Important to remember what its all for.
I like talking politics, but before you strike up a political conversation with me, be warned; if you say three or four things in a row that line up neatly with the fissures of modern American politics, I am going to make some assumptions. How can I say this politely… I am going to assume that you are outsourcing your mental functions to another entity. Sorry, but if you know what I am thinking, then maybe you will shut up. Because I don’t know what is causing our current political hysteria, but I know if it keeps up it will cause our great country to eat itself. I might not be able to stop that, but I won’t participate.
But before I tell you how I know that other people’s partisanship is a good measure of their dumb-ness (I mean mistaken-ness), I am forced to confront my own real-world dumb-ness by talking about what happened on the ranch this week. My old friend, the Almanac section.
My week was dominated by house construction since we are in the final stages of building and we are going to move in on Wednesday. Notice how I did not say that we have completed the final stages of building and are going to move in on Wednesday. When you start building a house, you have all kinds of ideas about how you want it to be and by the time you are done you just want to move in and have everyone go away. I will be applying those insights to the political arena.
I feel embarrassed about how stressed this makes us. We are going to come out of this with a nice house and much closer to everything we ever said we wanted. During this same week, there were thousands of people who learned that their loved one’s condition is terminal. There are hundreds of millions or billions of people that worked fourteen hours just to put together enough to eat so that they could do it again tomorrow. This thought causes me guilt which causes me more stress and makes the process start all over again.
I was trying to just feel grateful while I looked over the pastures while I was spreading pea gravel at the homesite. The weather is starting to change, with the first of our rainy season storms coming in, making the ryegrass sprout and the land to grow chick fuzz. Now the winds come from the south, I know because there is a sheet of roofing on the barn that flaps and slams when the wind comes from the south. Last year when the first loads of cattle were coming in, I slept in a tent in the barn. I listened to that sheet of roofing slam all night long. In the summer the winds went right over the top of us at the homesite. Here it is still even when we were sand-blasted down in the pastures. The winds come from the North in the summer on the west coast because winds travel around low-pressure systems in a clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere. We feel the wind-driven rain at the homesite during the winter because winds move around low-pressure systems in a counterclockwise direction. Here in the Northern Hemisphere. That sounds like total bullshit but I think that’s more or less how it works.
Anyway, I was starting to feel my heart soften and gratitude creep in and start to feel in touch with the rhythms of the season and part of a wider pattern of nature. Then my general contractor came up the driveway, from the same direction as the weather. In an expletive-laced rant I told him, among other things, to get off the property or I was going to call the sheriff. Maybe I will try again for balance and gratitude and perspective next week. Or more likely the week after that.
Great, back to politics. Political parties want you to think that their platforms are coherent frameworks for understanding reality. They want you to think that they are the ones that divine truth and that they are the ones who protect that truth. Then they can enlist you as a foot soldier in their attempt to gain power. But political ideologies are not coherent frameworks for understanding reality. They are coalitions of special interests.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that special interests have gotten a bad wrap. But by my definition we all have a special interest; your special interest is the issue that is most important to you. However, when you go to Washington, you learn the rules of special interests.
Rules of Special Interests:
- Not that many people feel the same as you about your special interest.
- Most of the people who feel the same don’t feel nearly as strongly.
- It is hard to change things.
These three rules have some important implications. The ditches in our valley were dug in 1906. That work was done with big steam shovels on barges that floated on the swamp. As a result, the ditches are straight, not because they need to be straight, but because the barges couldn’t turn and had to come out the same direction they went in. And the ditches have vertical walls, not because anyone wanted vertical walls, but because those steam shovels had booms that articulated on one plane and dumped spoil from the bottom of the bucket, so there wasn’t a good way to make a gently sloping wall on the ditch. It’s not perfect, but they got it done. Now the landscape of our valley has been shaped by the shortcomings of their excavators.
In a similar way, the landscape of our minds has been shaped by the shortcomings of our democracy. In our political system, in order for something to happen, someone has to take something out of their imagination, and lay it out, end to end, with words. Of course, no one is going to be able to create enough words in the right way to take the complexity of the universe into account. Therefore we can expect the unexpected when it comes to laws. But that is another problem altogether. Partisanship is born in the response to those imperfect bills.
