Saturday, October 30, 2010

Monsters, Noses, & What Comes Next: Thoughts on the 2010 Congressional Elections

Some liberal commentators have displayed something akin to a panic at the prospect of a big Republican win in Tuesday's congressional elections. Keith Olbermann, Paul Krugman, and others have expressed their despair that fickle voters would return to power the advocates of the failed policies that, among other things, decimated the U.S. economy, sending it plunging into the deep pit in which it now remains stubbornly trapped. They've correctly outlined the extreme reactionary nature of the current Republican party, a party that has adopted its lunatic fringe as its mainstream.

In my view, most of these liberals presently sounding the alarm see this last as too recent a development. It's actually something that's been going on for quite some time, and their failure to recognize it doesn't speak well of them. They're right about one thing, though--it really is worse than ever. The hard core of the American right has, for decades, been an ever-rightening gaggle of overly reactionary reactionaries, but, while the broader, less insane Republican party with which they largely associated has always been a relatively narrow coalition, there had always been some little room for more reasonable--or, more precisely, less unreasonable--voices. In recent decades, though, that hard core has dragged out the long knives and ran them through just about anyone who wasn't as brutish, stupid, insane, and ass-backwards as it is. This was greatly accelerated by the 2008 campaign and its immediate aftermath, which saw the Democrats absorbing larger portions of the moderate and run-of-the-mill conservative demographics, leaving the hard core right to rebuild the Republican party. They've made it into a monster more monstrous than it has been in the lifetime of most people reading these words.

Now, that monster stands poised to take over, and progressive commentators are beside themselves at the prospect.

Their "solution," however, is not terribly helpful. They just tell us we should hold our noses and vote for Democrats.

The "hold our noses" part is necessary because the Democrats, in the last two years, have been abysmal failures. The Obama not only failed to roll back the horror that was the above-the-law, dictatorial chief executive built by the Bush administration, it refused to prosecute those responsible for it, and has actually defended most of its elements from every substantive challenge, allowing it to pass into precedent. The Obama and his party entirely squandered the historical opportunity handed them by the public in 2008, a chance to really get some things done; instead of anything that could be mistake for progressive change, all we've gotten from them are warmed-over conservative Republican policies. Even if the Democrats pulled off some incredible upset win on Tuesday, there's absolutely no reason to believe they'd behave any differently for the next two years than they have for the last. The nose must be held if voting for most Democrats because they don't deserve our vote. Most people, I suspect, aren't going to give it to them, either.

It's clear that the far right is just as much a horror show today as its fiercest critics insist, and there's no doubt it could do a great deal of damage if allowed unfettered power. It's just as clear, though, that, in spite of the alarmist sentiment coming from the liberals, it isn't going to get that sort of unfettered power. The reactionaries aren't winning hearts and minds. There's been no sudden upsurge in public enthusiasm for far-right policies or attitudes. Indeed, most people totally--even viscerally--reject both. The only reason the reactionaries are even being allowed anywhere near power now is because, at a time when the economy is in the toilet and the Democrats who hold the majority suck, they control the Republican party, which, in a theoretically two-party state, is considered the only viable alternative for expressing discontent. If they were to win both houses of congress on Tuesday and were to begin implementing their nuttier policies, the public would turn on them instantly. The right has managed to, broadly, rule the U.S. for decades, regardless of which party had a majority, but the far right is inherently self-destructive.

That shouldn't be read as underplaying the damage it could more realistically do. Even without an overwhelming win, they could block any effort at reform. But then, again, practically no one, among the elected, is offering any real reform anyway. Would it really be such a loss if the Obama was prevented from implementing the same kind of Republican policies, in the second half of his term, as he did in the first half?

This election is historically significant for a few reasons. It's the first election after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the "Citizens United" case, which guaranteed a significant degree of conservative success at the polls. In the wake of that ruling, corporate America has flexed its muscles in the ongoing congressional campaigns, with Big Money frequently outspending the parties and candidates in an effort to purchase an even more compliant congress. As long as this ruling remains uncorrected, this trend will only get worse as time goes by. This is also a census year, and to the extent that Republicans win at the state level, they'll be the ones directing redistricting efforts in the states based on that census, using the process to gerrymander as many safe Republican districts as they can manage.

