Swing vote

I am remarkably shallow. In 2005, I watched some of the confirmation hearing of John Roberts (the one on the right), because I thought it would make me look and feel smart. I was instantly charmed by the man. If you have to be conservative, I think you should do us all the favor of looking and sounding like him, our chief justice Ken doll.

Had George W. Bush been John Roberts, I probably would have agreed that we should invade Iraq. Or at least given his arguments a second look. Then again, hell, I actually was so charmed by W. that if you recall I gave up my one good chance to crucify him on the cross of bleeding heart parting shots.

So it’s hard for me to be too critical when others bitch that people just vote for the more attractive candidate, or whatever superficial yardstick they may be decrying. When I think about it, most of my principles and opinions and decisions seem to have sprung pretty clearly from my environment; I fear they might as easily dissolve as Prospero’s cloud-capp’d tow’rs.

I was raised in a family affluent enough and secular enough that political opinions could be chosen like playthings. I mean there was no Catholicism, for instance, that goaded me into a one issue (abortion) voter. There was no immigration status, there was no union affiliation – you get the idea. In 1996, I was in 6th grade, and my school did a mock election based on Clinton and Dole. We even had conventions for both parties. I believe it was pure chance that made me a Republican delegate (teacher’s choice), but it could just have easily been a kind of vague attraction to Dole because I think my mother liked him, and my grandmother liked him (veteran connections), and I liked both of those women very much.

Anyway, I got a styrofoam hat with a red white and blue ribbon for the occasion, and I drew an American flag on top and wrote “Dole is the ONLY choice” around the brim. Newt Gingrich came to our school for our Republican convention. I was highly disappointed, because at the Democratic convention, ┬áMichael Coles of the Great American Cookie Factory (running against Newt) had appeared and given all the baby Dems cookies.

Cookies are enough to win my allegiance. But blondes in sweaters need not even resort to bakery.

The highlights of my subsequent political persuasions include rooting for W. in 2000 (yes), mostly because my sister rooted for Gore, and I not only wanted to spite her, but believed she was being brainwashed by her liberal high school teachers. Then I had the same teachers, then I went to NYU, then my sister was cool again, and liberality got me in its gummy jaws and hasn’t let go.

And yet now here I am, and all that can fly out the window after a two minute conversation with a barber.

To explain:

This morning the news came of SCOTUS’s decision on Obamacare, and most everyone who had listened to any punditry was surprised to find that the individual mandate had survived. Now look, I’m not gonna lie to you. If you put a gun to my head and asked me to explain what “individual mandate” means, I’m a dead man. But I like the idea of poor people having healthcare, and I’ve decided that Obama is on that side too, so I’m with him. Also it was nice when I was unemployed to have that “under 26” thing kick in, and I have friends with preexisting conditions who have argued quite stridently for O-care.

But for me, the exciting thing is that the swing vote on this decision was not Justice Kennedy, as everyone had expected, but the Supreme C matinee idol himself: Roberts. This makes me happy – while I blithely ignore the finer legal points at stake – because it means there is more than one meaningful vote on the Supreme Court.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, there are basically two factions on the Court: the four red guys (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito), and the blue crew (Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer). It is a simplification, but not a gross one, to say that these justices tend to stick together, and that when a potentially divisive case comes before the court, it is safe to assume that they will split into these camps, leaving moderate Anthony Kennedy (a Reagan appointee, mind you) to be the chooser.

(I use the word chooser deliberately, because it reminds me of a high school conversation I once had where a friend said, “You know the expression beggars can’t be choosers? Is there ever another time to use the word chooser?” All we could come up with, being who we were and are, was Darth Vader cutting off Luke’s head with his lightsaber and saying, “Now I am the chooser.”)

Now I received that xeroxed handout in middle school social studies just like the rest of you – the one that listed all the great decisions in history that were decided by a single vote. My favorite example is that President Andrew Johnson, impeached by the House, was saved from conviction by the Senate by one vote (this version of the handout gets the wording on that a bit wrong, but bless them anyway).

