Profiles in Disingenuousness

Following the death on Monday of New Jersey’s senior senator, Frank Lautenberg, the Garden State’s governor, Chris Christie, had several options (well, two) as to how to go about replacing him.

One such avenue, if traversed, would prove to be straightforward and inexpensive; the other, rather complicated and quite costly.  Given the political landscape of the moment, however, the former approach would likely prove to Governor Christie’s disadvantage, while the latter would allow his political fortunes to flourish.

Can you guess in which direction he proceeded?

The governor’s decision, announced with impressive swiftness, is for New Jersey to hold a special election for the now-open Senate seat on October 16, a seemingly random date just three weeks shy of the already-scheduled contest for governor—i.e. Election Day—when Christie could have opted to hold the Senate vote as well.

Creating this second event on a separate day, rather than simply adding an additional column to a preexisting ballot, is expected to cost the state $24 million.  As a strident fiscal conservative—in both word and deed—Christie would surely wish to avoid imposing such fees on his constituents if at all possible.

What is more, holding an election in October rather than November gives prospective candidates less time to cobble together their campaigns, and voters less time to digest and ruminate on them.

Why, then, did Christie nonetheless choose to unleash this needless, unsightly mess?

Because, dear reader, were the votes for senator and governor to occur simultaneously, a whole lot more Democrats would turn up to the polls and Christie’s prospects for a commanding victory would be jeopardized.

In short, Christie did what is best for Christie at the expense of the state he rules.  In this case, his appetite for fiscal prudence ended where his future plans for high office began.

It is, of course, entirely within Christie’s power to behave in this way.  New Jersey’s laws on special elections permit him, as the chief executive, to do pretty much whatever he wants, and his ultimate decision is (according to most analysts) a politically shrewd move.  No rational, ambitious public official so empowered could, or should, be expected to go out of his way to make his own life difficult.

However, what Christie does owe the good citizens of New Jersey, and has thus far failed to deliver, is a simple acknowledgement that this—in the words of Walter Cronkite—is the way it is.

If the governor insists upon behaving as the calculating political animal that he is—acting in his own interests first, and those of his constituents second—he ought to say so.  Insisting, as he has, that an October vote is the most fortuitous option for the voters, well worth the added expense, is an exercise in disingenuousness that ought to strike any Jerseyan as a wee bit insulting.

By dropping the righteous theatrics and leveling with us, Christie would merely be recognizing what is a wholly common practice in state-level politics, as all who follow it are well aware.

In Massachusetts in 2009, for example, when Governor Deval Patrick was granted the power to schedule the replacing of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, he did not for a moment hesitate to change a state law that he, himself, had previously supported in order to produce a result that was to his own personal liking.

The question in the Kennedy case was whether the governor should have the authority to appoint a temporary seat-filler to cast Senate votes between a vacancy and the installation of the winner of a special election.  In 2004, the Massachusetts legislature had removed such a prerogative in anticipation of Senator John Kerry being elected president and the state’s then-governor, Mitt Romney, appointing a Republican to replace him.  Five years later, having a Democratic governor suddenly made the idea easier for the deep-blue state to swallow.  What are the odds?

A lesson we might draw is that any process left in the hands of politicians is doomed to be sorted out in a political manner.  This is not necessarily something over which to despair; however, it does require constant vigilance by us, the people.  What we would hope, and what we ought to demand, is for the officials to whom we bestow certain authority to exercise it in an open and intellectually honest fashion.

Is that really too much to ask?


Ain’t Too Proud

We are in the midst of Gay Pride Week here in the capital city of the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, with a full roster of activities and events planned across the greater Boston area, culminating in the annual Pride Parade on Saturday.

Your humble servant will not be out marching this weekend.  Nor do I plan to participate in “Queeraoke” in Jamaica Plain or attend “Pride Night” at the Red Sox-Rangers game at Fenway.

None of these goings-on particularly piques my interest, and engaging in any of them would be an empty gesture on my part.

I am not proud to be gay.

Now, I understand that striking such an attitude in today’s particular political and cultural environment can come off as an act of heresy, since gay people in 2013 are not allowed to carry any ambivalence whatever about their gayness.

What is more, this Thursday holds enormous significance for me on this front, being the anniversary of the day I announced my orientation on Facebook.  While the positioning of this moment in the middle of Pride Week was coincidental at the time, I can accept the overlap today, as my series of comings-out are, in fact, among the proudest acts of my life.

But simply being gay?  What’s so special about that?

This, in so many words, is the distinction we ought more precisely to draw:  Acts vs. facts.

I am proud to have publicly acknowledged my homosexuality because I could have chosen not to.  Because it required subjecting myself to the possibility of certain social hardships that could have been completely avoided by my simply shutting up.  (I hasten to add that, to date, no such unpleasantness has ever occurred.)

