Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Filibuster Revisited, part 2

Another round with Nice Guy Eddie over the filibuster. Eddie got things rolling here, I replied, then he came back to it in his "comments" section. Here's my next installment:

Many years ago, I used to argue for doing away with the Senate entirely. I haven't given that matter much thought in more recent years but I'd probably still lean in that direction. It seems a lot bigger subject than the one on the table though and, honestly, not really relevant to the more narrow question of the filibuster. Feels like a bit of a dodge, Eddie. But it's out there, so I'll offer up a few words on the matter of the Senate's existence. Not to argue for its abolition--not just now, anyway--but to make the case for why it's kept around.

The Senate was created in imitation of the House of Lords, to allow societies' overdogs to act as a check on the more democratic House. Senators were appointed by the state legislatures. That scheme failed miserably, democracy eventually moved forward and we started directly electing them. An element of the original rationale for the Senate does, however, remain: it was a place where states would have equal representation, so the bigger, more populous ones wouldn't be able to dictate everything that happens in government. It isn't, in itself, democratic--it's a compromise that allows democracy to go forward and it's one you can understand because you've already made the argument about the alleged danger of allowing a state of affairs wherein 6-10% of the population could theoretically elect sufficient senators to "enact whatever they want to." Checks and balances.

One of the first and most basic rules of pragmatism is "never let the perfect become the enemy of the good." In refusing to accept the argument that eliminating the filibuster would make things "better" solely on the grounds that it leaves the non-democratic Senate in place, you're violating that rule. Things like getting rid of the Senate and adopting these micro-districts about which you write may be great ideas but they involve massive, radical, controversial change in the basic structure of government. I'm a big one for radical change[1] but if we're going to be pragmatists, those sorts of changes would require multiple constitutional amendments and major, comprehensive changes in the laws of every state in the U.S., while getting rid of the filibuster is a simple matter of changing an internal Senate rule that's arguably unconstitutional anyway. It's true that, in the Senate, "when you’re talking 5-10% either way, you’re about half an order of magnitude LESS than the 50% that a liberal democracy calls for to pass legislation" but what you seemed to forget for a moment there is a) that the Senate can't pass legislation on its own--it requires the much more democratic House. And b) that with the filibuster in place, that democratic body can't pass anything. And I'll go ahead and throw in c) the fact that the math has never worked out that way. 6-10% of the population may theoretically be able to combine and "enact whatever they want" but in practice, they never have. In practice, the senators of 48.7% of the population (in the first 2 years of Obama) were able to block everything the senators representing 74.9% of the population tried to do. No pragmatism-based or democracy-based way to defend that.

"[S]aying, 'To defend the filibuster is to defend its abuse,' is no more profound that me saying 'to do away with the filibuster is to defend the abuse of those who can now act unopposed.'"

...except they don't get to act "unopposed" if the filibuster is removed. They still have to deal with the more democratic House and with the president. This is the democratic process; the filibuster is the negation of that process. If you have any respect for that process, the two are not equal. They're not even close to it. I have no doubt at all that you understand this (and that you do respect the process), but that understanding left you when you wrote things like "if the Senate IS undemocratic ON THE WHOLE, BY DESIGN, then one more or one less undemocratic practice within that structure is, IMHO, immaterial." The fact that the existence of the practice completely neutralizes the democratic process[2] pretty much removes any pragmatic grounds for dismissing it as "immaterial." You say the filibuster should be kept around to "protect the rights of the minority" but it neither protects a valid right of the minority nor has it ever done so. It's just a backdoor way for the losers of an election to continue to rule, and in a democracy, that's not a "right."

Does a defense of the filibuster equal, as I asserted earlier, a defense of its abuse? It absolutely does unless one's idea for reform can prevent the sort of abuse we've seen and here, I'm a bit disappointed you didn't go into your idea of filibuster reform. It's true that I probably would be unmoved by it, but I'm certainly willing to listen.

Perhaps we'll continue.



[1] I suspect your proposed micro-districts would prove quite unworkable but I've been an advocate of proportional representation for years. There are several ways to do it. Most are preferable to the way things are currently done.

