Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Shakespeare vs. Oxford: The Burden of Proof

Biographical criticism concerns itself largely with comparative questions of greatness and personal authority.  It regards the poem as the oratory of its creator, and it feels most secure when it knows there is a definite, and preferably heroic, personality behind the poetry.  If it cannot find such a personality, it may try to project one out of rhetorical ectoplasm....
—Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

A month ago, I sent some feedback to A.Word.A.Day, that daily e-mail generator for logophiles.  That day’s word was “factotum,” and I passed along a historical tidbit regarding how the word plays a somewhat important role in our biographical knowledge of William Shakespeare.  A.Word.A.Day thought that my small communication was engaging enough to include in their end-of-the-week e-mail. 

Since A.Word.A.Day incorporated my e-mail address into their electronic printing of my feedback, it wasn’t long before I received a reply to my factoid.  The reply’s writer wondered whether Greene’s criticism of Shakespeare was warranted because, the responder said, it was “clear” to him (my correspondent) that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon didn’t write the works attributed to Shakespeare.  The writer added that a “persuasive” case has been made that Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, was the actual author.  This is an argument that I’m very familiar with.  It seems like every public mention of the Bard, no matter how small, must be met with a rejoinder from the Shakespeare skeptics, collectively known as the anti-Stratfordians.  

Anti-Stratfordians believe that the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare are too skilled and sophisticated to have been written by someone whose life story (what little we definitely know of it, at any rate) was as unexceptional as the Stratford man’s.  Works of such dazzling wordplay and penetrating insights into the human condition, anti-Stratfordians are convinced, could not have been written by a middle-class townsman, like Shakespeare, whose only confirmed historical bequeathals are documents relating to business or property transactions.  No undisputed manuscripts of any literary works in Shakespeare’s handwriting are known to survive, and although there are good reasons for this, it leads some to question whether the man from Stratford wrote the plays and poems that now bear his name.  Anti-Stratfordians believe that such uncommon works of the English language couldn’t have been written by a commoner with no university education, as Shakespeare was.  They believe that the Shakespeare canon must have been penned by a nobleman, such as de Vere, or a university wit, such as playwright Christopher Marlowe, or someone else of high breeding and/or erudition.  They believe that Shakespeare of Stratford, a known actor and shareholder in the theatre company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men), was, at best, a mere “front” for the plays’ actual author, whose gentlemanly identity had to remain secret.  And most anti-Stratfordians believe this passionately.

Not wanting to start any kind of debate, I replied to the replier, simply saying that I didn’t see any reason not to believe the overwhelming historical consensus that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, and I ended on the conciliatory note that regardless of the identity of the works’ author, they could stand on their own.  I e-mailed my reply and hoped that was the end of it.

A couple days later, the anti-Stratfordian replied to my reply, saying that he didn’t think “the finest champion of the English language” could have written the awkward epitaph on Shakespeare’s tomb (and there’s no historical consensus that Shakespeare did indeed write the words):

Hoping to avert a lengthy back-and-forth, I asked my correspondent to name the single most persuasive argument that de Vere was the author of the Shakespeare canon.  In his reply to my reply to his reply to my reply, the writer presented the most convincing confirmation, at least to him, of de Vere’s authorship.  I’ll take the argument step by step:

(1) The author known as “Shakespeare” wrote the epic poem Venus and Adonis. 

(2) Unlike virtually all previous presentations of the titular mythical figures, which show them as requited lovers, Shakespeare’s poem tweaks their story and tells of a passionate Venus throwing herself at a nonreciprocal Adonis. 

‘Venus and Adonis’ by Titian

(3) The only other known works to portray Venus and Adonis in this way at this time were in paintings by the Italian artist Titian.  Therefore, whoever wrote Venus and Adonis must have seen Titian’s painting (or, I would add, a replica thereof), a conclusion shared by many historians.  So far, so good. 

