For All Nails #312: Machine Politics

by David Mix Barrington and Johnny Pez

Atticus Bookstore
Burlington New York, N.C., C.N.A.
24 April 1970
4:23 pm

Joan Kahn had come to the conclusion that Burlington, New York was a nice place to visit, but she wouldn’t want to live here.

She probably wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for her publisher, Steven Taylor. The unexpected success of her book on the Hermión assassination had caused pound signs to light up in his eyes. He had immediately begun encouraging her to write a follow-up book on the Kinkaid assassination, and she admittedly hadn’t needed much encouragement. Two years later, Justice Press was publishing The Secret History of the Kinkaid Assassination, and Taylor was doing everything in his power to make it as big a success as the first book had been.

Five years as a New Day volunteer in the USM had taught Joan that she disliked traveling, so she had resisted Taylor’s plans for a book tour. Unfortunately, her resistance had turned out to be futile, because Taylor had refused to give up on the idea. Joan had finally given in, after extracting a promise that one of the stops on the tour would be Burlington. Taylor hadn’t been happy about it; he wanted to see her in places like Burgoyne, Michigan City, and New Orleans, not some sleepy little college town. But a stop in Burlington had been her price for the book tour, and in the end Taylor decided the price was worth it.

Now she was here, and there was no question but that the place was charming. Spring was in full bloom, and the trees lining the walks of Champlain University looked particularly lovely. Of course, she wasn’t here to see the trees; she was here to see the Chancellor, Vernor Dean. Word was out that Dean had his eye on the Albany-Champlain riding’s Grand Council seat, and Joan was anxious to find out what sort of politician Dean meant to be –- someone like James Volk, who saw politics as a means to an end, or someone like Miriam Levine, who saw it as an end in itself.

But first, she had to sell some books.

She’d been met at the train station by Leonard Fisk, the owner of the Atticus Bookstore, and he had acted as her tour guide to Burlington. It hadn’t taken long to see the sights, which consisted mostly of the lakefront and the C.U. campus. The lakefront was beautiful, but as far as Joan was concerned, if you had seen one college campus, you had seen them all, and she had seen plenty while campaigning for the PJP back in ‘68.

Now she was sitting in the bookstore, sizing up the people who had turned out for her talk and book signing. For the most part, it was the standard college crowd: some professors, some students, one or two townies. One thing she hadn’t expected to see, though, was a Mexican. And yet, she would have sworn on a stack of Declarations of Independence that that young man in the turtleneck pullover was as Mexican as an Arizona Motors Conquistador.

Bobby Contreras was by nature a skeptical man. He knew better than most that absolute certainty was achievable in mathematics. In designing instruction schemes for calculators, he could sometimes reach a mathematical certainty that a particular scheme would always do its job, but his own mentor had proved that couldn't be done for all schemes, and in practice the schemes' own capabilities for mischief were already outstripping his capacity to control them. In engineering, you could design a machine to behave with mathematical precision, up to a point -- the calculator was perhaps the epitome of this art so far. But when you descended to the realm of human beings, nothing was certain.

On 7 December 1879, a "day of infamy" as Bobby had learned in school, U.S.M. President Omar Kinkaid had been killed by a bomb thrown by a man who was never found. Mexico at that time was overrun by bomb-throwing revolutionaries, some dedicated to bringing down the government, and others secretly in the pay of that government, the opposition party, Kramer Associates, or even perhaps the C.N.A. government. It was conceivable, Bobby thought, that the bomb-thrower was a Tory agent -- it was one of dozens of possible hypotheses. His scientific training urged him toward the simplest hypothesis (a Workers' Coalition radical), and the more extraordinary the hypothesis, the more extraordinary evidence he would require to justify it.

The woman reading from her book at the front of the room had not supplied that extraordinary evidence, in his opinion. He was no expert on Mexican or North American history, but recognized the style of argument -- she had begun with her theory, then assembled "facts" to support it, very likely ignoring other "facts" that argued against it. She was a good storyteller, to be sure, and the story was an entertaining one. She was also a very good-looking woman, doing full justice to the picture on the poster that had brought him here on a Friday night. He joined in the polite applause as she wrapped up the presentation.

"Thank you very much, Miss Kahn,” said the store’s owner, who was hosting the event. “We have time for a few questions. Yes?"