To understand this problem, imagine the first representative legislature in the world. Maybe in ancient Athens, I don’t really know. Imagine the first bill ever presented to it, maybe an olive oil standardization bill. All the words for this first bill have been concocted and glued together and read (or not read) and debated with more words. Now, everyone in the Senate has to respond. But in contrast to the bill, their response is the picture of simplicity. They can say ‘yes’ or they can say ‘no.’
With this vote looming, every senator in Athens glances back at the rules of special interests, and most likely decide that this bill doesn’t have much to do with their own special interest or that of most of their constituents. So, the natural thing for them to do is to go around to those few people for whom standardized olive oil is very important and say, “Look I don’t care at all about olive oil, but I might see the logic behind your argument if you promise to support my Spartan Exclusion Act next week.” They give the same proposal to the olive growers association, as opposed to the standard. Everyone wrangles about all the other bills on the docket. They make their decisions and make their promises. Everyone lines up on either side of the olive oil bill and from there things take on a life of their own. This is how political parties are born.
Since there are only two options available, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I think it is inevitable that power will be split between two entities. For those of you who are great believers in third parties, I wish it were that simple. In parliamentary systems, there are lots of parties. But those parties still have to line up on one side or another of any particular bill. To do that they have to form coalitions, coalitions where small parties, with narrow special interests, are either co-opted or ignored. Just like you and me. Our two party system is not the cause of our political problem, just another manifestation.
This is why we have such strange political bedfellows in our system. It is important to realize that there no logic behind it. There is no good reason for the gospels of Jesus to be lined up with the repeal of the inheritance tax. There is no reason for immigration to be aligned with organized labor. There is no reason for pro-Life to be lined up with gun rights. No reason other than the complicated web of deals that were struck. But it becomes very helpful for everyone to think that there is somehow a connection. Otherwise, the foot soldiers will break ranks and run. Otherwise, they will start to think for themselves.
This is why it used to be that politicians would get elected on the promise of working across the aisle to get sensible legislation passed, but they would vote on partisan lines once they got to Washington. When they were interviewing for the job they didn’t realize what it entailed. The voters back home consider it a betrayal when their representatives vote along partisan lines for legislation that is bad for the home district. But fellow partisans in Washington view it as a betrayal when party members vote against legislation that they carefully craft to try to appease their diverse coalitions.
But they don’t do that much anymore. They realized that it is much easier to convince voters that their political coalition is actually a coherent framework for understanding reality. It is right and true. On the other side, there are only sub-human zombie monsters that are trying to eat babies. Then the politicians are off the hook. They don’t have to play a complicated and nuanced game. They just have to keep up the rhetoric.
The FSA agent here in town has a bumper sticker in his office. Yes, I’ve been in the FSA office, leave me alone guys, haven’t you been paying attention to what I’ve been saying? Anyway, the bumper sticker says “Friends don’t let friends go to Oregon State.” Here in Oregon, it is ducks vs beavers. I went to college at the University of Montana where it was Grizzlies vs Bobcats. I grew up in Wisconsin where it was Badgers vs Gophers. (I want to point out, as someone who has studied mega and mesofauna, that a grizzly will inevitably win against a bobcat and that badgers are the natural predators of gophers.) As football season is ramping up it is important to remember why we find it these rivalries funny. They are making fun of how seriously we take our political coalitions. Yes, the decisions politicians make have huge consequence for us in the real world. But the coalitions themselves have nothing holding them together but a mutual defense treaty.
There is no changing our system of voting up or down on bills. But what we can do is not get fooled into thinking these coalitions represent real distinctions in truth or values. These fault lines are manufactured. On the one hand, understand that our politicians are dealing with a whole raft of considerations that they can’t talk. Like everyone’s job, it is easy until you try to do it. Such an understanding is prerequisite for them to create smarter coalitions. Smarter coalitions should be the objective, not purity of belief. This understanding should be balanced by ruthlessly punishing any politician who tries to pretend that their side is somehow sanctified by God, instead of a just group of people that are working hard and doing their best to make things a little better. If we believe the former, they will stop being the latter.
What does this very long blog post have to do with Savanna ecosystems? Good question. The more complicated our technology and the farther we get from healthy savanna ecosystems the more we are forced/tempted to ‘manage’ the world using symbolic systems, such as legislation. That is spelled out more in the book, link on the website, now that I think of it.
Speaking of which, I am pleased to announce that I have lined up an illustrator for the book. I am going to keep the identity of that illustrator a surprise for the time being, but I am very excited about it and the illustrations will be completed in Mid-March. Stay tuned.