly’s compilation of GreeneLand newspaper coverage of the early days of the Civil War.  First item in Reports to the Homefront.  A sesquicentennial commemoration of Civil War journalism in Greene County, N.Y., November 1860-December 1861 is a Windham Journal paragraph reporting Abraham Lincoln’s election as President:
Never…has a political battle been more closely contested,and never before has the tide of victory swept with such force. [In Greene County, Lincoln did not carry the day, but] the usual Democratic majority was reduced from 700 to some 400.
Final item is a Catskill-based Examiner story entitled “Christmas and the Contrabands.”  The latter term refers to Negroes who escaped Southern masters long before the Emancipation Proclamation.  Under then-existing Federal law they would have been subject to return as fugitive slaves, except that their Northern classification as war “contraband” supplied a pretext for making wholesale exceptions.  According to the Examiner’s story,
  The day before Christmas the children of the Colored Sabbath School, of this village, were gathered in the room of the Young Men’s Christian Association to receive the presents annually prepared for them by the teachers and friends of the school.  A Christmas tree, whose top touched the ceiling, was loaded with bright and comfortable, and beautiful and toothsome things….
Fifty or sixty children neatly dressed and so well  behaved as to set an example we should be glad to see imitated by some other children we know, filled the benches.[After singing by the children, and by the children and adults, followed by]three short addresses by clergymen of the village[and more singing,]Three presents…were given to each scholar,--something to wear, something to show, and something to eat.
      The book, compiled and edited in cooperation with the Greene County Historical Society, is priced at $13 (including tax). Copies are available at the Society’s Vedder Library in Coxsackie, and will be available at Civil War remembrance events later in the summer. All proceeds, says Ms Daly, will go for conservation of the flag of the 120th New York regiment of volunteers, in which 300 Greene County men served.

NEW PRO.  Chris DeForest, grandson of the late Jim DeForest (former president and long-time staunch supporter of Catskill Golf Club) and of Dorothy DeForest (resident of Jefferson Heights), and son of John DeForest (professional at Rondout Golf Club), having just graduated from the University of Illinois (where he starred on that school’s NCAA Division 1 golf team), and having just turned professional, has qualified, by way of a three-man playoff last week, to compete, starting on Thursday, at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda MD, in the United States Open, against the best golfers in the world. (They come from 24 countries).  He won that playoff, incidentally, by hitting a 415-yard drive (repeat: 415), then a lob wedge, setting up a short  eagle putt.  For a video interview with the lad, see

MANHUNT by a posse of State and local police, plus Sheriff’s deputies, plus State Department of Environmental Conservation sleuths, plus dogs, for one Joe Taylor, plural offender, who fled from police after being detained in Catskill Village last Sunday, has been fruitless so far.  [But on Tuesday morning, after the posting of the blog, he was found in an abandoned car in the vicinity, according to The Daily Mail, of Prospect and Liberty streets]  But it has yielded some memorable local reporting:
 A search by [all those people] were unable to locate Taylor.
At one point, to no avail, the dogs used a white T-shirt the suspect had allegedly discarded in the woods in an attempt to pick up his scent.    
RECOVERED from an overdose of sunflower seeds: Kalli, pet goat of GreeneLand’s Kurt Andernach.  Kalli fell into the sunflower seed bin and, well, pigged out.  Rushed to the emergency veterinary clinic in Kingston, he survived the pump out. They were well acquainted with Mr Andernach down there, what with foolish encounters, in his deeply wooded property, of his dogs with porcupines.  As for Kalli, he was rejected by his mother soon after birth, because he was blind.  But with tender nursing and an excellent daily diet, says Mr Andernach, his deformed eyes regenerated, and now he can see!”

DISFIGURATIVELY SPEAKING.  “The planets are lined up in a way that the brass ring is ready for us to reclaim City Hall,” says Andi Turco-Levin, freshly endorsed as the Kingston Republican Party committee’s candidate for mayor. (Quoted in Daily Freeman, 6/8/11).

