Dark money groups are multiplying – and thriving – on both ends of the political spectrum.

– Michael Beckel, “What Is Political ‘Dark Money’ – and Is It Bad?” The Center for Public Integrity / publicintegrity.org (January 20, 2016)

Dark money is like dark matter: you can’t see it, but you’re influenced by it.

In Citizens United (2010), the Supreme Court cleared a path for political donors who wanted to exceed legal limits on contributions to candidates and parties. The donors also wanted to remain anonymous. As a result of the Court’s decision, spending by ghostly nonprofits now overshadows “on the books” funding of candidates and parties. In US elections in 2018, dark money from the top three 501c(3) nonprofit contributors grew to $60 million – with $40 million going to liberal campaigns and $20 million to conservative campaigns (Schatzinger and ‎ Martin, Game Changer, 2020).

As for dark matter, it is mass that astronomers can’t see but are sure must exist. It must exist because the motion of spiral galaxies is inconsistent with Newton’s universal law of gravitation. The math in Newton’s law says the universe needs about 25 times more mass than we’ve detected so far, to account for the spiral galaxies’ speedy spin. It would be a serious setback for science if the word universal had to be removed from the law of gravitation.

Heigh-ho, proposing a new class of untraceable matter is a radical way to solve an equation, but as Sherlock Holmes might say: Once you’ve ruled out the imponderable, whatever remains must be the truth.

Dark matter, like dark money, is a perplexity of law, accountability, and gigantic unseen forces.

Photo: Karl Stull

Back to top

Major bottlenecks in voting system

LA Times headline (March 5, 2020)

Ketchup in glass bottles used to be a case study in every kitchen illustrating the consequentiality of orifice diameter. With ketchup now in squeezable containers, there is no need to shake and pound the bottle.

On Super Tuesday, voters were flowing like ketchup through Los Angeles County vote centers. The “bottlenecks” were many: high turnout, problems with a new check-in system, poll workers unfamiliar with technology. Bottles within bottles.

There is a Zen riddle about imagining a goose inside a narrow-necked bottle and getting her out without breaking the glass. The answer is to recall how the imaginary goose got into the bottle in the first place.

See also “C’mon, it’s like a zipper!”; keyword search: log-jam.

Photo: Karl Stull

Back to top

The right to vote and trial by jury “are the heart and lungs, the mainspring and the centre wheel….In these two powers consist wholly the liberty and security of the people.”

– John Adams, Boston Gazette (January 27, 1766)

It’s a jolt to see biology and technology put together this way by one of the Founding Fathers, but Adams may well have viewed the ticking of a heart and the ticking of a clock as two sides of the same coin. Physician William Harvey described the heart as a mechanical pump in 1628, dispelling earlier views of that organ as a magic bag of courage.

In a clock, the center wheel acts as a regulator, metering energy out to the gears in small, steady pushes. Similarly, the heart pushes units of energy (red blood cells, laden with oxygen) through the human body.

In a democracy, voting delivers life-sustaining energy throughout the body politic.

Painting: Portrait of John Adams by Gilbert Stuart via Library of Congress

Back to top

New Hampshire result clogs up moderate lane for Democrats

– Reuters (February 12, 2020)

It’s easy to visualize how a 100 yard dash would go awry if Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson all had their own lanes while Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar had to argue over whose turn it was to use the starting blocks. Lane-sharing in a foot race is contrary to the very idea of having lanes.

In traffic, lanes may be assigned by ethos: slow vehicles to the right, ride sharers to the left, with left-turners in a center lane. But these lanes are meant to form orderly lines, not facilitate a race. The ride sharers all get to where they’re going at the same time.

The race metaphor itself is a dubious description for presidential primary campaigns, where the goal is not to get anywhere first but to gain the most delegates. It’s more like a fishing derby than a marathon. Debates are like boxing, or a combination of boxing and gymnastics (Warren vaults ahead by gut-punching Bloomberg). The peloton in bicycle racing – a pack pursuing a frontrunner – might be the most apt of Olympic metaphors for political campaigns, with doping and dirty tricks being part of the game.

Image: Karl Stull

Back to top

To have actual de-escalation diplomacy, don’t you need to have kind of off-ramps that both sides can kind of take baby steps in that direction to kind of develop good faith to show that things are ratcheting down…

– Anderson Cooper, Anderson Cooper 360° (January 6, 2020)

In war, you have an exit strategy. In a diplomatic crisis, off-ramps.

A war is like a party that has become tedious. With an exit strategy, you know in advance where the door is and what excuses you’ll offer. “It was so nice of you to invite us, but now we’ve met all our goals in coming. [Smiling, waving] Good night.”

But a diplomatic crisis is like an accident about to happen on a strange superhighway. For some reason, the superhighway has only one lane. A truck is coming from the other direction. To avoid a crash, you look for a well-paved excuse. “Oh, look, this exit has pie and coffee, and meeting rooms with negotiating tables.”

The same important principle underlies both metaphors: you need an excuse to get out of a war.

Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation

Back to top

I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up.

– John Bolton to Fiona Hill (July 10, 2019)

In the most quoted metaphor from President Trump’s impeachment, John Bolton compared the dirt-for-aid trade to a street crime. Not white collar crime. Not mafia crime. Not a federal crime – which the Office of Management and Budget eventually decided did occur.

The thing about a drug deal is the parties can’t trust each other. The buyer is crazed with need. The seller is utterly lacking in humanity, and possibly short on business ethics. It’s a recipe for suspicion, betrayal, and violence. Thus in the 1990s “drug deal gone wrong” became a byword for street crimes that would never be solved but were no mystery.

In Bolton’s view, the Rudy Giuliani/Rick Mulvaney “drug deal” could go wrong in a hundred foreseeable ways. Making the same point in a further metaphor, Bolton said, “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” It remains to be seen whether the grenade will explode. Giuliani might be a dud.

Illustration: From a Thomas Nast cartoon (1872), via Wikimedia

Back to top

The principal figure is Minerva, with her spear and Gorgon shield, typical of the manner in which California was born, full grown…

– Bayard Taylor, describing the California state seal, in Eldorado: Or, Adventures in the Path of Empire (1860)

CaliforniaSeal

Just as Minerva had no childhood, but sprang full-grown from the forehead of Jupiter, so California skipped the territorial stage of development and joined the Union immediately upon application, with a voter-approved state constitution already in hand.

The Jupiter from whose forehead California statehood sprang was General Bennet C. Riley, who in April 1849 became commander of the Military Department of Upper California (including today’s Nevada and Arizona). Riley had responsibility for law and order in the region but not nearly enough troops, as the Gold Rush boosted the California census from around 10,000 to a quarter-million in two years. Most of the new arrivals were adult males with pickaxes, guns, and a dream of quick riches. There was a corresponding rise in frustration, desperation, soured hopes, and lawlessness. California needed governments, courts, and sworn police officers in a hurry.

General Riley issued a proclamation for a constitutional convention, held in September 1849 in Monterey. In ordinary circumstances, it would be Congress that would invite a territory to draft a consitution. Seeing gridlock on Capitol Hill, where the priority was balancing the number of free states versus slave states, Riley acted on his own authority. In Roman mythology, Minerva is the armed goddess of wisdom.

Back to top

The wall has become a metaphor for border security.

– Senator Lindsay Graham, CBS News video at the White House (December 30, 2018)

Many people, especially in Congress, were unsure about how literally to take President Trump’s vision of a “big, beautiful wall.” Confusion of this kind is addressed in Gulliver’s Travels, when Gulliver visits Lagado. In that city, he meets innovative thinkers at work on language reform. Their idea is that words only get in the way of communication.

…since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on (III.5).

Want to talk about french fries? You pull some french fries out of your backpack and show them to your interlocutor. If you are talking about a wall…

if a man’s business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged in proportion to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him.

The system works best when people do their conversing at home, where the parlor “is full of all things ready at hand.”

Gulliver remarks that a thing-based language has the advantage of being universal. No need for translators, because there can be no uncertainty about what the other fellow has in mind.

Back to top

This was not the first occasion on which I had encountered those outbreaks of stupidity, hatred and credulousness, which social groups secrete like pus when they begin to be short of space.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

As an anthropologist, Levi-Strauss understood the underlying causes of friction between ethnic groups. As a Jew in France in 1941, he understood it was high time to get out of Europe. When a majority group feels deprived, minorities soon feel the pressure. Accusations, outrageous stories, and fear mongering spread like a rash across all zones of contact.

Migrants fleeing Europe – respectable citizens, who yesterday would have been welcomed as tourists – were treated as quasi-prisoners by border police, coming and going, at every port along the way. (Recall the opening of Casablanca, tracing complicated routes from Europe to Africa.) Even Levi-Strauss, a professor invited to teach at Columbia University, was detained at a camp in Puerto Rico for weeks and questioned by the FBI. They thought he might be a German spy. Stupidity, hatred, credulousness.

Back to top

Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.

– John McCain, on CNN’s State of the Union (March 16, 2014)

Often a metaphor asks you to see a thing as greater than the sum of its parts. Ronald Reagan called America “a city on a hill,” an example visible to all the world. McCain’s metaphor takes Russia in the other direction, reducing it to less than the sum of its parts, comparing it to a roadside operation run by swindlers.

Obviously, the homeland of Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, and Andrei Sakharov has more to offer the world than oil and gas. McCain was making a point about the current regime: i.e., that sanctions against individuals are effective when a government is run by gangsters.

When enemies of the U.S. look for a metaphor that reduces us to our worst traits, what do they come up with? Soviet-era propaganda featured bankers with top hats and bloated bellies (less lovable versions of the figure in Monopoly). They hit closer to home when showing the Statue of Liberty in chains or hanging her head in shame.

Islamic militants refer to the Crusader – a figure we see as an ideal, the knight in white with a red cross. The militants see him as a gangster masquerading as a pilgrim.

Back to top