Monday, November 16, 2009

Obamacare -- not Waterloo but Stalingrad

Jim DeMint famously referred to the health care bill as President Obama's "Waterloo". With all due respect to Senator DeMint I think Stalingrad is a more apt analogy. Not only are the parallels more numerous and significant but they also portend outcomes that are, depending on your political persuasion, either ominous or hopeful.

Like Stalingrad, the health care bill is an overreach by a leader seduced into overconfidence by a string of early successes -- successes obtained primarily through the tactics of rapid advance, surprise, shock and misdirection, in which opponents are overwhelmed, surrounded or by-passed before proper responses can be mounted.

The Germans did it with Panzer divisions and Blitzkrieg, the White House and Congress did it with flurries of enormous (and largely unread) pieces of legislation and Cloward-Piven, but the basic principles remain the same.

The problem with such tactics is they have a limited window of effectiveness. Success is predicated on a quick and overwhelming victory before more conventional concerns -- like resupply and vulnerability to counter-attack -- can reassert themselves. If your opponent can survive long enough to understand your tactics he will adapt to them, realizing among other things that your breakneck pace is not sustainable.

The object then becomes attrition and delay. If the juggernaut can be worn down, made to consume its resources as quickly as possible and ultimately forced to slow down, it becomes just another army a long way from home with exploitable weaknesses and no cover. The Germans found this out at the gates of Stalingrad. The Democrats are increasingly finding this out in the halls of Congress.

The Tea Party rallies, Town Hall demonstrations, e-mails, phone calls have had a cumulative effect, although the participants could have been forgiven for questioning the significance or impact of any individual act or event. Like the Russians , the opponents of Obamacare (and other statist initiatives) seem to have spent most of their time retreating. But each engagement, no matter how lopsided, has taken its toll. The Germans weren't the only ones who expected to have things wrapped up by the end of summer.

History proves the tactical errors can be reversed or at least mitigated by leaders flexible enough to adapt in their turn. Whatever one thinks of Bill Clinton one has to concede that his own adjustments after the disastrous Hillarycare initiative and the subsequent congressional defeat in 1994 saved his presidency. Stalingrad was a terrible example of what happens when a leader shows no such flexibility.

For the Germans the beginning of the end came with the Russian breakthrough around both their flanks that eventually surrounded them (remember those exploitable weaknesses I was talking about). As bad as this was, it took the intransigence of their leader to turn a major, but survivable, defeat into a disaster, because rather than allow them to attempt a break out, Hitler ordered them to stand in place. The completely preventable loss of over a million men made the collapse of the Eastern front and, ultimately, the end of the war inevitable.

In the case of health care legislation it is becoming increasingly clear that our own leaders are equally resistant to any notion of retreat. As an ideologue, and someone apparently given over to the myth of his own invincibility, President Obama appears to disdain any kind of backward step, and there is no evidence to suggest the congressional leadership is any less extreme in their outlook. (There's a great deal of evidence to suggest that some are good deal more extreme but no need to put too fine a point on it.) Having poured enormous amounts of political capital down these particular shell holes, this is obviously where they want to make their stand.

This leaves the Blue Dog Democrats -- and anyone else in the party with a modicum of common sense -- in the unenviable position of realizing the corridor for escape is rapidly closing and their leaders aren't even thinking in those terms. Many, like those benighted soldiers before them, will decide the "every man for himself" approach is the only sensible one and will attempt breakouts on their own. This is called desertion, and there was a lot of that at Stalingrad, but it would be hard to fault anyone in those circumstances.

What seems to elude the "do or die" elements of the party is even if they manage to achieve something they can package as a win, the battle will rage on much longer than any of them imagine (like the Germans who actually made it into Stalingrad only to find themselves in a wilderness of snipers, booby-traps and room-to-room fighting). As the full implications of this bill become better known, they will face energized political opposition, judicial challenges and grassroots activism on a scale that will dwarf the events of last summer. They will also quickly find they have neither the time, resources, nor the support to move onto the next thing, and the pitched battles around health care coupled with a failing economy will consume them.

Like Stalingrad, the passage of the health care bill in the House of Representatives may well be remembered as their furthest point of advance. Like their counterparts, the Democrats would do well to look to the sky and note the coming of winter.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Slouching Towards Peaksville – The Infantalization of America

(With apologies to Robert Bork)

One of the better-known Twilight Zone episodes concerns a five-year-old named Anthony Fremont who, for reasons never fully explained, obtains godlike powers which he uses to terrorize the people of a town called Peaksville.