The energy of progressives, though, shouldn't be so heavily directed toward playing electoral politics and trying to maintain a temporary majority in government for those who are (or at least seem) less reactionary. That energy should, instead, have been directed toward pushing for progressive reforms from the Obama and the Democratic congressional majority for the past two years. Only days after Obama's election, Tom Englehardt wrote a prescient piece I approvingly quoted (with some caveats)[*] at the time:
"Leave Obama to them [political Washington] and he'll break your heart. If you do, then blame yourself, not him; but better than blaming anyone, pitch your own tent on the public commons and make some noise. Let him know that Washington's isn't the only consensus around, that Americans really do want our troops to come home, that we actually are looking for 'change we can believe in,' which would include a less weaponized, less imperial American world, based on a reinvigorated idea of defense, not aggression, and on the Constitution, not leftover Rumsfeld rules or a bogus Global War on Terror."
Progressive reformers didn't bother, and now, it's too late. Regardless of what happens with this election, liberals need to finally get off their asses, roll up their sleeves, and do what Englehardt suggested years ago: raise some hell, and keep raising it.



[*] The biggest one being that Englehardt gave Obama a pass on taking the blame. I thought--and think--he can take lots and lots of it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"The Republicans are Nazis"?

Drawing parallels between contemporary politics and Nazism is a dubious enterprise. It's usually a good idea to maintain a taboo against it because, as "Nazi" and "fascist" became multi-purpose curses in political discourse, such parallels were both ubiquitously drawn and in almost every case entirely inappropriate. We have to be able to learn from the past and when we cheapen the world's experience with fascism by hanging the label on everything we don't like, we're cheating ourselves of the ability to do so.

That's the same reason such parallels shouldn't, as some argue, automatically be taboo. The taboo was created to combat inappropriate use of such comparisons. From that, the best of intentions, one could argue we've often erred in the opposite direction, coming to regard any comparison at all as inherently out-of-line. If overuse of the labels makes it difficult to learn anything from our past, being overly zealous in rejecting any comparison to fascism makes learning anything nearly impossible. The yardstick by which we should measure any such comparison should always be its appropriateness.

With that as preface, "Down With Tyranny" is rather alarmed today:
"Michael Godwin can [shove it]. The Republicans are Nazis... Or do you not see the relation between Sharron Angle's 'Second Amendment remedies,' Joe Miller's private thugs roughing up journalists, Daniel Webster's religious cult calling for the stoning of disobedient women and gays (stoning to death, I might add), Republicans' incessant demands that the Constitution be altered in ways they prefer, Boehner's 'Hell, No' obstructionism to economic salvation for the country, Rich Iott's glorification and emulation of SS death squads, physically violence towards women from top tier GOP candidates like David Rivera and Tom Ganley, and Monday evening's ugly 'altercation,' as Rand Paul put it in defending his fascist supporters, 'between supporters of both sides?' If America votes in the Republicans next week, it's one giant step--perhaps an irreversible one--towards what the German's allowed to happen to them in 1933."
As fascist parallels go, this skirts right along the boundary of appropriate and inappropriate. DWT is obviously mixing up a lot of elements on the right here and overly generalizing. My initial impulse was simply to write it off as over-the-top but there are certain on-the-ground facts (beyond those outlined by DWT) that hinder such an easy dismissal. Not so much related to this election in particular but about various trends in what, today, passes for American conservatism, reactionary trends feeding into if not fascism proper, a strong protofascism. This has been trending for some time now.

Consider what happened during the Bush administration. In George Bush Jr., the U.S. was confronted with a "president" who asserted the power to ignore U.S. law and the constitution at will; to unilaterally suspend fundamental constitutional rights like the free press; to kidnap anyone anywhere in the world, including U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, and to throw them in a deep, dark hole, with no access to courts, lawyers, any semblance of due process. From there, the victims of this government kidnapping could, the administration asserted, be tortured, shipped off to foreign soil to be tortured, tried in secret kangaroo courts with secret evidence and predetermined outcomes and even murdered in secret. Or, they could just be left down in that deep, dark hole to rot. Forever. Behind closed doors, the administration claimed the "authority" to read our emails, listen in on our phone conversations, dig through our financial records. They openly used "signing statements" to assert that they were immune from literally hundreds of laws passed by the legitimately elected government. Obsessed with secrecy, they made getting any significant information from the government almost impossible while carrying out a program of "cleansing" the key agencies of that same government of elements considered insufficiently "loyal" to Bush. They lied the U.S. into undertaking an imperial project in Iraq that has cost thousands of lives, billions in treasure and resulted in a quagmire from which the U.S. hasn't yet managed to extricate itself and had every intention of doing the same thing in Iran. And that's just for starters.

