Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Power of Intransigence

A historian, on the political landscape of Europe, in 1913:

The power of ‘public opinion’ had increased, and the ‘driving force of the noisiest elements of it  tended  in excited times  to consist, not of majorities, but of minorities.’
-- Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, vol. I. (1997), p. 284

This passage leapt out at me as I reread that book, since I had just finished reading the excellent profile of Ted Cruz, by Jeffrey Toobin, in the current New Yorker.   It is titled “The Absolutist”, and that turns out to be a key point.

(Note:  Ted Cruz does not figure on my list of favorite persons;  for a satirical image, click here. But this portrait really does show The New Yorker at its traditional best.  That magazine does not specialize in takedowns (nor in puff pieces), and I wound up with a considerably deepened appreciation of this unexpectedly complex politician.  As a bonus -- like his politics or dislike them -- Cruz came up with the best one-line retort to the absurd manufactured controversy over the term “Washington Redskins”:  “There’s an easy fix to that:  you can just drop the word Washington.”)

Cruz turns out to be much more intelligent than his shenanigans for popular consumption would suggest.   And suddenly that fact shone forth with a significance beyond one individual biography.   A number of the Tea-Party leaders, who spout nonsense from cock-crow to when the cows go back to the barn, may not be nearly as stupid as they sound:  they may simply be canny, and unscrupulous.

Thus Toobin, using a term that John McCain once applied to Cruz, writes that “by one reckoning, the twenty-one-hour speech Cruz mounted against Obamacare last September  was his consummate wacko-bird moment.”  At the time, I paid no attention to it; it struck me as clownish.  Well, the Corn Belt loves a clown.  They loved Jimmy Stewart’s senatorial filibuster in “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”.   It is not reasoned argument -- but its practitioners know that.  It’s political theatre.  Their base wants panem et circenses;  any actual logic or evidence brought to bear upon the inflammatory issues of the day, would merely be caviary to the general.   The hyperconservatives’ public rhetoric may in many cases be simply ad usum minus habentium. 
(In the case of some of them, like Donald Trump, I instinctively feel that his vulgar nescience goes right down to the core of the man.  But now I’m less sure about John Boehner.)


Ted Cruz began his political career as a real long-shot; in another of his witty phrasings, “I was at two per cent in the polls, and the margin of error was three percent.”  Whereas now he has a real shot at the Presidency.  It is unclear  from whence he would derive his mass appeal among Texas conservatives.   He’s personable enough, I suppose, if you like that sort of snake-oil-salesman style;  he’s foreign-born, not a plus for these folks (and he only recently, opportunistically, renounced his Canadian citizenship);  he is legally extraordinarily astute, particularly in Constitutional matters, but that all goes straight over the head of the average voter. (It certainly didn't buy Professor Obama any slack.)  So what is his trump card?  Quite possibly, his sheer intransigence.

Let us consider some further examples from history …


[Later] [Ach!  There is not world enough, nor time.   Should reader interest warrant -- a remote possibility -- I might flesh this section out.  In the meantime, it is left as an exercise for the reader.  Stepping-stones/data-points: ginger groups, “Tesnyaki”; NSDAP;  ISIL, Tea Party. Plus “asymmetric warfare”, and its bilan over the past fifty-some-odd years.  Connect the dots. ]

[Footnote]  That business of hedging your bets by harboring dual citizenship, enjoying the benefits now of the one  now of the other  as circumstances permit, is actually one of the bugaboos of the Right.  Here is the latest from France:

And here is the standpoint of that two-fisted, red-blooded private detective, Mr Michael Murphy:

It will indeed be an irony, savored by Clio, the muse of History, should the movement of ornery American nationalism (like that of German, which somehow fell into the hands of a certain Austrian-born gentleman) come to be led by a born Canadian.   But the Birthers no doubt will suddenly forget their former, invented scruples, and fall into line.