[2] And when, as we've seen in recent years, literally everything the senators representing 74.9% of the population try to do is blocked by the senators of 48.7% of the population, the points about the Senate end of the process being theoretically undemocratic don't really hold a lot of water. Obviously, that relates to the recent actual situation in the Senate and doesn't negate the criticisms arising from different theoretical situations but it's another point a pragmatist probably shouldn't overlook.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Kidnapper-In-Chief

In what's getting to be a very old story, the Obama, today, offered up yet another huge example of why he deserves to be absolutely destroyed at the polls in 2012.

During the previous administration, the "president" claimed the power to arbitrarily kidnap anyone--even U.S. citizens on U.S. soil--and throw them in a deep, dark hole forever. No courts, no lawyers, no appeal, no due process of any kind. Just label them a "terrorist" and they disappear. That such "powers" were, in reality, utterly illegal, totally unconstitutional, and, in fact, anti-constitutional didn't deter him for a moment. That "president" was a fascist son-of-a-bitch, though, and when it came to expectations, it was probably unreasonable to think one would get anything from a pig but a grunt.

One expected a bit more, however, from a Democratic president who came into office as part of a huge Democratic electoral tsunami that drew its power from public repudiation of everything for which that prior administration stood. But, as it turned out, the Obama started letting people down before he'd even taken the oath, and that's been the story of his administration ever since.

As my regulars will have no doubt noted, the legacy of the Bush administration is one of the matters that has persistently vexed ye humble editor. Bush waged steady, relentless war on the constitution, the rule of law, and open, accountable, democratic government, and, in the process, sewed the seeds of a monstrous dictatorship. Those seeds need to be rooted out, without mercy, because if they're allowed to pass into precedent, they will yield a monstrous crop in the future. The Obama stood against these abuses before the 2008 election, but since his ascension to the presidency, he has, time and time again, gone out to the field to tend, defend, and even nurture the poisonous fruits of that prior "president's" labors.

Today, he was at it again. The Senate has attached, to the National Defense Authorization Act, a totally unrelated rider that codifies, into U.S. law, the Bush administration's asserted kidnapping powers.[*] The Obama initially threatened to veto the larger bill if this was included, but after some Senate tinkering with the wording of the rider that did absolutely nothing to change its substance, the White House announced, today, that the Obama gang would no longer advise the president to do so. The Senate passed it, then House immediately followed suit, and there's every indication the Obama will soon sign it.

Through his actions, the Obama has forcefully marked himself as unworthy of holding the office of President of the United States.

But then, what else is new?



[*] As soon as this "power" is used, it would face court challenge, and, in a functioning federal judiciary, it couldn't withstand constitutional challenge. Unfortunately, America is burdened with a federal court system (and a U.S. Supreme Court, in particular) swamped with right-wing ideologues. Some are mavericks on such issues, and may very well strike it down, but they're certainly no reliable check. And, in any event, the court process takes time, and the victims of the policy could be made miserable for a lot of years before the courts get around to ruling one way or the other.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Filibuster Revisited, part 1

Early last year, I went a few rounds with Nice Guy Eddie from "In My Humble Opinion" on the subject of the Senate filibuster, him fer it and me agin' it. It started here, then continued here and here, with remarks from both of us spread through the "comments" section of both blogs in the great, totally disorganized manner that would come to mark all of my more involved exchanges with Eddie.

Eddie thought on the subject for a long time. Nearly two years! Yesterday, a ridiculous item on Fox News, reported via Media Matters, inspired him to return to the subject. I've decided to post my reply here, as well as in his comments section. I fear it's rather cursory but I don't think for a moment it will be the last word in the discussion, so I've dubbed it "The Filibuster Revisited, part 1":

(A note: In order to have any idea what's going on, I recommend reading our entire exchange.)

In my second piece on this subject from last year, I ran the same numbers you did but my results were that, "at present population dispersal, just over 5.6% of the U.S. population, residing in the smallest states (which contain 11% of the total U.S. population), can theoretically elect a sufficient number of Senators (41) to filibuster anything everyone else wants to do." You came up with 2.3%. It's been so long I don't remember exactly how I did my own calculation but it doesn't really matter--either result supports my larger point.

