Weekend Reading about politics, and America

This week we have a full stocking-full of insights about politics.

  1. Obama’s Team of Conformists“, Bret Stephens, op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, 8 December 2008 — “A ‘team of rivals’ is of one foreign-policy mind.”  The institutional rigidity of American government made manifest by the Obama team’s promises of change you shouldn’t have believed.
  2. What do the Clintons have on Obama?“, Camille Paglia, Salon, 10 December 2008 — The always-insightful Paglia asks what experience does Hillary have to run State? Plus some thoughts about Sarah Palin.
  3. A bonus culture that ruined the City is also ruining Africa“, Paul Collier, The Guardian, 11 December 2008 — “In an echo of the financial crisis, corrupt incentives in African politics offer an intellectual veneer for grotesque greed.” 


Obama’s Team of Conformists“, Bret Stephens, op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, 8 December 2008 — “A ‘team of rivals’ is of one foreign-policy mind.”  The institutional rigidity of American government made manifest by the Obama team’s promises of change you shouldn’t have believed.

Much has been written about the “team of rivals” Barack Obama has assembled to shape his administration’s foreign policy. Politically speaking, maybe there’s something to this. Policy-wise, the differences are about as clear as those between tap and bottled water. Here’s a blind taste test. “A political dialogue with Iran should not be deferred until such a time as the deep differences over Iranian nuclear ambitions and its invidious involvement with regional conflicts has been resolved.”

Was this candidate Obama, urging talks with Tehran without preconditions? Not at all: It is the recommendation of a 2004 Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored task force on Iran, led by Zbigniew Brzezinski and his erstwhile protege, Robert Gates.

… So where are the rivalries? What are the sharp policy disputes Mr. Obama will have to mediate and synthesize, of the kind that divided Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Armitage, John Bolton and Nicholas Burns?

Instead, Mr. Obama has assembled a team of intellectual clones. Not only that, it’s one that neatly conforms to the same foreign-policy consensus that typified much of President Bush’s second term: revival of the Arab-Israeli “peace process”; a diplomatic approach toward Iran; concessions to North Korea (with no serious expectation of genuine reciprocity); abandonment of what was once called the freedom agenda. As for Iraq, whatever differences there might have been are now moot, thanks to the surge and the passage last week of the status-of-forces agreement.

In this connection, it’s somewhat startling to observe that if Ms. Rice had been retained by the new administration she would have fit right in. No doubt there are policy differences between the current secretary and her designated successor (though both of them supported the invasion of Iraq and later opposed the surge). But those differences are mainly of degree, or pace.

… So much for change we can believe in. So much, too, for the second coming of the Lincoln administration. Say what you will about Mr. Obama’s team, it’s conformist and conventional. Except, of course, for Joe Biden, the house Cassandra.

What do the Clintons have on Obama?“, Camille Paglia, Salon, 10 December 2008 — “What experience does Hillary have to run State? Plus: Avoiding the Muslim issue on Mumbai, and anti-Proposition 8 activists threaten to set back gay rights.”  Excerpt:

As for Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, what sense does that make except within parochial Democratic politics? Awarding such a prize plum to Hillary may be a sop to her aggrieved fan base, but what exactly are her credentials for that position?

Aside from being a mediocre senator (who, contrary to press reports, did very little for upstate New York), Hillary has a poor track record as both a negotiator and a manager. And of course both Clintons constantly view the world through the milky lens of their own self-interest.

Well, it’s time for Hillary to put up or shut up. If she gets as little traction in world affairs as Condoleezza Rice has, Hillary will be flushed down the rabbit hole with her feckless husband and effectively neutralized as a future presidential contender. If that’s Obama’s clever plan, is it worth the gamble? The secretary of state should be a more reserved, unflappable character — not a drama queen who, even in her acceptance speech, morphed into three different personalities in the space of five minutes.

Given Obama’s elaborate deference to the Clintons, beginning with his over-accommodation of them at the Democratic convention in August, a nagging question has floated around the Web: What do the Clintons have on him? No one doubts that the Clinton opposition research team was turning over every rock in its mission to propel Hillary into the White House. There’s an information vacuum here that conspiracy theorists have been rushing to fill.

