Friday, September 18, 2009

ACORN, American Politics, & the Conservatives Who Make 'Em That Way

One of American conservatism's favorite targets, in recent years, has been the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. ACORN is, as it describes itself, "the nation’s largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate-income people." They help poor people. They've been doing it for nearly 40 years now. Some of their work has received federal funding. One aspect of their activities--their voter registration efforts--has become a flashpoint for right-wing ire in more recent years, particularly in the last two, as those efforts are, like everything else ACORN does, aimed at those of moderate income, who, of course, tend to vote Democratic.

The conservative critics have drawn from their usual playbook in smearing the organization, layering lies upon lies in the hope that they can bury ACORN before any glimmer of the truth is able to penetrate. Alleged involvement of a dozen ACORN volunteers in voter registration fraud--fraud committed against ACORN--is used as "evidence" of the corruption of the entire enterprise. ACORN's forwarding of phony registrations to state governments is used in the same way. Omitted from the conservative accounts: the fact that those states legally require ACORN to do this and the fact that ACORN does make efforts to flag, for those states, registrations they believe phony. "ACORN" has been adopted by internet conservatives as shorthand for "voter fraud,"intentionally conflating registration fraud (the actual charge falsely imputed to ACORN) with vote fraud.

Right-wing activists recently set up a "sting" against ACORN. On the pretense of posing as a hooker and her pimp, they entered various ACORN offices seeking tax advice on how to set up a brothel staffed by underage girls. They carried hidden cameras, recorded the whole thing and, a week ago, released edited versions of their work to various right-wing outlets. This has caused a sustained furor on the right, with the standard ever-escalating rhetoric. This "proves" the irredeemable corruption of everything ACORN touches, proves that everything its right-wing critics have said about it is true, etc.

Despite worming its way into the mainstream press, a lot of this story has fallen apart in the last few days. The activists involved, who have appeared regularly in conservative press outlets, have studiously avoided any appearances in non-conservative forums. They've failed to release complete videos. They've claimed the four ACORN offices at which they allegedly succeeded were the first ones they visited and that they'd never been turned away by any office. When an ACORN official disputed that, saying they'd approached her in Philadelphia and she'd sent them packing, they went on Fox News to call this a lie and to demand ACORN apologize. As it turns out, the official in question had actually called the police after her encounter with them; she's now released the police report on the incident for all to see.[1]

That's funny.

What isn't funny is that the Senate, a few days ago, reacted to the story of the "sting" by voting to cut off federal funding of ACORN.

Now, ACORN, in spite of some insane conservative claims to the contrary[2], never got much from the feds and a loss of those funds probably won't make that big a difference to the organization but the whole affair is illustrative of the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of contemporary American conservatism and points to some larger fundamental problems with American politics.

Rock-solid Glenn Greenwald wrote about this yesterday:
"ACORN has received a grand total of $53 million in federal funds over the last 15 years--an average of $3.1 million per year. Meanwhile, not millions, not billions, but trillions of dollars of public funds have been, in the last year alone, transferred to or otherwise used for the benefit of Wall Street. Billions of dollars in American taxpayer money vanished into thin air, eaten by private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, led by Halliburton subsidiary KBR. All of those corporate interests employ armies of lobbyists and bottomless donor activities that ensure they dominate our legislative and regulatory processes, and to be extra certain, the revolving door between industry and government is more prolific than ever, with key corporate officials constantly ending up occupying the government positions with the most influence over those industries.

"So with this massive pillaging of America's economic security and its control of American government by its richest and most powerful factions growing by the day, to whom is America's intense economic anxiety being directed? To a non-profit group that devotes itself to providing minute benefits to people who live under America's poverty line, and which is so powerless in Washington that virtually the entire U.S. Senate just voted to cut off its funding at the first sign of real controversy--could anyone imagine that happening to a key player in the banking or defense industry?"
Stirring up anger against some powerless, relatively insignificant entity like ACORN is a standard practice of the American conservative elite It's a tactic and it's no accident that it keeps people battling among themselves in order to prevent them from uniting and presenting a potential threat the the prerogatives of the wealthy, the powerful, the corporate interests who actually control the U.S.

