Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Full Nixon(land)

This is pretty cool. Rick Perlstein's epic Nixonland has been released as an enhanced e-book with footage from CBS:

More from The New York Times here.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

Harvey Pekar, the creator of alternative comic book American Splendor, died a couple of weeks ago. As he described it:

I was sort of on a mission with American Splendor. I wanted to try to prove that comics could do things. I wanted to expand them beyond superheroes and talking animals. And I knew that was going to take a long time. But I just started writing an autobiography about my quotidian life. Because I think everybody's life is interesting, and I just kept on going at it.

I grew up with those superhero and talking animal comics (some of them excellent), and only discovered Pekar's work later. He did slice-of-life pieces, something like Anton Chekhov's serious stories and plays, or Eric Rohmer's films, or many a good documentary. (As I write this, 49 Up is playing on PBS, and it really captures the shape of a life.) But Pekar's work was more akin in tone to that of Woody Allen, Spalding Gray, or Larry David - neurotic, obsessive, philosophical, self-doubting, but also self-reflective and occasionally profound. Oh, and also infused with a wry, dark sense of humor.

Pekar also described American Splendor as:

...An autobiography written as it's happening. The theme is about staying alive. Getting a job, finding a mate, having a place to live, finding a creative outlet. Life is a war of attrition. You have to stay active on all fronts. It's one thing after another. I've tried to control a chaotic universe. And it's a losing battle. But I can't let go. I've tried, but I can't.

Cartoonist Seth explained Harvey's contribution this way:

The underground cartoonists were a generation — a group of artists who knocked down the walls between art and commerce, shattering the traditional shape and meaning of a comic book. Later, the 'alternative' cartoonists came along — or whatever you wish to call my generation of cartoonists — who wanted to produce comics as a legitimate art medium. But in-between these two generations there was Harvey. A generation of one. Probably the first person who wanted to use the comics medium seriously as a writer. Certainly the first person to toss every genre element out the window and try to capture something of the genuine experience of living: not just some technique of real life glossed onto a story — not satire, or sick humor or everyday melodrama — but the genuine desire to transmit from one person to another just what life feels like.

A friend of my dad's, when asked what she did for a living, would give her occupation, but said she always wanted to add (and sometimes did, almost in protest), "Oh, but there's so much more!" Her life outside of work was far more rich and interesting and reflective of who she was, and she didn't want to be defined by her day job. Harvey Pekar worked as a file clerk for the V.A., not a glamorous gig (although surely it did some good). And his work life did make it into his comics. But his life was so much more besides. There was his love of jazz, and his keen eye for everyday interactions, frustrations and triumphs. There were his experiences with his wife Joyce, and his struggles with cancer, all chronicled in his comics. Many of his pieces focus on just a single conversation, some exchange that Pekar thought was funny or telling.

There have been a number of good remembrances. Fresh Air re-ran parts of two Pekar interviews. He was also on The Treatment before the film American Splendor came out. (My local station KCRW did a cool Pekar special re-run, but won't post the audio online, unfortunately.)

"Harvey Pekar, Cleveland comic-book legend, dies at age 70" from the Cleveland Plain Dealer features video of two of his Letterman appearances.

Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast has nice piece on Pekar (and Steinbrenner). There's also:

Jeet Heer, National Post: "The legacy of the every-man’s hero"

Anthony Bordain: "The Original (Goodbye Splendor)"

Richard Greenwald, In These Times: "Losing Another Working-Class Hero: Graphic Novelist Harvey Pekar Dies at 70"

Lisa Hix, Collector's Weekly: "Harvey Pekar: The Splendor of an Ordinary Life"

T. Holder, Comics Comics: "Another Side of Splendor"

Leave Me Alone!, the Harvey Pekar opera.

(I'm sure there are many more good pieces I missed.)

Finally, Roy Edroso wrote a nice remembrance:

Crumb, who can be very astute about these things, said Pekar's work could be "so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic," which is only almost right, because the mundane is exotic, always, if you know how to look at it. Pekar knew.

