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PRESENTING THE QUANTUM PANDER


Wednesday April 08, 2015

In recent days, Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana has given us a political analogy to Erwin Schrodinger's famous thought experiment in which he posited that there were situations in quantum mechanics where a cat could simultaneously be both alive and dead. In Pence's case, in the course of one week he both attacked as an unjust smear, the criticism that a bill he signed on religious freedom implicitly gave license to individuals and businesses to refuse customers if serving them violated their beliefs, and also demanded that the bill be "fixed" before the end of the week. Thus the bill in question was both perfect as it was, but also in urgent need of fixing. Call it quantum pandering.

These days Pence might prefer to be living in a world of quantum indeterminacy. In 1935, Schrodinger dreamed up his scenario in response to an interpretation of quantum mechanics in which various possible realities remained piled up upon one another -- "super-positioned" is the word physicists use -- until they were observed, at which point these many states would "collapse" into something definite. In Pence's case he was faced with the task of appeasing two core constituencies of the Republican Party: the Christian right who abhor gay marriage, and the business community, which doesn't want to alienate potential customers. The problem for Pence is that neither is a subatomic particle, and both want definite results, not the blurry miasma which politicians prefer to inhabit.

The difference between quantum pandering and the more familiar political syndrome of flip-flopping is the element of time. John Kerry could get away -- sort of -- with the phrase "I was for the war before I was against it" because people are allowed to change their minds. We enter the political equivalent of quantum reality when the two contradictory positions are near simultaneous. Flip-flopping, hardly more noble, usually represents a politician's craven recognition that a pander isn't working. Quantum pandering is not about the times changing, but rather the need to appease two irreconcilable points of view at the same time.

A near-heroic example of flip-flopping took place in 1961 when Robert Wagner ran for his third term for Mayor of New York City as a reform candidate, in essence running as an incumbent on a "throw the bums out platform." The bums in this instance, were the very political machine, the operatives of Tammany Hall, who had put him in office for his first two terms. Mitt Romney came closer to the quantum pander during the 2012 campaign when he both defended the health care plan he championed in Massachusetts and attacked Obamacare, which was based on that very plan.

The Pence drama is but a warm up to the 2016 presidential election, which promises a rich smorgasbord of quantum panders. How will the Democrats tap into anger at wealth inequality and the impunity of the banks without alienating the deep pockets of Wall Street? Will Rand Paul find himself caught between the libertarian abhorrence of foreign adventures and Republican allegiance to defense spending; or rights of privacy and government surveillance? For those planning to keep score at home, a flip flop becomes a quantum pander when it occurs within the same week, as politics works operates slightly longer timescales than quantum mechanics. Do you agree Dr. Schrodinger?

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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