I also ran the then-current numbers about actual Senate representation:

" present, Democratic Senators represent 74.9% of the population, while Republican Senators represent 48.7% of the population (there being overlap between states that have mixed Senate delegations). The minority is still running everything."

I pretty much addressed everything you wrote here back then. The notion that we will get bad results without a filibuster is a) absolutely true, and b) of absolutely no relevance. One either believes in liberal democracy or one doesn't. If you do, you have to take the good with the bad.

Defending the filibuster necessarily entails defending the abuse of it we've seen since Republicans lost control of congress in 2006 and particularly since 2008. That abuse has literally changed the constitutional order and is arguably unconstitutional. More to the point though, it completely nullifies our elections, rendering them meaningless exercises. This, too, is something one must defend in order to defend the filibuster. In evaluating its potential merits, one has to weigh this--a complete frustration of the democratic process, every day of every week of every year, forever--against the benefit of keeping it around, and in my view (and I think history clearly supports me in this), any alleged benefit is mostly illusory. No counter at all.

I don't see any argument in its favor.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Tragedy of the Obama: Debt-Ceiling Edition

Niceguy Eddie, over at "In My Humble Opinion," has offered up some thoughts on the unpopularity of the current Republican position with regard to raising the debt ceiling. I thought I'd throw in a few of my own.

Popular sentiment does, indeed, cut strongly against Republicans on this issue. It cuts against them in this same really big way on pretty much every major issue, and Eddie is right about there being absolutely no reason for Democrats to compromise with them about anything when it comes to this. Republicans are a minority party with a minority in government and no real public support behind what they're trying to do, here. The Democrats could put their collective foot down, offer nothing at all, and dare the Republicans to do anything except either fold like an accordion in the face of this, or stand firm and reap the disastrous consequences. There really is only one choice. Demos would be literally insane to allow Repubs to hold the U.S. hostage over a debt-ceiling increase.

The reason offering nothing would work is the dirty little secret behind the entire debt-ceiling fight: Republicans, in the end, will vote to raise it. The, broadly speaking, Big Money community understands the ruinous effects of a potential default, and won't allow their puppets, in either party, to bring one about. Voting against a debt ceiling increase is political theater, staged by members of both parties from time to time, but the ceiling is always raised, and, at the end of the current made-up "crisis," it will be, as well, and Republicans--a sufficient number of them--will be on board when the votes are counted. That will happen, regardless of what else may. Democrats don't have to offer any deal at all, much less make one. Anything they "negotiate" away is by choice, not anything dictated by necessity.

Unfortunately, the Obama--as usual--is choosing to try to negotiate away anything and everything. From practically the moment he left the gate, he offered Republicans massive cuts to "entitlements" in exchange for their going along with some relatively minor revenue increases. That offer is still on the table. It shouldn't be. Republicans will probably hold out for more until nearly the last minute, but if there's even a chance enough Democrats will be willing to charge over the same cliff as Obama (and, as, practically speaking, it takes so few votes, there's a good chance of this), Republicans will eventually take Obama's deal.

If this happens, Obama will go down in history as having accomplished what no Republican has ever managed--to begin the dismantling of Social Security and Medicare. Defending these things has traditionally been a signature issue with Democrats. Indeed, Republicans, politically speaking, committed mass suicide via their votes, last year and this, on the Ryan plan. Democrats could have used that to absolutely eviscerate the Republican congressional caucus from coast to coast. Unless, that is, Democrats can be made to agree to the same sort of ruinous cuts that makes that plan so unpopular. That would rather spectacularly neutralize it as an issue, but, more to the point, it would remove one of the major reasons the public supports Democrats. Obama is working at chucking an easy win-win for his party and, much more importantly, undermining critically important programs, and isn't just pursuing a course that would begin their destruction; he's also working toward helping elect those who would finish the task.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Walker's War on Wisconsin (UPDATES below)

What can one say about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker? He's shown himself to be a preening, self-important peddler of poppycock, a wannabe Mussolini of the Midwest whose efforts to centralize an extraordinary amount of government power in his own hands have made him a rock star on the Republican right. That last only sounds paradoxical to those who don't pay attention.