Blogiversary V: The Internet Hamsters Strike Back

It's my fifth blogiversary, not worthy of Methuselah status, but a fairly long time in blog years. It hasn't been my most prolific blog year, although there's been a late flurry of activity, and a few highlights before that. Thanks to everyone who's stopped by, or otherwise supports small blogs or "long form" blogging. Here's my traditional retrospective round-up (mainly so I can find the damn things later).

For Armistice Day 11/11, I published a series of seven posts as part of an ongoing War Series. Many dealt with WWI and its connection to more recent conflicts, from poetry, to propaganda, to personal grief, to the psychological needs driving disastrous war strategies, to the human excrement that is the chickenhawk. The most notable entries were "Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels" and "War and the Denial of Loss." (After kicking a few of these pieces around for a long time, I was happy to get them done, however roughly.)

On the torture/human rights beat, I've fallen woefully behind (and have been doing research for some new, perhaps overly-ambitious, pieces). However, there was one notable essay, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (a.k.a. "The Comforting Violence of Jack Bauer").

"American Politics Seen as a Japanese Monster Movie" is a personal favorite. Then there's the more serious "American Political Insanity Explained."

The Chart Project, an ongoing attempt to visualize issues, had two new entries, "The Social Contract" and "The Five Circles of Conservative Hell." (Just in under the wire!)

I sat in with other bands again guest-blogging (we got some good folks out here in L.A.). From those stints, the best entries were "Silent Questions", "We Cheat the Other Guy and Pass the Savings to You," the satirical "Field Guide to Political Creatures" and a look at teabagger insanity, "Deny Me Health Care or Give Me Death." (I should also mention "Attack of the Plutocrats.")

The latter built on one of my previous, cheery Holocaust posts, since conservative invocations of the Holocaust are about as counter-historical and darkly ironic as you can get. This year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I focused on Primo Levi's exceptional memoir, If this is a man (normally known as Survival in Auschwitz here in the States).

On a lighter note, I did my traditional post-Oscar film roundup, most easily viewed though the Oscar category and scrolling down.

Thanks again to everyone who's stopped by. (I hope to finish some long-simmering pieces sometime in the next few months.) Al Green will sing us out:

Monday, July 26, 2010

The GOP's Pitch for November

As Dave Johnson and many other liberal bloggers have noted, the Republican plan is to "block everything Congress does, then run against Democrats as ineffective." It'd be nice if the press at least reported that accurately, so that voters could make an informed decision, but that wouldn't be "fair and balanced." It really does bear mentioning that in a functioning democracy, this pitch wouldn't have a chance in hell. We screwed you over by blocking them - so vote for us! or Why bother picking the lesser of two evils? Go with the pros! As Paul Krugman points out, "The truth... is that the only problem Republicans ever had with George W. Bush was his low approval rating. They always loved his policies and his governing style — and they want them back." Some of us still remember the devastation from the last time, and it's no way to run an empire.

I'm not thrilled with the Democratic Party, and by no means should liberals cease the pressure on Dem leaders to do the right things, adopt effective policies, and uphold the rule of law. (Dark Lord Cheney, I'm looking at you.) However, "compromised" is still a helluva lot better than "nihilistic." At least the Democrats occasionally do things to benefit their average constituents, whereas the GOP wants to repeal the Estate Tax entirely, push the most conservative, regressive judiciary in living memory even further to the right, and just generally piss on America when they're not dousing it with gasoline and setting it on fire with their latest fart about how anyone who doesn't have a job is just lazy.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Obama Video for Netroot Nation

This video of Obama aired at Netroots Nation:

Pretty good. Faced with several disasters to clean up (any of which could consume a presidency on its own) and hampered by an obstructionist GOP, Obama has a ridiculously tough job. I'm very sympathetic on that front. However, some things, like upholding due process, are non-negotiable, no matter who is in office. And I think many liberals wouldn't fault Obama for losing on some fights - they'd just like to see him try (the public option comes to mind), and at least secure the best deal possible. Additionally, it's one thing to make compromises due to political necessity, but embracing something that's both bad policy and bad politics makes no sense. It's been refreshing to hear Richard Trumka and others in the labor movement speak out about looking out for their people rather than just falling in line and supporting bad candidates.

