Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sunday, January 27, 2008

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2008

("If inferior people have 4 children while higher-quality people have 2, this is what will happen." [1])

January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day (the similar Yom HaShoah falls on May 2 this year). The 2006 entry covered book and film recommendations (feel free to pass on any more), while the 2007 entry centered on the poetry of Charlotte Delbo. (In December, we also tackled Holocaust denial.)

Dave Neiwert has helpfully compiled all his posts on Jonah Goldberg's Newspeak tract, Liberal Fascism, with more on the way. Considering Goldberg's goal of "muddying the waters" on fascism, and considering that the mainstream media and Goldberg's fellow conservatives haven't eviscerated, debunked and mocked him and his work as they should, it seems especially important to recollect the truth.

This year, I wanted to take a look at the Nazi's T4 "euthanasia" program, which, starting in the summer of 1939, focused on killing the mentally and physically disabled. Taking its name from the building where the program's offices resided, T4 was in many ways a precursor of the larger scale death camps and "the Final Solution." T4 in turn grew out of a program of forced sterilization for those deemed "incurable" or otherwise undesirable. It's a chilling example of an attempt to earn radical ideas mainstream acceptance through gradual steps. (The Overton Window relates to this.) This post is by no means definitive, but may still be useful.

The Wiki entries for "Action T4" and Nazi Eugenics aren't bad for a basic framework. The lecture page for "Eugenics and Euthanasia" by Professor Harold Marcuse of UCSB provides a good overview, as does the article "Euthanasia in the Third Reich: Lessons for Today?" by J. A. Emerson Vermaat for Ethics & Medicine. A number of books focus on the subject, including "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," and that's without even delving into the eugenics and sterilization movements of Sweden, Great Britain, America and other countries. The film Europa, Europa has a memorable, funny scene on these issues. I'll also recommend once again Conspiracy, a superbly cast film about the Wannsee Conference, where the details of the Final Solution were disseminated.

Best of all on the T4 program may be a 45-min 1993 Discovery Channel piece, Selling Murder: The Killing Films of the Third Reich, that I've mentioned before. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be commercially available currently (but at some point in the future, perhaps I can post clips). The special, apparently repackaged from the U.K.'s Channel Four, focuses on a half-dozen propaganda films made by the Nazis to sell murder of the "unfit."

Most estimates I've read put the number of people the Nazis sterilized at roughly 350,000, while estimates of the T4 victims murdered range from 75,000 to 250,000. Selling Murder interviews Klara Nowak, who was labeled as schizophrenic (she wasn't) and offered the choice of sterilization or confinement in a mental home. She chose the former, and although she went on to become a successful nurse, was tormented by the consequences of the Nazi policy, lamenting her lack of children and grandchildren. Perhaps most chilling is that the decision to force this on her was made by her town's "Public Health" officer, who did not even bother to examine her. (On that aspect, I can't help but think of some of the current abuses of our justice system.)

As the Nazis pushed from a policy of sterilization to one of murder (first with children and later with adults), they made a strategic effort to sell this to party members, to those that were to conduct the killing, and to the general public. Hitler decreed that the short film Victims of the Past (Opfer der Vergangenheit,1937) be shown in every movie theater in Germany. As the narrator for Selling Murder observes:

The film claims that disabled people have been allowed to survive thanks by modern medicines, in defiance of the laws of natural selection. Theirs lives are depicted as unproductive and meaningless.

The film also warns, in alarmist fashion, about the threat of a horde of mentally disabled people in the next fifty years if something isn't done immediately. You can see an excerpt below:

[Update: the original video was yanked, but the replacement above seems more complete anyway.]

Victims of the Past officially pushed for sterilization, but its even more ominous agenda is hard to miss. A subsequent film less widely distributed, The Inheritance (Das Erbe), pushed more directly for murder, or in Nazi terms, "mercy killings." Many of the films feature Social Darwinist rhetoric about the strong and the weak. In The Inheritance (Das Erbe), the oh-so wise doctors show a female nurse nature footage of a cat preying on a sick bird, animals fighting, and so on, while the narrator speaks of the dominance of the strong over the "weak" and the need to dispose of the "sick." The nurse happily exclaims the key point: "So animals pursue proper racial policy?" The film also features the requisite disturbing footage of physically and mentally disabled patients in asylums, the other "sick" who must be eliminated.

In these films, as at the Hadamar Clinic, one of the six asylums where the T4 killings were carried out, such phrases as "Existence without life" (Dasein ohne Leben ), "Life unworthy of Life" (lebensunwertes Leben) and "mercy killing" were commonly employed. At Hadamar and the other clinics, the infamous method later used at Auschwitz and other death camps was first employed: telling the victims they were to receive a shower, locking them in, gassing them with carbon monoxide (Zyklon B was used later in the death camps), and then cremating the bodies. At Hadamar, as at many similar sites, a peephole was provided for the doctors and guards.

The Nazis weren't able to keep all of this secret, however, and some prominent critics such as Bishop Galen denounced them publicly (Hitler was apparently furious, but Galen was too well-known to eliminate outright). This was one reason of many for the "Final Solution," deporting victims to the east and Poland, where there was less German scrutiny. Meanwhile, as a former guard explains in Selling Murder, at the Hadamar Clinic they shifted to more subtle methods. The most common was to administer a lethal sedative, and then report that the patient had died of the "flu."

("A Nazi chart incorporating Gergor Mendel's laws of heredity, part of efforts to show how "racially mixed" parents produced "inferior" offspring." [2])

The Nazis destroyed some of the films they made lest they be used in evidence against them, including an actual "snuff" film, showing a single victim, seen through the gas chamber peephole, succumbing to the deadly gas. However, for two of the destroyed films, the makers of Selling Murder found the original scripts and directors' notes, and some of the original footage. The original footage is mostly of physically and mentally disabled patients, the more shocking looking, the better. Some of this footage was shot on asylum grounds outdoors (as in the Victims of the Past clip above), but a fair amount was shot in a studio, with harsh lighting from below in the style of a horror film, to make the patients appear especially grotesque and frightening.

One of the most interesting sections of Selling Murder is their reconstruction of the short film Dasein ohne Leben (Existence without Life) from the director's detailed notes. The film centers on a professor lecturing his young, Aryan students (if anything, the reconstruction is more restrained than most other Nazi films). It was made for those doctors, nurses and guards who would actually implement T4 and perform the killings. The film stresses that it's expensive to keep these disabled people alive, and caring for them is a great indignity to the doctors and nurses who could otherwise lead a "normal" life. The professor ends with an impassioned speech to his students about how, if he were struck down with such a horrible, crippling mental disease, he'd end his own life — and that the majority of parents of "incurables" feel the same way about their children. Thus, the film equates an adult choosing to end his or her own life, with which many viewers could sympathize, with state-sanctioned murder. It's a deliberate blurring the Nazis would continue to use.

The Nazis destroyed another film, Mentally Ill (Geisteskrank), but the script, notes and most of the raw footage remained. It also was made to sell the concept of killing to those charged with implementing T4. The Selling Murder team also reconstructed this film. As the narrator remarks, "Marked top secret, it seeks to portray mass murder in a humane and compassionate light, and as the result of careful scientific deliberation." For me, the most striking passage from the Nazi script is (emphasis mine):

Every reasonable person would prefer death to such an existence, and would not condemn any incurable patient who sought deliverance through death. Our National Socialist state, taking into account the purpose and value of human life, has adopted measures by which those afflicted of an incurable mental illness, can be relieved of their terrible suffering and hellish existence, by a humane and gentle death.

Because we value human life, we must kill these people. Wow. Orwellian Newspeak is often a bit more subtle, but not necessarily more evil.

(A still from the film I Accuse (Ich klage an, 1941))

The most advanced Nazi propaganda film for the T4 program was I Accuse (Ich klage an (1941), a feature film apparently seen by about 15 million viewers. Based on a novel by a man working in the T4 program, the film was directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner, well-regarded at the time. Mathias Wieman, one of the three stars in the central love triangle, was apparently well-known for reading a Nativity play at Christmas, and the other two actors had similarly morally upright images.