"Miss Kahn, you mentioned your belief that shadowy plots by intelligence agencies are as much of a problem now as they were in 1879. What do you propose that we citizens can do about that?"

Bobby recognized the questioner. Paul Markey was a graduate student of some kind (political science?), and also one of the schemers at Arthur Labs. He was taking Bobby's course in Abstract Calculation this term, and doing remarkably well for someone without formal mathematical training.

"An excellent question,” Miss Kahn answered. “I think there has to be a fundamental change in the political landscape, so that we stop seeing everything in terms of our rivalry with the United States. I think Richard Mason was working for such a change, especially in 1963 after he broke with the Liberal Party, and I think the Peace and Justice Party gives us some hope of such a change now. I think we can work within the political system, voting and encouraging others to vote. And we can challenge the system directly, as so many did on this campus last year."

Protests, Bobby recalled, aimed in part at closing down the government-industrial-academic octopus that was Arthur Labs, and thus cutting off Markey's off-campus livelihood...

"Miss Kahn, without the Liberal Party Mr. Mason elected exactly zero members of the Grand Council. In 1968 the Peace and Justice Party elected 17. Your side got 22 percent of the popular vote. How do you see your ‘fundamental change’ altering those numbers?"

"I think we can start by changing the kind of people who run for office. We can run candidates like James Volk, who changed the world's thinking about atomic weapons. Here at Champlain you have a great man as your Chancellor, Vernor Dean. Wouldn't a man of ideas make a better Grand Councilor than another successful locomobile dealer or property lawyer or machine politician?"

Bobby was surprised to hear Markey challenge the author. "I'd say you're selling the machine politician short, Miss Kahn. It takes real skill to provide services to a major city, and real empathy to understand what the people of that city want. Just look at how successful Ezra Gallivan was as Governor-General. I'd rather see a big city mayor like him, or like Miriam Levine, in the Council than our Chancellor, thank you very much."

Bobby’s knowledge of North American history was sometimes sketchy – he was a mathematician, dammit, not a historian – but he was pretty sure that Gallivan had been driven out of office around the same time as the Big Beaner, so how successful could he have been? But it looked like the author didn’t intend to argue the point.

"I think that's the start of a much longer conversation, brother,” she said, “and if you can show me a good pub after we're done here, I'd be glad to continue it then. But for now, let me take some more questions and sign a few books."

A pub, thought Bobby. My thinking exactly.

One thing you could say for a college crowd, Kahn thought as she signed one of her books, was that you got a more intelligent class of questioners. One of the professors had asked her a pretty sharp question about primary source materials in the USM, and she had the distinct impression that the grad student who spoke up in favor of machine politicians knew at least as much about retail politics as she did. From his accent, she guessed he was an Anglo from Quebec (not that they called themselves that –- her vocabulary had become permanently Mexicanized). Montreal, maybe.

And now here he was in line, holding a copy of the Secret History. She smiled up at him and said, “Thank you for a very interesting conversation, Mister ...?”

“Markey. Paul Markey.” He spelled the last name for her, and she wrote To Paul Markey, My charming interrogator. Joan Kahn.

“Poli sci major?” she guessed.

“Does it show?” Markey answered with a slight smile.

“Most of the time, the first question I get is about the Goodrich photograph. FN1 From you, I got a question about politics.” Joan looked at the next person in line, who turned out to be the man in the turtleneck pullover. “And your name is?”

“Bobby Contreras,” the man said, and there was no mistaking his Jefferson City accent. “And if you and Paul are still looking for a pub, I know just the place.”

Red Lion Inn
Burlington New York, N.C., CNA
24 April 1970
9:36 pm

For someone who was pretty sure he was going home alone, Paul Markey was a reasonably contented man. For one thing, he was on his fifth pint of good stout, with a shot of potato liquor thrown in. For another, he was with a woman who was as passionate about politics as he, for all her wrong-headed ideas. Yes, she was going to go home with Dr. Contreras, that was pretty obvious, but for the moment he was living one of his fantasies -- talking shop with a beautiful woman who actually seemed to respect him.

Somewhere back around the second pint, sharing war stories of Paul's boyhood as the grandson of a Beliveau precinct captain in Montreal and Joan's PJP work in '68, she'd set him off:

"So you were scrounging up votes for a corrupt machine."