Walker came to power alongside a rubber-stamp Republican majority in the state legislature, and he opened his administration in January by pressing through the body a series of fiscally ruinous policies, including huge tax cuts for the wealthy and for big business. Having added hundreds of millions of dollars worth of red ink to the state's finances, he then asserted that looming red ink meant the state faced a financial "crisis," and insisted it called for drastic and immediate measures to combat.

As it turned out, of course, the major aspects of his "Budget Repair Bill" didn't have much to do with the state's finances. It was mostly just about centralizing a great deal of power in Walker's hands. Among other things, it would have empowered him to sell off state-owned energy facilities to his Big Money cronies at will, without even any competitive bidding, and would have exempted such decisions from laws regarding public interest considerations. It would have removed from the legislature control over Medicaid, granting Walker's administration the dictatorial authority to raise premiums, limit program eligibility, and change reimbursement rates at will (Dennis Smith, Walker's appointee to head the agency charged with administering Medicaid, is an advocate for states leaving the program entirely). Most notoriously, it would break the state's contracts with public employee unions, cut their benefits, and strip from most of them their collective bargaining rights.

This last item caused quite a furor. Walker badly underestimated how unpopular it would prove to be, but he definitely knew he had a stinker on his hands, and he and the Republicans initially tried to jam it through with minimal debate before anyone noticed. He unveiled the bill, there was a single public hearing regarding it, a single committee meeting, and the Republican majority would have passed the bill the next day in a matter of minutes, except 14 Democratic legislators literally left the state in order to prevent them from having the Senate quorum necessary to do so.

The result was a stand-off that went on for weeks.

Walker was unyielding. Every time the absent senators would try to negotiate any sort of deal with him, his response was to call a press conference and insult them, while launching petty vindictive attacks on them through the legislature--trying to take away their parking, their pay, and their office expenses. More seriously, he and the Repubs tried to have them arrested for "contempt," in direct violation of the state constitution.

Walker insisted that the anti-union elements of his bill were absolutely necessary to deal with the state's fiscal "crisis." It became a mantra. It was a matter of public record that Wisconsin's future projected budget shortfalls--the portions not attributable to Walker's own policies--had nothing to do with the unions' benefits. They were a consequence of several items, primarily projected Medicaid expenses. Still, Walker repeated his mantra, and apparently hoped people would pay little attention to details. The unions had immediately agreed to the actual fiscal elements of Walker's proposal--the cuts in their benefits. Still, Walker repeated his mantra. Those concessions were always on the table, and at any point in this protracted drama, Walker could have simply taken them and declared victory. He refused to take "yes" for an answer because his purpose, contrary to his mantra, was to bust the unions, and he had no intention of accepting a negotiated settlement that left them their rights. Republicans in over a dozen states, in fact, suddenly simultaneously decided they also needed to go after their state's unions in the same way. Still, Walker repeated his mantra, apparently expecting us to accept this as merely an incredible coincidence.

The public didn't bite.

Instead, waves of protesters filled the state capitol. The demonstrations were scrupulously peaceful, but Walker ordered the capitol locked down anyway. A court ordered his administration to reopen it; Walker simply ignored the order, and circulated false stories in the press about the protesters causing millions of dollars in damage (in reality, there had been no real damage).

In order to finally pass the portion of the bill stripping the unions of their collective bargaining rights, the Repubs--after all that mantra repetition--finally had to admit it wasn't a fiscal measure at all, which had the benefit of removing the need for a senate quorum. They held a brief meeting with only two hours notice--an apparent violation of Wisconsin law--and passed the measure a few minutes later, inadvertently offering up the perfect footnote to the whole sordid affair by immediately arranging to attend a high-dollar fundraising dinner being thrown in their honor by lobbyists in Washington D.C..