The Vermaat article linked earlier provides a good synopsis:

Hanna, the beautiful young wife of professor Thomas Heyt, is suffering from multiple sclerosis. Her husband, the newly appointed director of the Anatomical Institute of Munich University, knows that there is little hope for his wife. Hanna first asks her personal physician and family friend Bernhard Lang to end her life should the moment of unbearable suffering occur. Lang refuses and says: ‘I am your best friend, but I am also a doctor, and as such I am a servant of life. Life must be preserved at any cost.’

Hanna then approaches her husband Thomas in a very emotional way: ‘You must help me. I want to remain your Hanna till the very end, I don’t want to become somebody else who is deaf, blind, and idiotic. I wouldn’t endure that. Thomas, if you really love me, promise that you will deliver me from this beforehand.’

Hanna’s medical condition rapidly deteriorates. Thomas and Bernhard realize she has only a few weeks to live. One day they are together at Hanna’s bedside. Hanna kindly asks Bernhard to leave the room. She wants to be alone with Thomas. Bernhard goes to the piano in the living room where he starts to play. While the piano music can be heard in the bedroom Thomas fetches a bottle containing a sedative and poors a fatal dose into Hannna’s glass. Before passing away Hanna says, ‘I feel so happy, I wish I were dead.’ Thomas replies, ‘Death is coming, Hanna.’ Hanna responds, ‘I love you, Thomas.’ ‘I love you, too, Hanna,’ says Thomas.

Bernhard is furious when Thomas informs him what has happened. Domestic servant Bertha then accuses Thomas of murdering his wife and takes him to court. At issue is: can a doctor be allowed to cause the death of a terminally ill patient after that person explicitly requested him to do so? One of the witnesses is Bernhard. He says that he initially also opposed Hanna’s request, but now he sees things from a different perspective. ‘Thomas, you are not a murderer!’ he says loud and clear in the courtroom. Thomas himself then accuses (‘I accuse!’) those doctors and judges who by adhering to strict rules fail to serve the people. ‘Try me! Whatever the outcome, your judgment will be a signal to all those who are in the same position like me! Yes, I confess: I did kill my incurably ill wife, but it was at her request.’

From a propagandistic point of view the film was a success. The Gestapo, the secret state police, reported that the film received much attention in the whole Reich. A Dutch woman living in Düsseldorf at the time told me in an interview: ‘All my colleagues were impressed by the film. They suddenly understood the dilemma of a doctor who is confronted with an incurable disease.’

[Update: Here's some footage from the film. The film's in German, and the narrator's speaking in Italian, but this will give you a taste of its imagery and style:

End update.]

The film was nominated for, and won, a few honors. There are two key aspects that Selling Murder adds to the above synopsis, however. The first is that the courtroom scenes that end the film were an attempt by the Nazis to convince the public of the need to change the laws, to allow the state to kill those it deemed "incurable." While the Nazis had been perpetrating such murders since the summer of 1939, that was not officially occurring. The second key aspect is that the film has a subplot, involving a severely disabled child. Dr. Berhard Lang had earlier saved the child's life, but now the parents want him to perform a "mercy killing" on it. Dr. Lang at first refuses, but after visiting the child again and seeing its dread condition, agrees. Interestingly, the Nazis at the T4 headquarters wanted to include actual footage of a severely deformed child, but the director Liebeneiner felt it would be too shocking.

Yet again, the Nazis sought to equate doctor-assisted suicide, voluntarily chosen, with the systematic murder of those the State deemed undesirable. All the Nazi films try to provoke a strong emotional reaction, then move in with an authoritative message on the course of action that must be taken. I Accuse may be the most interesting because it's the most subtle and effective, but the other films are carefully tuned propaganda pieces as well, more blatant at times, but often quite crafty. The propaganda campaign against the general public to sell the T4 program was evidently not entirely successful, but these "killing films of the Third Reich" do clearly show that the Nazis pursued a deliberate strategy to sell a terrible, inhumane idea. Meanwhile, the methods of mass killing employed during the T4 program were put to horrific use on a larger scale in the death camps. Along with the systematic stripping of the civil rights of Germans, especially Jews, the T4 program played an essential role in the historical slippery slope of increasing Nazi power and greater and greater atrocities.

Discussing the Nazis can be problematic, since any modern comparisons can be overblown. However, eliminationist attitudes are very real, as is the far more common (and sadly acceptable) aggressive defense of inequality by some political groups. Defining what's actually fascist, versus proto-fascist, versus simply bad and dangerous, can be important. Regardless, Holocaust Remembrance Day is primarily about remembering history, those dread events and their many victims, but it can also be an opportunity to stop to think about current political rhetoric, policies and their potential consequences.

[Update: This short documentary clip gives a very interesting and relevant look at Joseph Goebbels' love of Hollywood films and his attitudes on propaganda via film.]

("This poster reads: "60,000 Reichsmarks is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the People's community during his lifetime. Fellow German, that is your money too. Read '[A] New People', the monthly magazines of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP." (about 1938)" [3])

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Eclectic Jukebox 1/24/08

Nicole Atkins — "The Way It Is"

Here's the performance that earned Nicole Atkins a host of new fans. (The studio version is here, for comparison.) Here's her Wiki entry, official website and MySpace page. Her recent tour with The Pipettes must have been an interesting pairing.

I particularly enjoy the look on her face at the end, and hope that every performer has had that feeling at least once. In her case, it's her first solo national TV gig, and she knows she's absolutely nailed it.

Eclectic Jukebox

That Damned Liberal Racism

With the recent arrival of MLK Day, it's time once again for doctrinaire conservatives to pretend that liberals are racists and if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he'd be a conservative. Think I'm kidding? Check out this year's assessment of such rhetoric by Mister Leonard Pierce of Sadly, No! Meanwhile, Rick Perlstein provides some welcome historical perspective on past opposition and this attempted appropriation. (Roy has a slightly different take.)

Of course, if conservative pundits had any integrity, they'd also have called out Jonah Goldberg for his noxious piece of disingenuous, revisionist crap, Liberal Fascism, weeks ago, and Goldberg himself would have actually responded to the "serious" criticism he claims he welcomes. Not content to level the ludicrous accusation that progressives are the real descendents of fascists, Goldberg recently accused them of being the real racists, as well. It's all the more striking given that Goldberg works for the National Review, which had a long history of supporting segregation (and check out the vintage Goldberg Roy linked in the post linked above).

Still, "let's pretend" is the essence of the wingnut welfare system of conservative think tank "scholars." Thus, for them, liberals can be denounced with a straight face as both fascists and racists. It's their accepted gospel that the poor are poor due to a lack of character, or the poor actually have it very good, and anyway, the worst evil possible is to help them, as that Jesus guy once said. But then, we're talking about a system that offered to pay a scientist $10,000 to deny global warming. Merit, integrity and empirical truth don't exactly play an active role.

The big problem with bad-faith, conservative "let's pretend" games is that the mainstream media happily plays along, granting such conservatives undeserved legitimacy. And the media doesn't just play along with conservatives — it often spread the same crap. Liberals are of course not completely free from all prejudices, and certainly not all conservatives are racists, but it ranges from silly to appalling to accuse the Democratic Party of being the party of racism. It's not as if the massive shift in party alignment among southern white males in the 60s due to the Civil Rights Movement is some big secret. That movement belongs largely to the Democrats, and MLK, LBJ, and the Kennedys certainly do, while the Republicans own the Southern Strategy of Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes.

To be fair to the media on its recent obsession with race and gender issues, supporters of the Obama and Clinton campaigns, or the campaigns themselves, raised said issues in the form of attacks (check out Bob Johnson and Jesse Jackson, Jr., for two examples). But the media certainly hasn't elevated the discourse since, and the campaigns have wisely agreed to bury the hatchet — albeit only on those lines. (Notice, too, how Edwards is pushed out of the race in most press narratives, and also in most of Hillary Clinton's rhetoric, and to a lesser degree Obama's).

The truth is, America could use much more good discussion on race, gender and, even more importantly, class and power. The problem is, our national public discourse is still managed by shallow pundits, and on even the most important of subjects, they insist on having their shallow way. The current hackdom commemorating MLK Day is a feature, not a bug. Looking over the past couple of weeks, two patterns emerge. One, conservatives have ramped up their habitual attacks on Democrats using race and gender. Two, the mainstream media has done the same, and ignored that pattern number one is happening.