Bush was certainly no fascist but it's very difficult to look at everything he did and justify too vigorously wagging one's finger at someone who says he detected in that the whif of fascism. Certainly, the historical precedents for what Bush did are to be found primarily in squalid dictatorships.

And what about the larger American right? While Bush was building an embryonic tyranny of monstrous proportions, the conservatives practically worshiped him. Among conservative Republicans, he was probably both the most popular president and the most consistently popular one in the history of polling. As Bush was leaving office in Jan. 2009, his poll numbers among the general public in ruins, the ABC/Washington Post poll asked respondents to offer an overall rating of his administration: A whopping 82% of conservative Republicans rated him a success; 53% "strongly."

There is a strong protofascist current among what passes for conservatives today. The extreme anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-"different" sentiment is a part of it. A recurring example that never ceases to dismay is how even mainstream conservative figures now makes it a matter of furious controversy every time the Obama administration arrests someone as a suspect in a terrorism-related crime rather than simply kidnapping and torturing the fellow without regard for U.S. law or the Constitution. This represents an even closer step toward fascism than Bush encouraged, as his administration boasted of trying hundreds of terror suspects in legitimate courts, without any objection from the larger right. The Republican leader in the Senate describes his parties' primary goal as gaining power. They have the seemingly bottomless support of the money elite. A lot of what "Down With Tyranny" cites today could, indeed, be used to fill out this train of thought.

These are trends that are profoundly disturbing, particularly given the fact that the Obama administration chose to give the Bush gang a pass--no prosecutions or even investigations and, worse, much of what Bush did has either been allowed, by the Obama, to pass into precedent or has been actively defended by the current administration. This leaves in place the lawless governing monster Bush built, still there to be used by whomever may come along, while, at the same time, the Republicans, whatever they are or may become, are, in this theoretical two-party state, always the default beneficiaries of frustration with the majority party.

It may be that DWT's comments today skirt the boundary of appropriate with regard to the use of Nazi parallels. Such parallels are, practically speaking, generally quite unhelpful. He clearly thinks the barbarians are at the gates. It may be that his major error in this is in failing to realize how much progress they've already made.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"The single most important thing we want to achieve..."

"They [the Democrats] make these decisions to empower themselves. They make these decisions to empower the government. They are not making decisions in your best interest... they don't even know what your best interest is... they operate full-time, 24/7 based on politics and power."

The words are those of reactionary radio ranter Mark Levin (from 12 Oct., 2010) but it's sentiment one hears so frequently from conservatives on talk radio and on the internet that it has become a cliché. Democrats may make a public show of having other concerns but secretly, they only care about power.

Meanwhile, here's Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the man who would be majority leader of the Senate should Republicans win a majority in the body, publicly outlining the Republicans' goals for National Journal only days ago:

"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. Our single biggest goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful."

The economy is barely limping along, unemployment is high, the government is running big deficits, Democrats are taking a daily pounding from the right for all of it but this--gaining power--is the Republicans' primary focus, plainly and openly stated, right from the horse's mouth. Or from one of its orifices, anyway.

The Obama has sacrificed his entire administration on the altar of getting along with these creatures and has even said he thinks a big Republican victory may spur the Repubs to "offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way."


Monday, October 25, 2010

Meeting the Mad Half-Way?

Today, "Dradeeus," commenting on a blog over at Niceguy Eddie's great "In My Humble Opinion," wrote about the difficulty of constructive political discourse with what passes for "conservatives" these days:
"You can't debate between your position of what health care should be, budgetary issues, and foreign policy, with people who say 'death panels' and think their taxes are higher than they've ever been, and think Obama is a Kenyan usurper.