To bask in the presence of their purchased puppets, these corrupt lobbyists will offer up a minimum $1,000 donation just to get in the door; lots of love, with lots of zeroes attached. The reaction of the larger public, however, has been quite different. After only two months in office, Walker's approval rating is in free-fall--down around 40%. Big majorities are now telling pollsters that, if the 2010 election was held again today, they'd vote against him, and by this time next year, he will--courtesy of Wisconsin's recall laws--most likely be reduced to a very-highly-paid Fox News special commentator, touring the brain-dead hemisphere of the talking-head circuit as a right-wing martyr to mean ol' labor unions, while a lot of the Repubs who backed him in the legislature will be unemployed. That may be the happiest ending Wisconsin can manage.

Meanwhile, the national Republican party has embraced the Mussolini of the Midwest as a hero, and seem to have decided they want what he's done to Wisconsin to be both their model and the public face of their party. Repubs, in legislatures across the country, continue their efforts to centralize power and destroy democratic--and Democratic--institutions.

Stay tuned.



UPDATE (12 March, 2011) -- I've always found, in the various theories of liberal democracy, much merit in the notion that, when a government is elected, it earns the right to enact its program. In spite of what the Scott Walkers of the world believe, we don't elect dictatorships in the U.S., and the minority should get some concessions along the way, roughly equivalent to its size, but democracy has no meaning if a majority is prevented from governing at all. We've seen this at the federal level. Democrats won the White House and huge majorities in congress in 2008, but were effectively prevented from governing by a Republican minority that systematically abused the process and, in essence, completely nullified that entire election.

The Wisconsin situation isn't even close to being analogous to this, because Democrats, there, were objecting to items in a single bill, rather than to everything the Republicans had proposed, and Walker was refusing a reasonable compromise that fully addressed the concerns he feigned in public regarding state finances while pushing for a measure to which the public was overwhelmingly opposed

Still, the Democratic legislators' exit from the state in order to prevent that bill from going forward is a use of process to foil an elected majority, and merits some scrutiny.


UPDATE (8 April, 2011) -- The potential violation of Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law in passing the union-busting bill resulted in a court injunction against publishing or enforcing the law. Wisconsin law requires that the Secretary of State publish any law in the official newspaper before it can be enforced. Walker and Republican Senate leader Scott Fitzgerald decided they could just ignore this law and the injunction, as well; they had the law published by the Legislative Reference Bureau, then publicly declared it had been legally published, was in effect, and that it would now be enforced. Rather than simply holding these clowns in contempt, the judge in the case issued a second order tersely reemphasizing that publication and enforcement of the law has been enjoined. Walker finally backed down, but the entire incident is emblematic of his behavior throughout this ordeal.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Setting the Record Straight on "Jack-Booted Thugs"

I'm still not really up to writing much, or well, but an item over at Media Matters caught my eye tonight, and I felt compelled to offer some thoughts on it.

Adam Shah of Media Matters For America offers this as his set-up:
National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre is the last person a responsible media outlet should have on its airwaves to comment on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). That's because LaPierre once referred to ATF agents as "jack-booted government thugs" and reportedly called for "lifting the assault weapons ban to even the odds in the struggle between ordinary citizens and 'jack-booted government thugs.'"
Shah's framing can be read in such a way as to suggest that anyone who would call government agents "jack-booted government thugs" is inherently nuts. The gripe I have with this is that government agents frequently are jack-booted thugs. That LaPierre said so isn't why his comments were problematic.

LaPierre is a reactionary who deals in the nuttiest sort of black-helicopter conspiracism. His rhetoric, offered in the 1990s, is indistinguishable from that of the militia movement that grew like a cancer in that same period, and it's this context that elevated his "jack-booted government thugs" comment from a truism to an eye-raiser.

But it takes some space to explain why.

The right is not, in fact, "anti-government." As much as the press and some liberal commentators love to use that phrase as shorthand, it's difficult to imagine a characterization that could more grossly misrepresent the politics of contemporary conservatism. There are many "schools" of conservatism in the U.S., of course, but the core of the conservative base, at present, is made up of what may fairly be described as self-obsessed authoritarians. They're very opposed to government that taxes them. They're very opposed to the small "d" democratic elements of government, those responsive to the public. When it comes to pursuing their own cherished goals, though--which usually involve maintaining the aristocratic prerogatives of The Powers That Be, aggressive militarism, and enforcing social homogeneity--no amount of government ever proves to be enough.