When Russerts Attack

If you missed the hoopla over Hillary Clinton's statements about Martin Luther King and President Johnson, and how they were extremely poorly reported, out of context, read Greg Sargent's "New York Times Keeps Running Truncated Version Of Hillary's Quote About Martin Luther King" (follow-ups here and here). A similar distortion occurred when Bill Clinton referred to Barack Obama's representation of his stance on invading Iraq as a "fairy tale." Although Bill Clinton's statement can be fairly challenged as inaccurate, he was clearly talking about Obama's views on war with Iraq back in 2002, not on Obama's entire campaign, as numerous reporters and pundits chose to misrepresent it. In other words, Clinton's words were challenged, but on the wrong grounds. The media — shockingly! — choose to sell a sensationalistic, bogus, gossipy storyline, which not incidentally obscured the far more serious issue of the illegitimacy and folly of pre-emptive war.

Bill Moyers, a fine journalist and former press secretary to President Johnson, provided a valuable perspective on MLK and LBJ and the “tempest in a teapot" over Hillary Clinton's comments.

In contrast, Tim Russert, a shameless hack, conducted a hatchet job on Hillary Clinton from the get-go on Meet the Press on 1/13/08. (Just to be clear, I'd like to see all the candidates grilled, but on substance.) This show may be a new low even for Russert, a powerful media figure the Republicans know can be counted on to help them "control [the] message." Most blatant of all was Russert saying "This is exactly what President Clinton said in Dartmouth," and then running a deliberately truncated clip obscuring context. (Did he think no viewers would notice?) Russert continued to attack Hillary Clinton, citing the reactions of "neutral" black political figures to Bill Clinton's statement. Russert ignored that they were all responding to a misrepresentation of Bill Clinton's statement, whether their own, or more likely, the mispresentation spread by Russert and many of his colleagues in the mainstream media. Hillary Clinton had already set the record straight quite well, but Russert had his "gotcha" assault all lined up, and there was no way in hell he was going to abandon his manufactured scandal. ( I was happy to see Media Matters pick up the same thing.)

Russert quoting Bill Clinton out of context was pretty blatant, but Russert was even more shameless during the same stretch. By proxy (quoting someone else is how this game is played), he accused Hillary Clinton of "taking cheap shots at, of all people, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." and cited a particularly loathsome op-ed, saying:

A writer in the Washington Post today, a black woman said it's as if you are minimizing "I Have a Dream." That you're saying it's a nice sentiment, but it took a white president to get blacks to the mountaintop.

If you think any of this is any of this behavior is unusual from Russert, and that he really didn't know better, I have an unnecessary war with Iran to sell you. Russert's record is pretty damning (this recent Daily Howler post just touches on some of it; Bob Somerby promises more is to follow, but there's plenty of good past critiques from DH and elsewhere). But you don't even need to do that. Let's see what the first few questions were from Tim Russert and Brian Williams at the Democratic Debate in Nevada on 1/15/08 (you can read the transcript here or watch most of the debate thanks to this YouTube user).

Here's question #1 of the debate:

Williams: As we sit here, this, as many of you may know, is the Reverend Martin Luther King's birthday. Race was one of the issues we expected to discuss here tonight. Our sponsors expected it of us. No one, however, expected it to be quite so prominent in this race as it has been over the last 10 days.

We needn't go back over all that has happened, except to say that this discussion, before it was over, involved Dr. King, President Johnson, even Sidney Poitier, several members of Congress, and a prominent African-American businessman supporting Senator Clinton, who made what seemed to be a reference to a party of Senator Obama's teenage past that the Senator himself has written about in his autobiography.

The question to begin with here tonight, Senator Clinton, is: How did we get here?

To be fair, as Williams noted, some of the debate time was designed to address issues of race. However, I suspect "shallow campaign gossip masquerading as a discussion on race" wasn't what the co-sponsors had in mind. Here's question #2:

Tim Russert: In terms of accountability, Senator Obama, Senator Clinton on Sunday told me that the Obama campaign had been pushing this storyline. And, true enough, your press secretary in South Carolina -- four pages of alleged comments made by the Clinton people about the issue of race.

In hindsight, do you regret pushing this story?

Here's Russert's two follow-ups to Obama:

Russert: Do you believe this is a deliberate attempt to marginalize you as the black candidate?


Russert: In New Hampshire, your polling was much higher than the actual vote result. Do you believe, in the privacy of the voting booth, people used race as an issue?

Question #3 (re-capping part of question #1) and its follow-up:

Russert: Senator Clinton, in terms of accountability, you told me on Sunday morning, "Any time anyone has said anything that I thought was out of bounds, they're gone. I've gotten rid of them."

Shortly thereafter, that same afternoon, Robert Johnson, at your event, said, quote, "When Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood, that I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book," widely viewed as a reference to Senator Obama's book,"Dreams From My Father" from 1995, where he talked about his drug use as a teenager.

Will you now not allow Robert Johnson to participate in any of your campaign events because of that conduct?

Russert: Were his comments out of bounds?

Question #4 was finally addressed to mystery candidate John Edwards. How nice to get the over-inflated Clinton-Obama feud settled, and superficial questions about important issues behind us. But wait!

Natalie Morales: Thank you, Brian.

And this is a question for Senator Edwards. It comes to us from Margaret Wells from San Diego, California.

Senator, she's asking, "The policy differences among the remaining candidates is so slight that we appear to be choosing on the basis of personality and life story. That being said, why should I, as a progressive woman, not resent being forced to choose between the first viable female candidate and the first viable African American candidate?"

Morales: Senator Edwards, as a follow-up to Margaret Wells' question, what is a white male to do running against these historic candidacies?

Well, surely we'll be done with shallow issues by question #5:

Williams: Question for Senator Obama. You won the women's vote in Iowa, but Senator Clinton won the women's vote in New Hampshire, and there probably isn't an American alive today who hasn't heard the post-game analysis of New Hampshire, all the reasons the analysts give for Senator Clinton's victory. Senator Clinton had a moment where she became briefly emotional at a campaign appearance.

But another given was at the last televised debate, when you, in a comment directed to Senator Clinton, looked down and said, "You're likable enough, Hillary."

That caused Frank Rich to write, on the op-ed page of the New York Times, that it was "your most inhuman moment, to date." And it clearly was a factor and added up.

Senator Obama, do you regret the comment, and comments like that, today?

Maybe they were just having a bad start to the night! (I mean, it's not like they write these questions down beforehand or anything.) Let's try question #6:

Williams: And one more question about that last televised debate, Senator Edwards. Afterwards, Senator Clinton said it was as if you and Senator Obama had formed a buddy system against her. Senator Clinton put out an Internet ad that was entitled "Piling On."

Looking back on it, the campaign for New Hampshire in total, do you admit that it might have looked that way?

Need I tell you that the vast majority of questions were as lousy and superficial as these? Race returned, but mostly in shallow ways:

Russert: Senator Clinton, one of your pollsters was quoted in The New Yorker magazine as saying this: "The Hispanic voter has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates."

Does that represent the view of your campaign?


Russert: Let me ask Senator Obama. Do you believe there's a history of a decision, where Latino voters will not vote for a black candidate?

Oooh, stir up a fight if you can! There was one more question on race, notably from one of the co-sponsors versus the NBC savants:

Morales: This one is to Senator Obama. This comes to us from one of our co-sponsors of tonight's debate, the 100 Black Men of America.

They ask, "To what do you attribute the disproportionately high dropout of black males at every level in our educational process, and what would you do to stem the tide of black men exiting the educational system?"

This last one was easily the most serious, if not the only serious question on race in the entire debate. Very few questions dealt with policy, and nearly all of those started as a "gotcha" about some vote. I didn't even include Russert's lame, attempted gotcha questions about withdrawing troops and ROTC programs (fodder for another post, perhaps). The candidates actually offered some thoughtful responses at times, but that was largely despite the questions, not because of them. (NBC does get credit, though, for refuting the "Obama is a Muslim" rumor and tailoring a question to let Obama address it.)