Just by using his mind, he took away the automobiles, the electricity, the machines - because they displeased Him- and he moved an entire community back into the dark ages. The people in Peaksville … have to think happy thoughts and say happy things because once displeased, the monster can wish them into a cornfield or change them into a grotesque, walking horror.
--It's a Good Life, Twilight Zone, Season 3, Episode 73


Given the emerging dystopia that confronts us it is difficult not to conclude much the same thing has happened to the United States. We have elevated to positions of great power a whole cohort of Anthony Fremont's. How such a thing could have come to pass will doubtless be the subject of soul-searching tomes for generations, but a good short answer is the kids tied us up while we were asleep.

If this sounds a little harsh, ask yourself what community of adults would elect someone to the highest office in the United States, about whom they knew virtually nothing, with no discernible experience or qualifications, on the basis of telegenic charm and lofty - if utterly empty - rhetoric. This is the rough equivalent of electing a class president because he has cool shoes and can spit between his teeth.

The consequence of this is a president wholly dedicated to the redistribution of wealth - necessarily involving de-development of the west - or as we curmudgeons like to refer to it "taking away the automobiles, the electricity, the machines - because they displease him - and moving an entire nation back into the dark ages."

If further evidence is required that the finger-painters are driving the car, consider the whole subject of personal responsibility. Children don't have it, adults do, or should. Many of us can remember the epiphanic moment when we realized throwing a baseball through someone's window couldn't be blamed on the baseball, sunspots or prevailing winds.

Reconcile this with a president who, in plain defiance of common sense and common experience, continues to blame his failures on the previous administration. This isn't much more sophisticated than "it was the baseball's fault", but the faithful seem willing to accept this and in fact repeat it with tiresome regularity at every opportunity.

Yet another characteristic of the very young is magical thinking. Just as my four-year-old considered it a perfectly reasonable proposition to walk from Toronto to Dallas in an hour, our leaders can somehow use the terms "trillion dollar health bill" and "fiscal responsibility" in the same sentence, without so much as a "huh?" It is similarly an article of faith that Obama has had insufficient time to accomplish his miracles and the promised utopia (best described as "Land of the Free Everything") is just around the corner. Linus, sitting forlornly in the middle of a field, awaiting the arrival of the Great Pumpkin, could not demonstrate more determination in the face of the obvious.

Those of us who didn't daydream our way through math class know full well that the only thing around the corner is a largish boulder (since we're operating at the level of cartoons) rolling toward us at some speed, and that the pumpkin patch at the bottom of the hill is really not the place to be.

The final, and easily the most disturbing, characteristic of the kids who would rule us and those who would consent to be ruled, is narcissism. Maturation is commonly associated with the ability to differentiate between self and others, establish rational boundaries (one of the more important ones being where my fist ends and your nose begins, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes) and develop a realistic and proportional sense of one's place in the universe. Children possess none of these things out of the shrink wrap. In a child's mind, self and the universe are synonymous. Needs must be met, gratification provided, more or less immediately, or there is crying, lots and lots of crying. Merely wanting something is its own justification.

That Obama is narcissistic is no longer considered fringy analysis. It permeates his style of governance, his view of foreign relations and his regard for any form of opposition. It is the reason he can utter breathtaking falsehoods without batting an eyelash, because his reality is the only one that counts. What is less commented upon is the degree of narcissism in the general population it took to elect him in the first place. In many ways it is a perfect form of symbiosis, between those who expect the world to meet all their needs and those who would be the world.

If all of this sounds condescending or elitist an important distinction must be made. Unlike Bill Maher I don't think the American people are stupid. I think a portion of them are stuck in perpetual childhood, and will willingly trade away their liberty for short-term pleasures and some ersatz form of security. This is bad but it doesn't have to be permanent. Eventually, like the kids on Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, everyone who takes this path comes to realize what a truly bad deal he has entered into. The smarter kids will realize this before they grow long ears, and there is evidence this is already happening.

A therapist of some repute once observed that much of what he had learned about healing the human psyche could be summed up in two words: "grow up". (On reflection it may have been Joan Rivers but I digress.) Whoever it was, large segments of the population have ignored, or have been seduced away from, that very sensible injunction to our general detriment. It must also be said that the adults among us -- permissive parents in both the literal and figurative sense -- have allowed this infantilization to proceed unchecked for generations and we are currently paying a very high price for our apathy. The events of the past months have really been the opening salvoes in what will necessarily be a long war fought by growing numbers of adults who are very much awake and heavily invested in tough love.

So, Anthony (Barak, Nancy …) I am definitely not thinking happy thoughts. Do your worst.