Wednesday, November 20, 2002

The sick man of American politics
I'm not entirely convinced that the Democratic party will exist, at least not in the form that we know it, 20 years from now.

People always talk about how American politics are inherently two-party, and I certainly can't argue with the historical record there, but it's also true that those two parties have not been constant over the years. Admittedly, the Dems and Reps have been with us since the end of the Civil War, but even then, they've shifted to occupy different positions on the political spectrum than they did in 1865. Thus, I don't think it's crazy to suggest that another such change would be possible.

Why do I have this opinion? Simple. The Republican Party has essentially dominated political discourse for the past 34 years or so. It's seemed like, as long as I can remember, the Democrats have been fighting a rear-guard action to try to hold back the tide of Republican policy, rather than being able to discuss the issues on their side of the table. Even in the brief interlude in 1992-94 when the Democrats were able to talk about things like national health care and gays in the military, they accomplished depressingly little, being torn apart by their own fractiousness. And those issues are no longer part of the national discourse: health care is a taboo subject these days, and "don't ask, don't tell" is firmly entrenched in policy. I certainly don't see this changing any time soon, except for that rear-guard action becoming more and more ineffectual as the money and media, the ultimate determiners of the victor, continue to tilt to the right. And I haven't even begun to discuss the deleterious effects of the Greens on the party.

Sometimes it seems like the party is only still alive because, like the Ottoman Empire (did you catch the reference at the top?), there's nothing immediately available to replace it. Ralph Nader's dreams aside, there's no way the Greens will ever be a viable party at the national level. Look, the very name of the party is immediately going to alienate the half of the electorate who thinks environmental issues should be subordinate to other concerns, and that's hardly a great foundation to build a national party on. The Green party certainly will continue to show strength in isolated pockets, but that strength is deceptive, since there are still great swaths of the country where the Greens know that there's no point in bothering to run. Barring an unprecedented sea change in American politics, it'll never happen.

Unfortunately, I don't know enough about the politics of the first half of the 20th century to discuss whether a role reversal between the parties can occur again. (If only I could get Mark Staloff to read this...) My intuitive answer is to say no, but then again, I'll bet if you traveled back to 1876 and asked a random political observer if he expected that the parties would end up like they are now, he'd probably think you were crazy. Again, I can't see it happening without a major external trigger; though I have no particular desire to live through a Great Depression of my own, I don't think it's completely implausible, either.

As Perot and Ventura have demonstrated, the wellspring of self-identified centrists dissatisfied with both major parties is quite a deep one, so I suppose the most plausible scenario is the appearance of a similar candidate who manages to secure a surprising victory. I don't find the victory part hard to believe at all; after all, Ventura did manage to do it (yeah, yeah, there's a difference between the gubernatorial and presidential level, I know). It's the question of what comes afterwards. To put it delicately, Ventura and Perot are difficult people to build a party around (after all, the efforts to construct a national Reform party have not really gotten all that far); to put it less delicately, they're both pretty much wackos. But of course, you have to be a little bit crazy to try running a third-party campaign in today's climate to begin with, so we have a true Catch-22.

Thus, I find it implausible that a third-party candidate would win and then be able to construct a new party apparatus from the ground up after winning. Nor do I think the grassroots, bottom-up approach is likely to meet with much success either, since I can't see how such a party could ever find the resources to mount a national campaign. But the scenario I can see happening is a third-party candidate (possibly a Democrat who bolted the party after a bitter primary struggle...) gaining a large number of Democratic defections after election and thus inheriting a large chunk of the party already constructed, and building a viable platform from that. And remember, you heard it here first.

(Okay, you probably didn't. But could you claim that you did, anyway? Please?)
So much bleeding to do...
But nowhere to do it, really. Certainly not here.

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Nitpick of the moment
In movies (excepting foreign films, of course), there's always a convention that the characters will speak in English, no matter what language they "actually" speak; it's just implicit that somewhere along the line this has been magically translated into English for our benefit, even though (say) Russian submarine officers obviously would speak to each other in Russian. The one exception to this is, of course, when they want to say something that the hero won't understand, and then they suddenly do speak in Russian, perhaps with subtitles.

Now, Kenneth has bequeathed to me some science fiction anthologies, which I've been sporadically reading. Since they're nominally "best of"-type anthologies, they do somewhat better than Sturgeon's Law, but the quality still has a pretty wide variation.

Wait, I'm getting somewhere with this. So one of the stories makes a big deal about using a base-8 number system, explaining it and all of the associated units in one of the more clunky expositions you'll see. And yet, on the same page as this clunky exposition, the numbers "999" and "ninety" are both used. But in base 8, there is no such number as "9". In fact, I could even argue that there's no such number as "8", either, which (as you might expect) is strewn all over the story. It's like the autotranslator kicks in, but only when the author remembers to stick it in. And because of this carelessness, whenever I see "10", I have to wonder: does he mean 10 base 10, or 10 base 8 (that is, 8)? In fact, you could argue that if it were really in a base-8 system, they would refer to it as base 10, since any numerical system in its own base will be "base 10". (That is, if we had grown up hexadecimal, would base 10 be base 10? No. It'd be base A.)

Oh, and the actual story benefit of having this wonderful, exciting different number system? Nothing at all, of course. All it is is a chance for the author to show off his knowledge of sixth-grade math, at the expense of making the reader think a little harder to figure out just what the heck is going on. Grumble, grumble.
Sign #1
...that you've been playing DDR too much:

In Mike's car, I was listening to the tape deck, and closed my eyes for a moment. Immediately, step patterns came into my mind.

On the bright side, I am significantly improving, but I still have a long way to go.
So I watched Punch-Drunk Love today with Juliana. I have to say, it's been a long time since a movie has made me feel so profoundly uncomfortable. It's not that it was bad, at least by objective standards; it just engendered a strong sense of discomfort. Let me try to explain why.

Everyone is screwed up in their own ways, me included; it's part of the human condition, after all. But seeing someone who has serious issues, like Sandler's character does, triggers in me a primordial fear, a worry that I'm really more screwed-up than average and just don't realize it. And, in a sense, it reverses the normal defense mechanism -- instead of me saying "well, it's okay, because everyone is like this to some extent", the movie essentially presents "well, here's a guy who has some of these same traits, and he's obviously not okay".

But, of course, the kicker is that his screwed-up-ness just happens to be exactly the right tool for the job, so to speak. While mine isn't. Or if it is, it's sure not doing a good job revealing that fact.