The problem of course arises when you know the swing vote in advance. Many advocates and lobbyists trying to sway the Supreme Court tailor their arguments specifically to Justice Kennedy (see also gay marriage). And while there is no Citizens United equivalent for the judicial branch, meaning corporations can’t spend unlimited amounts of bucks to influence them, consider Justice Clarence Thomas. Oh, please, consider Clarence Thomas.

Thomas is married to a woman named Ginni, who just happens to be a major Tea Party figure, and happens to have been founder or CEO of several groups which lobbied against the healthcare bill, and happens to have made six figure salaries multiple times for doing so. In other words, while things may be more complicated than the “Clarence Thomas made 1.5 million” meme that’s going around, the Thomas kitty is very clearly paws deep in the anti-O-care cream.

So imagine if Thomas were the swing vote and everyone knew it?

The fact that Roberts swung and joined the blue crew works toward putting all the justices back into the game. It has to be a relief to know that all controversial legal issues in this country are not subject to the whims (and 6th grade experiences) of Anthony Kennedy.

It’s the same with presidential voting: remember how frustrating it was in 2004 to feel like your vote didn’t matter unless you lived in Ohio? Why the hell should Ohio decide who our president is? The Obama camp made it a major priority in 2008 to put all the states back into play (for about two seconds I thought even Georgia was up in the air), and politics could not have but benefitted.

Now, I was honing this blog post in my mind as I walked to get my hair cut today. My barber and I remembered each other. He asked me if I was on Broadway yet, and I asked him how the dental school thing was going. He’s set to go to NYU in August: a big deal, for which he’ll be going into debt, of course. Now, I don’t ever make smalltalk; for some reason, it terrifies me. On the day in preschool when we all learned how to use the phone, I tried to hang up on my own father. So I recount this conversation in part for its relevance and in part to celebrate that I functioned as an average human being, at least for ten minutes.

I asked him if the economy affected the dental job market, and he said the market was pretty good. But then insurance was mentioned. He said that thanks to this healthcare law, poorer people had insurance, and thus had to be treated, but the insurance companies would pay the dentists very little for the labor. He said to me that a person with insurance could come in, get $300 worth of treatment, for example, and maybe the insurance company would pay $10.

So today’s news was bad for him. Him, a working class guy who’s going into debt to try and better his life. I could feel my liberal tow’rs turning into cirrus-like wisps. I considered offering him my “what’s bad for swing votes is good for justice” argument, but figured it would be cold comfort.

I mean, if I had pitched that idea, and covered it in the syrupy timbre of smalltalk, I bet he would have agreed with me in that way that smalltalk with strangers frees us to agree with anything. In that way that, as I crossed the street to the shop, I heard a car honk its horn at another driving erratically, and then a UPS guy said to me, “if you have a handicapped sticker, you shouldn’t be able to drive, am I right?” And I instinctively laughed, even though one second later I was like, WHAT? That’s completely discriminatory. But I did not turn around and give him a piece of my mind, because who really gives pieces of mind on the street?

Crazy people.

(Remember that’s Reverend Billy, a hero of mine; a crazy one though.)

But the encounter with the barber made me wonder about how minds are ever changed. Or how minds are made in the first place. It’s no secret that we tend to surround ourselves with sources that already agree with us, that we look at news and media with an eye for how it can confirm what we already believe.

Yet we do change our minds.

So how could you define the swing voter inside of you? And if we all were honest about how our core values and diehard beliefs came about, would we start to see clear patterns and predictable schemata?

And did I write this entry solely to be able to use the word schemata?

Anyway, I encourage you in the comments to give an example of how you came to believe or support something/one, or what made you swing your vote one time. Otherwise, all we’ll have learned about will be me and my strange sexual predilections, and enlightenment is not of such silly stuff made.

First World Problems

I had thought that the tide of this phrase had long ago receded into the ocean of hashfads, but a spate of recent encounters with it have made me reconsider. Perhaps the phrase has already hit its high water mark, and the truly hip have discarded it, but that only means that it’s now trickled down into the backwaters (see also: #yolo), that it has seeped into pop culture to the extent that now even my proverbial mother can use it.

My real mother and my proverbial mother have not spoken since 1988. But that’s another story.