(4) In the usual portrayals of the myth, Adonis is portrayed as bareheaded.  Titian painted two canvases of Venus and Adonis, and in one of the paintings, he is bareheaded, per tradition, but in the other painting, he wears what looks like (but probably isn’t) a Tyrolean hat. 

(5) In Shakespeare’s epic poem, Adonis wears a “bonnet [i.e., cap that] hides his angry brow” (line 339). 

It follows, my correspondent concluded, that the author of the poem must have seen the original painting of a “bonneted” Adonis in Titian’s studio in Italy.  But since there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever left England, and since there is evidence of Oxford being in Italy about the time that Titian did the painting, de Vere must have seen the artwork and, inspired thereby, written the poem.

And that’s it.  Nothing directly linking the Earl of Oxford to the text of the poem Venus and Adonis itself.  Or linking him to Shakespeare’s plays, for that matter. Not even any evidence that Oxford definitely saw Titian’s painting.  And no evidence that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have seen a copy of Titian’s work and therefore couldn’t be the poet (which, I admit, would have been difficult, since it’s almost impossible to prove a negative).  That, to my correspondent, remains the most compelling argument that Oxford wrote Shakespeare: the Adonis in the poem shouldn’t have been wearing a hat.  When you compare this “argument” to the fact that William Shakespeare’s name (which, as was common for the era, was spelt in different ways) had been associated with the poems and plays from the very beginning — and that the Stratford man was proclaimed by at least five contemporaries to be the author of the plays when they were published in the First Folio in 1623 — my correspondent’s claim is (to put it mildly) the weaker of the two. 

When considering anti-Stratfordian arguments, I need to ask myself, “Is this argument compelling enough to get me to believe a conspiracy theory?”  Because, no matter how they try to sugarcoat it, anti-Stratfordians are hawking various conspiracy theories, intrigues of far-reaching collusion premised on events — the Elizabethan court and the theatre machinating to keep the playwright’s identity from the public; Marlowe faking his own death — which are very unlikely.  This isn’t to say that conspiracies don’t exist, but they tend to unravel before too long (Watergate, for example).  Since the first unambiguous questioning of Shakespeare’s identity didn’t present itself until the mid-19th century (anti-Stratfordians point to some earlier “examples” that depend on interpretation), this means that the conspiracy would have needed to go unnoticed for some 250 years, successfully squelching countless opportunities for leaks, before unraveling, which is another unlikely event.  As for the First Folio, those who contest the “sweet swan of Avon’s” authorship must premise their beliefs on the idea that the contemporaries who attributed the plays to the man from Stratford were either dupes or liars.  So, I ask myself if an anti-Stratfordian argument is exceptional enough to get me to believe all of this. 

One reason for the existence of the whole “Shakespeare authorship question” in the first place is that so little historical evidence of Shakespeare’s life has survived, and the bits that historians have been able to assemble are admittedly meager and mundane.  So, biographers must rely on a great deal of conjecture to reconstruct the playwright’s life.  For example, no hard evidence survives that Shakespeare attended his town’s grammar school (the likeliest place for him to have received an education) — just as there is no evidence of any of his contemporaries attending — which leads some to wonder whether the glover’s son had any formal learning at all.  However, there is no extraordinary evidence to back up the anti-Stratfordians’ extraordinary claims; all of the arguments for others to have written the Shakespeare canon rest on conjectures as well, but conjectures that are more extreme, sometimes lurching into wild speculation.  And I find mainstream extrapolations on the existing evidence, which can occasionally be enormous, more credible than the unsubstantiated cloak-and-dagger melodramas spun by the anti-Stratfordians.

For example, to the best of my knowledge, no hard evidence exists that while he was in Italy, Oxford visited Titian’s studio, much less that he saw the painting of Venus and Adonis.  Perhaps he did, but there is nothing in the historical record to say that this event definitely took place.  And the likelihood of the event remains a matter of opinion.  By comparison, what is the likelihood of the eldest son of Stratford’s one-time mayor (technically “high bailiff”) attending his prosperous town’s only grammar school, a school that educated young boys for free?  I would say that such an event is extremely likely, infinitely more so than a vast conspiracy to hide the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.  But, comes the reply, in order to write such astonishing works of the English language, wouldn’t Shakespeare have needed to go to university, which the historical consensus says he didn’t do?  No, Elizabethan grammar schools were very rigorous in teaching their students Latin and Greek, much more rigorous than today’s public schools with their more diverse subjects, while a university education in Elizabethan England primarily prepared its students for the priesthood. 