"It's always 'corrupt machine', isn't it?" he'd replied. "That's one of those single-word indivisible phrases, like 'drunken Irishman' or 'grasping Jew' -- the phrase does your thinking for you. I'd rather have the term defined. What do you mean by 'corrupt'?"

"Putting the mayor's cousin in charge of the sewer system."

"Remember we're talking a French mayor -- he's got a lot of cousins and so do his Irish lieutenants. Out of all those cousins, one of them can probably run a sewer system. If he doesn't do a good job, the mayor finds another cousin who can. The point is that the government is responsive to the popular will. If the sewers aren't working, people tell their precinct captain. My grandfather knew everyone on the block, who was working, who was sick, whose sewer was backing up. And if he fell down on the job, there'd be another precinct captain."

"Elected by the people?" Joan challenged him.

"No, the captains are picked by the mayor and his boys, but they need the system to work -- to provide working government -- to stay in the job. There's elections all the time, and there's an opposition party, a whole 'nother machine that wants to replace our machine entirely. But there's officeholders and there's staff and there's political people."

Dr. Contreras cut in. "Aren't the elections fixed? Everybody knows who's going to win in a Mexican election -- the question is whether the official candidate beats out the blank votes. You people up here seem to take them so seriously. But there's people back home who believe in the professional wrestlers on the vita, too---" FN2

"I think our elections are pretty fair, overall,” said Paul. “We all tell the same stories about the dead voters on the rolls and the one guy who runs around to vote in ten different precincts -- it happens, but we tell the stories because it's pretty rare, actually. I've seen votes counted in Quebec, with a guy from each side and one from the Elections Bureau. There's stuff goes on, sure, but none of it's ever worth more than a point or two. Do you think so, Joan?"

"Well, vote-buying has a long history in the CNA -- take a look at Parkes in 1858. The CBI actually helped straighten things out when McDowell started it. I think the elections here are a lot cleaner than Mercator's, but how do we know? National elections are supervised by the CBI, right? The most powerful man in the Confederation is probably Timothy Liddy, not Carter Monaghan."

Markey's mind returned the present, and the dregs of his fifth pint. Joan and Bobby were comparing notes about the Mexico City theater district, where they had apparently both been sometime in '65. They weren't sticking around here much longer ...

"Joan, I've been wondering something. Did you say you went from high school straight to Mexico?"

"Sure. Walt Whitman High School, Brooklyn, class of '58. After that, I was teaching English in Chiapas for five years. There’s probably a whole generation of young Mexicanos there who speak English with a Brooklyn accent."

"Did you go back and get your B.A. later?"

"No, I don't have a degree, never bothered. Why?"

"But you've read so much--"

"Brooklyn public library system, brother. And the Biblioteca Nacional Hamilton. The books are all there. And I decide which ones I'm going to read, not some professor. No offense, Bobby."

"Hey, none taken. You can lead a horse's ass to knowledge, but you can't make him think. She's right, Paul. How did you learn to scheme? Someone showed you a thing or two, and then you went and did it. Now you know enough to know what you need, and get it out of my course. But nothing I can tell you replaces getting your hands dirty."

"Exactly," said Joan. “You know politics because you lived it. I know something about Mexico because I lived there. We both know a lot of history because we've read a lot of books. Who was it said to never let your schooling interfere with your education?"

"Herb Clemens, right?" said Paul. Clemens was the Rocky Mountain War vet and grocer who had partly earned and partly bought his way into the Executive Palace in 1868. "But that was a century ago. Now you need a degree to get anywhere.” Paul turned to Dr. Contreras and added, “You got a Ph.D., and you're still in school now!"

"I want to understand calculators, Paul. Right now that means picking up everything I can from Gerry Belanger, and the GC people, and even from Arthur Labs when they're willing to let a Mexican inside the door. Next fall it means the job at PMU, FN3 where they'll give me students and lab space. There's about three more ideas we need after the Parker Process before we can build a general purpose calc the size of a dactylograph. I might get them, or someone else might, but when the time comes I'm going to build those calcs and see what happens. So I need a university job to be ready for that, and I needed a Ph.D. to get that job. "

"What about you, Paul," Joan asked. "What do you want?"

An easy enough question – though it was surprising how few people in his life had asked him that. "I want to understand politics -- why people vote the way they do."

"And you want to teach about that, and write academic papers?"