Nearly every "issue" that has made conservatism a mass movement in the U.S. is of this nature. Some enemy is identified, usually something or someone of no real consequence, and the full venom of the right is unleashed against it. We're told the real problem with America is illegal immigrants with brown skin and a different language, baby-killing abortionists, pointy-headed intellectuals at colleges, hedonistic homosexuals, welfare recipients, godless heathens who remove prayer from schools, socialist would-be dictators, liberals and the Hollywood "elite." At this rhetoric's most extreme, we're told there is, being waged against the U.S., a "culture war," a phrase and concept lifted directly from the Third Reich.

The effectiveness of those who respond to this sort of rhetoric is usually minimal, insofar as the phony "issues" they've adopted are concerned. Abortion remains legal, government continues to stay out of the business of endorsing religion, homosexuals are not officially condemned by the State, etc.

Organization around these issues is, however, remarkably effective at implementing policies that are to the benefit of the, broadly speaking, money elite in the U.S.. Vote for a candidate who promises to ban abortion, all you get is an elected official who votes for trade policies that deindustrialize the country to the benefit of that elite. Vote for someone who promises to keep the homos in line, all you get is an elected official who votes for tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. Vote for the candidate who promises to ban flag burning, all you get is an elected official who votes to take away your right to sue your doctor when he goes into surgery drunk and leaves you a quadriplegic. And so on. Often the populations affected the worst by these policies are the very ones that react most strongly to the wedge issues and empower these policies' implementation.

The conservatives go after ACORN because ACORN's voter registration efforts are aimed at demographic groups who tend to vote Democratic but liberals and the left in general are challenged by them much more broadly--to the point that words like "liberal" and "socialist" have become curses--because the left is seen as a potential challenge to the prerogatives of the money elite. The economy is said to function like a force of nature. Deindustrialization is, in this view, like a flood or a hurricane or an earthquake, rather than a predictable consequence of entirely intentional right-wing policy. Worse, any sort of progressive policy proposals are presented as "socialist" intrusions, the actions of a Bolshevist state. When the U.S. government began its run of massive bailouts of failed businesses last year, there was public anger. When it turned out the executives at AIG were getting huge bonuses, even while being bailed out, there was even more anger. The conservatives have worked tirelessly to harness this anger and redirect it away from businesses and toward the government, constructing a scenario wherein the bailouts aren't a consequence of the total domination of Washington by business interests but are, instead, a socialistic power-grab by the would-be Bolshevist in the White House (and that all of these bailouts were actually undertaken by Obama's conservative Republican predecessor is quietly buried).

These aren't insignificant matters. The intensity of the conservatives' focus on ACORN in recent days and the remarkable degree of hatred and bile poured upon what is, in the end, a small, relatively insignificant entity is inexplicable without an understanding of them. American conservatism itself is inexplicable without that understanding.



[1] The ACORN employee they caught on camera at one of their "successes" said she saw through their ruse immediately, didn't take anything they said seriously and plied them with ridiculous comments. She told them she'd murdered her husband and this was picked up by those pimping the story as a shocking revelation and actually spurred an investigation by law enforcement. As it turns out, her ex-husbands are all alive and well.

[2] Sean Hannity put the amount in the "trillions." The actual amount is a little over $3 million/year for the last 15 years.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Grassroots" Astroturf

This past weekend, a gaggle of demonstrators descended on the nation's capitol to protest... something. They'd been organized by the same well-financed astroturf orgs that have been behind pretty much all of the major anti-Obama demonstrations to date, and, during the proceedings, Matt Kibbe, the president of Freedom Works (the major astroturfer involved), took to the stage to proclaim that, according to ABC News, the rally had drawn 1.5 million people. Within a short period, right-wing Twits and creatures like Michelle Malkin had escalated that figure to 2 million, and it had circulated around the world. As it turned out, of course, Kibbe had lied. There was no such ABC News report. There was no such estimate. Malkin, the Twits, and the rest had taken Kibbe's lie--an astroturf lie--and inflated it by another half a million. The actual turnout for the event was a modest 60,000-70,000. Amusingly enough, the buzz, throughout this week, has been a sustained whine from the right about how the corporate press didn't take this event seriously enough.[*]

