The Senior Senator From Massachusetts

I'm really interested in chess, as a number of my friends know. I think it's a game we should teach to all children. It imparts lessons that can be useful in almost areas of life. We don't expect most kids to play major-league baseball, but we teach the vast majority of kids what the rules are. I admit up front that I think baseball is a quality game. Most professional sports have issues, that's what money brings. But in my opinion professional baseball preserves more of the basic spirit of the game than any other professional sport.

Chess has the advantage, if you think of it that way, of not having much money involved in it. So it hasn't been ruined. And although what you were born with is very important in chess, like it is in football or baseball, it's a different set of things to be good at. It's not based on how big or fast or strong you are. It's not even the same set of skills used in academic tests. To excel at chess requires the instincts of a boxer and a mathematician.

There's another game that doesn't, as far as I know, have an official name, or even an official existence. Some people call it Geostrategy; another, simpler, name sometimes used is Power. It's not mainly about money, although money is a tool, like oil, or iron, or population.

As far as I can tell, it's been played by a small percentage of any population, but every human grouping that is usually called a civilization has been influenced, at a consistently high level, by such people (using “high” in the power sense, not the moral one). Who they are, where they come from, and what philosophy they espouse naturally varies according to the situation. Another thing that varies is the relative stability of the various power centers involved.

For instance, there were rich and powerful families whose names are familiar to historians (as distinguished from conspiracy theorists) in Athens, Rome, Amsterdam, Vienna, Paris, and London, to name a few without even leaving European history. Let's take the Medici clan, of Florence. Everyone's heard of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and of his patronage of the fine arts, which resulted in a surprisingly large percentage of really worthwhile stuff, proving, it seems, that he did have decent taste in art.

Fewer people, perhaps, have heard of the depredations his family visited on Florence, enriching themselves at the cost of the public to the point that they were driven out of town, and their despotism was replaced by a republic. When they raised an army of sufficient size to re-take the town, you can imagine how they treated the usurpers. For example, one former official in that republican government, named Niccolo Machiavelli, survived three turns on the wheel, and lived to dedicate The Prince to Lorenzo.

But Italian politics, these days legendary for complexity and instability, were not always thus.

One of the most interesting things about Roman history is what seems from our vantage point to be innocence. Rome was in many ways a brutal system. But at the same time it, like other cultures around that time, had what might be called a culturally childlike belief in simple virtues like honesty and courage. It would be more honorable, in their view, to die failing to accomplish the goal than to live and put up with defeat—“Come back with your shield or on it”, the Roman mother mythically said to her son as he left for battle. (Soldiers who panicked and ran when they saw spears and swords coming at them would generally drop their shields on the way out.) And they believed in oaths—or at least

they respected, as the firmest bond of society, the useful persuasion that, either in this or in a future life, the crime of perjury is most assuredly punished by the avenging gods.

The result is, as Gibbon says, you can read Roman history and see human nature in the raw. People had conceived the idea of history, to be sure; in fact, since the Romans didn't believe in an afterlife, history was the road to immortality. One of my favorite Roman myths, and it might not even be mythical, is the story of life-long friends engaged in a swordfight to the death for the privilege of going on a suicide mission, the completion of which would save the city from ruin.

Regardless of whether it's true, this is the kind of thing they admired; this is what they associated with the concept of immortality. And of course, in a world of pater potestas, family was important too: if you died, but the family held or improved its position, you could expect the only sort of immortality that mattered in uppercrust Roman society: being remembered by grateful relatives and citizens long after your physical death.

This “Family Feud” mentality carried forward, and was for a long time high on the list of nobility's favorite playthings. Though most Americans have heard of them more through fiction than through history, the Wars of the Roses are not unknown here. That time was full of complex struggles involving people with non-nuclear but well-documented family ties. People like Richard the Lion-Hearted, Henry V, and Joan of Arc were involved in various bloody struggles for power that fell under this rubric.

In this light, it's interesting to read Senator Kennedy's take on the war in Iraq. I'm certainly no fan of establishment Democrats, and there's hardly anyone more establishment than Teddy Kennedy. I don't think of him as a hero, and despite all the horrible things that have happened to him, he's not completely a victim either. But every now and then you see a spark of the old flame, and you remember why the right hates him and his family. I know some people think the JFK assassination was a continuation of the Wars of the Roses, but that theory has yet to convince me.