The point I’m making is that anti-Stratfordians seem to have a double standard when it comes to the burden of proof regarding the authorship of the Shakespeare canon.  Unless there is hard, substantial, irrefutable evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works attributed to him, the argument seems to go, he couldn’t possibly be their author.  By contrast, as demonstrated by my correspondent, the flimsiest, least substantiated association between the works and Edward de Vere (or any of the other anti-Stratfordian candidates) is seen as compelling proof that he is the true author.  Similarly, if evidence doesn’t exist — to their satisfaction — to support a Stratfordian stance, that means such evidence never existed in the first place.  But if evidence doesn’t exist to support an anti-Stratfordian stance, that means the conspiracy has destroyed it.  However, the shoe is on the wrong foot.  Mainstream historians say that the weight of the evidence overwhelmingly supports the man from Stratford.  Mainstream historians want to see an anti-Stratfordian smoking gun in order to be convinced, but Shakespeare skeptics are content with a preponderance of perceived parallels between the canon and the various candidates’ lives.  It’s up to the revisionists to prove the Shakespeare supporters wrong, not vice versa.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the way that the authorship issue is playing out in the public square.

Al Austin, the reporter-narrator of the 1989 PBS
documentary ‘The Shakespeare Mystery’

I’m not the foremost authority on the Public Broadcasting Service, the gold standard of educational television in the United States (just as I’m not the foremost authority on Shakespeare), but I used to watch the network frequently in the past and became quite familiar with what it beamed over the airwaves.  I don’t recall PBS broadcasting anything regarding the life of Shakespeare when I was in my teens and twenties.  Then, when I was in my thirties, PBS finally aired a piece dealing with the Bard’s biography.  What was the show?  It was a film on Frontline, PBS’s showcase of reportorial documentaries, titled “The Shakespeare Mystery” (1989), which advocated (although it gave lip service to even-handedness) the Oxfordian authorship perspective.  I watched “The Shakespeare Mystery” with an open mind — until it blithely glossed over the Oxfordian position’s biggest flaw: de Vere’s death in 1604, which is, historians say, well before some of Shakespeare’s most important plays were written.  The documentary simply stated that Oxfordians contend that the plays could have been written before 1604, without detailing why they think so, and moved on.  Given the issue’s importance in the Oxfordian argument, the documentary’s neglect to explore it more thoroughly was an egregious omission. 

“The Shakespeare Mystery” was soon followed up with another documentary, one contending that Christopher Marlowe was the true writer of Shakespeare.  I don’t remember PBS airing anything to do with the Bard’s life story until it broadcast the BBC documentary mini-series In Search of Shakespeare in 2004, a series that in its first minutes, finally shrugged off the authorship questions using the term “conspiracy theories.”  In other words, PBS, the pride of educational television, seemed to give its stamp of approval to fringe anti-Stratfordian intrigues well before it went into any depth about what mainstream historians say.  And elsewhere in the popular media, Columbia Pictures in 2011 released the Oxfordian melodrama Anonymous, which not only portrayed de Vere as the rightful author but also showed Shakespeare as an illiterate buffoon and blackmailer.  So, anti-Stratfordians can’t, as they sometimes do, play the victim and say that they’ve been ignored in the marketplace of ideas. 

