Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Air of Authority

It’s a sub-audible buzzing, like the electromagnetic field given off by a malfunctioning motor that isn’t turning. It’s a warning that lives in the air.

Don’t talk about politics.

But Dad and stepmom had Fox News on. They were making supper and I was sitting at the table. I said, “Shhh, listen to what Fred Barnes is saying.”

In unison, they said they don’t like Fred Barnes.

“You don’t like Fred Barnes? He’s William Kristol’s sidekick at The Weekly Standard.” What Bushie doesn’t like The Weekly Standard?

Dad said “Fred Barnes is a traitor,” and I remembered how Barnes and Kristol and just about all the analysts at Fox News had been pretty soft on Obama, from what I could tell watching the debates. In my circle of friends, I had insisted that we watch the debates on Fox News, because all TV news is lame, and you might as well watch the lamest and know what the enemy knows. I call it “having access to his intelligence.”

After each debate, I thought that either side could make the case that they had won. But the Fox analysts never gave it to McCain. I remember them saying once, “McCain had to make a knockout punch tonight, and he just didn’t.” I was like, “Huh? Who cares if he did or didn’t. Just declare it. He did it! Yes you can, too!”

I mean, Fox News had no trouble declaring Florida a victory for Bush in 2000, right? And Republicans’ beacon for the future seems to have declared a victory in Iraq. Why not just say, “McCain has the experience and clearly looks like he’s in control. He doesn’t deliver a knockout punch because he doesn’t have to. Everyone knows, it’s the quiet guys who are the strongest.”

I mean, if I can write that, so can they. It was like they weren’t even trying any more.

“We like Charles Krauthammer,” my dad and stepmom said, enthusiastically. “You know he’s paralyzed,” they said, with the same reverence they have for McCain’s handicap.

Krauthammer talked about how the surge was heroic and successful for reducing violence. I kept my mouth shut on this one. I have read much (this entry cites useful references) about the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad being the deeper cause for relative peace in that city; and the paying of our former insurgent enemies, who used to be in the Iraqi army that we disbanded, to stop being insurgents and start cooperating with the Iraqi army, as mostly causing the relative peace in Anbar and other Sunni provinces.

I didn’t launch this Iraq 101 lecture, because I’m still a little rattled from my dad yelling at me on the beach this summer, “Do you think Osama bin Laden wanted to spend his life in a cave? We have to teach him a lesson. We have to make it really expensive for him to attack us.” (As if Bin Laden had not chosen in the 80's his life as a rebel; as if he didn't intend to lure us into undecisive wars in the Middle East; as if it's more expensive for him to attack us than for us to retaliate against someone besides him.) Dad had not really yelled at me much all my life because I was a very tame (depressed) kid. So it’s maybe harder for me to take in adulthood than for other adult children who are accustomed to being yelled at by their dads.

As for my stepmom, while she does read fairly deeply about lots of things, there are certain modes of thought she won’t give up. Apparently, the basic unsubstantiated pro-Iraq war stance still appeals to her.

Many topics are fair game. One afternoon Dad and I talked about the origins of life. He painted for me a picture of a gradual continuum in which, at first, there were only elements and compounds scattered around our planet; then, because of erosion of rocks and churning of seas and formation of tide pools and lightning striking, some chemicals would come together in certain ways and eventually form viruses; and lipids (which he said would exist without life, and would be floating around) would bond and actually make a “container” sort of like a cell membrane. Eventually proteins would come together as DNA, find their way into one of these lipid cases, and start replicating. And then you’re off and running. He says, “You’re damn right there’s life on other planets.” And he reminded me of a problem in detecting it -- we can only view the electromagnetic radiation from a planet (its light and TV or radio signals, or whatever they emit) from many years in the past -- the number of light years that planet is away from us. So, life could be there now but not be evident in the information coming from that planet. Or, we could detect life in what we see, but that life might not be there any more. Life has only been on earth for a tiny fraction of the time of existence of the earth, and it’s likely anyone looking for its signs here would miss them. It could be the speed of light that indeed isolates us.

(A quick look on the Planet Quest Atlas shows three terrestrial exoplanets under 100 light years away; one 1000 light years away; two others at least 9000 light years away.)

I can’t sit around keeping all my political thoughts to myself. I have to put a little of my camp into things. Since Stephen Colbert attended our small college for two years, he is not a totally off-limits topic. In the course of talking about energy and algae farming, I told them about Colbert’s Formidable Opponent sketch about offshore drilling vs. alternative fuels. When I was done, Dad said that that was pretty funny. But an awkward silence fell. How can such an awkward silence come to 3 people who really all know each other pretty well -- who are basically pretty sensitive and smart?

Or consider the conversation where they told me about the show Ice Road Truckers. I said The Daily Show had made a joke about it. My stepmom said, “They would. It’s sort of a redneck show, the kind of thing the elite like to joke about.” So there you have it -- she has absorbed and replicated the Republican line that moderate or liberal entertainment is elite.

They also didn’t seem to want to talk about oil speculators. I think oil speculators are fascinating. It’s a whole market in which oil contracts are traded, not actual oil. And some say this is causing large fluctuations in oil prices, while others say the speculators are not that big a deal. Dad insisted that mostly, it’s just supply and demand affecting oil prices. I suppose this issue could be the subject of legitimate debate, but Dad and stepmom seemed to want to avoid the subject altogether.

So what’s this palpable aversion to certain subjects? I think I’ve arrived at the answer, though it does not seem like much of a revelation. It’s that they believe in authority, a basic moral decency, a just cause for our nations actions. They are not comfortable with anything that subverts this notion. So if I talk about the Iraq war, that subverts their idea of the just cause for it; if The Daily Show makes fun of Ice Truckers, that detracts from the classic struggle of Man against Nature; if I talk about oil speculators, this implies that there are participants in our free market that are making money at the expense of the rest of us in the free market -- a “no honor among merchants” analog to the mantra about thieves (though again, reasonable people are saying speculators are not the biggest influence on oil prices).

On the other hand, I love subversion, as long as it is exposing that someone in authority does not know what they are talking about. And maybe in general we can say that conservatives like the authoritative establishment and liberals like a more rebellious stance.

Our best illustration of this divide between myself and my family came when Dad, my stepmom, and me were sitting in the Belgian bakery in town. My stepmom was telling me about Elsa’s business. Elsa is her daughter-in-law who is the iciest neocon of them all. “She has a room full of failed marketing projects,” my stepmom said. “[Elsa’s daughter] had to learn her catechisms, and Elsa made these cards with catechisms printed over images from the Book of Kells. She had 3000 of these made in India, got them shipped to her, and now they’re sitting in the guest room. She sold a few on Amazon, but only a handful.”

I had learned about the Book of Kells somewhere, but had to be reminded. My stepmom explained it’s an Irish book of scripture.

Apparently it’s in the public domain now.

I said, “She should market to Evangelicals -- make some cards that would sell in megachurches. I bet there’s money there, if she’s willing to step it down from Catholicism. Evangelicals don’t care about no Kells though. That's too heavy, like ancient grains. They like their religion simpler, like white rice.”

My stepmom said that Catholics are not a shrinking population, with the influx of Hispanics.

“Okay,” I said. “But they don’t care about Kells either. So tell your Irish-Catholic daughter-in-law to get those Hindu and Muslim Indians to print up some cards in Spanish, with the Virgin of Guacamole on them, or whatever it’s called. That’ll sell like hotcakes.”

More awkward silence.

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