If You Think Kerry Is the Answer, You’re Asking the Wrong Question
A reader writes:
I know you are saving money for your retirement. I think that this is a good
idea, not only because it lowers your taxes, but also because you are now at
a time of your life when you can earn. It gets a lot harder the older one
gets. Even at 45, I find myself fading in my capacity or will to do things
such as work hard or even at all.
However, the value of money is a bit unstable. It can be nullified or reduced
by inflation and social disorder. Also, the price of energy is likely to go
up dramatically over the next decade, and that can change things quite a bit
It is good to have a place that one owns. I hear that buying such a place can
also have positive consequences for one’s taxes.
Of course, ownership of a place is just a convention too. If the people
around you and the society at large does not recognize that ownership, a more
powerful or person or group can come in and take it from you. However, if one
is on good terms with one’s neighbors, that level of social disorder is not
I’ve been meaning to do a Picket Line entry about
something like this. A friend asked me once what I thought would be good
investments, expecting a stocks / bonds / real estate / gold sort of answer.
I’m apocalyptic enough in my outlook, and long-term enough in my investment
thinking that my answers were things like: foreign language skills, the best
dental work you can find,
If all you’ve saved up for retirement is money or a promise of money (social
security, a pension plan,
etc.), then I’ve
got a bunch of elderly Russians I’d like to tell you about. When your company
and your government goes under and your currency becomes a laughing stock… so
much for your portfolio.
But if I learn Spanish… how’s the song go: “They can’t take that away from me.”
Your quotes support something I heard
Chomsky say on the radio the other day. He said that Kerry would make no
significant changes in foreign policy, but that he would be quite different
on domestic policy… He got quite testy in response to there being no
difference between Bush and Kerry. Bush is at war abroad, and at home, with
people who work. Chomsky said that saying there was no difference was to say
to tell working people that one did not care about them.
As to people forgetting that they have chosen a lesser evil, I doubt it.
case for the importance of choosing the lesser evil (edited slightly for
Kerry commented on authorization of the force resolution, not on war. The
former is (in Kerry’s framework) about forcing inspections. Kerry dodged
Bush’s counterfactual question about whether he thinks Bush was right to go
to war given what we know now, but he should have addressed it head on,
because in the actual case, when Kerry believed Bush about
he opposed Bush going to war (at the time and in the unilateral
fashion he did). If Kerry had been President instead of Bush, would he have
waited to put together an international coalition and then gone to war? Well,
not only is there no reason to think he could have gotten international
backing after extensive inspections revealed no
but he wouldn’t have had Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neo-cons
clamoring to implement the
of Iraq just hours after the towers fell, so the whole question is moot.
If you have the choice between letting 1 million people die or ½ million
people die, choosing to save ½ million is not choosing evil, whereas gazing
into your Nader… I mean, navel… is. The “lesser of two evils” complaint is
intellectually bankrupt; one takes the most rational path one can.
Will I celebrate victory if Kerry wins? Yes, of course, as I would with
saving ½ million people. Will I say “good enough, then?” No, of course not;
what a silly question. One continues to take the most rational path one can.
It’s such a simple matter, I have trouble fathoming what cognitive defect
leads people to think that not choosing is somehow superior to choosing the
best course. In the case of the upcoming election it may, for some, be a
megalomaniacal belief that voting for someone is equivalent to electing them,
so voting for, say, Nader, is better than voting for Kerry if they think
Nader would make a better president than Kerry. But of course one isn’t
choosing a president, one is choosing which box to fill in, which results in
a very small relative shift among the probabilities of the various candidates
winning. Given the poll margins, a vote for Kerry actually has a significant
chance of affecting the outcome, whereas a vote for Nader has virtually no
chance of affecting the outcome. Just as there is no principle that validates
letting 1 million people die when you could have saved half because ½ million
people dying is “evil,” there is no principle that validates throwing your
vote away by marking the Nader box when you could have had some impact on
whether there will be 2 more Scalia clones on the
whether the environment will be sacked, whether people will be able to find
work and earn a living wage,
etc., even though
some elements of Kerry’s foreign policy are “evil.”