I’m guessing that such widespread interest in alternative authors grows out of the disparity between the adulation (if not deification) of the Stratford man in world literature and the scantiness of confirmed historical artifacts, outside of his published works, that he left behind.  And what paltry artifacts there are don’t reflect the superlative artistry and poeticism of those works.  The artifacts, in fact, barely demonstrate examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting, and this doesn’t comport with contemporary notions of what such a great writer ought to leave to posterity.  Below is a video by an anti-Stratfordian whose skepticism grows out of the artifact-adulation disconnect:

However, as any historian will tell you, it’s not always easy to recover remnants of past centuries.  This paucity of evidence doesn’t, by itself, disprove Shakespeare’s authorship. 

Anti-Stratfordians deny it to their last breath, but the overriding element in all of the revisionist literature that I’ve read on the subject is elitism.  They simply refuse to believe that a person of such humble (but certainly not hopeless) origins could have possibly written what’s commonly considered the greatest literature of the English language.  Why not?  Because, comes the reply, the plays reflect a great knowledge of foreign lands, countries that there is no evidence of Shakespeare ever having visited.  But they demonstrate a certain ignorance of those lands as well, such as a shipwreck “off the coast” of a landlocked nation in The Winter’s Tale.  Shakespeare needn’t have traveled abroad himself but could have learned about foreign countries from books, to which he had access in London.  Still, comes the other reply, the plays portray an intimate knowledge of aristocratic life and politics, knowledge unobtainable to a commoner.  However, as the son of his town’s de facto mayor, Shakespeare was no stranger to politics, and the noble patrons with whom he certainly associated (for example, he ended up working for King James I) clearly provided opportunities for an inside look at ruling-class life.  Other replies say that Shakespeare couldn’t have had the learning and disparage the Stratford educational system, but they don’t really demonstrate special knowledge about it.  In other words, the case against Shakespeare rests on assumptions and assertions, not hard evidence. 

Many (but not all) anti-Stratfordians say time and time again that someone without evidence of formal education (again, like his contemporaries) could not have possibly become the greatest in his field.  But how would they know?  Look at Abraham Lincoln.  He was born and raised in rural Kentucky and Indiana, before settling in Springfield, Illinois.  By all accounts, Lincoln had little formal schooling, or as Wikipedia puts it: “In effect, he was self-educated.”  And this self-educated country bumpkin not only learned how to be a lawyer (a difficult task in itself) but went on to become arguably the greatest president in the history of the United States.  Granted, many more historical documents exist regarding Lincoln’s life than Shakespeare’s, but if they didn’t — if Lincoln had Shakespeare’s small number of surviving historical records, all unexceptional — I can imagine throngs of anti-Springfieldians arguing that the self-taught yokel couldn’t possibly have become the wise president who shepherded America through its devastating Civil War.  Clearly, the impossibility of the man from Stratford to have written Shakespeare is an unwarranted surmise.

As its parallel with Lincoln’s life shows, Shakespeare’s biography embodies what many U.S. citizens call the American Dream: the idea that despite unpromising circumstances, one’s talents can overcome obstacles and reach great heights.  Shakespeare’s rise from the son of a Stratford glover to the toast of London demonstrates that you don’t need to be American to live the dream.  So, it’s deeply ironic that many Americans, people one thinks would extol the country’s upwardly-mobile mythos, are anti-Stratfordians who insist that only a member of the aristocracy could have written Shakespeare’s works.  Maybe that says more about the state of the American Dream today than about anything else.

An example of Diana Price’s work: the anti-Stratfordian
book ‘Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography’

I have been following a few on-line authorship discussions, and one anti-Stratfordian writer has garnered quite a bit of attention with the thoroughness of her research: Diana Price.  In her discussions, Price’s main sticking point is that there is no surviving ante-mortem evidence that clearly links the man from Stratford to the canon; although there survive numerous references to a playwright named “William Shakespeare” in the private and published writings of contemporaries, all known associations of the works to a son of Stratford-upon-Avon, Price says, were made after Shakespeare’s death. As far as I know, Price is correct; only upon the publication of the First Folio in 1623 (seven years after his passing) is the author explicitly said to come from the Warwickshire town. And, Price concludes, this leaves room for someone else to have been the author; this leaves room for the possibility that “Shakespeare” was a pen name for someone other than the man from Stratford.  

