Doctor Science Knows

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy; health care; incompetance

Within you may find comments on: Ted Kennedy at Ta-Nehesi Coates'; incompetence as a strategy, at Crooked Timber; health reform, at Obsidian Wings.
Ta-Nehesi Coates, who's a young whippersnapper, asked How did he get that lion of the senate title? What were the nuts and bolts he screwed with to get business done? What's the why and how?. I said:

I think the main reason Kennedy could accomplish so much was that he was an hereditary aristocrat. His life is a textbook example of how that is both good and bad.

Because he came to his position essentially by inheritance, he didn't have to fight for it. He could afford to be principled, but he could also afford to be magnanimous.

Even very conservative Republicans could work with him, because what's more conservative than hereditary aristocracy? Indeed, he wasn't just an aristocrat, he was a *celebrity*, the very highest class of American society, rarified even by the standards of the Senate Millionaire's Club.

The good part of being an aristocrat is *supposed* to be being reared to public service; care for the downtrodden also *supposed* to be one of the emblems of Catholicism. In Kennedy's case they actually worked, so he was an aristocrat in a very Catholic mold, blending the sense of duty with the awareness of not being particularly "elect" in the Protestant sense. In Catholicism, "sinner" and "saint" are not opposites nor mutually exclusive.

And of course, being an aristocrat -- and more than that, a celebrity -- meant that Kennedy's ability to *do* things could not be destroyed by Chappaquidick or anyting else. His hereditary position could not be undone or unmade, so he could get away with things.

[in reply to an accusation of ignorance]
You misunderstand me. I admire Kennedy *deeply* and have for many decades.

But his virtues -- magnanimity, firm principle, kindness, friendliness -- are not enough to explain why *Republicans* got along with him and were willing to work with him. Virtue and strength of character aren't enough; he also needed power, the kind of unassailable power that came from his hereditary celebrity.

The contrast to GWB, of course, is painful and acute. GWB is the poster boy for all the ways aristocracy is a bad idea -- and how of all the hereditary aristocracies, the worst are the ones where the aristocrats think they've *earned* their positions.

TNC's question is *how* Kennedy could do so much. I don't think personality, principle, or a tradition of collegiality are enough to explain why Hatch and others were willing to work with Kennedy -- I think it's that he was, in an American way, of a higher social class than they were. He was able to use that power for good, but the foundation of his power was just as unearned as any X-Men's. (X-Man's?)

Karen in DC wrote:
.. after Kennedy got in trouble for cheating at Harvard, he ENLISTED in the army and served as a private, not as an officer as his older brothers had. So, he had to LEARN how to engage with people from other classes, including live and work with them and take orders from those who were not of a higher class. He had a lived experience as a "regular" person that his brothers had not.

Thanks for the info, Karen, I didn't know that. I'm betting that experience -- and being so far down on the sibling totem pole -- did indeed help give him experience seeing things through other people's eyes.

Nonetheless, his position in public life began and depended upon his lineage -- as the Charles Pierce bio a few years ago said:
If his name were Edward Moore . . .

He would not have served so long, if he'd served at all.

If his name were Edward Moore, Robert Bork might be on the Supreme Court today. Robert Dole might have been elected president of the United States. There might still be a draft. There would not have been the Civil Rights Act of 1991

This is the dream of aristocracy, as good as it can get: someone of such high, unearned position that they can be thorougly magnanimous. Alas for Plato, it doesn't happen often enough to justify the whole system, but at least we can recognize it when it does.

Henry at Crooked Timber posted on incompetance as a signalling device, linking to Scott McLemee's review of Diego Gambetta on Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, and makes comparisons to the Italian academic scene:
“Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message * I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else. * In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity
I said:

Now *that’s* a theory with broad applicability, if you know what I mean.

I recently read Deer Hunting with Jesus, and was thinking about Sarah Palin and the glorification of ignorance and ill-education in what David Hackett Fischer calls American “Borderer” culture. Gambetta’s theory makes the light bulb go off, for me.

If education is a ticket out of poverty or marginalization, then poor and marginalized people will (rightly) see it as disloyal to the group or the family, unless it goes along with a strong tradition of supporting your parents and extended kin. Proud ignorance is proof that you won’t leave your kin behind—because you have no-where else to go.

Do any of you know if Gambetta talks about such signalling by Japanese yakuza? They are famous for using tattooing and self-mutilation as demonstrations of loyalty and commitment.

von, one of the conservatives at Obsidian Wings, posted about health care reform and his support for Wyden-Bennett. I wrote:

Having read a brief overview of W-B, von, I have a question:

Does any other country do this?

I personally have had *enough* of American exceptionalism and insisting on being the first penguin off the ice floe. There's no point in having a big world if you have to keep inventing the wheel to prove how Special we are.

I also am quite appalled at the idea that the solution to our problem is to give more money to insurance companies. Step right this way for yet more regulatory capture and market failure!

I will also add that the reason I am for single payer is that I abhor means testing. To people of means, means testing may seem "only fair", but in practice it is tiring, degrading, confusing, privacy-destroying, and taxing in every sense. It also inevitably involves huge, invasive bureaucracies and the pushing of much paper, things to which von is deeply opposed.

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