These astroturf "protests" are culturally significant, just not in the way the complainers would have you believe. They're noteworthy because they point to the social cancer that is the Bubble People phenomenon on the right. They also point to the fact that this--a very large segment of the population--can be organized relatively easily by well-financed astroturf groups and made to look, on the surface, a lot like a real grassroots mass movement. That's what astroturf movements exist to do. This has been perhaps the biggest success story of their history.

Those on the right, even some otherwise thoughtful voices, have tended to defend the protests as legitimate expressions of grassroots unrest, either setting aside their artificial origins or arguing those origins are irrelevant. Such arguments aren't even close to sustainable, though. This illusion of a movement lacks anything that would remotely resemble a program, above and beyond "WE HATE BARACK OBAMA!", screamed to the heavens with equal measures of vigor and froth. The tea-baggers, the townhall disrupters, the capitol marchers--what exactly is their program? That they're furious about "death panels" and illegal alien coverage in the health care bill? That they're furious a man who isn't a U.S. citizen, and probably even a Muslim, is being allowed to be President? That the administration is trying to implement socialism or fascism or some other black -ism? It's all just nonsense, a tapestry of falsehood spun for the purposes of organizing those who have been conditioned in such a way as to remove their capacity for critical thought, when it comes to the voices inside their closed bubble. This illusion of a movement has no goals, it has no program, it doesn't even have a central organizing principle other than irrational Obama hatred. And, of course, the further implication of this is that, as a "grassroots" movement, it can't really lead to anything, either, except maybe getting Barack Obama shot by some unhinged right-wing nutcase "patriot" who thinks he's saving us all from the next Hitler.

That isn't to say the astroturfers behind all of this don't have very definite goals. As they've stated, their big one, at present, is to defeat any health care reform. Create the illusion of a mass movement to scare those in congress and get lots of press doing it, which provides an ever-expanding platform for spreading further misinformation that turns public sentiment. This is what they're paid to do. This is what they've proven remarkably effective at doing this year.

This is what the "protests" are, what's behind them, why they're significant. This is not, however, how they're covered by the corporate press. If anyone has cause to complain about that coverage, it isn't those who have been doing the complaining this week.



[*] In a related story, the Wall Street Journal reported that Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) has just "released a letter he sent to Washington’s Metro system complaining that the taxpayer-funded subway system was unable to properly transport protesters to the rally to protest government spending and expansion." As it that wasn't enough, Brady, himself, voted against funding for the Metro system earlier this year.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sept. 11th & Its Discontents

Eight years ago today, terrorists hijacked a series of aircraft and flew them into New York's World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Yes, this is That Day, and elements of our mass media never fail to make it a point to wallow in the event. "Our top story tonight: The people killed by terrorists 8 years ago are still dead." The History Channel, particularly egregious, has offered a veritable misery-fest dedicated to reliving the event, second by second, over and over again, all day long.

I'm rather tired of this sort of thing. Truth be told, I've been rather tired of it since not long after the actual event occurred. At some point, one simply wants to say "get over it, people." Obviously, that's an emotional response. 9/11 is very good at eliciting those. Wearying under the lash of 9/11 fatigue in the years immediately following the attacks, I wrote a short piece putting the event in context, comparing the number of deaths to any number of things that kill us in far greater numbers and that are much bigger problems but that we don't choose to dwell upon, either with fanfare or with anything else, much less direct the insane amount of resources to combating. I've written a few versions of it over the years--I drag it out every so often, rework it and repost it in various places. In the early years after the event, it probably drew more negative responses than anything I've ever written. In more recent years though, it has seemed to get a more balanced response. People have come to see the logic of it. The logic hasn't changed, mind you--it's as unassailable now as when I originally wrote it. It's just that distance seems to be allowing people to come to their senses about it, to face that logic and not react so emotionally.