Furthermore, she also leaves open the possibility that this author could have been Oxford.  One piece of historical evidence that persuades mainstream scholars that de Vere and the Shakespeare author weren’t the same person is the 1598 book Palladis Tamia: A Wit’s Treasury by Francis Meres.  In his book, Meres lists the celebrated writers of his age, and he mentions both Shakespeare and “Edward Earl of Oxford” separately, contrasting their strengths: Shakespeare as a writer of both tragedy and comedy, and Oxford only for his comedies.  However, the book fails to persuade Price because it offers no evidence that Meres knew either of the two writers personally — and therefore wouldn’t know whether “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym — and because writing two names separately on the same list doesn’t prove they’re not the same person (just as, I assume she’d say, a list mentioning both Mark Twain and Samuel L. Clemmons doesn’t prove that they’re different people).  You can see how rigorous Price is in considering pro-Stratfordian evidence, so rigorous that the mainstream historians say her standards are too high. 

However, in another anti-Stratfordian article, Price refers to Shakespeare as “an alleged grammar-school dropout.”  Although the evidence is minimal, many historians agree that Shakespeare’s father later in life experienced a drastic reversal of fortune, and Will needed to drop out of school in his late teens in order to make money for the family (which, along with his shotgun marriage at age 18, explains why he never went to university).  But if she were consistent, Price would say that because there is no surviving evidence of Shakespeare attending school, then there is logically no evidence showing him dropping out.  It’s very interesting to me that Price would use such exacting standards when considering the evidence on the Stratfordian side, but when it comes to airing information that might support an anti-Stratfordian argument, a mere allegation is good enough for her.

Sometimes the revisionists’ hard line against evidence supporting the Stratfordian view reaches absurd proportions.   The book that I mentioned at the beginning, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, is a case in point.  In one part of his posthumous book, Robert Greene, a university-educated poet and playwright, emphatically warns fellow wordsmiths against mere actors (who owed the words they spoke on stage to men like Greene) picking up the pen and writing for the theatre.  As part of his rant, Greene writes (spelling has been modernized):

…[T]here is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit [i.e., opinion] the only Shake-scene in a country.

Who could possibly be the actor-playwright that Greene is talking about?  In his tirade against the otherwise unnamed “upstart Crow,” Green paraphrases a line from the Shakespeare play Henry VI, Part 3 (“O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!” — I.iv.137) and goes on to apply the never-before-used word “Shake-scene” to this miscreant.  Who is it?  The answer is obvious: you don’t have to be a Stratfordian to conclude that Greene is referring to Shakespeare.  Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped a number of anti-Stratfordians from concocting convoluted rationalizations that Greene is belittling some other actor, such as Edward Alleyn.  I have no doubt that if some Elizabethan pamphlet by a discontented playwright had quoted a line from the canon and followed it with a neologism like “Ox-fraud,” Oxfordians would seize upon such a scrap as irrefutable proof of their candidate’s authorship (although it’s hard to imagine a sixteenth-century British commoner, even one already dead, alluding to a nobleman like de Vere in such a disrespectful manner). 

Shakespeare’s First Folio

If I were asked to name the most compelling argument for Edward de Vere’s authorship of Shakespeare’s works, I would point to the First Folio’s dedication: 

 Earle of Pembroke,&c. Lord Chamberlaine to the Kings most Excellent Majesty.
PHILIP Earle of Montgomery,&c. Gentleman of his Majesties
 Bed-Chamber. Both Knights of the most Noble Order
 of the Garter, and our singular good
Oxfordians say that this dedication bolsters their argument because, of the two dedicatees, one was de Vere’s son-in-law and the other was a prospective son-in-law whose arranged betrothal to one of Oxford’s daughters fell through.  Isn’t it interesting, Oxfordians ask, that in addition to so many events in the plays mirroring those in de Vere’s life (although you can read something into anything), the First Folio was dedicated to two people closely associated with the Earl?  I repeat this argument because it is the only one, to my knowledge, that actually makes some direct connection between Oxford and the plays themselves that isn’t dependent upon some contestable interpretation of the texts.  As far as I know, the First Folio dedicated to a family member and would-be family member is Oxford’s strongest uncontroversial link to Shakespeare’s works.  You don’t need to envision de Vere visiting Titian’s Italian studio or being denied a byline to see the association.

