Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Different Universe

The other day I wrote of the different Universe in which we find the likes of Mitt Romney, and many other conservatives. But the population filling this odd space is actually much larger than the politicians or even conservatives. Glenn Greenwald has a post up here illustrating the huge disconnect between our journalists and pundits and much of the rest of the country. Glenn's point hinges on an exchange between Mike Gravel and Tom Edsall as reported by Jebediah Reed here. According to Reed
Beaming after the Columbia event, Gravel walks with Alter to a nearby Cuban restaurant for a late lunch. On the way they encounter a gray-haired gentleman in owlish glasses. Alter greets him very respectfully. "This is Tom Edsall," he says. Edsall was a senior political writer for the Washington Post for 25 years. He retired from the paper in 2006 and now writes for the New Republic and teaches at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Gravel smiles broadly and says, "Hey, can you straighten out David Broder?" Broder, an influential columnist at the Post and the unofficial godfather of the D.C. press corps, has been a target of much criticism from liberal blogs for seeming to provide political cover for Bush on Iraq, even with a majority of Americans now opposing the war. "He doesn't believe in the power of the people!" Gravel says. Edsall blinks and looks perplexed. "David Broder is the voice of the people," he replies matter-of-factly. Gravel starts to smile, assuming Edsall is making an absurdist joke. But Edsall is not joking. The two men look at each other in awkward silence over a great gulf of unshared beliefs, then Gravel chuckles and walks ahead into the restaurant.
The disconnect is striking, but it is far from unique. Consider first that it is not just that Edsall believes Broder to be correct and Gravel (and much of the left blogesphere and much of the country) believe that Broder is very much out of touch. Rather, Edsall truly believes that Broder is the "voice of the people" and Edsall cannot seem to understand that many of "the people" feel that Broder is out of touch. Consider the disconnect between poll results on the opinions Americans have of the Iraq war and of Bush with Broder's expectation of a Bush political resurgence. Or consider Broder's views on Bush's veto with those expressed by Americans again via polls. However much Tom Edsall might respect and like David Broder, there is clear reason to believe that he might be a bit out of touch, and the title "voice of the people" cannot clearly be assigned to him any longer, if it ever could be.

This is, I believe, a common theme of our times (probably of all times). It puts me in mind of Richard Feynman's conclusions on the Challenger disaster. One of the more striking discoveries he made was the disparity in opinion concerning mission safety between engineers and management.
It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask "What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?"
In both cases we have a population of leaders, people in charge, who are seriously disconnected from the reality they are in charge of. Whatever good reasons management had to believe the shuttle safe, their estimate of 1 in 100,000 were absurd. As Feynman points out those in charge then believed that the shuttle could be launched every day for 300 years with but one failure and we've had two in the comparatively tiny number of launches to date.

Now this disconnect is a broader problem that has surfaced many times in history. One need read only briefly of the various high commands during the first World War to see the same kind of utter disconnect between those in charge and those at the front. With little difficulty one could find many more examples, I'm sure. This disconnect is, I believe, a predictable consequence of the kind of privileged/servile society I've written of elsewhere.

My arguments elsewhere on this blog is that the modern conservative movement is motivated by a desire to create, a belief in the superiority of, a society consisting of a privileged, leading class and a servile, subordinate class. While they have not succeeded in creating that society, great strides have been made over the past few decades. The policies advocated by the conservative movement, for all they talk of freedom and equality, their policies are consistently directed and the one object, granting privilege to those with substantial ownership in property and making subservient those whose ownership of property is sufficiently limited that their subsistence depends upon their labor.

There are two main problems with this model of society, however. On the one hand it is wrong. There is no justification for granting special privleges to some members of society that are denied to others. Among the foundational principals of this nation was the fundamental equality of all people under the law. Secondly, a society composed of the privileged and the servile is weaker and more succeptible to failure than a society based upon equality. The disconnect of our press corps, of NASA management, of the commanders of WWI all derive from the growth of a two class system. Such a system does not make our nation better able to face the dangers we will face but rather less able.

Conservatives have been selling the idea that with leadership taken from our proper leading class we will get the strong leadership that will make us safe and secure. But instead we have the disconnect of the press, 9/11, Katrina, Iraq, Challenger and other failures of even basic management. Our hope lies not in a saviour from our privileged class, but rather in the strength of all of the people of America.

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