While a campaign spat provided the excuse, Russert and Williams were off to the races with this one, pressing Democrats on their racism and sexism. Perhaps I just missed it, but I don't remember them or any debate moderators pressing the Republican candidates on the implicit and sometimes explicit racism and bigotry of many of the GOP campaigns when it comes to immigration or the Middle East. Thompson, Giuliani and McCain have all claimed that America has the best health care in the world, and that universal health care would lower the quality of American health care, but I don't remember the media fact-checking them, pointing out that those claims are highly questionable if not outright false (more in a later post). I don't remember McCain, Romney and the rest being challenged on their ludicrous claim that cutting taxes always raises revenues. That, too, is highly deceptive at best, but essentially false, yet apparently voters don't need to know that, either. The list could go on, but the press as a whole consistently apply a different, harsher standard to Democrats. But then, as the Democratic candidates themselves show, theirs is the party of racism, sexism and classism, so it's only fair.

(As an aside, when the MSNBC announcer said the debate was co-sponsored by "one hundred black men," I had to laugh. The "announcer voice" delivery made it funny, and it sounded like it was actually one hundred black men versus the organization, "100 Black Men of America." Mainly, though, I laughed because I imagined "one hundred black men" being intoned at a GOP debate, and the number of conservatives who would crap their pants.)

A Roundup of Claptrap on Race (and Gender)

Race predominates over gender in this collection, but lest one think any of Russert's shtick is isolated, glance over the following.

"Confirmed: Barack Obama Practiced Islam" (1/7/08): Yes, you thought this silly rumor was long ago slain, but you reckoned without the awesome, err, reasoning of Daniel Pipes, whose discovery was hailed by many right-wing bloggers. Let me turn it over to Sadly, No!, who in turn linked Dum Pendebat Filius' debunk, and let's throw in Media Matters' "Daniel Pipes relied on disputed LA Times article to revive Obama-Muslim falsehood" for good measure. Never let the truth get in the way of a good smear, I always say!

Here's the key element to watch: Pipes claims Obama was raised Muslim (a lie), even though he's now Christian, but further argues that because Obama was raised Muslim, the Muslim world will view him as an apostate and try to assassinate him should he become president. (Presumably, he'd be even less popular with the Middle East than George Bush, I guess.) It's really a pretty compact job of hackery, smears and projection, wrapping up all sorts of bigotry and calumny in one little disingenuous article. I guess that's what a doctorate can do. Several right-wingers have spread Pipes' crap since, and it just keeps going and growing.

"Jonah Goldberg and Glenn Reynolds warn of "social unraveling" if Obama loses" (1/5/08): Glenn Greenwald takes on the racially-tinged concern trolling of two right-wing stalwarts.

"They Blinded Me With Violence" (1/7/08): Sadly, No! adds some snark and examines the fears of Canadian blogger Adam Yoshida over a "negro and Islamic homo uprising." (I bet it'd make a great movie.)

"Great (American) Expectations: Barack Obama shows why foreigners consider us naive" (1/8/08): Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal basically argues that Obama's success in Iowa proves that we don't need to celebrate that success. I was tempted to dissect the multi-layered hackdom of this one paragraph by paragraph, but Roy and Digby already skewered it in wittier and pithier fashion.

"The Clintons' One-Two Punch" (1/10/08): Robert Novak attacks the Clintons, as well as those dopey women who were "naïve" enough to be taken in by Hillary Clinton pretending to cry (she didn't cry). He also spreads the lie that Bill Clinton denounced Obama's entire campaign as a "fairy tale." (I do wonder if anyone takes Novak seriously.)

"Karl Rove sends out the Dogs of Racism with his WSJ op-ed on Obama": John Amato of Crooks and Liars examines Karl Rove's 1/10/08 WSJ op-ed attacking Obama.

"Of Hope and Politics" (1/12/08): In The New York Times, Bob Herbert runs with the misrepresentation of Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" comment, and accuses Hillary Clinton of "taking cheap shots at, of all people, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." (This is the first of the two op-eds Russert quoted.)

"Will They Play the Race Card?" (1/13/08) In a Washington Post op-ed, Marjorie Valbrun argues that because it's possible, "the mean Clinton machine" will attack Obama along racial lines. She also talks about how "scary" Bill Clinton was in a speech and how Hillary insulted MLK. (This is the second piece Russert quoted.)

The Daily Howler of 1/14/08 critiques both the Herbert and Valbrun columns nicely. Somerby also links a good Josh Marshall piece on Bob Johnson's smear against Obama and Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" comment.

"Could Race Destroy the Democrats?" asks Michael Duffy of Time magazine on 1/14/08. (Bet you can't wait to find out his answer! Hint: it has nothing to do with racist conservatives!)

"Sexism, Racism: Which Is More Taboo?" asks David Crary of the AP on 1/14/08. (Via Melissa McEwan.)

"Columnist Prelutsky: Obama "sort of reminds me of David Duke"": Media Matters looks at a 1/14/08 column appearing at Townhall.com and WorldNetDaily.

"Obama's Farrakhan Test" (1/15/08): Taking bigotry in another direction, Richard Cohen discovers that the newsmagazine of Obama's church honored Louis Farrakhan, notes that Obama doesn't seem to be anti-Semitic at all, and also notes that Obama's campaign says he disagrees with his minister about Farrakhan. Cohen then proceeds to insist, at length, that Obama needs to denounce Farrakhan more vehemently. Many in the liberal blogosphere took Cohen to task on this, and Jewish leaders have taken a more general stance against such nonsense. In an online chat, Eugene Robinson also offered a good response. (Cohen's attacked Obama over trivial nonsense before.)

"A Hand the Clintons Aren't Showing" (1/15/08): Eugene Robinson takes on the race issue as well. Notably, he correctly notes the context of Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" remark, but questions an aspect of his Sister Souljah remark back in 1992. (I generally find Robinson very insightful on race, and think this is a more substantial piece than the others, but judge for yourself.)

"A Race About Race" (1/15/08): Howard Kurtz samples comments chiding the Democrats, including pieces accusing the Democrats of exploiting race. He quotes Valbrun's loathsome piece, as well as Joe Klein citing Shelby Steele. He even lowers below his usual Malkin standard to include Riehl World View and Bull Dog Pundit. But not to fear, Malkin herself weighs in here, too, attacking Democratic "race-hustlers"! Ouch. That's some fine 'journalmalism.'

The Daily Howler dissects a NYT article from 1/15/08 about the spectre of assassination over Obama.

The Daily Howler dissects a NYT column from 1/16/08 about the spectre of assassination over Obama. (I'm sensing a trend here.)

"Shelby Steele on Michelle Obama's 60 Minutes comments: She was "facilitating her race's manipulation of the American mainstream"" (1/16/08): Media Matters examines a distortion by Steele in his latest book. (Funny, it's a distortion similar to those used in those two NYT pieces!)

"Investor's Business Daily: "Would Obama put African tribal or family interests ahead of U.S. interests?"" (1/16/08): Media Matters dissects a particularly noxious op-ed, which incidentally cites the earlier Pipes piece.

"Clinton's 'Vetting' Attack" (1/17/08): Robert Novak attacks both Hillary Clinton and Obama, mainly on race.

"Misstep in a Liberal Minefield" (1/17/08): George Will notes that Hillary Clinton's MLK comments were misconstrued, but he's gonna pile on anyway, because it serves liberals right for rubbing his face in race and gender issues for all those years.

Mickey Kaus is a polydolt, that is, an ignorant, poorly-reasoning ass on a wide variety of subjects, so pointing out that he's said something asinine and/or counterintuitive on race is a bit like complaining, oh, that Pauly Shore or Dane Cook told an unfunny joke. Still, dnA at Too Sense takes on some recent idiocy by Kaus. Then there's this 2007 Too Sense post, with an update relating Kaus saying, "I don't quite understand why it's offensive to call Sen. Obama a "halfrican."" Umm, we know you don't, Mickey. Or there's this 2007 Kaus post where he complains, "I'd certainly be more comfortable with a presidential nominee whose main spiritual man… in general wasn't so obsessed with race…" (Kaus' emphasis, and that is but item 4 of 4). Funny, I'd be more "comfortable" if Kaus wouldn't blather on about race.

"Conservatives Can't Stop Fantasizing About Obama Assasination" (1/17/08): dnA at Too Sense recaps some of the trends.

