An Acting President?
The media’s obsession over whether President Obama has “emoted” sufficiently over the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is second only to its focus on the actual oil spill. When the president touches a tar ball on the Louisiana shores, what is his expression? Furious, fed up or just frustrated? In modern times, the president has increasingly been looked to as the one who should express the emotions of the American public. When Ronald Reagan, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, spoke movingly about the brave soldiers who landed at Normandy, many Americans teared up, even though Reagan, an actor, never saw military service. They were pleased that Reagan served as a proxy to express what they felt.
But is it right to expect “No Drama Obama,” whose preternatural cool has helped him weather both personal and political crises, to suddenly become Al Pacino? For most of our history, Americans prized a sense of reserve in the chief executive. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had seen war up close, felt no need to prove himself with histrionics. Nor was he much given to worrying. In 1955, on the day when Eisenhower was being honored by Pennsylvania State University, where his brother Milton was president, the weather turned nasty. Milton fretted. Ike said calmly, “Milton, I haven’t worried about the weather since June 6, 1944.” On the other hand, George Washington wept when he bade farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York in 1783 after the Revolutionary War. When it comes to ending and fixing the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, however, most Americans would probably opt for action over acting.
Money, Feel Free to Speak
In the middle of the election season, the U.S. Supreme Court landed a body blow to American democracy with a peremptory order ending Arizona’s “clean” campaign financing system, known as Azcam. Established by the voters 12 years ago after a series of corruption scandals, Azcam was a mechanism for public funding of elections of candidates who agreed to accept only small private donations in support of their campaigns. The court order is potentially a massive attack on efforts to create a level playing field between deep-pocket candidates and impecunious challengers. Following the precedent set in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the court identifies money with free speech.
Repeatedly the court has ruled in favor of the plutocrats. In 2008 it found against the so-called Millionaires’ Amendment, which allowed publicly financed Congressional candidates to raise more money when they faced wealthy opponents; and in January it ruled against limits on corporate spending in elections. Its jurisprudence seems locked in a fundamental metaphysical confusion that equates the rights of the fictive persons called corporations with the rights of flesh-and-blood human beings.
American jurisprudence, moreover, seems to have whittled down the equal protection of the 14th Amendment into a series of specific nondiscrimination rules (for blacks, women, native Americans, 18-year-olds) and lost any moral vision of what it might be like for citizens to exercise equal voice in their government. Congress is looking to make some small, short-term fixes to this electoral absurdity. Ultimately, a constitutional amendment will be needed to provide a remedy. In the meantime, the United States risks becoming a corporate state like Hong Kong, where businesses are guaranteed seats in the legislature.
An adult Barbary macaque takes his infant for a ride on his thick brown back, as the tiny monkey clings to his shoulders and clutches his fur. What makes this worthy of a lead story in The New York Times (6/14) is that primatologists have just explained such behavior in a new report. Carrying an infant, they say, gives adult male macaques social status and helps them bond with other males. Infant cuddling is a nonthreatening way for male adults to interact in groups; it enhances social networking. Among animals, though, it is rare for males to engage with infants. Only 10 percent of all mammals—the primates—even so much as acknowledge paternity. So to find a species whose males protect their young not only marks evolutionary progress; it also makes news.
The same front page showed a photo of a Swedish game warden, with a rifle slung over one shoulder and a husky dog at his side, toting his 2-month-old son across a field. This father is on baby leave, bonding with his infant for two months, the minimum time period subsidized by the government. In Sweden paternity leave is a piece of social engineering that started in 1974 and has gradually taken hold. Eighty-five percent of Swedish dads now take advantage of this time off. Baby leave fosters bonding and allows dads to interact with one another in groups, but best of all it helps balance work and family life. It may also strengthen marriage. Since 1995 divorce and separation rates in Sweden have dropped, and joint custody of children has risen among divorcing couples. The Swedish system marks social progress. Too bad it is still so rare that it also makes news.