… Meanwhile, Sarah Palin’s rehabilitation has been well launched. Step by step over the past five weeks since the election, headlines about Palin in the mainstream media and some Web news sites have become more neutral and even laudatory, signifying that a shift toward reality is already at hand. My confidence about Palin’s political future continues, as does my disgust at the provincial snobbery and amoral trashing of her reputation by the media and liberal elite, along with some conservative insiders.

Once the Republican ticket was defeated, the time had passed for ad feminam attacks on Palin. Hence my surprise and dismay at Dick Cavett’s Nov. 14 blog in the New York Times, “The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla,” which made a big splash and topped the paper’s most-read list for nearly a week. I have enormous respect for Cavett: His TV interviews with major celebrities, which are now available on DVD, set a high-water mark for sheer intelligence in that medium that will surely never be surpassed.

However, Cavett’s piece on Sarah Palin was insufferably supercilious. With dripping disdain, he sniffed at her “frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences.” He called her “the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High,” “one who seems to have no first language.” I will pass over Cavett’s sniggering dismissal of “soccer moms” as lightweights who should stay far, far away from government.

I was so outraged when I read Cavett’s column that I felt like taking to the air like a Valkyrie and dropping on him at his ocean retreat in Montauk in the chichi Hamptons. How can it be that so many highly educated Americans have so little historical and cultural consciousness that they identify their own native patois as an eternal mark of intelligence, talent and political aptitude?

In sonorous real life, Cavett’s slow, measured, self-interrupting and clause-ridden syntax is 50 years out of date. Guess what: There has been a revolution in English — registered in the 1950s in the street slang, colloquial locutions and assertive rhythms of both Beat poetry and rock ‘n’ roll and now spread far and wide on the Web in the standard jazziness of blogspeak. Does Cavett really mean to offer himself as a linguistic gatekeeper for political achievers in this country?

My conclusion was that Cavett the Nebraska native had gotten far too processed by his undergraduate experiences at Yale, at a time when Yale was stuffily insular and a bastion of WASP pretension. An incident from 40 years ago flashed into my mind: During my first semester as a graduate student at Yale in 1968 (10 years after Cavett had graduated from Yale College), I was taking Anglo-Saxon from a dashing young professor with one of those classic WASP dynastic names — like “The Philadelphia Story’s” C.K. Dexter Haven. He was an affable fellow, a medievalist who went on to become a popular master of one of the undergraduate residential colleges.

But the cultural blinders in the Ivy League world through which this professor so serenely sailed were quite obvious in an incident that no one in the class, including me, responded to with the protest that it deserved. We were too paralyzed by our novice status and by Yale’s genteel code of etiquette. One day, completely out of the blue, the professor produced a clipping from the New York Times, which he laughingly read and then tossed down on the seminar table for us to pass along and share.

The article, a wedding announcement with photo, was burned in my memory, but I never looked for it again until now. The date was Dec. 8, 1968. The headline: “Daphne C. Murray Wed in Westbury; ’67 Bennett Alumna Bride of George Napolitano, Jr.” The picture showed a handsome young Italian in a stylish black Nehru jacket leading his radiant bride down the aisle after the ceremony. She came from a family of high social standing: She was a descendant of the founder of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.; she was the grand-niece of a noted polo player and the granddaughter of a U.S. senator. He, on the other hand, worked in his father’s automobile body shop in Mineola, Long Island.

The professor, pointing out the bride’s billowingly full white gown, declared, “Of course he knocked her up!” Ha, ha! We students were clearly expected to share his mirth, which we politely did. But what did any of that have to do with Anglo-Saxon? And why was a graduate seminar being used as a forum for coarse frat house humor? My blood still boils at that episode. I’m not sure what was worse — the smug sexism, class prejudice or ethnic calumny.

Yes, that is the lordly Yale that formed Dick Cavett’s linguistic and cultural assumptions and that has alarmingly resurfaced in the contempt that he showed for the self-made Sarah Palin in “The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla.” I am very sorry that he, and so many other members of the educational elite, cannot take pleasure as I do in the quick, sometimes jagged, but always exuberant way that Palin speaks — which is closer to street rapping than to the smug bourgeois cadences of the affluent professional class.