"What's Gotten Into Bill?" (1/18/08): Eugene Robinson takes a more sustained shot at Bill Clinton. (I like Robinson most of the time, but have to agree with Bob Somerby's critique on this one).

"Black Dreams, White Liberals" (1/18/08): Charles Krauthammer builds on his reflexive sneers against Democrats to accuse white liberals such as the Clintons of keeping the black man down (and liberals have it coming too, for calling him a racist in the past!).

" Are Democrats over 45 Racists?" (1/20/08): Digby examines the silliness of a CBS story.

"Clinton, Obama crossfire continues" (1/22/08): Beth Fouhy of the AP continues the MSM narrative! Not only does this keep everything nice and superficial, this piece mostly shuts John Edwards out of the race. (Of course, all that "rebuttal" time at the debates does a nice job of that, too.)

"Breaking: Obama Says He's Not A Muslim! " (1/24/08): Greg Sargent takes a look at conservative site NewsMax.com's creative re-titling of an AP story. (Funny, isn't this how we started?)

I'm sure there's much more out there. But hey, now might also be a good time to revisit Fox News' progressive attitudes on race!

Keeping our Eyes on the Hardball

It's important for liberals to recognize the game being played. As Digby wrote in relationship to a certain infamous MSNBC program and its host:

The takeaway "insight" from this Hardball was that the Democratic race is now a battle between the racist old bitches and the sexist African Americans. Fabulous. (White men like Chris, you'll notice, are the only ones voting purely on the merits in this little scenario.)

As Digby's since noted, "Don't listen, campaigns. They only want to hurt the ball club." She also links Jane Hamsher's "Is The Press Out to Destroy the Democrats?" Like Jane, I have to say, um, yup. The "liberal media" is largely a myth, but in addition to any partisanship or double standard, there's the commercial motivation and personal vapidity. Attacking the Democrats makes good copy and good theater for them.

I'll say it again: America could use much more good discussion on race, gender and, even more importantly, class and power. The problem is, our national public discourse is still managed by shallow pundits. When it comes to presidential races, they always try to play kingmaker, and their judgment is unfailingly disastrous (Bush not once, but twice?!?). It's a mistake to put too much trust in any politician, and think that he or she will do the right thing without getting kicked in the ass consistently by the citizens he or she supposedly represents. Politicians and citizens often have different true interests. It's likewise dangerous to trust that that press, supposedly the citizen's advocate, have the general public's best interests in mind. As Mitt Romney, who saw his father march with Martin Luther King, might say: don't believe the hype.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Roe v. Wade's 35th Anniversary

A number of bloggers participated in "Blog for Choice Day 2008" on 1/22/08 to celebrate Roe v. Wade's 35th Anniversary (I'm a bit late). Via Shark-Fu, here's a long list of participating bloggers, and here's Salon's "Roe, 35 years later," featuring reflections from several feminists.

Melissa McEwan adds a few thoughts and passes on John Edwards' statement on the anniversary. Meanwhile, over at Crooks and Liars, Blue Gal has a good post with several valuable links, including a great video you really should see if you've missed it before, asking anti-abortion activists what should happen to women who have abortions (I'd post it myself, but embedding is disabled). Blue Gal also asks the question many liberals have asked in the past few years: "WTF is up with NARAL?" Finally, over at Obsidian Wings, Publius provided a nice roundup of Scott Lemieux's Roe series.

It occurs to me I've written a fair amount on reproductive freedoms, but besides RWCW, most of it has been in comment threads, debating the issue, rebutting people who want to make abortion illegal again, and the like. It's one of those issues that provokes strong emotions, and the most recent few times, I've seen "murderer!" thrown about pretty freely, although tellingly, it's almost always hurled at female commentators. (Remember, kids, if you can't shame a woman and make her feel bad, she might not do what you choose for her to do!)

The links above provide so much coverage on the issue a more comprehensive post by me may be redundant. Still, without providing a bevy of other links, I'll say that reproductive freedom, including the right of women to get emergency contraception from a hospital, clinic or pharmacy, are line-in-the-sand issues for me. I do know people who are very troubled by the thought of abortion, but nonetheless pro-choice. I can respect that, because they understand the dire consequences of making it illegal again, as the pro-lifers in the video do not. Women would certainly die again due to unsafe, "back alley" abortions. In contrast to conservatives' stereotypes, some of those women would be (as they are now) mothers who simply can't afford another child. A pro-life activist who honestly considered the consequences of his or her stance would have to hold that letting those women die or be maimed is an acceptable trade-off for preventing the greater "sin" of abortion. Meanwhile, the basic pro-life position holds that forcing a woman to carry, give birth and perhaps raise a child against her will is a lesser "evil" than abortion. The most extreme abortion opponents make no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother. Forcing a woman to bear and raise a child to "learn her" makes no sense, although that is precisely the punitive mindset of more than a few pro-lifers. Moreover, as the saying goes, conservatives' commitment to life ends at birth. Making abortion illegal and simultaneously aggressively opposing social systems and health care makes little sense. Fighting for life in the abstract while dishonoring it in reality makes little sense. Fighting against honest, comprehensive sex education and opposing birth control makes little sense, either, for people who claim to oppose abortion.

The truth is, as the video bears out, that most movement conservatives don't think through the consequences of their positions, certainly not on abortion. It's all the more striking that almost all of the people interviewed are women. But ideological purity means never having to say you're sorry, nor to live in the reality-based community. Never mind that abstinence-only sex ed and purity pledges mean when teenagers have sex — as, new flash, teenagers do — they're much less likely to use birth control, and more pregnancies result. There's a dread irony there. I remember reading the statement of one extreme pro-life woman who didn't want to vaccinate girls against HPV, because she wanted to keep HPV as a tool to scare young women with the threat of cancer and death if they had sex. Of course, that "tool" doesn't work (Reefer Madness, anyone?), and it's a shocking, sociopathic mindset. But a zealot needn’t worry his or her self about such paltry matters. And while among the pro-life crowd there is much crying, screaming and rending of garments over the fate of a fetus, an embryo, a bundle of cells — in the abstract, that is — the feelings of the woman rarely if ever are considered. But then, a deficiency of compassion is also a defining characteristic of movement conservatism.

That's not to mention the larger picture, that many pro-lifers also oppose sex without marriage, even though sex without marriage between consenting adults has been common for millennia. There's a certain narcissism in their assumption that their special blend of Victorian prudishness mixed with American religious dudgeon represents "tradition" or what's "natural." As the saying goes, "Don't like abortion? Don't have one." What another women chooses is none of their damn business.

There are sincere, rational pro-lifers out there, but I'd ask that they really think through the consequences of their positions. Meanwhile, many pro-lifers are authoritarian conservatives who simply want to tell other people what to do, most of all them uppity wimmin, who lord knows, are too hormonal and irrational to make good decisions for their pretty little selves. The pro-life movement isn't really about babies and life. It's part of a larger agenda of social control, and that's one more reason reproductive freedom is so damn important.

Update: BH coding wizard Buck has added the video to the BH version of this post (link directly below).

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Eclectic Jukebox 1/22/08

U2 — "MLK" (live)

A fan video of the studio version is here. There are also some great a capella choral versions of this song (I performed one years back), but none with good sound quality that I could find online.

(I'm filling in for QG at Blue Herald, so there will be three music entries here this week versus the usual single.)

Eclectic Jukebox

Monday, January 21, 2008

MLK Day 2008

Civil rights are probably under greater assault now than they're been in a few decades. Glenn Greenwald reminds us the FISA fight isn't done. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell aims to create an Orwellian surveillance state, citing imaginary boogeymen and phantom evidence (The New Yorker article is not yet online, but will be eventually here). Eliminating habeas corpus and employing torture should never have occurred, but the scoundrels who perpetrated it are still in power, and their damage must be fixed. The basic concept of the rule of law and a sound justice system have been systematically attacked. Finally, a key Supreme Court case involving an Indiana Voter ID law is being decided — and I fear good law, common sense and basic decency will not prevail.

In previous years for MLK Day, I've posted the text of the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and links to video of it. That speech never ceases to give me a chill, and is hard to top, so go here if you'd like to feel that inspiration again. It's a good reminder of what can, has and must be done.