"There's no debate there. You can't cross the fields and hope to meet in a no man's land between sane and insane"
It's a familiar point to the three people who read this blog. A significant portion of the "conservative" base in the U.S. has, in blunt language, simply gone insane. They're what I, in the past, have called the Bubble People,", a large portion of the American right that "has increasingly opted to seal itself in what amounts to an alternate universe, and never have any more than superficial commerce with reality."

Today, for example, I open my email and I have yet another fundraising ad from yet another of the many right-wing outfits giving away (in exchange for a donation) a copy of the newest collection of right-wing garbage posing as a book. "The Roots of Obama's Rage," by Dinesh D'Souza.

If one knew absolutely nothing of the book or of the author, the title alone has to make any sane person who follows public affairs stop and scratch his head in complete bewilderment. "Obama's rage"? Obama is probably the most self-controlled, disciplined, least angry national politician in the lifetime of anyone reading these words. What passes for contemporary American political discourse is little more than a collection of professional Perpetually Angry Ranters; the Obama is so non-angry, he seems almost comatose by comparison, yet here's an entire book that begins with the premise that he's filled with rage, then purports to proceed to explain from whence it all came.

If that bewilderment by this theoretical neophyte on first encountering the book borders on incredulity, he'd be deep inside posted land when he got to D'Souza's "theory" that Obama is possessed of anti-colonialist radicalism he genetically inherited from his father. That's what passes for "theory" in what passes for "conservatism" today. Look for D'Souza's book to become a best-seller.

The Bubble People are a serious concern, for anyone who has serious concerns. The obvious problem everyone else has in dealing with such creatures on anything resembling a constructive basis is the one "Dradeeus" outlined in psychological terms: there's simply no possible compromise to be found between sanity and insanity. The insane have absolutely no interest in finding any, and, even if they did, the sane would have to become less sane in order to meet them half-way. The problem of the "conservative" base treating reality itself as entirely optional is one about which every responsible citizen should be concerned. It will continue to plague us for the forseeable future, particularly given the party system in the U.S., which makes the party of the mad the only option for expressing frustration when the other party rules.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Hill Spews Squid's Ink All Over Campaign Money Story

"Mainstream" journalism--that which emanates from what our conservative friends insist is the "liberal media"--has many damnable practices. Its obsessed with trivialities--endless acres of trees die and barrels of ink are wasted on tales of the private lives of celebrities, countless hours of airtime are devoted to so-called "human interest" stories like the current one about the rescue of the Chilean miners (which, with a national congressional election looming, has been the top news story for weeks). Such stories, which don't affect anyone on earth other than those few directly involved, are used to replace hard news about real subjects that really matter and that affect everyone. Then, there's "he said/she said" reporting, wherein news reports only showcase conflicting claims, while making no effort to ascertain the truth behind them. This leaves the news consumer with the (usually false) impression that either claim may be true, and lets him choose what he wants to believe based on his own biases, rather than on facts. Our press also gives us regular doses of false equivalence. This is a con-game wherein Subject A lies like a rug about everything, but, in reporting his lies, the journalist feels the need to "balance" his story by including a lie or two from Subject B, his opponent. Subject B's few, usually minor, sometimes imaginary lies are thus made the equivalent of Subject A's real, massive, ongoing, comprehensive lies, leaving the impression that "they all do it," and that it's all just the same.

Just yesterday, I was writing/ranting about a story that has gotten far too little coverage in the press. This election cycle has seen an unprecedented influx of money being funneled through outside groups, many of which don't publicly disclose the source of these funds. There have been allegations that some of this money may be coming from foreign sources. Whatever the sources, though, it's a matter of inherent (and grave) concern for everyone with any sense of responsible citizenship that there's this historically unprecedented influx of cash from utterly unknown sources aimed at manipulating the outcome of a federal congressional election. It's a documented fact that Republicans are the overwhelming beneficiaries of this secret money this year. In that sense, the story does have a partisan character, but it gets that character because that's who is benefiting from the money, not because some partisan decreed it. Republican elected officials willingly made themselves accomplices to this by standing, as a monolith, against changing the law in such a way as to force these shadowy groups to disclose the source of their funds (as everyone else must do).