I tend to think the distaste has more to do with the family's continued interest in the game of Geostrategy, and with its particular take, as demonstrated in paragraphs like this:

Hussein's brutal regime was not an adequate justification for war, and the administration did not seriously try to make it one until long after the war began and all the false justifications began to fall apart. There was no imminent threat. Hussein had no nuclear weapons, no arsenals of chemical or biological weapons, no connection to Sept. 11 and no plausible link to al Qaeda. We never should have gone to war for ideological reasons driven by politics and based on manipulated intelligence.

Of course, if you're reading this page, you probably know everything, or nearly everything, he says. But the point is that the senior Senator from Massachusetts is aware of the basic world situation that you and I can see, and when he publishes his knowledge in the Washington Post, it's an accusation. This indignation is not a fringe feeling. It's felt by establishment Senators. Therefore the establishment, up to now in full denial mode, can no longer maintain the illusion that “nothing's happening, and even if it is, who knew?”.

They knew, and they're generally engaged in hemming and hawing until someone comes up with a scheme for sweeping it all under the rug. Why doesn't the opposition scream bloody murder, like it did in Nixon's time? Because the result of that deal was that the public perception of politicians in general dropped like a rock, and even the opposition party, namely the Democratic, was forced to nominate an outsider, Jimmy Carter. They only supported him for one term, and not even that one enthusiastically. No one on “either side of the aisle” (there are only two) really wanted things to change; they just wanted the blatant crook out of the way, so the game could continue.

And a similar thing is happening now. Even rational Republicans (no, that's not an oxymoron) have gone ballistic over the obvious contradictions in the Bush belief/war/economic system, though many of the adminstration's “moral majority”-type supporters seem to have no trouble with such concepts. John McCain's appearance on The Daily Show gave me a new awareness of the level of disconnect between the White House and other Republican power centers. And we're not talking Bush vs. Richard Lugar or Olympia Snow here. Sure, McCain challenged Bush for party leadership last time, but his roots, like those of Bush's team, are in that southwestern culture of Goldwater and Reagan, the beginnings of which stimulated Hofstadter's classic essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

The point here is that taking on the Republicans with all their money and their nearly complete control of the Mighty Wurlitzer is not an impossible, or even a Herculean, task. Bush can be beat. You wanna talk Valerie Plame? How bright is it to roast an organization that cut its teeth, before you (Karl or W) were born, on messing with election outcomes?

Of course Shrub will, like the Doonesbury character of old, sweep his immediate circle of friends. But the only that group has of putting millions of people in the streets is to hire them; they don't have millions, they have thousands. We, on the other hand, don't have fortunes, but we have millions of people. We've got editorial pages across the country dissing the State of the Union speech. We've got soldiers on active duty having their benefits cut, and paying for their own toothpaste. We've got retired citizens having to pay more for the same drugs and medical treatments. We've got millions of folks from the NRA to the ACLU protesting when Colin Powell's son tries to hand even more concentrated power to the ten big media corporations. We've got organizations like, which no one had ever heard of a few years ago, spending millions of dollars on advertising, thanks to George Soros's new goal of defeating Bush, whatever it costs. We've got at least 237 local governments passing resolutions condemning, or at least urging the restriction of, the USA PATRIOT act.

We've got a lot more people. They've got a lot more money. Throughout the history of the two existing major political parties, the Republicans have nearly always outspent the Democrats, and usually by margins of at least two to one. That didn't keep the country from being solidly Democratic for decades. Of course, the Republicans have recently solidified their control of the major media outlets. But there's a simple solution to that: ignore the major media outlets, or use them very selectively. Don't watch Fox, for example—duh—and skip MSNBC, except for “Countdown”, a straight news program with a satiric attitude; online sources ( Cursor, Common Dreams, Alternet) would be preferable if all they offered was a larger range of voices, and that's not all they offer. You don't have to put up with Murdochized news, but you do have to recognize that it's not in the interest of corporations, in general and in the long term, for you to know what they know. It's standard business practice to hide the cards that might win the hand, so you can't trust the other people at your poker table unless you can see their cards.

So my claim is that we should take heart from the fact that we're not alone. We have help, for example, from the man Iraqi Shiites call “The Object of Emulation”, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who occasioned one of the Washington Post's best efforts:

After weeks of quiet overtures and secret letters to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, administration officials say they are baffled over exactly what he wants---and even more confused about what it will take to get him to back off his demand for direct elections.

And look at the Iowa caucuses, where a large percentage of caucus-goers cited the perceived ability to beat Bush as the most important issue. This is not, you'll remember, the standard method of the Democratic party; the debates were closer to the old circular firing squad trick for which the party is known.

This year Democrats are stealing a page from the Republican playbook: they're on a mission from God.

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