By contrast, the gayness itself is just one of those freak accidents over which I have no control.  Like the color of my eyes or the geographic origins of my kin, my sexuality is a simple fact of life, completely uninteresting in and of itself.

To be sure, there are many people who define themselves entirely on the basis of their sexuality.  (Most of these people are straight, but never mind.)  Historically, the gay rights movement has been nothing so much as an expression of identity politics, its leaders regarding themselves as homosexuals first and Americans second.

In earlier, more repressive days, such an approach made some sense:  Building a strong movement required unquestioned solidarity amongst its members, which in turn required a strident emphasis on the one characteristic that bound them all together.

The trauma that is coming out can operate under a similar dynamic.  As a means of alleviating the inherent loneliness that living in the closet engenders, one tends to hew to every gay stereotype one can get one’s hands on.  To announce one’s homosexuality is to officially join the gay community; on such an occasion, it is only polite to defer to the community’s values and traditions, no matter how ridiculous and antiquated they might seem.

However, in the years since that big bang of my existence as a publicly gay person, I have parted ways with certain gay orthodoxies, realizing that, in many cases, I never truly believed them in the first place.  They did not represent the “real” me.  Like a kid who takes up smoking in the hope that it will make the cool kids accept him, I was merely going through the motions.

As time has marched onward, the fact of my homosexuality has diminished in importance in my daily life, and would rank fairly low on a list of ways in which I might define myself—an exercise I generally resist in any case.

More important still, I have come to terms with the twin facts of, first, knowing that I do not easily mesh with whatever it is the “gay community” today represents, and second, that I do not particularly care.

For all that I hoped coming out would provide me with a “crowd” with whom I could find comfort, inclusion and common cause, the experience of being openly gay has shown to be one more illustration of my true self as a perennial outsider—even within groups that are, themselves, a collection of cultural misfits.

Perhaps this all sounds a bit dreary, but it is something which I have long come to accept and would have no other way.

Of this, I suppose I can also be proud, although I do not need to march in a parade to express it.

Dispensable Pop Stars

Two significant cultural events occurred in recent days, with parallels so obvious they were impossible to miss.

First, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann announced she would not seek reelection in 2014.

And second, the media pronounced dead the career of Justin Bieber.

OK, perhaps the connection is not so self-evident, but allow me to explain.

Bachmann, of course, is the Tea Party-styled four-term representative who, in her 2012 presidential campaign, cemented a reputation for making patently false assertions with unwavering conviction, such as when she claimed the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation, because a random woman at a campaign event told her so.

Her most recent House race was also her most competitive, and when she announced her impending retirement from Congress, the man who nearly defeated her in 2012, Jim Graves, declared, “Mission accomplished.”

As he would have it, Graves regarded himself as a mere vessel, on behalf of the good people of Minnesota, to remove Bachmann from the national scene.  While he might have preferred to do so by personally unseating her, achieving the same ends by alternative means—namely, spooking her into fleeing politics the way she tends to flee reporters—was good enough for him.

As for Justin Bieber, who I trust requires no introduction, it is probably a bit soon to proclaim the sun has set upon a pop sensation still in his teens, and what is more, one with such natural charisma and (on good days) a knack for navigating the labyrinthine world of celebrity.

All the same, various pop culture news outlets have done exactly that, weaving together a “meltdown” narrative from a series of unfortunate events in Bieber’s recent past, including such crimes against humanity as smoking marijuana, turning up late for concerts and, most amusingly, having his pet monkey indefinitely detained by the Federal Republic of Germany.

As we come to grips with the prospect of a world with a few square inches not inhabited by Justin Bieber, I am drawn back to the dawn of his young career, which to me and my particular circle of acquaintances signaled precisely one thing:  The effective end of the Jonas Brothers in the cultural bloodstream.

It is easy to forget today, but the tender trio with matching purity rings and, like Bieber, a supposed connection to the music industry was quite the commodity for a good couple of years, with precisely the sort of wall-to-wall coverage in all the usual celebrity rags (and a rabid fan following to boot) currently enjoyed by Bieber.

No more.  In effect (if not by design), Bieber served the same purpose in his pursuit of fame as Jim Graves in his pursuit of political office:  Knocking the reigning “it girl” off the pedestal.

It is often said (accurately enough) that America will build up its celebrities only to destroy them later on.  Fame is ephemeral.  Today’s rock star is tomorrow’s has-been.  Our so-called heroes in the world of entertainment, with precious few exceptions, are ultimately disposable and replaceable.

The useful connection we should draw, then, is that this principle applies as much to politics as to entertainment.

Lest we forget, Bachmann’s primacy in the Tea Party universe was itself a product of the waning influence of the former queen bee of the proverbial far right, Sarah Palin, for whom Bachmann was viewed as something of a surrogate in the 2012 GOP primaries.

