About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Friday, May 18, 2012

And They Shall Be Felled By the Hands of Their Brothers


The Republican Party is currently being decimated by the Tea Party.  I do not mean this in the modern English sense of the word, where we use it to describe great destruction or death.  I mean this in the literal, original Roman sense.

Some background.  The Romans, both during the Republic and the Empire would punish legions for mutiny or cowardice with decimation.  The soldiers would be divided into groups of ten, lots would be drawn, and the losing soldier in each group would be killed by the other nine.  Decimation literally means "removal of a tenth."  Since all soldiers had an equal chance of being decimated, regardless of their participation in whatever they were being punished for, this had to be a weapon of extreme psychological terror to keep the troops in line.

It has been used throughout history as a way to punish the troops, and put fear into those who are left.  It was most recently used by the Soviet Union in World War Two, when a division commander in Stalingrad went down the line killing every tenth soldier.  So basically, when an army was decimated, it was not from the enemy, but from the commanders of the army itself.  It is one of the most horrifying sorts of punishment.

Now the Republicans are being decimated.

Not literally of course.  Even today, you could not get away with shooting every tenth member of your caucus, although I am sure that there are some who would like to try.  Now they are engaging in decimation by destruction of careers.

Lugar, Bennet, Snowe (who committed career suicide rather than fall in battle) and many other "moderates" are being purged from the party.  Not exactly one in ten, but close enough to make this parallel work.

They are being destroyed by their fellows as examples.  Their crime, as with the legions, cowardice and mutiny.  Cowardice, in terms of making deals with the other side of the aisle; mutiny, by not voting in lockstep with the caucus.  And like any good decimation, it makes those who are left too terrified to step even slightly out of line, for fear that they will fall in the next decimation, called a primary.

Decimation is not a punishment for those who fall, other than the fact that they are now unemployed.  Those people can go on to write books and speak about the polarization of the country, get jobs as pundits lamenting the loss of civility, or just retire to a countryside villa and draw their sizable pension.

Decimation is a punishment, and weapon of terror, for those who are left.  The ideological purging on the Right forces the moderates who remain to vote against their own conscience, and often against the interests of the constituents who elected them.  The Far Right holds the Center Right hostage.

And the worst part is, even if the moderates hold to their consciences, and refuse to bow to the pressures of the far right, they'll just be primaried, and replaced by someone who is an ideologue.  Essentially it is a no win situation, vote a straight Tea Party line, or be removed and replaced by someone who will.  Regardless of what happens, everyone votes according to wishes of the far end of the spectrum.

Decimation does not work everywhere, and sometimes it backfires.  It didn't work with Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, who ran and won as an Independent., and it didn't work with Orrin Hatch, who has successfully fended off a primary challenger.  It backfired in Connecticut with Christine O'Donnell, in Colorado with Ken Buck, and in Nevada, with Sharon Angle.  The more moderate candidates fell in the decimation, but the replacement was just too extreme to be accepted by the majority.

Decimation only works consistently to change the makeup of the Congress in reliably Republican districts or states.  In places like Colorado's fifth congressional district, where the only important election is the primary, and the general is simply a rubber stamp, an extreme candidate will be successful.  In a purple district, you depend on the level of anger that the voters have against the government, which is a tricky thing to judge.  It worked for Rand Paul in Kentucky, which is purple, but not in Nevada, which is also purple.  Even when it's not successful, at least in the senate, where you now need 60 votes to do anything, the far right can successfully block anything.

That said, the fear that decimation inspires forces all Republicans to vote for at least some of the Tea Party agenda.  They have to support enough of it to keep their jobs and be able to point to certain litmus test votes to prove their conservative bone fides.

And the worst part for the country is, the Tea Party, with it's scorched earth mentality acts like it is better to lose a seat entirely that to have a R.I.N.O. occupy it.  I want to be clear here, the loss of seats for the Republicans isn't what is bad; the parties shift control back and forth and that is probably a good thing.  A permanent majority can lead to very bad outcomes for a country over the long term; things do have to balance out in a Democracy or Republic, so that everyone has a say.

The scorched earth mentality is dangerous for the country because the ideologues have no interest in governance, only in winning. 

There is a difference.

Governance means compromising, even if you have to give something to get something else.  It means recognizing that there is a political spectrum in the country, and you need to try to make solutions that satisfy as many people as possible.  Neither side gets the whole pie, but both sides do get some.  In government, there are no winners or losers, just a group of people looking out for the country.  In reality, the winners in good governance are the citizens.

When victory becomes the prime directive, the calculus changes.  Every action becomes a strategic move to box your enemies in. 

You attach poison pills to necessary legislation, turning passage into a lose-lose scenario for the other party.  They then have a choice, let a needed bill, like a debt ceiling increase, fail, causing devastation, or vote for it, and be on the record for something hideous to your constituents and/or the entire country. 

You block even non-controversial nominations to fill government posts, crippling the functioning of government.  Then you can say, "see, government is the problem, not the solution."

You filibuster anything that might pull the country out of economic decline, flatlining the recovery.  Then you can run against the other side, saying, "They don't understand how the economy works."

When victory at all costs is the motivator, the people lose.  All of them, even the ones on your side, because if America fails, it fails forever.  The implosion of the Soviet Union guarantees that no one will ever seriously propose communism again; it is forever marked as a failed model.

If democracy fails, especially if it fails because one party has decimated themselves, it too will go down in history as something that looks great on paper, but doesn't actually work in the real world.

For democracy to succeed, everyone has to be willing to work together.

No comments:

Post a Comment