But even here, the Oxfordian case is suspect.  First, although one can easily imagine a writer inscribing a book to a family member, why would the First Folio’s compilers risk the powerful family’s ill will and dedicate one to an unsuccessful suitor for the hand of de Vere’s daughter, even if that suitor were the son-in-law’s brother?  Second, the son-in-law, Sir Phillip Herbert, the First Earl of Montgomery, was a great patron of the arts and literature and, according to Wikipedia, received “the dedication of over forty books during his lifetime.”  Did de Vere write all those books as well?

But Sir Phillip’s brother, William Herbert, the Third Earl of Pembroke, has a very strong association, among scholars, with Shakespeare.  Although there is no solid evidence putting him together with the Bard, William Herbert is widely considered (among other candidates) to be the “Fair Youth” that inspired Shakespeare’s sonnets, the young man whom the poet urges to marry and have children.  De Vere’s daughter wasn’t William Herbert’s only unsuccessful betrothal: as a young man, he abandoned a number of abortive matches, which suggests a certain recalcitrance regarding marriage.  Assuming the sonnets to be cryptically autobiographical (there’s no consensus), one can easily imagine Herbert’s aristocratic parents calling upon (and remunerating) England’s most celebrated poet to write some verses encouraging the well-born youth to marry and procreate. 

Also, many of the sonnets obliquely narrate the poet’s (the author’s) passionate, sometimes homoerotic relationship with the good-looking young man (the Fair Youth) whom he first advised to have children.  (By contrast, it’s extremely difficult to imagine Oxford feeling this way about a reluctant prospect for his daughter’s hand.  And the wording of the poems suggests someone of lower social status addressing someone higher up, not equals.)  More than this, when the sonnets were first published in 1609, Shakespeare secretively dedicated the volume to an otherwise unnamed “M[aste]r. W.H.” as “the onlie [sic] begetter” of the poems.  The exact identity of this mysterious dedicatee is still unknown, and several candidates have been considered, but William Herbert, who shares the same initials, has long been considered a strong possibility.  (Those historians who contend that Herbert was not the sonnets’ Fair Youth say that the book’s dedication was made by its publisher, Thomas Thorpe, so it is not an autobiographical inscription by Shakespeare himself.)  

If any film-viewer is looking for a more nuanced and Stratfordian alternative to the overblown Anonymous, the BBC has produced an imagining of the story behind the sonnets, A Waste of Shame (2005).  Based on a thoroughly researched historical novel, the British film is still a conjectural fiction of what might have inspired the poems, but it’s a more plausible fiction than Anonymous (and for that matter, a more plausible fiction than the excellent Shakespeare in Love as well, a film whose plot, unlike that of Anonymous, makes no pretension of factuality).

So, since historians see more compelling ties between William Herbert and Shakespeare than between William Herbert and de Vere, Oxford’s most unarguably direct connection to the plays — the dedication of the First Folio to de Vere’s son-in-law — doesn’t persuade me to believe a conspiracy theory.

If an Oxfordian has now made it all the way to this closing part of my essay (assuming anyone does), I don’t expect to have persuaded such a reader.  Most anti-Stratfordians seem to have great emotional investment in the idea that someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the pinnacle of English literature, and are distrustful of what mainstream historians say.  The anti-Stratfordian reader will probably see me as an unwitting stooge helping to perpetuate the literary world’s greatest hoax.  To such a person, I would say: Yes, continue to question history.  Continue to be skeptical of whatever received wisdom that the keepers of culture send your way.  And that includes what historians say about William Shakespeare.  But be sure that you are just as discriminating and discerning with the answers that you get to your questions.  If your main reason for adopting an alternative author to the Shakespeare canon is because you believe that such monumental works ought to have equally monumental origins, or because you believe that everything official is a big lie, that is worth scrutinizing as well. 

