The Entscheidungsproblem of American politics
Sunday is, I think, the biggest day for newspapers, so the NYT’s “Sunday Review” was surprisingly slim pickings, even for satire. Of course there’s the Friedman’s latest evacuation, in which he explains that all recent events are because “the world has gone from connected to hyper-connected”; but this lucid prose mainly made me go from bored to hyper-bored. It any event, it feels a bit de trop to make fun of something that is practically making fun of itself.
In desperation I even looked at Maureen Dowd’s column. Dowd I consider perhaps the battiest political writer with a national audience, a person who kind of publicly free-associates in paragraphs of one to two sentences. You imagine her slightly (or not-so-slightly) tipsy in a fashionable Manhattan apartment, aggressively paragraphinating her text in order to make it fill the requisite column-inches. The purpose of today’s contribution seems to lie exclusively in letting the country know that Mitt Romney once “put Seamus, his Irish setter, in a dog carrier strapped to the roof of the family station wagon for a 12-hour drive from Boston to Ontario.” I guess Dowd is trying to suggest that this is animal cruelty, which sounds right, although it also sounds like about as much fun as a dog could possibly have.
So the winner of this week’s least-ugly content was none other than cub columnist Frank Bruni, who wrote a longish rumination on the Republican presidential candidates’ ball in Iowa. It was reasonably funny–but it is the Republicans in Iowa, even Dane Cook could make it funny. And additionally it suffers from the same malady that afflicts all liberal humor, which is that it’s basically whining, a kind of tiresome bleat for “my friends across the aisle” to do better, whereas the true satirist wants only that his target should die from embarrassment.
Still, Bruni starts to get at something when he writes:
Bachmann’s debate performance was troubling. In her opening remarks, she caromed from senseless to ear-splitting, first saying that her vote against raising the debt ceiling had proved correct and then veritably yelping that Obama would be a one-term president.
But that wasn’t the scary part. The scary part was how little distance there was, really, between her and the others on the stage. For all of the agitated sniping between Bachmann and Pawlenty about her legislative record, between Ron Paul and Rick Santorum about Iran, and between Newt Gingrich and the panel of questioners about his alleged persecution, there was a stunning ideological uniformity on display.
Leave aside for now whether this is “scary” (as in, let me scare you into voting for Obama) or not; and let’s forget the implication that the problem is “ideological uniformity” per se. The interesting thing is that the Republican presidential contest–and, why not say it, American bourgeois politics in general–cannot distinguish between who is crazy and who is not.
One of the classic problems in mathematical logic is the Entscheidungsproblem of David Hilbert, which asks, very roughly, whether for every “yes or no” question you might ask, there exists a procedure to determine whether the answer is yes or no. Alonzo Church and Alan Turing showed, perhaps surprisingly, that the answer is no; for example, if someone gives you a computer program, there’s no general way to tell if it will get stuck in an infinite loop.
Another, basically equivalent way of formulating the Entscheidungsproblem is to ask: given certain restrictions on what you can do, can you correctly separate a bunch of items into two non-overlapping categories? For example, someone who’s red-green colorblind cannot separate red and green balls by color using only his eyes, although he could do it with a spectrometer.
Now returning to the Republican field, it’s pretty clear that Michelle Bachmann is wacko, Rick Santorum is gaga, and Sarah Palin is some kind of low-functioning sociopath. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is not crazy. But–how can you tell? Well, there are little signs–like indifferently strapping the dog to the station wagon instead of trying to shoot him from a helicopter or something–but using only the tools of the political system itself, it’s not possible to tell. Do Romney and Bachmann actually disagree on any major economic or social issue? Does the mainstream press ever say something like, “Sarah Palin is a parvenu and nuttier than a bag of cashews, so we’re not following her around anymore”? Certainly not.
The concentration and financialization of capital over the last 30-odd years has meant that the major political parties, the “Serious” press, and mass entertainment are now part of a single gigantic cycle of “content” that churns uninterruptedly. It’s hard to get in the cycle; but once you’re in, you’re in like Flynn. Like the bureaucracy of Kafka’s infamous Castle, to dispute anyone’s place in the cycle would be to dispute the cycle itself; so everyone has to be taken seriously, even if he’s manifestly cuckoo.
Nor is this an exclusively Republican phenomenon, although the GOP surely deserves pride of place in driving us further and faster down the abyss. Probably dozens of books and articles were published in the last days of the Bush administration that set out to prove the psychopathy of the sitting president; most of them were assuredly hackwork from the liberal shit-mill, but they were on to something. But has the non-crazy Obama pursued any major policy that was not the handiwork of the crazy Bush? Not really–or where he has, such as in Libya, it makes one look back rather fondly on li’l Dubya. (Even Obamacare, with its garish amalgam of public subsidy and private profit-taking, bears the familiar stench of Medicare Part D.)
And this is where Bruni and our other liberal friends are mistaken in their belief that by engendering fear of insane leaders, they can help the Democrats win in 2012. Not because insane leaders aren’t scary–they are, although the country is a bit desensitized to it at this point–but because the political system can’t sort out the sane from the insane. So as long as you insist on playing by the system’s rules, you can only effectually know what the system can tell you, even if you “privately” know something else. It’s like trying to get the colorblind person to pick out the green balls by yelling more and more shrilly that the red balls are covered in poison. It won’t help, will it?