This year, you might also want to check out Denzel Washington's new film, The Great Debaters. It's a little Hollywood, but it's very good within that and hard not to like, with strong performances by Washington and Forest Whitaker (no surprise), as well as very impressive turns by a group of young actors (that's not to mention several other superb supporting actors). With some frustratingly hackish blather on race recently on the national stage, The Great Debaters is also a good reminder of the reality of not-so distant history. It also embodies that idea that regardless of one's background, one of the best ways to stick it to the Man and effect positive change is to learn more about the world, to develop critical thinking skills, and to speak out! (I'll link some of Washington's excellent interviews at a later date as part of my annual film roundup).

To close, here's a poem by Afaa Michael Weaver I discovered last year. I think the last few lines are pretty extraordinary.

The Picnic, An Homage to Civil Rights

We spread torn quilts and blankets,
mashing the grass under us until it was hard,
piled the baskets of steamed crabs
by the trees in columns that hid the trunk,
put our coolers of soda pop
on the edges to mark the encampment,
like gypsies settling in for revelry
in a forest in Romania or pioneers
blazing through the land of the Sioux,
the Apache, and the Arapaho, looking guardedly
over our perimeters for poachers
or the curious noses of fat women
ambling past on the backs of their shoes.
The sun crashed through the trees,
rumbling down and splattering in shadows
on the baseball diamond like mashed bananas.
We hunted for wild animals in the clumps
of forests, fried hot dogs until the odor
turned solid in our nostrils like wood.
We were in the park.

One uncle talked incessantly, because he knew
the universe; another was the griot
who stomped his foot in syncopation
to call the details from the base of his mind;
another was a cynic who doubted everything,
toasting everyone around with gin.
The patriarchal council mumbled on,
while the women took the evening to tune
their hearts to the slow air and buzzing flies,
to hold their hands out so angels could stand
in their palms and give dispensation,
as we played a rough game of softball
in the diamond with borrowed gloves,
singing Chuck Berry and Chubby Checker,
diving in long lines into the public pool,
throwing empty peanut shells to the lion,
buying cotton candy in the aviary
of the old mansion, laughing at monkeys,
running open-mouthed and full in the heat
until our smell was pungent and natural,
while the sun made our fathers and uncles
fall down in naps on their wives' laps, and
we frolicked like wealthy children on an English estate,
as reluctant laws and bloodied heads
tacked God's theses on wooden doors,
guaranteed the canopy of the firmament above us.

— Afaa Michael Weaver

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Friday, January 18, 2008

You Keep Using that Word…

While we're discussing the rich irony and Orwellian nature of Bill O'Reilly calling John Edwards a "charlatan" on the plight of homeless vets, I wanted to highlight another instant classic, from that eloquent, persuasive statesman, President Bush:

"But yeah, look, I'm sure people view me as a warmonger and I view myself as peacemaker."

Dan Froomkin has much more, if you can stand it.

Clearly, Newspeak continues. Of course, this is the same crew that thinks General Petraeus deserves the Nobel Peace Prize , and discuss such issues with all the intellectual integrity and eloquence of schoolyard taunts in junior high. I don't think this is mere hackdom. Yes, they are hacks, and more importantly, scoundrels. But some of them are also really, really this goddam stupid.

But let's let libural Hollywood get in the last word:

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Where's John?

The Edwards campaign has put out a hilarious, on-target spot with great editing/timing about the lastest round of the media blackout he's consistently faced (via Greg Sargent, who has some good thoughts, as usual).

What blackout is that? In another post, Greg Sargent passes on this helpful graphic:

(Click the picture for a slightly larger view.)

Bob Somerby remarks:

PROJECT FOR EXCELLENCE GETS SOMETHING RIGHT: With that surprising headline in mind, we recommend Greg Sargent’s piece about that group’s new study, a study regarding the coverage of Edwards. In our view, Edwards has been “mugged by narrative” in a way few candidates ever have. Your press corps loves to write easy novels, and “first women versus first African-American” was about as simple as narrative gets. And alas—that novel had no place for Edwards. The gentleman therefore got disappeared. Except for his haircuts, of course.

Sargent also takes on the dissenting view that Edwards' woes are solely his own fault, correctly noting that we should keep "more than one idea in our heads at the same time." (That, however, will disqualify one from appearing on most political talk shows.)

Nicole Belle at C&L has more about the Edwards video, and the related story of consistently wrong bully-and-blowhard Bill O'Reilly attacking Edwards for stating the truth, that we have roughly 200,000 vets who are homeless. If you missed it, check out O'Reilly's first rant about this, and his latest rant, where he calls Edwards a "charlatan." O'Reilly also grossly misrepresents poverty with some classic conservative think tank talking points.

Meanwhile, C&L kindly passes on the link to a petition by Iraq and Afghanistan of America for Bill O'Reilly to set the record straight.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Band Meme

So I swung (by a yardarm) o'er t' th' fine ship of Cap'n Dyke, Lesbian Pirate Queen and Rogue Blogger — Yar! — and discovered a great project/post: "The Band Meme." As the Cap'n's post explains:

Here’s how The Band Meme goes. You are about to have your own band’s CD cover. Follow these directions to the letter. Go to……

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Random

The first article title on the page is the name of your band.

2. http://www.quotationspage.com/random.php3

The last four words of the very last quote is the title of your album.

3. http://www.flickr.com/explore/interesting/7days/

The third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

4. Use your graphics program of choice to throw them together, and post the result as a comment in this post. Also, pass it along in your own journal because it’s more amusing that way.

The Cap'n's album is the pic above. And it's good. Really good. But stand fast, true believers, for the most hard-rockin' cover evar!

(Ready? Stand back, I tell ya!)

BOOM! Just look at it! That's friggin' hard-core, man! It's all like, ironic 'n' stuff. If it were goth, it would be "pink" goth, so goth, so assured in its gothiness and gotha-cicity, that it doesn't need to even look goth. And what says serious, ground-breakin' tunes like a friggin' panda bear? Nothing beats panda bears! They're like, the 11 of animals! Panda-Cams are like crack! Even Wonkette's snark melted when faced with the mighty power of Tai Shan Butterstick, provoking full-scale withdrawal breakdowns of the sort ya normally only see after ya've thrown the widescreen TV off the balcony of your 14th floor hotel room in a drunken rage. I mean...

...Okay, marketing says we need to sex it up a bit. They like the whole Panda thing, although they don't want me to mention the "crack" thing in the ad. They're thinking Billy and the Boingers meets the Evil Puppy from Conan O'Brien. Wholesome, cute, but also evil. Edgy. Something more like this:

Yeah! Look at that! It's an evil red panda! I mean, an evil red giant panda, not an evil red panda. Hell, you knew what I meant. Smart ass.

But I'm thinking it'll go double platinum.

God, I'm such a panderer sell-out.

Maybe watching a Polish art house classic will make me feel better.

Eclectic Jukebox 1/17/08

Alvin Youngblood Hart — "Gallows Pole"

As promised, a little blues.

Eclectic Jukebox

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More on Andy Olmsted

Two weeks ago I wrote a brief post on Major Andrew Olmsted, who was tragically killed while on active duty in Iraq on January 3rd. His last blog entry at Rocky Mountain News is here, and has become a condolence thread. Once again, the moving post he wrote to be posted in the event of his death is here at Obsidian Wings, where he blogged under the name G'Kar (he was a big fan of Babylon 5). I didn't know him personally, and I missed much of his earlier work. He didn't want his death to be used for any political purposes, but by all accounts, he was a thoughtful, generous guy with a good sense of humor, and it's a tragic loss. Many commentators wondered if there was anything that could be done for his family.

There were so many comments to the original post that Hilzoy opened a new one, "Remembering Andy Olmsted," with more information and some personal anecdotes. She also posted "How to Help," which links the many posts about Andy, but also relays:

A member of Andy Olmsted's family has just written me to say that if people want to do something in honor of him, they can send donations to a fund that has been set up for the four children of CPT Thomas Casey, who served under Andy and was killed while trying to help him. The address is here:

Capt. Thomas Casey Children's Fund
P.O. Box 1306
Chester, CA 96020

Thanks so much.