This conservative core isn't opposed to jack-booted thuggery on the part of government. Those on the right have, in fact, always supported such thuggery, nurtured it, enabled it, even demanded it, for the simple reason that government thuggery has, historically, almost always been aimed at the left or at other groups despised by the right (immigrants, racial minorities, etc.), and the conservatives have been (and are) its enthusiastic advocates as long as that's the case.

When LaPierre made his comments, on the other hand, the right was out of power, and the narrative had shifted. Suddenly, the story peddled to the nuts was that a democratic--and, more importantly, Democratic--government was out to get white, right-wing rednecks. This was a handy way of inflaming the bumpkins against the other party, but reflected no genuine concern about government abuses.[*] During the just-concluded Bush administration, when a real thug was running the government and asserting the power to ignore the law and the constitution at will, kidnap, torture, and even murder American citizens with no pretense of due process, and so on, the conservatives virtually worshiped government power and their Maximal Leader, and the militia culture and movement, which had made such a pretense of being centrally concerned about government abuses in the '90s (when abuses were relatively minor), all but disappeared. When Democrats rolled over Republicans in the 2008 elections, though, the right went back to criticizing government again, and the militia culture was suddenly back again with a vengeance.

Back in the 1990s, the federal action against the Koresh cult in Texas became the central organizing cause for militant reactionaries. The broad narrative of the event that evolved on the nut right was that the cult was merely an unthreatening church that was attacked and besieged by the government for no real reason, then, at the end, was maliciously burned alive for refusing to submit. None of this had much of a relationship to the truth, but it made for a nifty organizing tool for years.

LaPierre was opportunistically playing to this sentiment when he made his "jack-booted government thugs" comment. In the same letter in which he wrote those words, he even made explicit reference to the action against the Koresh cult, and, further, added

"Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens. Not today."

Of course, such a thing hadn't been "unthinkable" to left-wing political parties, the civil rights movement, radical groups, labor unions, anti-war groups, and more other non-conservative and anti-conservative groups than can be named--they'd been on the receiving end of government violence for over a century, by that point. It was only "unthinkable" to white Christian conservative good ol' boys who had never been subjected to it. LaPierre was part of a cadre of reactionaries who, for purposes of political expediency, was trying to make it thinkable to them. The world learned how thinkable some of them found it when a fertilizer bomb went off in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds.

I realize that's more of a mouthful, as explanations go, but the implication that condemning government thuggery is what makes LaPierre's comments reprehensible shouldn't be allowed to stand. They're reprehensible for entirely different reasons. Real government thuggery should always be condemned by every American worthy of the name.



[*] Back in the 1990s when LaPierre made his comment, the NRA was, in fact, trying to reinvent itself as a crime-fighting organization, circulating false "statistics" about how "soft on crime" America was, and advocating a "get tough" approach. In a word, thuggery.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Re-Thoughts on "Civil Discourse" (UPDATE BELOW)

I'm currently in the midst of a devastating personal crisis, and I'm probably crazy to even attempt to comment on any serious subject. It's a diversion from what's really on my mind, and, while that can be welcomed when thoughts are as bleak as mine, it's never a good state of mind for creating thoughtful discourse. I'm going to give it a try, anyway. If it doesn't turn out to be one of my best, it's something of a little miracle if I finish it at all.

The attack, by a deranged gunman, on a crowd at a public political gathering in Arizona has led, in the last few days, to some criticism of the political climate created by the right, which, in turn, led to a massive pushback by the right (far larger than the almost-non-existent original criticism). The cretinous Sarah Palin emerged from her Alaskan bunker to climb up onto her cross and deny rhetoric can play any role in such violent atrocities, while simultaneously asserting that the rhetoric suggesting that it may cause it can inspire violent atrocities, pretty much mirroring the tone of the entire conservative reaction. Writing over at "In My Humble Opinion," the overworked Niceguy Eddie has offered up some thoughts on the matter of civil discourse, but I take issue with what he says, to a degree, and decided I'd try to write about it.