As I was writing here yesterday, it has been almost impossible to get the "mainstream" press to cover any of this, and when it has, it's handling of it has often been horrendous. Today offered up another specimen of that sort of horrendous reporting, a textbook example of That Damnable False Equivalence that seemed worthy of showcasing. It comes to us from the Hill, an article by Michael O'Brien and Hayleigh Colombo under the heading "Democrats Have Raised $1 Million From Foreign-Affiliated PACs." If the title doesn't give away the character of the piece, the lead paragraph settles the matter:
"Democratic leaders in the House and Senate criticizing GOP groups for allegedly funneling foreign money into campaign ads have seen their party raise more than $1 million from political action committees affiliated with foreign companies."
They all do it, you see?

Except that, if you read the article, the utter inappropriateness of framing the story in this way becomes immediately apparent:
"The PACS are funded entirely by contributions from U.S. employees of subsidiaries of foreign companies. All of the contributions are made public under Federal Elections Commission rules, and the PACs affiliated with the subsidiaries of foreign corporations are governed by the same rules that American firms' PACs or other PACs would face."
Whoops! It seems these aren't "foreign contributions" at all. They come, instead, from Americans who work in Toyota plants. Unlike with the outside groups, the donors are all publicly identified; unlike with the outside groups, all of the money is openly disclosed; unlike with the outside groups, all of it is subject to finance rules.

In other words, this has absolutely nothing to do with the story of these outside groups and their shadowy benefactors, yet O'Brien and Colombo have chosen to explicitly offer this as a counter to that story. That's how they framed their entire article. They even give a spokesman for American Crossroads--a group backed by Karl Rove that has poured millions into congressional elections without disclosing where a penny of it came from--a platform for an unrebutted rant against Democrats for their "hypocrisy."

The only "story" O'Brien and Colombo really have is that Americans citizens legally donated to legally-constituted PACs that fully disclose those donations, and the PACs then made legal campaign contributions, also fully disclosed.[1] Not that this is unimportant--money given to campaigns in large amounts is always offered as a means of buying influence, and that's never unimportant, and desperately needs much more coverage--but O'Brien and Colombo don't offer it as a story concerned with money in politics. It's structured only as a counter to the story of the outside groups, and, so presented, it has no real reason for even existing, and amounts to nothing more than the journalistic equivalent of squid's ink, something squirted into the water only to muddy it so the squid that has been caught can escape.[2]

That this kind of story isn't at all unusual doesn't render it any less disgraceful.


[1] And, of course, both parties draw from these PACs, with Democrats getting slightly less than twice what Republicans get.

[2] I post, from time to time, over at the conservative site "The Next Right," and the Hill story has already been thrown at me, by one of the conservative posters, as a counter to my rant from yesterday. The comments section of the original story at the Hill site is packed with dozens of similar responses. The article's target audience perfectly understood its purpose.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"Is That All You've Got?": That "Liberal Media" & Money, Again

Money in American politics isn't just the most important story in American politics; it's the only one. To quote myself on the point, "U.S. politics are all about money. It overwhelms every other consideration. A lack of understanding of this basic fact precludes any understanding of U.S. politics."

You wouldn't know this from the coverage money gets in much of the "mainstream" corporate press. The stories do get reported from time to time, it's true, but they're inevitably offered in a vacuum, without any proper foundation. It's never a subject covered in the comprehensive fashion that would be necessary to give it the proper context. Given the weight it merits, it would lead the news nearly every night. As it stands, stories of money in politics are treated as man-bites-dog tales, while we get intense, detailed, around-the-clock coverage of things like the rescue of the Chilean miners--"human interest" stories that don't affect anyone beyond those directly involved.

The big Money story at the moment is how Big Money is purchasing the November elections. In the wake of the grotesque Citizens United decision foisted on us, earlier this year, by our Supreme Court, "independent" expenditures in many of the congressional races around the country are actually outpacing the money spent by the candidates themselves. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that
"Business associations, unions and ideological groups have more than doubled their spending on political advertisements and messaging when compared to the entire 2006 federal midterm, a Center for Responsive Politics analysis indicates."
CRP also notes that spending by corporate-sponsored PACs has already more than tripled over the previous mid-term elections.

Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming beneficiaries of this are the Republicans, whose shameless pro-corporate, pro-wealthy, pro-Big-Money politics are offered without the threatening (but empty) populist rhetoric sometimes served up by the Democrats when they're trolling for votes. In the first three weeks of September, Republican-leaning groups outspent Democratic-leaning groups 7-to-1. A week ago, the CRP reported that
"Eight of the top 10 [outside] groups are conservative with one bi-partisan and one liberal group. Since September 1, identifiably conservative groups have spent $25.8 million, liberal groups $5.6 million, and bipartisan or nonpartisan groups $4.1 million."
The Political Correction project of Media Matters For America has documented that only 10 conservative groups have, between Aug. 1st and Oct. 11th, financed an incredible 60,052 attack ads aimed at liberal candidates--almost all Democrats--on behalf of their conservative opponents.

One of the major players in this orgy of spending is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Among other things, it has financed over 8,000 attack ads on behalf of Republican Senate candidates this year, and has promised to spend $75 million against liberal candidates around the country. Earlier this month, a ThinkProgress investigation revealed that the Chamber is financing this operation out of its general fund, a fund which solicits and accepts significant contributions from foreign sources. One would think this would set off some alarms in a press corps that always proves itself an enthusiastic conduit for any xenophobic (and generally baseless) allegation about sinister foreign influence on Democratic politicians, but, when the shoe was on the other foot (or, more to the point, on the other party), the matter actually received no significant coverage until the Obama and his underlings raised this issue. It briefly cracked the news cycle at that point, but only long enough for much of the press to dismiss it as baseless and irrelevant, and to characterize it as a last-minute desperation tactic.

That was certainly the case when CBS's Bob Schieffer asked White House adviser David Axelrod if he had any evidence that the Chamber was using foreign money to finance its campaign activity. Axelrod's reply was, "Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not, Bob?" Schieffer was unimpressed. "Is that all you've got?"

On the surface, Axelrod's reply sounds rather lame--it's always incumbent upon someone making an allegation to offer evidence of it--but it actually gets to the heart of an important part of the Chamber story, a part Schieffer was sidestepping with his withering retort: the Chamber's fat $75 million wad to attack Democrats has been collected from sources that aren't publicly disclosed. That much money is involved, and the donors are entirely secret. We know foreign sources give to the fund from which the Chamber drew that money. We don't know how much they give. More importantly, we don't know how much anyone has given, or even who has given.

While it's no small matter that China, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and other foreign concerns may be using outfits like the Chamber to pour money into U.S. elections, the narrow focus, by the White House, on "foreign" contributions was unfortunate, in that it allowed that much larger point to be missed. Nearly half of all the very Big Money presently being poured, by outside groups, into the elections on behalf of Republicans come from groups that don't even publicly disclose the source of that money.[*] What we have, then, is a mind-bogglingly huge wad of cash, intended to manipulate the outcome of U.S. elections, and we, the public, don't know where a dime of it came from. Politico reports that
"Never in modern political history has there been so much secret money gushing into an American election. By Election Day, independent groups will have aired more than $200 million worth of campaign ads using cash that can't be traced back to its original source."
That's important. No formulation of Responsible Citizenship would allow one to dismiss it.

Responsible Citizenship doesn't guide everyone, though. This summer, before this deluge, a Democratic initiative that would have at least made these groups disclose their donors was blocked when all 41 Republicans in the Senate--who are, of course, the beneficiaries of the current state of things--voted to filibuster it. An effort to revive it last month was similarly killed.

So there you have it. Is that all I've got? I'd say that was quite enough.


[*] By contrast, in the 2006 midterm elections, over 90% of outside groups publicly identified the source of their funds.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Tragedy of the Obama: Clueless Barry chapter

Interviewed by Peter Baker of the New York Times, the Obama, in a move that should give birth to serious concerns that the President of the United States may have suffered some catastrophic form of brain death, "said that he expected Republicans to offer him more cooperation after November's elections, no matter the outcome."

Has to be quoted to be believed:

"'It may be that regardless of what happens after this election, they feel more responsible, either because they didn’t do as well as they anticipated, and so the strategy of just saying no to everything and sitting on the sidelines and throwing bombs didn’t work for them,' Mr. Obama said. 'Or they did reasonably well, in which case the American people are going to be looking to them to offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way.'"