The comment thread for the "How to Help" post features still more links to pieces about Andy. Last Thursday, I happened to see his photo on the periodic honor roll of American dead on PBS' NewsHour, always affecting. Last Friday, I heard NPR's story on Andy while I was driving home. It's a good piece, if you want to take a listen. Thanks.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

That Fragrant Horse Race Coverage

Horse Shit Cigarettes are made from the finest grade of domestic and imported horse shit obtainable. Only fresh midd horse shit is used. NOT MULE SHIT. And they are roasted to keep that mild, sweet taste.

If you like the taste of Horse Shit Cigarettes, you might want to try a genuine Horse Shit Cigar. Each one lasts an hour, perfect for watching an episode of Hardball, especially since each one smells like a mix of Aqua Velva and Chris Matthews. Mmm-mmm! That's some mighty fine Horse Shit!

(Okay, the second paragraph doesn't appear on the package. But it should.)

The problem with a horse race is that it produces a lot of horse shit. Sure, it's fun to mock the boastful swells in the press box for losing all their bets on New Hampshire, but they've been wrong plenty of times before in this election season alone, and it's not as if they all learn their lesson. A day after Chris Matthews said he'd "never underestimate Hillary Clinton again," he said that the reason she was elected senator was because "her husband messed around." Of course, in addition to peddling his own special brand of horse shit, Matthews is virulently anti-Clinton, a sexist who often seems delusional. But he's far from the only prominent pundit with a short memory or no shame. As one of Matthews' colleagues observed:

"The pirouettes are amazing," says Brokaw, who was analyzing the campaign on MSNBC. "The utter confidence with which everyone had been wrong 20 minutes earlier, they have the same utter confidence about what produced this surprise. It's intellectually dishonest."

On a similar note:

Mark Feldstein, a George Washington University journalism professor, describes political reporters as "superficial sportswriters. Covering the campaign is almost like joining a cult, with a cocoonlike bubble as you travel from event to event. There's a lemminglike quality."

Of course, sportswriters have their share of fawners, but most are much more honest and accurate than the majority of our political chattering class. The herd mentality of our talking heads leads to poor, shallow coverage, which is incredibly annoying. Even a blogger whose work I've enjoyed in the past, boldly predicted the whole thing, the whole election, for Obama after Iowa — and it was written in an authoritative tone. Good lord. Needless to say, we bloggers shouldn't repeat the worst faults of the mainstream, corporate, vapid media. There can be great value in noting political realities of the race, but I must confess irritation when anyone seems to celebrate a badly flawed system.

Some of the dissection of the New Hampshire primary was good, at least. Speaking of fawners, Howard Kurtz often pens flattering tributes to television reporters and has a demonstrated conservative bias in his coverage and outlook, but occasionally, he does a pretty good job, as he did last week in three columns detailing the breakdown: "Media Blow It Again, " "The Media's Katrina?" and "Running Against the Media." Jeff Greenfield, political analyst for Slate, offered an admirable mea culpa, as did The Politico and some other outlets and pundits. NPR and PBS have had pretty good election coverage overall. The Washington Post had a decent breakdown, and Countdown examined whether it was the polling or the reporting that broke down. Steve Benen wrote a short piece "In Defense of Pollsters" and has provided good analysis on the results of each contest. Of course, it helps that he's waited until the voters actually, y'know, voted.

Here's my favorite line of the lot (courtesy of the second Kurtz piece), about the shift in New Hampshire coverage:

And then, at 10:31, MSNBC projected Hillary as the winner. CNN and Fox followed suit 15 minutes later, and the scrambling began. Spin was modified, explanations revised.

"One of the greatest political upsets in American political history," Russert said.

Umm, no. Not at all. It was the goddam New Hampshire primary, not "Dewey Defeats Truman" or even Jim Webb defeating George Allen. And New Hampshire often picks someone other than the eventual winner (Bill Clinton came in second in 1992, as did George W. Bush in 2000). It's a tiny contest of outrageously inflated consequence. This is just Russert's mammoth, oversized ego blathering here. It appears that in his mind, the only way he could have possibly made such an error in judgment is due to an upset of 'historic' proportions.

In fact, although Russert had plenty of company, he could have avoided being so wrong quite easily by merely noting the actual poll information. In its series of New Hampshire stories the day after, NPR reported that as many as 20% of voters were undecided on the day of the election. The aforementioned Countdown program did a more detailed breakdown along the same lines. With that large a number of undecided and uncommitted voters, nothing was guaranteed. It was fair to be a bit surprised by Clinton's victory in New Hampshire, that such a large proportion of undecided voters would break for her, but all of the pundits (and even most if not all of the campaigns) ignored how many undecided voters there actually were. They could have easily checked their egos and hedged their bets by citing the actual polls they so belove. They could have abstained from sweeping prognostications to demonstrate how very clever they are. But that is not their nature. "Nobody knows anything," as William Goldman sagely observed — but even people who quote Goldman often pretend they know it all anyway.

The truth is, Iowa and New Hampshire only matter so much for two reasons: one, the press' obsession with them, and two, money, specifically fund-raising. Neither of these have to be the way they are currently, and I'd argue neither should be celebrated. Both states are tiny and unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. Yet every goddam election cycle, pundits work themselves into a frenzy that these two early contests actually mean something more than they do (or at the very least, mean more than they should).

It's wise to keep it all in perspective. Iowa and New Hampshire do play a legitimate role in trimming the herd, as they have this year, with some candidates earning one to three percent dropping out. Others persevere, despite a paucity of funds compounded by the drop in coverage. The current system abounds with self-fulfilling prophecies. But there simply isn't a good reason for strong candidates who aren't leading to drop out so early. Even if the press wants them to, they have no obligation to comply. Mitt Romney's fund-raising may be hurt if he doesn't come in first in one of the upcoming primaries, and many pundits are opining that he needs to win Michigan. However, even if he doesn't, Romney has the money, ambition and ego to continue to Super Tuesday and beyond if he wants to. Besides, as of this morning, Romney has 19 delegates to Huckabee's 31 and McCain's 7.

Similarly, John Edwards isn't in the ideal position to win the Democratic nomination, but still has an outside chance, and his national numbers have steadily grown the more people have heard him. As of this morning, he has 50 delegates to Obama's 89 and Clinton's 197. Edwards has said he's in until at least Super Tuesday, 2/5/08. (It's telling that the press, Hillary Clinton and to a lesser degree Obama, are ignoring Edwards, despite polling showing he's the strongest general election candidate. Edwards has easily gotten the least coverage, and least favorable coverage, of all major candidates in both parties. Or call it the most undeserved negative coverage, if you prefer.) Kucinich, Paul and others will likely continue regardless of their prospects. The nomination for both parties may not be set until after Super Tuesday, which is less than a month away. Surely that's not too long to wait. One would think pundits obsessed with horse race coverage wouldn't want their party to end. Personally, I find the undecided nature of the race quite exciting, most of all that my primary vote and the primary votes of many Americans might actually be allowed to make a difference for a change. Democracy. Ain't it grand?

Let's take a look at what Iowa and New Hampshire actually mean in terms of the nation as a whole — or what they should mean, if ours were a sane, fair system. According to the U.S. Government, Iowa has a population of just under 3 million, or approximately 1% of our national population of roughly 301 million. Annoyingly, the Iowa Democratic Party does not release the actual number of voters who participate in the caucus, but they report that "statewide, more than 236,000 Democrats caucused," while 118,691 Republicans voted in the GOP's Iowa caucus. The turnout for both parties absolutely shattered previous records (participation was "fewer than 6 percent of eligible voters in 2004"), but for all that, those approximately 356,000 Iowans still amount to a mere 16% of eligible voters (download or open the CIRCLE release on the linked page for the breakdown; the large increase in youth turnout is good news, though). Iowa's convoluted caucus system has many problems, and "just as nonrepresentative as Iowa is of the country, Iowa caucusgoers are nonrepresentative of Iowa as a whole.” Regardless, Obama won 38% of Iowa's Democratic delegates, so without getting into all of the arcane rules of the caucus, that effectively amounts to close to 90,000 Iowans voting for Obama, or 3% of all Iowans statewide. That in turn is a miniscule 0.03% of all Americans. (Please pass on any more accurate stats if you have them, or any illuminating perspectives.)