This is no small fact, when we reflect the degree to which the world of punditry managed to convince itself and many others that Palin would be a force in American politics for many years to come.  For a good long while—particularly during the early months of the Obama administration—it was inconceivable that Palin would all but vanish from the scene and become irrelevant.

And then she all but vanished from the scene and became irrelevant.

As a nation, America might well be “indispensable,” as President Obama asserted in one of his debates against Mitt Romney.  However, the same is not true about any individual American.

To wit:  We take it on faith that Franklin Roosevelt was the “only” man who could possibly have won World War II.  But then how do we explain how his unknown, untested successor, Harry Truman, managed to patch the world back together again when the war was over?  It could not have been entirely a matter of luck, could it?

Accordingly, we should resist the temptation to anoint political and cultural saviors for ourselves, as if we would be lost without them.  Happily, in point of fact, we would not.

America is a big country, and there are plenty of clever, talented people who live here.  By no means are we all truly created equal, but we are equally human.  We should rejoice at this news, rather than constantly rebel against it.

Telling It Like It Is

Bathroom walls have long been a repository for the most honest (if profane) public expression, but never before had I seen such flowering of honest talk from the management.

Yet there was the sign, all typed up and fastened real nice above the pair of turbo-powered hand dryers in the restroom at the local movie house.  It read, “No, we don’t like them either, but they are the most energy efficient and environmentally friendly choice.”

Be still my heart.

While I have long been quite taken by the state-of-the-art, high-intensity water-repelling machines that have quickly achieved ubiquity in public restrooms across the country, it is surely true that most Americans, given the choice, would just as well crumple a small handful of disposable towels between their fists, if only to exhibit their expert layup skills on the wastebasket on their way out.  Environment be damned!

This being the case, I take it as a thoroughly welcome development for the management of a public entertainment venue, while helping the Green Movement along, taking the initiative to commiserate with the public’s slight annoyance at its doing so.

The reason, as I suggested at the start, is because of the uncommon honesty of it all.  There is something refreshing about a policy that is environmentally-friendly but grudgingly so, as if to say, “Look, we both know this is a pain in the patoot, but we’re just gonna have to suck it up.”

Bravo, I say.  Better to be told an unwelcome truth than a happy lie.

To begin, let us acknowledge as true that whenever any of us wants to persuade someone else to take a particular action—one that he or she might view (rightly or wrongly) as against his or her interests—our natural inclination is to lie, exaggerate or pander.

We do this largely out of fear.  Namely, the fear that if we were honest about our intentions, we might not get our way.

Rarely does it occur to us how easily such a maneuver can backfire, rendering such tactics not only morally suspect but downright counterproductive.

For instance, we fear that if kids knew certain truths about tobacco—that it can relieve stress and help curb your appetite—they would ignore the downsides (lung cancer and bad breath) and take up the habit.  So instead, we content ourselves with exhorting that “smoking is not cool,” which works wonderfully right up until the coolest kid in school lights up and everyone wonders what those grownups were talking about.

The ideal is to treat people as if they were adults capable of critical thinking and worthy of some respect, even when you think they are not.  To have the nerve to lay out the facts honestly and comprehensively, confident that your case is strong enough to stand on its own merits, without being subject to edits and omissions.

Staying on the subject of things we put in our mouths:  It has long been the case that spokespeople from the weight loss and food industries will bend over backwards to convince us that foods low in sugar and fat are just as tasty as those that are not.

Well, does anyone—including these spokespeople—actually think this?  What fools are we to be taken for?

I, for one, have drawn enormous dietary benefit from baby carrots.  They have practically no calories, a cool, satisfying crunch, and they generally fill you up enough to get you to your next meal—to say nothing of their plethora of vitamins and minerals.

However, if cheesecake were to magically acquire comparable nutritional properties while somehow retaining its taste, would I keep eating the carrots?  Don’t be stupid.

We eat our vegetables because they are good for us, just as we use energy-efficient light bulbs and electric hand dryers because it might prolong the lifespan of our species.  But do not insult our intelligence by suggesting we enjoy it.

With a U.S. Senate election on the horizon in my home state of Massachusetts, we will undoubtedly see a wellspring of “get out the vote” campaigns, extolling all the wonderful things about this most sacred of civic rights.

However, the best call-to-arms on voting I’ve ever heard came from Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson in 2008, just a few months after he became a U.S. citizen, when he told his audience, “Voting is not sexy.  Voting is not hip.  It is not fashionable, it’s not a movie, it’s not a video game, all the kids ain’t doin’ it.  Frankly, voting is a pain in the ass.  But here’s a word, look it up:  It is your duty to vote.”

Leave it to the late night jester to keep it real.