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Op-Ed

Betting Wrong

Session after session, congressional battles have us rooting for one side or the other. But it’s not easy to tell who the good (and bad) guys are. A theory by way of He-Man and the Masters of the United States Congress.

Having hit my peak cartoon-watching years in the early ’80s, I was, of course, a devotee of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Each week brought another thrilling adventure, in which He-Man (the good guy!) and his faithful friends would go toe-to-toe with Skeletor (the bad guy!) and his conniving minions, inevitably eking out a narrow victory in the end. All of this took place in the mythical land of Eternia.

Or, rather, it apparently took place in a single zip code on Eternia, as neither He-Man nor Skeletor could so much as pop down to the corner store for a pack of Kools without running into the other. The two wiled away their days in a Hatfield-McCoy feud, with Skeletor constantly trying to seize He-Man’s home (Castle Grayskull) and the Masters of the Universe forever thwarting his efforts.

A few weeks ago I was reminiscing about those old cartoon series with my friend Mark. He’d loved Speed Racer; I’d been indifferent to it. We had both been huge fans of Star Blazers and disappointed by the Pac-Man and Friends.

Then, as I do in pretty much every conversation, I brought up He-Man.

“Yeah,” Mark said, “I liked that show for a while. Until I realized that He-Man was the bad guy.”

At which point I proceeded to kick his ass. Or would have, had we not been drinking—beer makes me more amicable than bellicose. Instead, I just challenged him to back up his outrageous slander.

“Dude, he lives in a giant skull,” Mark pointed out. “Think about it. He-Man wouldn’t build a castle in the shape of a skull, he’d build a castle shaped like a, you know, sword or a quadricep or something.

I raised a finger to rebut, but his logic was unassailable.

“Who would build a castle shaped like a skull?” he asked. “Skeletor. Castle Grayskull is obviously Skeletor’s house but, at some point, He-Man came along and stole it. That’s why Skeletor is always trying to get it back. He’s the aggrieved party here.”

Mark was clearly in need of some serious refutation, but I had to admit he had a point. Every episode of He-Man consisted of the two parties battling one another, with their skirmishes having little or no effect on the outside world.

This was true of many of those ’80s, action figure-centric, A vs. B cartoon shows: G.I. Joe vs. Cobra, Justice League vs. Legion of Doom, Autobots vs. Decepticons, etc. But most were at least set on Earth, so you could easily identify the bad guys—they were the ones trying to blow up Mount Rushmore. Eternia, on the other hand, was apparently home only to those characters shown in the opening credits, and there was no frame of reference to determine which side was which in this epic struggle of good and evil.

By 1994, congressional Democrats had settled pretty well into the role of Skeletor, had become corrupt and complacent after 40 years of uninterrupted control.

I’m sure He-Man and The Masters of the Universe has a rich back story, covered in the pilot episode or the comic books or the volumes of fan fiction which no doubt lurk on the internet. But for the cartoon series, everything had been dumbed down to a second-grade level, so they never bothered to explain why one side was more qualified to be the good guys than the other. Instead, we were just asked to take it on faith.

And they knew we didn’t really care. We wanted to see them duke it out, week after week, and we wanted our team to win. And let’s not forget the point of the show: The corporate sponsors who financed the whole thing just wanted to make a buck, and a good way of accomplishing that was to entertain the audience with carefully orchestrated but ultimately meaningless battles, so we’d go out and buy whatever product they were hawking.

Which brings me to the U.S. Congress.

 

Lord knows that by 1994, congressional Democrats had settled pretty well into the role of Skeletor, had become corrupt and complacent after 40 years of uninterrupted control. But in swooped Newt Gingrich and his Masters of the Universe and stole the legislative equivalent of Castle Grayskull right out from under them.

Perhaps the Republicans were the good guys at the time. But now Capitol Hill has pretty much become another animated, zero-sum, A vs. B cartoon. In each spine-tingling episode, Republicans square off with Democrats and trade blows for half an hour before a winner is declared; in almost every case, the net effect on the outside world adds up to a big fat goose egg.