English has evolved, and the world has moved on. There is no necessary connection between bourgeois syntax and practical achievement. I have never had the slightest problem with understanding Sarah Palin’s meaning at any time. Since when do free Americans subscribe to a stuffy British code of veddy, veddy proper English? We don’t live in a stultified class system. In the U.K., in fact, many literary leftists make a big, obnoxious point about retaining their working-class accents. Too many American liberals claim to be defenders of the working class and then run like squealing mice from working-class manners and mores (including moose hunting and wolf control). What smirky, sheltered hypocrites. Get the broom!

A bonus culture that ruined the City is also ruining Africa“, Paul Collier, The Guardian, 11 December 2008 — “In an echo of the financial crisis, corrupt incentives in African politics offer an intellectual veneer for grotesque greed.”  Excerpt:

This simple theory provided the intellectual veneer for grotesque greed: high-powered incentives are, in reality, very damaging. And I have watched them wreak havoc in the apparently very different context of African politics. The bonuses Africa’s leaders pay themselves are sizable even by the breathtaking standards of the developed world; like financial managers, the politicians have a massive incentive to achieve the performance benchmark. In the financial sector the benchmark has been quarterly measured profits; in Africa it has been winning an election.

These incentives corrode through two distinct routes. The most obvious is that they induce people to bust the rules everyone has previously taken for granted. The hope was that vast rewards would induce exceptionally brilliant performance, but by definition that is difficult. It is far easier to deliver the target performance by breaking the rules, so that is what managers did.

One of the better insights from economics is that formal, written contracts cannot always be “complete”; they cannot cover all eventualities. So it is with measures of performance. Because many rules we used to take for granted are not readily expressible in the form of laws, it will usually not be criminal to break them, although it is disgraceful.

Faced with a huge incentive to increase quarterly measured profits, managers scampered off and adopted an array of strategies that would work in the short run at the cost of future damage. Politicians simply broke the conventions of how elections should be conducted. Bribery and intimidation of voters and ballot fraud are more reliable and less difficult ways of winning an election than trying to gain voter approval by being a good government. And yes, before someone takes me to task for double standards, to a more modest extent it has happened in America as well as Africa.

The crucial mistake of the theory of high-powered incentives was a naive faith in the conventions that constrain behaviour. … Conventions only work as long as the incentives to break them are modest; the rest of us are, in the end, dependent on managers and politicians valuing the rewards of “good” performance less than their own self-respect. If incentives are large enough, greed triumphs over self-respect – not for everybody, but for those most susceptible.

About the author:  Paul Collier directs the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University and is the author of The Bottom Billion.  His latest book, Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, is published in February.


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3 thoughts on “Weekend Reading about politics, and America”

  1. Finally, a break from the high-seriousness of climate change and Depression! Camille Paglia once wrote sinuous, seductive prose but now is as plodding and vain as the Yale professor she mocks. Cavett always was a bit pompous, like George Will, but original nevertheless. Palin’s speech reflects cultural deficiency, not linguistic vitality. Of course, polished speech is no guarantee of moral seriousness — as the new President is showing.

  2. Paglia is a breath of fresh aire! The trite and vacuous herd mentality as personified by the New York Times editorial staff and columns would be enough to make Virginia Woolfe roll over in her grave.

    The tired New York political commentary is like the school clique, based upon a meaningless measure of popularity as defined by clique leaders. Paglia cuts through it like a heated knife through butter.

  3. Update: more folks ask “what do the Clintons have on Obama?”

    Obama has appointed a Clinton as Secretary of State, and Clinton-istas as Secretaries of HUD and Agriculture. Now the NY Times asks what’s going on.

    Excerpt from “Obama Team Has Forged Another Link With Clintons“, New York Times, 16 December 2008:

    It’s official. The old Clinton gang really is back together again. Answering the phones these days for the co-chairman of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition, John D. Podesta, is none other than Betty Currie.

    Emerging from retirement in southern Maryland to volunteer at Obama headquarters, Ms. Currie was the personal secretary to President Bill Clinton, who became caught up in an independent counsel investigation into his trysts with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

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