Friday, June 4, 2010

Power to the People!

Journal of the Plague Year: The Inside Story of Eliot Spitzer's Short and Tragic Reign Journal of the Plague Year: The Inside Story of Eliot Spitzer's Short and Tragic Reign by Lloyd Constantine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Reading insider accounts of the workings of government makes a good corrective to conspiracy theories: if you ever fall victim to the belief that people in power are greater than you or me, well, then I suppose you will also believe that terrorists are evil geniuses.

It would empower us to realize they're not. But then we would be responsible to make things better. It's often nicer to be angry with someone who should have done more because it seems they could have.

Jail the feckless slob who manages to set off a forest fire with a careless match. For life. And make him a poster model for how responsible we'll be held if our cockamamie schemes should work. We recruit them - terrorists and shooters - by our very horror at their impact. As if it takes much plotting to do damage to a house of cards, an assemblage of fanatics; as if such doomsday machines as financial derivatives and deep sea oil wells don't have more probability for failure than for success.

Who are we kidding, if not ourselves?

Lloyd Constantine - certainly in his own mind - strives for truthfulness in his account of the early demise of the Spitzer administration in New York State. He doesn't spare himself, but finally, he faults Spitzer for indulging himself, not with prostitutes, but with the seductive temptation of the ordinary life of a wealthy alpha male. He took on the responsibilities of Governor, and he should have seen them through.

There is some mild recognition that there is no ultimate requirement that we the people are so uptight about sexual indiscretions. Why, the unspoken question gets asked, should a man as big as Spitzer internalize such small minded obsessions? Why should he be wracked with guilt? Why should he be so indiscreet as to allow his own undoing?

The real crime was that he'd led us all in New York state to believe that he really wanted to be governor. If that were so, he would have kept his promise to us. In the end, he's just another rich playboy, nevermind that he pays more than the rest of us would need to even if we wanted to, for the illusion of prowess in love. That much money should have bought discretion, unless he'd wanted or needed to be caught.

The hell of it is that he has this perfect wife, this perfect family. He had real prowess in his ability to attract such a powerful group of movers and shakers to the cause of his administration. But he saw himself, one guesses, as the Music Man, and couldn't keep up the act.

You know, I had the same feeling when I read Zhao Ziyang's smuggled out memoirs of his downfall from power in the People's Republic of China. From the inside, the moves of the extremely powerful look banal. They look like what we must imagine would be the inside narrative of sports heros, made up mostly of grunts and counting. There is not all that much to say from the inside of any exercise of the familiar moves of the greatly accomplished performing their great accomplishments. Some are more talented than others. But should we adore them quite so much?

As it is, how could they not see themselves as greater than they are. When politics is spectator sport? Lloyd Constantine clearly believes that he earns the millions that he earns, defending the likes of Rupert Murdoch from Constantine's self-styled Progressive side. As if he's that much better, more intelligent, harder working than the rest of us. As if the rawest wanting of the alpha-male is that distinguishable from luck.

And would the world be worse if Murdoch were crushed by the then still-reigning TV networks? Would New York be better off if the Spitzer administration carried though on its promise?

Or would we all be better off if we were to ignore the chest pounding of the alpha males, turn away, and do the hard work of making the right choices, as most of us do every day in our limited realms. Would we all be better off without such complex structures, such dizzying altitude distribution toward the various tops; things which will always seem more likely to topple than to stand.

I'd thought surely that one of Spitzer's enemies had entrapped him. The Church perhaps, which he could have brought down in New York State by erasing any statute of limitation for child rape. The stakes were high. Everyone has a weakness. Maybe that is what happened. Maybe the personal cost to do right by the people truly was made too high. Maybe his exposure of what really happened was simply made too personally dangerouus.

Or, you know, maybe the responsibilities Spitzer had taken on were in themselves, of necessity, destructive to the family that he loved, and he really did need a way out. Maybe no-one could threaten them more than his job did.

Well, that's the lesson I take from this and the Zhao Ziyang book. By the time you want that much power, or need it, your humanity has already been erased. Our democracy is not meant that way. Humility should be the norm in sport and in government. Extreme competence is its own reward. Constantine should go back to government. He's not that great a writer. And the position of Chancellor for the State University belongs to an ac academic, for chrissakes. Who do these operators think they are?

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