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Politics 2012

From the standpoint of the Democratic Party, it is unfortunate that the next national elections are 17 months away.  So many recent events have gone the Democrats’ way: the extirpation of Osama bin Laden; winding down of U.S. engagement in Iraq, and with it reduction in military spending and casualties; a booming stock market; the economy’s upswing; the unemployment rate’s fractional downward trend; the pratfalls of Republican presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich; and last Tuesday’s stunning result in the special Congressional election in up-State New York. 
    In a fortified Republican stronghold, running against an orthodox and locally eminent Republican, battered by huge oppositional spending, the Democratic nominee won the race.  Kathy Hochul, starting as a 20-point underdog, captured 47 per cent of the votes, while 43 went to Republican Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, 9 to the mis-labeled Tea Party nominee and one per cent to the Green Party candidate.
    More auspicious for Democrats than the fact of achieving an upset victory is how it was accomplished.
    Ms Hochul pitched her campaign as a call to save Medicare. Loud and long, she warned that the Republican-backed “Ryan budget” for the Federal government would kill Medicare, or entitlements for conditional government payments for medical bills.  That warning (factually correct, though incomplete) proved to be persuasive, especially to higher-aged voters.
The pitch that worked for Kathy Hochul could be potent for Democratic candidates all over the country. The Ryan budget is not just a proposal that can be disavowed.  It is a legislative package (also containing tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy) that was put to a vote in the Congress.  While all Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against it, all but three Republicans (including Chris Gibson, GreeneLand’s Representative) voted for it.  It then went to the Senate, where all Democrats voted against, while all but five of the 47 sitting Republicans voted for it, even after they knew the result of the by-election in up-State New York.  They can’t readily disavow that position.
It is a position of vulnerability.  “Ryan’s budget may reflect Republican values and approaches,” says Stuart Rothenberg, the expert elections analyst, “but from a political point of view it is a serious burden with no possible near-term payoff” (5/27/11).
That burden could prove to be seriously valuable to the Democrats, at a time of peculiar vulnerability.  In the Senate, as it happens, although Democrats hold a majority of seats, 23 of those seats will be subject to election in November 2012, while only 10 Republican-held seats will be open.  In the House of Representatives, after majority control swung to the Republicans in 2010, the Democrats must win 25 seats in order to regain control.  Sixty-one seats that are held now by Republicans are in districts where Barack Obama won in the 2008 presidential elections.  Fourteen of those were won too by John Kerry, the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 2004.  They look especially ripe for Democratic takeover.  But next year’s Congressional elections will be preceded by a shuffle of districts and district lines.  In the wake of the Census, New York and other Northern States will be losing seats to Republican-leaning southern and western States.
Fortunately for the Republicans, moreover, there is time enough to adapt to the Corwin disaster.  There is time to devise subject-changing themes, to concoct better rationales for the Ryan budget (which cable television commentator Rachel Maddow gleefully labels the “Republicans’ Kill Medicare bill”), to seize on strategic possibilities that are thrown up by the course of events.
Fortunately for the Democrats, attempts by Republican operatives to get away from the Medicare issue, attempts to make competitive adjustments, are likely to meet internal as well as external resistanceSome top-level Republicans downplay the significance of the Hochul victory and thus the need for a change of course.  Karl Rove pointed out that Ms Hochul won only one more percentage point of votes than Barack Obama, as the presidential candidate in 2008, gathered in that district.  (Yes, but John McCain won the district by 56%, while the State went heavily for Obama.  And Ms Corwin’s Republican predecessor won the seat in 2010 by 76%).
Another form of downplaying the Hochul victory consists of noting that electoral support for the “conservative” candidates, Republican and Tea Party, surpassed the Democratic candidate’s margin by 51 to 47.  (Yes, but the man who put himself on the ballot under the banner of the Tea Party, Jack Davis, wealthy local industrialist, was nothing like a “conservative” in the “tea party” vein.  His entitlement to that brand was denied, in advertisements and broadcasts, by all sorts of national “tea party” figures.  His favorite issue, apart from autobiographical effusions, was the evil of “free trade.”  His votes would not have gone overwhelmingly to the Republican nominee).
Other influential Republicans acknowledge that the Hochul victory demonstrates that the Ryan/Republican budget  is at present a political liability, while advocating a Stand Fast response. Ryan himself proudly claims that he draws up measures on the basis of merit not popularity.  “I don’t consult polls to tell me what my principles are or what our policies should be.”  He urges his co-partisans to remain steadfast in support not only of the Medicare-privatizing provision of that budget package, but also of other key provisions: raising Medicare eligibility from age 65 to age 67; converting Medicaid to a block-grant program run by the States, cutting tax rates for corporations and the rich, and a reducing discretionary spending for domestic programs by more than 20 percent…. In the same vein, the head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Tom Cole, urges his colleagues to “stay with our argument” while conducting a “stronger marketing” campaign.
The conservative pro-Republican columnist Jonah Goldberg anticipates that the Medicare-killing Ryan budget, which enabled a Democrat to capture a heavily Republican seat in the Congress, “will likely define both the presidential and congressional elections in 2012.” He urges the Republicans to stand fast; no retreat, no weaseling.  He joins another conservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, in contending that the best Republican nominee for President in 2012 would be Paul Ryan.