...which was sort of the point of the piece in the first place.

I don't want to seem unkind or uncaring. 9/11 was a terrible moment. There's still unfinished business related to it as well. Thanks to George Bush's incompetence, his decision to divert available resources to a dead end in Iraq and his eventually falling into what looked like a comfortable, mutually beneficial love affair with al Qaida, we still don't have the head of the bastard bin Laden, who masterminded the attack. We aren't going to get it by reliving the attack itself either. I just don't see any point in that particular exercise, and that's all the many "remembrances" of it that have come to us through our media do. They have no higher aim. They accomplish nothing more. We need to move beyond that.

The difficulty in moving beyond it begins with the existence of so much footage of it. Giving television people good footage is like giving them the opportunity to say "penis" on the air--they're all over it. It's also something that can be milked as a simple, emotional "human interest" story, which the corporate press always prefers to serious news of any complexity. It's also a fact that those in the Bush administration worked tirelessly to keep the event as close to an open wound in the public consciousness as possible, so they could hitch their political fortunes to it and milk it for every vote it was worth.

These--the things that have kept it alive--are also some of the best reasons this constant "wallow in 9/11" mill needs to stop. Don't forget what's happened, but stop dwelling upon it. Let the dead rest.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Ongoing Tragedy of the Obama (Health Care Chapter) (Updated below)

Tonight, the Obama went before a joint session of congress to try to sell his version of health care reform. His speech had some good moments, as speeches go, and if being President of the United States required little more than giving speeches, I have no doubt the Obama would be remembered as one of the greats.

Unfortunately for the Obama, the job requires something a great deal more than words, and tonight's speech is primarily of interest as a monument to how very little the Obama seems to have learned in his time in office.

The thrust of the Obama's speech is, as usual, the same Rodney King-ism ye humble editor spends so much time excoriating on this blog. Instead of solidly embracing a liberal policy and fighting for it, the Obama is once again stuck on "Can't we all just get along?" He's still trying to find compromise with those who don't want any reform, cooperation with those who have spent weeks accusing him of wanting to allow federal bureaucrats to kill the elderly, the infirm, the "unproductive," still looking for some mythical common ground, the warm-and-fuzzy concept so beloved of the pundit class, "bipartisanship."[1]

The Obama was elected in a landslide that also brought a large majority for his party in the House of Representatives and a fillibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate. What part of that suggests to him a public mandate for "bipartisanship" I can't even imagine. Time and time again, though, that's where he goes, and it's where he went tonight, throwing in a heaping helping of the vile triangulation of Bill Clinton, a tactic which draws a false equivalence between the liberals and the conservatives and rhetorically marginalizes both.

Given this, a few moments stood out. It was actually refreshing to see the Obama finally take on the "death panels" charge that has been leveled at health care reform for weeks. With a candor almost entirely absent from politicians at such events, he skipped any euphemism and called it exactly what it is: a lie. The Democratic members in the chamber erupted into applause at that moment. The Republicans, who have always known the charge was a lie, sat on their hands and looked as disgusted as if they'd just been served a shit sandwich. Immediately after that, when the Obama correctly pointed out that the health care bill didn't, as so many of its opponents had alleged, cover illegal aliens, Republicans, who knew what the Obama said was the truth, began to bark objections, and Rep. Joe Wilson, Republican and first-rate scumbag from South Carolina, loudly shouted "You lie!"

These moments made for quite a contrast. The Obama calls, at great length, for cooperation and bipartisanship; those in the other party sit on their hands looking disgusted when he calls a vicious lie what it is, then call him a liar for telling what every one of them knew to be the truth. It makes Republicans look bad. It makes the Obama look even worse.