Doesn't really need any further comment, does it?


Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Lure of Conspiracy

It is said that "a lie can make it half way round the world before the truth has time to put its boots on." Mark Twain is credited with saying it. It's unlikely he ever did. It's attributed to him anyway. That attribution turns up all over the internet, which sort of makes the same point as the original quote. Now, we can forget "half way,"and truth can forget about putting on his boots; these days, lies can be instantly transmitted around the world with the click of a button, and the hope of ever setting them entirely straight is fleeting, at best.

In such an environment, it's no surprise that conspiracy theories flourish. Hillary Clinton murdered Vincent Foster, Bush blew up the World Trade Center, Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, and the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the Bilderbergs, the Freemasons, and all of those other satanic commie Jewish financiers secretly run the world.

It isn't just the technology that makes this such a pasttime today, though. People are lazy. They don't like to read, certainly not to research. Education levels aren't particularly high. And in the current political climate, reality is being treated, by far too large a segment of the population--mostly, it must be said, the conservative segment--as entirely optional.

These temporal factors exacerbate the problem, but even without them, conspiracy theories have always served some very basic human needs. They give a short, simple explanation for what are, in reality, remarkably complex problems, and they impose stability--a comforting order on a world that, in reality, doesn’t have any. Even when that "order" is something really awful, like a sinister cabal of financiers secretly running the world, people still find it comforting that it exists. People have a hunger for these things. It’s why we have everything from religion to the "9/11 Truther" movement.

A lot of conspiracism begins with a strong grain of truth. It is, for example, a fact that the War On Terrorism [tm] was minted as an ideology to act as a means of getting certain things done that couldn’t be done in its absence. It was used as a means of establishing and maintaining very backwards, reactionary policies which those in power had wanted all along, without regard for the publicly-offered post-9/11 rationale for them. It was used to repress the more enlightened elements, which, of course, dissent from it. The Bush administration used it to drag the U.S. down the ugly road toward fascism, a road on which it is still frustratingly stranded. A “9/11 Truther” sees–or, at least, senses–these things, but rather than following the thread to where it really leads, he becomes lost in irrational speculation, and decides that, since the War On Terrorism [tm] was such a useful weapon for the far right, the whole thing must have been engineered by them, and suddenly you have the insistence that Bush and his thugs were behind the terrorist attacks, and actually dynamited the World Trade Center themselves, with "evidence" manufactured to support the "theory."

Similarly, elements of the current very, very bad recession–the Great Recession?–are being prolonged by elements of, broadly speaking, Big Money. While the public is suffering, U.S. non-financial corporations are, at present, sitting on nearly $2 trillion in cash, refusing to hire or use that money in any constructive way. The financial sector is sitting on an even bigger fortune. And, as was just revealed, the recession--on paper--ended last summer. This leads to speculation that, for example, this is happening because those with all the money and power are angling for a change in government in November. This isn’t unwarranted speculation–the oil suppliers, which are heavily invested in the Republican party, have done this very thing for years, and are doing it this year. The conspiracist absorbs these facts, but doesn’t really try to understand what’s actually going on, choosing, instead, to imagine backroom plots, rather than spontaneous action driven by mutual greed, and some take it even further by writing off the entire recession as some sort of manufactured thing (because it’s allowing the Big Money villains to get their way).

The prevalence of conspiracism is quite unfortunate. A mind is like a computer: garbage in will equal garbage out, and a mind really is a terrible thing to waste. Beyond the level of personal tragedy, though, it's also a loss for society. It utterly wastes energy that could otherwise be constructively used, harnessing that which could help foment constructive change and sending it, instead, careening down blind alleys that lead nowhere. There’s enough real evil out there, and it really does need to be fought. In such a fight, every warm body helps, and the more that are lost to conspiracism, the fewer there are to do what really needs to be done.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Buck That

David Michael Green has written a fantastic piece over at Common Dreams today; "Bucking Up For Barry." It's a compact, harsh little polemic that, with a few words, makes for a solid corrective to the stream of garbage that's recently been publicly pouring forth from several administration figures with regard to the alleged irrationality of liberal discontent with the Obama and the Democrats.