"No." God damn, Paul thought. Five stouts and a shot of potato liquor, to reach a conclusion he should have reached four years ago. "I want to predict how they vote. And I want to help politicians influence how they vote."

"Paul, you are a damn good schemer," Bobby said. "This project you're doing for me, about the racial trends in the voting numbers -- you're pushing the calc to its limits. Until I change the limits, of course. You could get a Ph.D. for that, I think. If you want one."

"That's just it, I don't. I'll write it up, sure. But not for a journal. For a prospectus. For an NFA loan application."

Joan grinned at him. "Now you're talking, brother. Markey Research. I wish you the best. And on that, I've got to be getting back to my hotel."

"I'll walk you there?" offered Bobby.

Paul politely did not see the look that passed between Joan and Bobby. He simply said, "A very good night to both of you. I think you two just may have changed my life. See you in class, Prof."

It was a tribute to the power of the ideas surging through his drink-sodden brain that Paul forgot all about the other two after they left the pub. Foremost among them was the name.

Markey Research, Paul thought. A good name.

Leaving the noise and warmth of the pub for the silent, frosty upstate New York night was like stepping into another world. Joan was lost in her thoughts for a time as she and Bobby walked through the streets of Burlington.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Bobby said.

Joan laughed. “If you’re really interested, I was thinking that you don’t quite talk like a proper Mexican.”

“And how does a proper Mexican talk?”

Still smiling, she said, “Like I said, not quite the way you do. I’m trying to figure it out.”

“Has living in Burlington turned me into a Tory?” Bobby wondered.

“Not at all. You don’t sound at all like a Tory, you sound like a Mexican ... almost. Aha!”

“Aha, what?”

“It’s not your accent, that’s pure Jefferson. It’s your vocabulary.”

Bobby raised his eyebrows. “What about my vocabulary?”

“No Inglañol,” Joan explained. “If you were back in the USM talking to another Mexican, you’d be going ‘escuchame’ this and ‘loquesea’ that. But here, I suppose in deference to your Tory students, it’s strictly English. You sound like a Tory who’s doing a very good Mexican accent, but leaving out all the Spanish words an English-speaking Mexican would use.”

Bobby fell silent for a moment before saying, “I never realized it before, but I suppose you’re right.” He smiled, and added, “I’m impressed by your powers of observation.”

“Occupational hazard,” Joan answered with a smirk.

“The funny thing is,” Bobby mused, “apart from the Inglañol, I almost never speak Spanish back home. Even around the house, it’s always English. If it weren’t for my last name, you’d think I was an Anglo.”

That set Joan to thinking again. “When I was in Mexico City, I sometimes heard people speculating that Hispanos were disappearing. The ones who spoke mainly English, like you, were becoming Anglos, while the ones who spoke mostly Spanish were becoming Mexicanos.”

Bobby was staring intently at her. “Do you think so?”

She shook her head. “No. I think what it means is that Jackson’s old racial categories are disappearing. Not just Hispano, but Anglo and Mexicano too. You’re all becoming a single people, just Mexicans.”

Bobby snorted. “Try telling the Negroes that.”

“I’ve heard that in Mexico del Norte, the Negroes and the Indians are already becoming a single race,” said Joan. “It may take longer, but eventually they won’t be a separate people, either. They’ll join in with the rest of the Mexican people.”

“I think you’re being optimistic,” Bobby said. “Most people in the United States still put a lot of stock in Jackson’s old racial categories, as you put it. And it’s still a fact of life that the darker you are, the poorer you’re likely to be.”

“Not like it used to be,” Joan insisted. “And you can thank the Mapmaker and William Chron for that. They made certain that every Mexican who wanted an education could have one. And that’s the first step to making Jackson’s racial categories obsolete. Mexico can finally become Thomas Jefferson’s nation, instead of Andrew Jackson’s. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident ...’ “

She could see that she had struck a nerve. “ ‘That all men are created equal’,” he finished the quote. “Saying something like that back home would cause a lot of trouble,” he added. “No wonder the CBI watches you Peace and Justice people like a hawk. You are genuinely dangerous.”

Joan saw that they had reached her hotel. “If it’s not too dangerous,” she said, “you could come up to my room for coffee.”

Bobby smiled. “I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.”

Forward to FAN #313: Uncommon Women.

Forward to 20 June 1970: More Island Life.

Return to For All Nails.

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