To handle the Republican response, the Republicans chose Rep. Charles Boustany of Louisiana. Boustany was appropriate for a number of reasons. First, he is, like most Republicans now, a crackpot who dabbles in "birther" conspiracy theories about the Obama not even being a U.S. citizen. Next, he's an exceedingly stupid man, who had apparently written his "response" before having read the Obama speech; what little of his rambling that was comprehensible was nonsensical, and the entirety of it was badly read, in a monotone, from a cue card the congressman seemed barely able to read. Boustany rolled out the tired Republican mantra of malpractice tort "reform," and that's the other part of what made him a perfect messenger for the Republicans--before coming to congress, Boustany had been a surgeon, and had been repeatedly sued for malpractice. His patients/victims had won millions.

One expects this sort of thing from conservative Republicans.

One doesn't expect it from more responsible elected officials, though, and that's why the Obama's can't-we-all-just-get-along call, in his own speech, for allowing states to begin experimenting with malpractice tort "reform"--measures aimed at preventing us from suing butchers like Boustany--was particularly depressing.[2]

As all two or three of my regular readers have probably guessed, I'm quite tired of this administration. I've been tired of it since before it took office, actually. I really do think Obama had a spark within him, a little glowing ember that could have flared up into his becoming something akin to a great president, as such things are usually judged. It has always been there. I even saw it in parts of his speech tonight. He's wasted his chance, though. He wasted it before he was even sworn in. Barring some horrendous catastrophe or scandal in the years ahead, he's limited his place in the history books to being the first person elected to the presidency who wasn't entirely white. A few centuries from now, that won't be impressive enough to make him more than a footnote. His complete failure to seize the opportunity open to him is a genuine tragedy. Probably not one that should seem unexpected in this day and age, but a tragedy no less.



[1] And his plan has gotten worse. Tonight, he pooh-poohs the importance of the "public option," while embracing the idea of a legal mandate that everyone carry health insurance (a notion he'd previously rejected).

[2] Malpractice suits account for only between 0.46% and 2% of total health outlays--completely eliminating all malpractice suits would do nothing to reduce health care costs. Attacking our ability to sue serves only the conservative interest in creating an overclass that is impervious to any public accountability.

UPDATE (10 Sept., 2009) -- "Bipartisanship"--the thing the Obama seems to worship above all other things--requires two parties. The conservative base position is opposition to any real health care reform, anything that curbs the prerogatives of their corporate paymasters. Multiply anything by zero, and you still end up with zero. You can’t “compromise” with people who will not compromise. Obama has made a big, grand speech where he’s all about compromise, cooperation, bipartisanship, and the response of the other side was to sit on their hands and look absolutely disgusted when he called the “death panels” lie what it was, then to actually call him a liar for telling the truth about the health plan not applying to illegal immigrants.

Obama began the health care debate with his usual massive concessions to the other side--in an attempt to curry favor with the conservatives, he threw out the single-payer approach favored by the liberals (and the sane) in favor of yet another byzantine plan that preserves the failed private insurance industry. And after that HUGE concession, he comes to the liberals again and says “you have to compromise more.” The conservatives call him a liar, tell the public he wants to kill old people, don’t give up a damn thing, or even indicate that they’re willing to give up anything, and he’s telling the liberals “you have to give more,” and even engages in vile Clintonian triangulation in order to marginalize them, the very people who elected him.

It’s a crock. Obama wasn’t elected to behave like this. The public didn’t elect a candidate on a liberal ticket and huge majorities for his party in both houses of congress so conservative Republicans could continue to run everything.

It’s also worth noting--indeed, it’s a matter of critical importance to this discussion--that, if the goal of health care reform is to come up with something that works, the idea that this sort of continual compromise is what will produce that result (particularly when it’s only being done by one side) is an entirely fallacious assumption. All health care reform ideas are NOT equal. The status quo is unsustainable. That can be documented with hard numbers. The conservative preference for maintaining the status quo with very few real changes--their “reform” idea--merely continues an unsustainable course. Stitching bad ideas to good ones only makes the good ones less good.

That could be seen as an argument against any effort at compromise, but that isn't why I offer it. I offer it because it's worth a thought, in light of the political reality on the ground (as I've just outlined). Attenuating a great idea until it's just a good one (or merely a workable one) can be justified if the compromise will work, and if embracing it will build a broad base of support for it. In my view, there's no indication that either is the case, here.