Except, of course, a month before a midterm election. Suddenly our legislators swing into action, transforming, like Prince Adam to He-Man, from a Do-Nothing Congress to a frenetic Do-Several-Politically-Expedient-Things-Half-Assedly Congress. They hastily draft and pass the legislation they should have spent the last two years deliberating.

This is how, last week, we abruptly found ourselves with new regulations governing the treatment of those suspected of terrorism. Alas, the new law does not extend the right of habeas corpus to detainees, the lack of which, the Supreme Court has previously implied, makes the bill almost certainly unconstitutional.

“The 253 to 168 vote [on the detainee bill] was a victory for President Bush and fellow Republicans,” The Washington Post reported on Friday. That the legislation will likely be struck down by the Supreme Court next year is, of course, of no consequence; at that time the ruling party will craft new legislation, ram it through Congress, and be declared the heroes of the half-hour.

Honestly, who cares if an issue is ever resolved, so long as it provides ample opportunity for our two teams to clash, week after week, our heroes (and villains) of Eternia?

 

While the Republicans have come to resemble He-Man, that paragon of masculinity, Democrats are looking more and more like Truman Capote.

(If you have not seen Capote, put your finger here (o) to mark your place in this essay, use your free hand to navigate to Netflix in another browser window, and resume reading after you’ve watched the film in its entirety.)

Indeed, the public statements of bin Laden and Cheney appear to be converging, as though they are drawn from a single text run through an online “Arabic to English” translator.

The film chronicles the writing of In Cold Blood and the terrible bind that Capote put himself in while reporting on the crime and its aftermath. He routinely visited the two men accused (and eventually) convicted of the murders while they languished in jail, and formed something of a friendship with them, even going so far as to aid in their defense.

It’s only much later that Capote fully appreciated the Faustian bargain he had entered into. His book, on which he has staked his professional career, needed an ending, and the only suitable ending was the execution of the accused. He found himself wishing ill upon those he had earlier treated as friends, and the cognitive dissonance nearly broke him.

So too with congressional Democrats and the Iraq war. In 2002, many Dems crossed party lines and voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution, another piece of “Homeland Security” legislation that somehow wound up on the docket weeks before a midterm election. But in the years since, as the war in Iraq and the Republicans’ political fortunes have become inextricably entwined, Democrats have been put in a regrettable position. The Republicans’ dominance of the political landscape is likely to last a generation unless the war in Iraq fails, and Democrats are forced to walk an increasingly narrow rope: pointing out the failures of our foreign policy in the hopes of regaining power, without seeming to actively desire fixing them.

 

No doubt the most cynical Democratic politicians do, in fact, desire the failure of the Iraq war; just as I can envision the most Machiavellian on the right high-fiving each time bin Laden releases a tape. Indeed, the public statements of bin Laden and Cheney appear to be converging, as though they are drawn from a single text run through an online “Arabic to English” translator: Osama says America is not safe, Cheney says America is not safe; Osama says that al Qaeda will never cease in its efforts to harm our nation, Cheney goes onto Larry King to say “ditto.”

So here we are, with one party’s interests aligned with those of insurgents, the other’s with terrorists. What a fucking mess.

They have a term for this in craps; it’s called “Betting Wrong.”

Typically a player bets “with the dice”—that is to say, they are betting that a seven or 11 will be rolled on the first roll, or that some target number will show up on subsequent rolls. But another player can come along and bet “against the dice,” and they receive a payout only if neither of the above two conditions are met. In betting wrong, a player puts himself in a position of actively wanting the other players to lose.

While legal, betting wrong is generally taboo in craps, and those who nonetheless choose to do so can expect grief from those upon whom they are wishing failure. Were the same only true in politics! As it stands now, the winning candidate is generally he who banked on the greater loss for the American. And like those other Masters of the Universe, the warring parties have become so intent on fighting each other that they’ve forgotten why they even got into the fight in the first place, locked in a struggle for Eternia while America cautiously waits.