First, Eddie:
"I’m not saying that we SHOULDN’T be more civil in our discourse, but using tragedy to highlight even THAT (which to some people STILL constitutes an “agenda”) is still politicizing it."
I think you miss a much more important point. One of the most serious problems we face in the U.S. flows, at base, from the efforts of those on the right to intentionally demonize, delegitimize, and dehumanize their enemies. What passes for public discourse from the American conservative elite (and is accepted without any significant skepticism by a lot of their followers) is little more than a string of personal attacks with that kind of total destruction as a goal. The right shows absolutely no regard for the truth when they're about this. They don't try to personally destroy someone based on the actual views and actions of that someone; they just, to put it bluntly, make shit up. Obama isn't opposed because of anything he actually does or is; he's opposed because he's a Kenyan Bolshevik who wants to set up government death panels to kill the elderly and infirm, manage a government takeover of industry, and destroy capitalism. The narrative, offered by the American conservative elite, of what happens in the U.S. rarely even touches reality. By it, there isn't even any room for honest disagreement. Those who disagree are enemies, and those enemies are the enemies of mankind itself.

The elite of the right has a gargantuan, omnipresent, multi-media machine to spread this narrative. It's like nothing that has ever existed in human history, and for a huge portion of the population (a distinct minority, but still huge), that narrative is holy writ.

This isn't just a problem in the ridiculous political food-fights we have every day, most of which don't amount to a hill of beans. It has, among other things, the potential to cause incredible amounts of violence. If you spend 24-hours/day, every day, telling your credulous followers that their enemies--those with whom they politically disagree--are out to destroy them, it's only a matter of time before a lot of them are going to get it in their heads that they'd better pick up a gun or a bomb and "save" the country. But violence isn't even the biggest problem we face as a consequence of this narrative. It's much bigger. It is, in fact, a literally existentialist matter. Forget about "civil discourse." Public discourse itself has been all but destroyed in the U.S. by this, and that's the death of a democratic society. Increasingly, people can't talk to one another in any meaningful way, they certainly can't disagree with one another, and for those who have seriously bought into the narrative as it is seriously offered, allowing any influence at all over public affairs by someone who disagrees--an enemy--begins to seem absolutely intolerable. Maybe even just living next to them will starts to seem intolerable.

Political rhetoric appears to have played no role in what happened in Arizona, but if the incident draws some attention to this wretched state of affairs, that's something positive that can come from the horror. I understand your concern for the feelings of the victims, Eddie, but I don't think dealing with this is any offense to them (though the ranting and bumper-sticker fix-alls offered by some of those clowns you mentioned are certainly thoughtless and inappropriate). The dead are gone. The rest of us still have to live, and part of that is addressing this problem.

It isn't addressed by noxious censorship, or anything like that. It can only be addressed by something we've fallen out of the habit of doing: having a real national conversation.

That said, I really don't think it will be addressed. Not as a result of what happened in Arizona, in any event. What little critical commentary that has emerged in recent days has focused, almost entirely, on things like Sarah Palin's use of phrases like "don't retreat; reload," and on defeated senatorial candidate Sharron Angle's suggestion that "Second Amendment remedies" could be a response if the right person--read: her--didn't win an election, and on Republicans' use of a map that put crosshairs on the districts of congressmen they're "targeting." This is totally misguided criticism. The problem isn't with things like this (most of which are of little consequence, and are relatively innocuous). It's with the context in which things like this are offered. It isn't with scattered comments involving allusions to violence. It's with the right's overall narrative. Focusing on the scattered comments will prevent it from being addressed.

It should also be most forcefully noted that this is a problem with the right, not with the rest of us. If, in the phony games of "balance" traditionally played by the press and in conservative efforts to deflect the issue by presenting a few scattered examples of inappropriate rhetoric by liberals, this is lost, then so will be any effort to address the problem.

The biggest reason it won't be addressed, though, is because of its sheer size. It isn't about those stray remarks. It's about what a huge portion of the population has been told to believe, and has accepted as reality. That's not something that can be turned on a dime. It may not be something that can be turned at all. A turn, in this case, requires people to begin questioning nonsense they've accepted as gospel for years. More importantly, it would require those who peddle it to them to stop peddling it, and that would entail that big right-wing machine going entirely out of business, because that's all it has to offer. Fat chance. And how do you have a conversation with people who, as a matter of fundamental ideology, regard you as an enemy whose every word is a lie, and refuse to indulge in any real conversation?

