Sunday, July 3, 2011

Azdak Doesn't Live Here Any More

My favorite scene in my favorite Bertolt Brecht play occurs late in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, when a lecherous, venal drunk named Azdak who has somehow become a judge administers a justice more whimsical than rough. The play gets its title from this moment, when, in a moment reminiscent of the Biblical story of Solomon, Azdak determines that the true mother of a baby boy is the woman who can pull the lad out of, well, the chalk circle.

One of the contenders is the child’s despicable biological mother, who abandoned her infant when forced to flee an insurgency so she’d be able to take more of her clothes. The other woman is our heroine, Grusha, who had already risked her own safety more than once to protect her young charge. Needless to say, Grusha releases her hold on the boy lest he be hurt, revealing, in the play’s radically utilitarian terms, that whatever the legal arguments might be, she is unquestionably the more motherly of the women and ought to be awarded custody on that basis. And, indeed, that is precisely what Azdak does.

I’ve been thinking about that scene when reading about what’s been going on in Minnesota, with the shut-down of so-called “non-essential” governmental services. In what might be an opening act for a similar showdown at the federal level, complete with a Republican-led legislature and a Democratic chief executive, the budget battle came down to intransigence on both sides about whether or not to finance some of the impending budget deficit by imposing a slight tax increase on incomes over a million dollars a year. Yes, really. The GOP—and their members are in rather frightening lock-step on this point—are willing to shut down the state government rather than ask the people who can afford it most to contribute a little to solving the fiscal crisis.

Of course, ideology and pride on both sides have long since trumped both pragmatism and empathy. Governor Mark Dayton was elected in large part because of a pledge to raise taxes on the upper 2% (the final proposal rejected by Republican legislators would have applied to only about 0.3% of taxpayers); the GOP, meanwhile, took control of the legislature for the first time in decades on a pledge not to raise taxes. It’s probably true that the tiny fraction of Minnesotans who would be affected by the proposed tax hike were largely responsible for the GOP’s success last November: their financial support was no doubt critical. But they didn’t directly account for the victory—that came because everyday people like the idea of reduced spending in theory: it’s just the specifics they can’t stand.

No sane person who has spent even a couple of hours looking seriously at the last thirty years of fiscal policy really believes the supply-side silliness being proposed by the present-day GOP. Even Reagan budget director David Stockman describes the 21st-century Republican mantra of tax-cutting as:
… a religion… something that can't be questioned, something that's gospel, something that's sort of embedded into the catechism and so scratch the average Republican today and he'll say ‘Tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts’…. It's rank demagoguery.
Stockman goes on to advocate the thoroughly sensible (and politically suicidal) position that the Bush tax cuts should be repealed not simply for the richest 2%, but indeed for all of us.

Still, while virtually every Republican politician you can name has drunk deep of the neo-Reaganomic Kool-Aid, or at least purports to have done so, lest s/he be branded heretical, even stupid economic policies are at least economic policies. The same can’t be said for what GOP legislators presented to Dayton as conditions to negotiate: abortion restrictions, school vouchers, requiring photo ID’s at polling places, the elimination of stem-cell research, tuition caps on state universities (while, of course, cutting state funding to those institutions)… the list is nothing if not expansive, and completely irrelevant to any considerations of the budget.

About the best that can be said about these machinations is that they are not playing out behind closed doors in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. On the contrary, GOP legislators like Steve Gottwalt want to crow about their lack of seriousness about the issue at hand: “In a negotiation it is common for you to bring things forward and say let’s talk about these things, these are things that are important to our side.” This statement is true, of course, but pertains—or ought to pertain—only to that which is relevant. Honest and sensible people can disagree about whether prospective voters ought to need photo ID’s; there can be no disagreement about whether such considerations belong in budget negotiations.

It’s been a while since there was anyone in the Republican hierarchy could legitimately be considered a moderate—some, like John McCain, John Huntsman, and Mitt Romney were, but haven’t been so for years (of course, they’ve all been convicted of apostasy by the Rush Limbaughs of the world). These days, the terms “honest” and “not bat-shit crazy” are hard enough to apply to anyone who matters in the GOP. But the fanaticism is troubling not simply for the potentially catastrophic legislation that might be enacted.

More importantly, it is terrifying in its own terms. The only thing worse than True Believers is that (sizable, no doubt) cadre of politicians too craven to think for themselves: those who don’t really believe the stupidity being spouted by Tea Party ignoramuses and right-wing pundits, but who feel compelled to act as if they do, and actually end up taking more extreme positions than the TBs. The other variation on this theme is blind adherence to extreme ideologies, often with complete disregard for facts. If you want to repeal the healthcare bill, that’s fine. If you want to do so because of “death panels,” you’ve got your choice of self-descriptors: profoundly ignorant, moronic, and/or mendacious.

But the current GOP’s quest for ideological purity manifests itself also in a puerile resistance to anything that even looks like compromise: witness the skepticism of the ring-wing punditry at the candidacy of John Huntsman, who is almost certainly the most electable Republican currently in the field (not that he’d necessarily win or that someone else would necessarily lose). In the rarefied atmosphere of Republicania, compromise and cooperation are signs of weakness, and creating a system that works fairly and efficiently is far less important than creating a system that helps “important” people (hint: not the 99.7% of Minnesotans whose taxes would not increase in Governor Dayton’s plan), whether they need the assistance or not.

The situation in Minnesota is being described as a showdown, as a game of chicken, as a test of who will blink first. In any truly democratic (note the lower-case “d”) society, Governor Dayton would have a political winner: arguing in favor of the tens of thousands of workers laid off by the impasse, in favor of the 16-year-olds who can’t get driver’s licenses, in favor of the holiday vacationers who can’t use state parks or even highway rest areas, and opposed to a cadre of the super-rich being protected by their minions, the Republicans in the legislature. (Note: the foregoing refers only to politics, not necessarily to policy.)

But Governor Dayton, like Azdak (and Solomon), will see the whole picture. He’ll see the unemployment, the lack of services, the fact that the shut-down actually does nothing to solve the problem… in short, the serious harm to the state if there’s no resolution in the near future. More importantly, he’ll care. For him, accepting a political defeat is better than destroying the state.

The GOP doesn’t see it that way. Barring a huge groundswell of popular resentment (possible, but probably not on a significant enough scale to matter), they’re likely to stand their ground. You can’t be a good extortionist—and the Republicans in this case are no more than that—if ethics or morality cloud your Machiavellian (or Randian) weltanschauung. Let’s face it, once the GOP drew that line in the sand, they’d already lost any chance of support from that segment of the electorate likely to try to punish them for their support of the ultra-rich at the expense of everyone else. Moreover, the services being cut aren’t anything they or their financial backers care about (when was the last time you saw a millionaire at a state park?). So there’s no political benefit to being grown-ups.

Sooner or later, Governor Dayton is going to act like a true custodian of his state. He’s going to let the child go rather than allow the GOP to rip its arm off. And when he does, there will be no Azdak to put things right. Dayton’s compassion will be seen by his political opponents as vulnerability, and it will be exploited again and again. And we’ll all be one step closer to the abyss.

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