Monday, January 26, 2009

I Like This Duke

As I've mentioned before, the book Dune shaped much of my adult thinking. In Dune, Liet Kynes meets the Duke Leto Atredies to give him a tour of Arakis, the planet the emperor has given to Duke Leto. Kynes is a servant of the emperor as well as imperial planetologist-- think head of the EPA on a galactic level. Kynes is also a member of the Arakeen native population, and Duke Leto has come to the planet to mine it for spice, an obscenely valuable commodity. So Kynes has good reason to hate Duke Leto. Leto is consuming resources from Kynes' home planet, undermining Kyne's task of protecting and understanded the planet. Leto is an external force that could disrupt the planet's entire ecosystem and destroy Liet Kynes' people.

Yet the second time Kynes meets the Duke Leto Atredies, Kynes changes his opinion on the duke. The two go out to survey a spice mining operation. Something goes wrong with the harvester which has almost a full load of spice. The load was worth rough one million times a worker's lifetime wage. Yet rather than worry about the spice, Leto goes through extraordinary means to save every last person working in the harvester. He shrugged off the value of the spice without a second thought, arguing that they could always get more later. In the words of Liet Kynes,

"This Duke is more concerned over his men than the spice! I must admit, against all better judgement, I like this Duke."

My interest in politics stems from the fascinating drama of the story. And politically, I'm very jaded. I believe that almost invariably, politicians act in their own best interests. They only helping the populous out of self-motivation. For example, senators get additional funds for their state so that they will be re-elected, and they try to get elected so they can acquire "campaign contributions" (essentially bribes) in return for passing laws that favor wealthy organizations. Politicians do both good and bad things with their power, but nothing is motivated out of selflessness. Even their good deeds have selfish motivations. So when politicians promise change and a renewed pledge to defeat corruption, I don't think anything of it.

I find myself in a similar position to Liet Kynes as I watch President Barack Obama. I'm not expecting a miracle from the man, and his promises of hope and change strike me as typical campaign messages from younger politicians. As a politician, Barack Obama is untrustworthy until proven otherwise, and even then he's still suspect. But against all my better judgment, I like this President. The feeling is extremely disturbing.

As I have very different expectations for President Barack Obama as other people have, I suspect I like him for very different reasons. I think a lot of people like Obama simply because he's not George Bush. Certainly many people like Obama because he's not white. Obama is empirical proof that minorities can earn just as much success as white people. He is also a symbol of a new generation, being the youngest president America has had in decades.

Symbols inspire, and living symbols have high expectations. But I'm unmoved by Barack Obama, the symbol. Rather, I am inspired by Barack Obama, the man. In many of the decisions he's made so far, I feel like he is paying well more than lip service to his promises. For example, his secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is a professor with a Nobel Prize in Physics. Who was the last secretary of energy that even had a PhD? I know the standard decision is to choose a board member of an oil company like Exxon and have them recommend policies that involve deregulating polution control and not investing in alternative energy. But actually chosing someone who is respected by the entire science community as a top member of his field? That's totally unheard of, and well beyond my low expectations of who would be selected for a political position.

Similarly, Obama's adamant stance on closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center is beyond the standard political posturing statements. Normally politicians will decry how human rights are being violated, but they won't actually do anything about it, or they risk losing votes from people who think that they can secure safety for the nation by torturing potential enemies. Obama seems very intent on doing something about the situation even if people disagree with him.

I believe George Bush initiated the two wars with Afghanistan-based terrorists and the country of Iraq out of vengeance. As a man, Bush views loyalty as something to be rewarded and dissent as something to be punished, and this is the extent of his motivations. Even though Bush claims he always "does what he feels is right", his definition of whether someone is right or wrong seems eerily correlated with whether or not they agree with his opinions. It's a bit of circular logic which always concludes, "I'm going to do what I'm want no matter what." The true test of whether you do what is right is how often you do things you don't want to do.

In contrast, Obama is very pragmatic man. He wants peace in Iraq because destabilizing the middle east makes life worse for America, not better. He wants to continue the fight in Afghanistan because the terrorists intend to strike America again. And he wants the US government to stop torturing prisoners for two main reasons. First, it makes many other nations hate America. And second, torture simply does not work. Studies have shown time and again that information extracted from torture is highly unreliable. Torture has no use as a tool of interrogation. It is only a tool of revenge, which is why it was used in the Bush administration and why Obama wants nothing to do with it.

I still think Obama is a politician, and his objective is to get reelected. But his apparent plan for reelection is to do as much good for America as possible, picking the most practical and pragmatic solutions rather than the solutions with the best image. If he wants to make America a better place for selfish reasons, that's fine by me. I hate to say it, but I like this president.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ride With Hitler

"Hitler ruined that mustache for the rest of us."

It's true too. Culturally, western society so strongly associates Hitler's mustache with a genocidal dictator that even seeing it conjures up an emotional connection. I find it fascinating that a man has been so thoroughly associated with his mustache that more than 60 years after his death, people would face social stigma if they wore it. This is a testament to the effectiveness of the the World War 2 propaganda. Hitler's mustache and right-to-left hair part became icons that were easy to caricature:

That meant American propaganda wasn't America versus Germany; it was America versus Hitler. Mentally it's much easier to view a person as evil than an entire nation, so Hitler became the face of evil. Here's one of my favorite propaganda posters:

Yes that's right. When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler! The poster's message was that you waste gasoline when you don't car pool, and this in turn hurts the war effort. Technically stated that wasn't true. Commodities like gasoline, bread, and meat were strictly rationed on a nationwide level, so that the war effort would always have enough of these things. From an economic perspective, if the general public consumed more gasoline, then the price of gasoline that the public had access to would increase, but it would have no effect on the quantity of gasoline the soldiers could use. The rationing merely makes publicly accessible gasoline more price sensitive. Put another way, you don't even have access to gasoline until the army says it has enough, so buying more gasoline only affects what you and your neighbors will pay.

Of course, the poster's message is still in the viewer's best interest even if the logic is incorrect. Somehow "When you ride alone, you pay more for gasoline" just isn't as compelling as "When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler." Propaganda works because most people don't think rationally. The emotional connection of "Hitler is a bad guy so I won't help him" is easy to reinforce through caricatures. But the logic of "Because gas prices are high, I should save myself money by using less of it" is too subtle to convey through a simple poster with a one line slogan.

The propaganda is a lie that encourages people to do things in their own self interests. Do the ends justify the means in this situation? I don't think so, but then again I'm a purist. I can certainly understand why people would disagree with me.