We have to try, though.

What else is there?



UPDATE (20 Jan., 2011) -- NiceGuy Eddie replies in comments, and my response ran a little long, so I'll put it here. Eddie:

" can't simultaneously accept the truth that having 'civil discourse' will affect the Right's behavior 90% and the Left's just 10% and NOT call that 'an agenda.' That I happen to SHARE that agenda with you doesn't change the fact that it's AN AGENDA. And while you and I will rightly call it an AMERICAN agenda or a MORAL agenda or a PRINCIPLED agenda, given the affect it will have, and on who, the Right can reasonably call it a LEFTIST Agenda. That's bullshit of course, and it's their fault for moving to the Right of SANITY, but from their POV, it's still TRUE."

That's a symptom of the very malady I outlined in what I wrote before, though, and you can't cater to that. If you try, you lose before you even begin, because that's the outcome their narrative is designed to produce, the only one. If, as a precondition to having that conversation, you have to wait until the right doesn't act that way, that conversation will never happen.

As for angry ranting, it is often not only appropriate; the lack of it would be inappropriate. There's a big difference between angry ranting based on something that should provoke angry ranting and the sort of manufactured outrage that flows from (and sustains) the right on a daily basis. That's why the narrow focus on mere "civil discourse" is so misguided. There's no reason at all to be civil about things that legitimately provoke incivility. The reason the right's incivility is a problem is because it's based on nonsense. One lie on top of another on top of another.

When those on the right were fighting the health-care bill because it set up death panels to kill old people, they weren't disagreeing with the health-care bill; they're just making up shit to try to dehumanize their enemies. The same is true when they opposed it because it provided government health-care to illegal immigrants. No permutation of it ever did, and this was thrown out merely to fan the flames of racism and rip at the fabric of society (that clown Wilson, who, at Obama's address to congress, shouted "YOU LIE!" became a hero on the right for doing that). The same is true when they oppose it because they're against "socialized medicine." The bill that was passed doesn't "socialize" any aspect of health care. (and, further, the idea behind that--that any government involvement in business is properly characterized as "socialism"--is also a part of what I'm talking about, as is the fact that, in the right's usage, "socialism" is both a synonym for "liberalism" and an invocation of Bolshevism).

Now, the health care bill was, it's true, a monstrous piece of legislation. There were more painfully real reasons to genuinely oppose it than could be easily listed. I wrote article after article denouncing it at the time. The right wasn't opposed to it because of any of those real reasons. As I pointed out repeatedly, it was, in fact, a Republican bill that was passed. It was modeled on Romneycare in Massachusetts, and almost exactly the same legislation had been proposed, in recent years, by Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, and by former Republican Sen. Bob Dole. The first iteration on it was created by congressional Republicans back in the '90s when Clinton was working on health care--it was their proposed alternative (that's where Romney apparently got it). When Obama adopted it as his own, Republicans dropped it like a hot rock, and attacked it with the sort of rhetoric I just outlined.

There's a huge difference between outrage based on something actually outrage-worthy and this kind of bullshit. If I offer up an angry rant on an angry-rant-worthy subject and I'm tagged, by the right, as a hypocrite for doing it because I denounce their angry ranting (which is based on bullshit), that's symptomatic of their own problem, not an indication that I'm "rightly" branded a hypocrite.

As much as I've gone on, I don't think I've even started to do this subject justice. I'm just having an incredibly hard time right now. As bad as everything else is, a "friend" chose this, of all times, to manufacture an absolutely absurd drama and use it to drop another atom-bomb on me a few days ago (a few of them, actually). I try not to hold it against her, and I know I'm not even in any shape to judge what happened or anything else. I thought I'd already hit rock-bottom these last two months; she made a great stride in proving me wrong. A lot of what I've "written" here, was cut-and-pasted, with modifications, from some earlier things I'd written, because I'm just not up to writing right now.