Κλειώ η μούσα, wryly amused by all this

[Sub-footnote]  The readers of this blog include a certain number of retired gentlemen, of sedentary habits and scholarly tastes, who habitually spend the Lord’s Day paging through their Bibles, and savoring the Greek and Latin classics.   Yet even they enjoy the old surge in the old blood.  For their benefit then (schoolchildren, avert your gaze), this more nearly undraped version of the illustrious Muse:

“… nice swan … “

[Updates]  A useful column on the current Republican mood of ill-timed frugality:

Where were the Teabaggers when the Bush administration was building the Bridge to Nowhere -- specifically, to Sarah Palin’s state?
That state is, incidentally, for all its rhetoric, still busily sucking on the government dugs:

Actually, at this point, both parties are pandering to narrow interests in Alaska.  Cf. the front-page article in this morning’s New York Times (somewhat buried on the Web site -- amazing how often that happens):

Tiny villages that could determine who controls the Senate

And:  Cruz is not the only Texas politician who realizes the street-theatre value of the legislatively impotent filibuster:

[Update 19 September 2014]  Further historical background on Intransigence.

Hitler was a master of diplomatic intransigence. 
In the run-up to Munich, Neville Chamberlain scurried around Europe trying to put together a package of Czech surrender that would satisfy the dictator, and finally managed one -- or so he thought.   He went back with his sacrificial offering, beaming.

Once in the company of the ferocious Fuehrer … Chamberlain’s euphoria quickly evaporated.
“I am terribly sorry,” Hitler said, “but after the events of the last few days, this plan is no longer any use.”
-- Wm Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969), p. 369

Later, at Munich on bended knee, Daladier cautiously suggested that a Czech representative be present as their doom was pronounced.

But Hitler was adamant.  He was “not interested”, he said, “in an assurance from the Czech government.”  He would not suffer the presence of any Czechs.
-- Wm Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969), p. 399

Stalin, by contrast, was sweet reason in public towards his adversaries -- “Comrades, please!  Let Comrade Trotsky have his say! -- while plotting their murder in private.

Al-Baghdadi is more of the Hitler school (much as Saddam modeled himself on Stalin  -- witness his pre-invasion interview with Dan Rather).  He  has gone with a maximalist, Mad-Max, never-retreat-an-inch total heads-off gonzo image, which gives erections to those who might otherwise never become erect.
Al-Qaeda, by contrast, punked out.   After ISIL’s predecessor in Iraq, ISI, alienated the Sunni tribes with their brutality, the Awakening movement was formed as a tribal counterpunch, just like the later Popular Committees in Yemen.  So AQSL publically said, Chill;  and AQAP created a “kinder, gentler” front-group.   Which has mostly gone nowhere.  And AAZ is off somewhere trying to get anyone to pay the least attention to him.

[Update 15 Oct 2014]  A chilling subpoena.
I'm with him on this.  Might even vote for the guy ...’
Ted Cruz told congregants of his home church Thursday that the city of Houston abused power by subpoenaing sermons and other documents from pastors who publicly opposed a local ordinance banning discrimination against gay and transgender residents.

Cruz, standing among more than a dozen clergy at First Baptist Church in Houston, described the subpoenas as an “abuse of government power” and another illustration of the “indefensible assault by the government on religious liberties.”
“Caesar has no jurisdiction over the pulpit,”

[Update April 2015 ]  Apparently Rafael Cruz -- Cruz père -- is quite a piece of work all by himself.   A cogent sauce-for-the-goose argument for the relevance of this appears here:


  1. My Hamlet is rusty, so I didn't recognize "caviary to the general" as a Shakespearean reference. Most dictionaries have no entry for "caviary", except our old friend Merriam defines it as a place where guinea pigs are raised, with no mention of the bard. Also, their entry for "general" does not define this specific sense of "the general public".

    1. Tovarishch Pyesetz: a gentleman should never go abroad with a rusty “Hamlet”.

      > Merriam defines it as a place where guinea pigs are raised
      That works! I like it!

      By-the-bye, Pye’: that Northern Behemoth where you have taken refuge, has much to answer for, in Cruz. Nor shall it avail you: just as that son of Braunau later turned around and annexed the land of his birth, so the displaced gusan0 may one day bellow: Anschluss!