Having, from the beginning, almost entirely locked out the liberals and having then run the whole of his administration in a manner that, a few short years ago, would have been uncontroversially characterized as conservative Republican, the Obama is shocked--SHOCKED--to discover that, with congressional elections looming, the liberals are uninterested in turning up to vote for his party.

Vice President Joe Biden identifies the discontented liberal base as those who "didn't get everything they wanted" out of the administration, and this characterization--that liberal critics are just whiney ideological purists who can't have everything their way--has become popular among administration apologists. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says the liberals will only "be satisfied when we have Canadian health-care and we've eliminated the Pentagon."

To write this off as mere caricature would be to falsely suggest there was any nugget of truth in it at all (a necessary element for an effective caricature). To state the obvious, the disaffected liberals aren't made up of fanatical ideologues who refuse to get with the program because they only got 90% or 95% or some other high figure of less than 100% of what they wanted. It isn't that, with a Democratic president and Democratic supermajorities in both houses, they only got 50% of what they wanted, either. The reason liberals are becoming alienated from this administration and are increasingly uninterested in voting for the Democrats this year is because they've gotten practically nothing from this administration or the huge Democratic majorities in congress.

Well, that "nothing" isn't exactly true. It is true they got nothing when it came to constructing the administration, and it's true they got nothing when it came to this administrations' policies, from health care (where Obama adopted Republican Mitt Romney's corporate welfare bill as his "reform") to the stimulus (pathetically small, and a thing for which Republicans took credit), to financial reform (more of the same).

The liberals did get something from this administration, though.

They got its contempt.

On every major issue, the Obama not only gives in to the Republicans without a fight; he has usually adopted their policies as his own. He won't fight with the Republicans over anything, but he's more than happy to pick a fight with the Democratic die-hards who make up his base of support. The open contempt they've been getting lately from the likes of Gibbs and Biden mirrors the contempt they've been getting all along.

Those of the larger left in the U.S. are in constant disagreement with one another. They've never had the Republicans' reflex of mindlessly lockstepping the goosestep, but the potentially good news for the Democrats--and bad news for the U.S.--is that most of the liberals have shown themselves to be gluttons for punishment. Usually, one need only raise the specter of how much worse it would undeniably be should the other side regain power (particularly true this year, given the current proto-fascist Repub party), and far too many of the liberals are content to shout "thank you sir, may I have another?" A willingness to stupidly tough it out for no discernible gain, however, doesn't necessarily translate into a willingness to show up at the polls in any significant number, which is what the Democrats now need. This year, even what many consider the strongest (and what is, in fact, the most shopworn) of Democratic arguments for holding one's nose and voting Democratic--imagine what the courts will look like if the Repubs win--can't hold any water after the Sotomayor and Kagan atrocities.

The other reason the Democrats should have some hope is, of course, the Republicans, who, in an election year tailor-made for a strong showing by their party, seem far too often determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In state after state, they've chosen to reject winning candidates and nominate, instead, a seemingly endless string of unelectable flakes, fruit-cakes, and fascist idiots whose every pronouncement alienates everyone who isn't completely insane or a complete imbecile.

It's also a fact that Republican strength this year has, in all the Conventional Wisdom with which we're forever besieged in the era of the 24-hour cable news network, been grossly overstated. The teabaggers may make lots of noise and suck up an absurdly disproportionate amount of press coverage and commentary as a consequence of all that very Big Money behind them, but there isn't even a hint of any sort of groundswell of public support for the policies or candidates they're pimping. Even the more "mainstream" parties' "Pledge to America"--an attempt to retread the 1994 Contract on America--went public with a thud, and, only days later, already seems to have been forgotten. A rainy election day in November would benefit Republicans more than all the teabaggers and Pledges combined.

The most basic thing that is to their benefit is the simple fact that they're the major opposition party. In a two-party state (one that usually more closely resembles a one-party state), the Repubs are, by default, considered the only credible option for expressing frustration at the polls. And people are very dissatisfied with the Democrats this year.

The current crop of Republicans in power would be a horror-show, no doubt, but, as Green points out, the current Democrats in power have also been one. "None of the Above" seems a principled stand to take this year. The same can't be said for voting for either of the major parties.