Just to be clear — Kerry’s militarism, his chauvinism, his claim of “no
casualties” — these disgust me. As does the aspects of American culture that
bred these views, and the massive destructive force that backs that up. But
when I go into the polling booth, there is no lever I can pull that will
flush these evils down the drain. They are givens that I have no control
over — at least, not in the voting booth. We should all be working every day
to change these things, but this is a completely separate, orthogonal matter
from what lever to pull on
A presidential election is a mighty fulcrum. In one day of voting, the face of
the executive branch of the
U.S. government may
change, and with it four years of presidential decrees, regulations,
appointments, and saber-rattling. The presidential election of
looks like it will be a close one, so it’s
reasonable to feel that although the lever in a voting booth is a small one,
its fulcrum is situated as well as any for a single citizen who wants to make
A little effort on your part now to encourage people to vote for Kerry — by
telling them how important voting is, by playing up Kerry’s comparative
positives and staying quiet about what makes him distasteful — could
conceivably make a big difference in how this country gets run for
And even if Kerry isn’t much to get excited about — a lesser of two evils at
best — even such a small difference, when seen in a person occupying such a
powerful office, can make a big difference indeed. We don’t know for sure what
a President Kerry would be like, but even if you ignore his hopeful campaign
promises and just rely on the law of averages, he’s unlikely to be any worse
than what we’ve got now.
So okay, let’s hope Kerry wins in ,
and let’s be glad if he does. And now let me try to convince you why you
shouldn’t vote for him, support him, or encourage people to vote for him.
What does supporting Kerry’s election campaign mean? It means more than just
attempting to dethrone Bush. A pretzel almost did that without any votes at
all. Kerry’s campaign is a big package, being sold with a multi-million-dollar
budget, and win or lose it is going to define the opposition to Bush and his
war and his policies.
And you won’t need to wonder why when you start to hear things like “hardly
anybody questions that the American mission in Vietnam was essentially an
honorable one” and “everybody agrees that we need a large, global military
presence” the same way that this cowardly herd behavior from Democrats
led to things like
“nobody doubts that Saddam threatens the United States with weapons of mass
It’s easy to give yourself over to wishful thinking. A politician’s campaign
speeches are as vague as they think they can get away with — promising
positive-sounding things in general, and not much in specific. The intent is
that the audience will think “maybe he’s talking about me and my hopes.”
Some take this to ridiculous extremes
and try to believe that Kerry secretly stands for what they stand for, and not
for the things Kerry has been voting for, has spoken up for, and has centered
his campaign around. Kerry’s the last person a “lesser of two evils” voter has
to vote for, so that voter is looking at Kerry like a horny drunk boy looks at
the last girl left in the bar — her bad breath and missing teeth are vanishing
from attention and thoughts like “I bet she’s got a pretty voice” are starting
to pop up.
Don’t fall into this wishful thinking trap. If you’re going to vote for the
lesser of two evils, at least look that lesser evil in the face first. Look at
what Kerry has actually done and is actually doing. Case in point: Kerry
didn’t just “believe Bush” about these mythical weapons of mass destruction — he was part of the choir singing the WMD chorus.
I think you’re fooling yourself if you think that Kerry “opposed Bush
going to war.” Hardly. He voted to enable and authorize it, and even now
insists that this was the right thing to do. Another thing a vote for Kerry
will be is a vote for someone who helped lead the war parade.
His spin, now and then, is that by voting to give Dubya the power to go to war
in Iraq, he wasn’t actually voting for war in Iraq but simply to give Dubya a
bigger stick to wave when trying to enforce weapons inspections and such. But
millions of us knew that the Dubya Squad was hungry for war and we begged
Congress not to let them have it. We knew that this resolution was like the
Tonkin Gulf resolution — what passes for a declaration of war in today’s
Congresses. Kerry’s aw-shucks position reminds me of someone who admits that
sure, he gave the loaded pistol to the chimpanzee, but he first admonished the
chimp never to touch the trigger.