Who knows?  Maybe some future historical treasure trove will turn up unforged manuscripts of Shakespeare’s works in de Vere’s handwriting and/or letters from an Elizabethan court official detailing how to hide Oxford’s identity as the true author from the public.  Then the anti-Stratfordians’ extraordinary claims will have the extraordinary evidence necessary for mainstream historians to take them seriously.  Should something like that ever happen (don’t hold your breath), the historical consensus would change, and I would change along with it.  But until then, to me, inferences and unfounded assumptions alone aren’t compelling enough to inspire belief in the unbelievable and rewrite the history of the most acclaimed words in the English language.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Debt Ceiling: Raise High the Roof Beams, Republicans

I’m really getting worried about the debt ceiling.  If the Republicans — and this whole sorry mess is being driven by the Republicans — fail to raise the debt ceiling, the stock market could crash, or at least come as close to crashing as we’ve seen in recent decades.  And if the stock market crashes, I could be wiped out, or virtually wiped out, of some money that I’m very much dependent on.  And if that happens, I may need to move out of Los Angeles.  Where would I go?  That’s not a question that I want to think about right now.

As I alluded to in an earlier post, this entire situation is because of the Republicans using the budget process in an entirely new way.  Never before (as Lawrence O’Donnell explains in the video below) has raising the debt ceiling seriously been used as a bargaining chip, not before the Republican-manufactured crisis of 2011.  But now, with some very Machiavellian hard-line arch-conservatives controlling Congress and determined to shrink the government radically (down to the size where they can “drown it in a bathtub”), any trap-door lever that they can pull or demolition button that they can press, instruments once regarded as destructive to use in the legislature,  is regarded by them as a legitimate means to get their way.  

Republicans can’t achieve what they want democratically, so they resort to blackmail — probably believing that God is on their side — and a large part of America seems to regard all of this as mere business-as-usual in Washington.

I’m a liberal in large part because I believe that America needs a social safety net to cushion life’s unforeseeable slings and arrows and to give people an occasional hand up.  The stock-market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression clearly showed the need for a social safety net and what can happen when businesses are allowed unchecked license to run roughshod over employees and consumers.  And if anything in the proverbial net needs fixing, fix it; don’t use that flaw as an excuse to take down the whole thing.  But the Republican Party is now under the control of people, both politicians and financiers, who don’t believe in the social safety net — among other government functions — and are bent on destroying it.  

I hope that my fears are overinflated and that some kind of deal will be reached before October 17 — but it seems that any deal which might be struck would only encourage the Republicans to keep using these unprecedented, underhanded tactics, by which they can get most of what they want, governing from one unneeded, artificial crisis to another.  I don’t know how this will end, but I’m afraid that things will get worse before they get better.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Difference Between Negotiation and a Threat

I couldn’t let the government shutdown and manufactured debt-ceiling crisis pass without comment.

Republicans are calling for Democrats to “have a conversation” with them and “negotiate” ending the debt-ceiling “debate.”  Negotiation is a matter of give and take: “You give me something reasonable that I want, and I’ll give you something reasonable that you want.”  That’s called compromise.  “You either give me what I want, or I’ll inflict a financial catastrophe upon the country and the world” is not a negotiating position; it’s a threat.  That’s called “taking hostages.”

And the fact that one of America’s major political parties has sunk to the level of making threats in order to sabotage something that is supposed to benefit all Americans, accessible and affordable health care, is beyond Machiavellian.  This sad situation epitomizes how inflexible and unreasonable the Republican Party has become in the service of an ideology that is antagonistic to betterment of the country as a whole.  (And if the Republicans disagree with this much-needed law, they should offer a reasonable alternative, instead of just calling for the legislation’s defunding or repeal.)

Fortunately, Tom Tomorrow’s This Modern World has a fitting — and devastating — analogy.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013