Another reason I decided not to write about this phrase was that my sister sent me a response to it written by the Nigerian novelist Teju Cole (which you can find in this good Atlantic piece). Cole’s argument is simple: Nigerians care when the BlackBerry network goes down, too. “First world problems” implicitly demands that the speaker to some extent has a stereotypical view of poor Africans hunting antelope on the Dark Continent.

I felt a bit affronted by Cole’s response – white-guilty, even though I already wasn’t a fan of the term – but I also thought, well, he’s done it, he’s critiqued it, he said what needed to be said, and anyway I guess it will die out soon. So for both of these reasons, I left it alone.

I have changed my mind.

First, Cole is right that the term involves a failure of the imagination. A point he does not make is that it’s a double failure, and that many of us in the first world, including me with my old flip phone not to mention the abundance of Westerners who live below the poverty line, are ALSO not affected by the BlackBerry thing. So the phrase requires you to lump all us developed folk together too.

But you know what he’s really getting at is that we’re drawing the lines of these worlds incorrectly. The term first world developed during the Cold War, and referred to the US and other capitalist countries. The Soviet Union and its Communist allies were the second world. The third world was everywhere not buddied up yet.

This color-coding of the map is enough to make one think of the Berlin Conference of 1884, where European powers agreed on which parts of Africa they each would rape, drawing national borders which lumped together disparate peoples- part of why the Congo and other countries are such bloody messes today.

So the original definition did not necessarily relate to economic prowess. The third world included Zimbabwe and India, yes, but also Ireland and Switzerland.

Then as we all know, the second world bowed out of the race, and we were left with one and three, and the terms separated countries by comparison of their GDPs. Then we realized this was mean (first implies best), and so we’ve tried on a succession of terms – Developed v. Developing, Global North v. Global South – which have either been still kinda mean, or not entirely accurate, or both. To me, a developed country is not one which holds enemy combatants indefinitely without trial, but I appear to be a minority when it comes to international name-calling.

So there is a lot of verbal handwringing over what is a very simple concept: some people have money, and many others don’t. Teju Cole wants us to see the first/third divide like one of those election night maps they have now. First you see Georgia on the map, colored in red. Then the newsperson swipes it with her fingers and you zoom in, and see that districts 1-6 are red, but 7-10 are blue. Then she swipes again and you see that your county is red but the neighboring one…you get the idea. These worlds are not defined by the borders of countries, and coexist in some cases side by side.

Okay, you get it: first world is a state of mind. Just like getting jiggy with it. But, you say, isn’t the term an empathic one? The whole point is to acknowledge that your current problem (freezing from too much air conditioning) is, in the scheme of things, not a big deal. You ought to remember the starving Indians.

True, and I think there are people who use the term this way. But I would hazard a guess that the people who know this truth (which is no great revelation), don’t need to remind themselves or anyone else about it by using the phrase. To me, there is an element of smugness that too often goes with it. It’s like there’s an invisible exclamation point at the end of it, along with cheesy “womp womp” music like that which accompanies Debbie Downer.

I do not believe that anyone uses this phrase as a whispered mantra, to quietly remind himself to be more charitable throughout the day, but that it is more often offered as a status symbol, as proof that we are in the country club of privilege and yet smart enough to realize that others have been left at the gates. I feel it embodies a kind of false humility: boy, I know I’m being a silly bitch but hey, what can you do?

And when it is used on twitter and Facebook, it seems also a demand for acknowledgement and validation. I post a minor inconvenience from my day, hedge it with #fwp, and wait for you to like me for it, both recognizing the familiarity of what annoyed me, and complimenting me for a) successfully identifying it as fitting the definition of this trend and b) knowing that others would kill to be annoyed by it.

In conclusion, we should not define the first world geographically, or by the use of expensive electronics (consider that there are more cell phones than toilets in India). You may not want to define it at all. You may want to just remember that there are serious troubles and then there are minor annoyances. Everyone in the world experiences both. You undoubtedly experience more luxury and privilege than some people in the world, so bow your head every now and then and keep that in mind. But shut up about it, or if you need to tell someone, tell children and idiots, who are the only ones who could possibly be in the dark about such a thing.