Now you may say that while all of what I’ve said is true, or true enough
anyway, this still doesn’t change the brutal but necessary “lesser of two
But you have to answer, realistically and not just hopefully, whether the
likely reduction in “evil” from a Kerry victory over Bush is worth the cost of
further degrading the political opposition and further legitimizing jingoistic
bullshit, worth the cost of moving the country, the Democratic party, and the
media more in favor of this grotesque dream of ruthless American empire.
Remember that it was cynical political calculation of a very similar kind that
caused so many journalists and legislators and such to get swept along by the
war frenzy in the first place.
We need to start saying “no” and no more of this “well I really’d rather not
but just this once more if you promise you’ll be better about it next time”
whining. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t include a big “no” to John
Kerry, and a lot of reaons why we should. It might even be
Is there a good reason to believe that Kerry couldn’t take sensible, half-way
decent, good positions on the war in Iraq or the Abu Ghraib scandal and still
win?3 Are we that pessimistic?
Is his insistence on decking himself out in a set of New Clothes just as
transparent as the Emperor’s really such a great campaign tactic? I mean, hell,
even Republican congressmen from Nebraska are coming out against the war these days.
Maybe it’s time to start wondering whether Kerry is doing this hawk act not
from reluctant political expediency but because he’s deeply mistaken and a
A losing candidate who ran a campaign dedicated to making the
U.S. a better, more
honest, more respectable and self-respecting country, and who conducted a
campaign that reflected this, would leave us in a better place than a
candidate like John Kerry will leave us, even if he defeats the awful Dubya.
In fact, such a person wouldn’t even have to be a candidate — such a campaign
doesn’t have to wait for election season to come around.
The “lesser of two evils” argument says that we’re at a point where we can
make two choices, one will add a certain amount of evil to the world, the
other will add more. We’ve got to choose one, so choosing the lesser evil is
the right thing to do, even though it means choosing evil.
The answer to this argument is that in the real world we have a wide and
ever-changing array of choices, each of which may move us and the world in
more or less good or evil directions. If Bush or Kerry were our only choices,
Kerry would be the lesser evil (by all appearances), and the right choice. In
the real world though, we can do better by rejecting them both and choosing
something good instead.
When the U.S.
Senate passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which gave the president power
to engage in war on North Vietnam without having to consult with the
constitutional war-making body, President Johnson said that the resolution
was like granny’s nightshirt — it covered just about everything. Congress
gave Dubya similar powers “to rid the world of evildoers,” as he put it.
For this, I nominate the metaphorical attire of the burqua, which covers
even more, and allows for only obscured tunnel vision.
“[I]t’s not so hard to imagine what would cause
Mr. Kerry to recant: political expedience.
The Massachusetts senator firmly believes something he firmly believed
when he voted for the war resolution, which is that he should take the
politically safe course no matter what. So he’s happy to straddle the
fence by criticizing Mr. Bush for taking
us down the wrong road in Iraq while refusing to say Congress should have
stopped him. And he figures he can stand by his vote because opponents of
the war have nowhere else to turn. But they can always turn to Ralph
Nader, or just stay home. When it comes to Iraq, after all,
Mr. Kerry sounds an awful lot like the guy
who got us into this mess.” — An Echo, Not a Choice, Steve Chapman
The second of my footnotes is rendering strangely in Mozilla 1.4.1. Starting
with the link to An Echo, Not a Choice, the font
switches over from my standard footnote font to the larger main-text-sized
font, and there’s an extra line-break where this switch occurs. I’ve
double-checked my XHTML and
CSS and run the page through a validator
and nothing seems amiss there. The third footnote also has a hyperlink in it,
but doesn’t show this problem. Any idea what’s going wrong here? Am I making
some subtle error or have I found a Mozilla bug?
it’s a bug of
sorts. Has to do with my XHTML being
served to some browsers (by necessity) as
“text/html” rather than as
“application/xml” which is technically
correct. This causes the browser to misinterpret empty a elements
(e.g. <a name="foo" />). Since I can’t avoid sending pages
as “text/html” to browsers that tell me they
don’t know how to handle “application/xml”, I
guess I have to give up on using empty a elements.
My subsequent move to HTML5 makes all
this discussion obsolete…