Granted, polls can be very predictive, and not everyone in America votes in presidential elections. Obama's tally in Iowa did exceed expectations. Still, calling the Democratic nominee (let alone the presidency, as some folks did) when 99% of the country hasn't even had the chance to weigh in is just ridiculous and insulting.

That's not to mention that Iowa hardly has a record of being an accurate predictor of the eventual nominee, at least for Democrats. As Jon Swift satirically noted in "Iowa Caucus Results Explained," before the New Hampshire vote was in (emphasis mine):

The biggest loser of all was Hillary Clinton. If she can't win in Iowa, where can she win? In every contested race since 1972 (Bill Clinton ran unopposed in 1996), the winner of the Iowa caucuses for the Democrats has gone on to be elected President, except for 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2004 when the winner did not go on to be elected President. Iowans have an uncanny ability to predict which Democrat can win in the general election, which means Hillary's campaign may be doomed. Look for members of the party establishment to start looking for another candidate, maybe even going outside the party to someone like McCain who could win both the Republican and Democrat nominations and run on a unity ticket with Mike Bloomberg or Joe Lieberman as his vice president, sparing voters the burden of having to make a hard choice in November. David Broder and his friends are already ecstatic at the prospect.

In other words, the pundits on TV know that Iowa results are not necessarily predictive, or should know. Yet every election cycle, they whip themselves into a frenzy pretending otherwise.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, a pretty impressive 517,226 out of roughly 1.3 million residents voted in the Democratic and Republican primaries. Apparently, that's an overall turnout rate of 53% of eligible voters (with a 43% participation rate among voters under 30, up from 18% in 2004, cause to celebrate). Regardless, combine the New Hampshire turnout with Iowa's (throw in some estimate of the Wyoming Republican primary as well, if you like, although annoyingly, The Wyoming Republican Party did not release the vote totals, not that it's a populous state). Not many Americans have actually voted, in the ballpark of one million, probably a bit less. Looking at those states' populations, less than 2% of Americans have even had the opportunity to vote in a primary or caucus so far. (Again, please feel free to pass on any more accurate statistics if you have them.)

Horse race coverage can be done, and done well, but must be keep in proportion and constrained by common sense. It's not news that such rationality rarely prevails. As a Project for Excellence in Journalism study on political coverage, covering a five month period near the start of 2007, reported in late October:

63 percent of the stories focused on political strategy and 17 percent on the candidates' backgrounds, compared with 15 percent on their proposals and 1 percent on their records. The remaining 4 percent dealt with miscellaneous topics.

Meanwhile, Harvard's Center for Public Leadership National Leadership Index has an ongoing survey on public attitudes toward the press. As of December 2007, as Eric Boehlert observed that, among the public:

* 88 percent agree that the news media focuses too much on trivial rather than important issues.

* 92 percent say that it is important that the news media provide information on candidates' specific policy plans, but 61 percent believe that the news media is not providing enough coverage of policy plans

* 67 percent say that coverage of embarrassing incidents or mistakes that make a candidate look bad is not important, but 68 percent say the news media is providing too much coverage of embarrassing incidents and mistakes

The conclusion was painfully obvious: Citizens claimed they were getting "exactly the type of campaign coverage that they want the least," according to the report. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, news consumers want issues, issues, issues, while the press obsesses over tactics, tactics, tactics.

Even if the numbers aren't exact, the conclusions are consistent with many other studies. Even a recent online poll for CNN had 94% of viewers complaining about shallow coverage.

Even respected outlets such as The Washington Post, which typically features some great reporting along with the dross, delivers this sort of empty product far too often. Their series "The Front-Runners," was embarrassingly shallow. As Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler wrote back in December about one installment:

Today, the victim is Candidate Edwards. As with Clinton, as with Romney, the Post’s profile contains four parts:

1. An insipid attempt at psycho-biography, written by one of the world’s dumbest people.

2. A piece called “How He’s Running.” (According to Kornblut, who writes today’s piece, “Edwards is running as ‘the son of a millworker.’”)

3. A piece called “How He Looks” (Robin Givhan).

4. A piece called “How He Talks” (Dana Milbank).

That’s right! In this morning’s Post, there's a full report about John Edwards’ clothes—but no report about his proposals! Nowhere in these “front-runner” profiles does the Post explain what the candidates have proposed in the course of their White House campaigns.

It's not really a secret why horse race coverage persists, either. As long as we're doing lists, I see three reasons:

1) It's easy. It's much, much easier than policy analysis or fact-checking. It's pundit laziness.

2) It can be presented as neutral. Horse race coverage can play off new polls, but is solely descriptive, a quantitative versus qualatitative approach. Reporters can more easily avoid charges of bias.

3) They enjoy it. While some political reporters are fantastic, far too many are shallow, vapid people, bored by policy, self-absorbed, and persistently unwilling to acknowledge that time and time again, the average citizen wants far more substance from politicians than they as reporters apparently do.

Much of the liberal blogosphere has delved into these dynamics for some time, but if you think I'm being unfair, I suggest you read through the Daily Howler archives. At least read through this recent Daily Howler entry for a characteristic glimpse of how reporters repeatedly show contempt for politicians who have the gall to answer questions posed to them by citizens.

As Jeff Greenfield notes, "bad conversation tends to drive out good conversation." There's far too much hogwash and bullshit in our national discourse, but for one more glimpse of horse race horse shit, check out this excerpt from "Merchants of Trivia" by Matt Taibbi (via MBR):

Every reporter who spends any real time on the campaign trail gets wrapped up in the horse race. It's inevitable. You tell me how you can spend nearly two years watching the dullest speeches known to man and not spend most of your time wondering about the one surefire interesting moment the whole thing has to offer: the ending.

Stripped of its prognosticating element, most campaign journalism is essentially a clerical job, and not a particularly noble one at that. On the trail, we reporters aren't watching politics in action: The real stuff happens behind closed doors, where armies of faceless fund-raising pros are glad-handing equally faceless members of the political donor class, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars that will be paid off in very specific favors over the course of the next four years. That's the real high-stakes poker game in this business, and we don't get to sit at that table.

Instead, we get to be herded day after day into one completely controlled environment after another, where we listen to an array of ideologically similar politicians deliver professionally crafted advertising messages that we, in turn, have the privilege of delivering to the public free of charge. We rarely get to ask the candidates real questions, and even when we do, they almost never answer.

If you could train a chimpanzee to sit still through a Joe Biden speech, it could probably do the job. The only thing that elevates this work above monkey level is that we get to guess who wins.

For most of us, this is a guilty pleasure. But some of us get so used to being asked who should be running the world that our brains start to ferment. I've seen it happen. The first few times a newbie comes on the campaign trail, he's watching all the flag-waving and the soldier-humping and he's writing it all down with this stunned expression, as if to say, "Jesus, I went to college for this?" Two months later, he's doing six hits a day on MSNBC as a Senior Political Analyst and he's got this weirdly pissed-off look on his face, like he's mad that the world woke up and forgot to kiss his ass that morning. This same meek rookie you saw bent over a steno book just months ago is suddenly talking about how Hillary Clinton needs to do this, Barack Obama needs to do that — and he's serious! He's not kidding! Next thing you know, he's got an eight-figure book deal and a ten-foot pole up his crack, and he's wearing a tie and loafers to bed. In other words, he's Jonathan Alter.

I call it the Revenge of the Nerds effect. Give an army of proud professionals nothing but a silly horse race to cover, and inevitably they'll elevate even the most meaningless details of that horse race to cosmic importance.

This is how you end up getting candidates bludgeoned to death on the altar of such trivialities as "rookie mistakes" and "lack of warmth"; it's how you end up getting elections decided because candidates like John Kerry are unable to overcome adjectives like "looks French" and "long-faced Easter Island statue."

That's what happened in Iowa. For once, voters tried to say that they were perfectly capable of choosing a president without us, that they could do without any of this nonsense. But they were wrong. Nonsense would have its day!

Indeed it will. And after a long day of spouting nonsense in print and on air, there's nothing that hits the spot quite like a fine Horse Shit Cigarette.

(Remember, corporations say it's good for you.)

Update: I was able to find more definitive numbers that eluded me late last night, and have revised two paragraphs accordingly, including some new links. I've also added one quotation and edited for clarity.

Update 1/30/08: CIRCLE has updated its information, so I've updated that statistic and the link accordingly.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)