There are some areas where I'm pretty disappointed in the Obama administration and the congressional leadership. I still haven't forgotten how destructive and evil the GOP is, though, and how much they limit options for the Democrats (even if some of them are happy to have that as an excuse). However, liberals should continue to criticize Obama and the Democratic Party in a conscientious manner. That's an essential part of the process.

Many bloggers who attended Netroots Nation - including Digby, David Dayen and Marcy Wheeler - will be writing more about the convention this upcoming week. I'll be interested to read their thoughts.


We Cheat the Other Guy and Pass the Savings to You

I'm returning to David Brooks' January op-ed "The Populist Addiction," because it's quintessential Brooks, but also because it provides a useful framework for conflicting political views in America. The full column is here and worth reading for full context (and Brooks' cute plea not to scapegoat poor Goldman Sachs). However, this is my favorite section:

So it’s easy to see the seductiveness of populism. Nonetheless, it nearly always fails. The history of populism, going back to William Jennings Bryan, is generally a history of defeat.

That’s because voters aren’t as stupid as the populists imagine. Voters are capable of holding two ideas in their heads at one time: First, that the rich and the powerful do rig the game in their own favor; and second, that simply bashing the rich and the powerful will still not solve the country’s problems.

Political populists never get that second point. They can’t seem to grasp that a politics based on punishing the elites won’t produce a better-educated work force, more investment, more innovation or any of the other things required for progress and growth.

In other words, for the lower classes: You're getting screwed, but it's really in your best interest. Plus: You populists can't win - you can't change the game. There's also the reverse psychology plea to vanity: The plebes who know their place are much smarter those elitist rabble-rousers. Real Americans don't want a living wage, after all. Those silly populists mostly want to complain about the wealthy, not, say, tax them more heavily and invest that money in the middle class and poor. (And we're spunky America the Exceptional, which is why we can't have nice things, like great social systems and public transportation.)

I'm surprised Brooks admitted the game is rigged. He often uses some planned concession to pivot to some more ridiculous point, something like, 'Yes, Bush should have worked with the Democrats more, but the Democrats should be better than that...' (And enact conservative policies.) In this column, I think Brooks overshot on his calculated concession and gave up the game. Still, I'm utterly unsurprised by the other stuff. Almost every column Mr. Applebee's Salad Bar writes makes one or more of same basic pitches: I'm a man of the people, you're better off with me and my class/party in charge, know your place, real Americans are center-right, the Democrats are just as bad, who is this Bush fellow you speak of, and have your kissed your aristocrat today?...

Matt Taibbi makes similar points in his great dissection of the same column, "Populism: Just Like Racism!" After ripping into Brooks for his faulty analogies and "Leave Goldman Sachs alone!" shtick, Taibbi also notes:

What’s so ironic about this is that Brooks, in arguing against class warfare, and trying to present himself as someone who is above making class distinctions, is making an argument based entirely on the notion that there is an lower class and an upper class and that the one should go easy on the other because the best hope for collective prosperity is the rich creating wealth for all. This is the same Randian bullshit that we’ve been hearing from people like Brooks for ages and its entire premise is really revolting and insulting — this idea that the way society works is that the productive ” rich” feed the needy “poor,” and that any attempt by the latter to punish the former for “excesses” might inspire Atlas to Shrug his way out of town and leave the helpless poor on their own to starve.

That’s basically Brooks’s entire argument here. Yes, the rich and powerful do rig the game in their own favor, and yes, they are guilty of “excesses” — but fucking deal with it, if you want to eat.

Exactly. What Brooks is shilling here is: The game is rigged for the rich and powerful, but we all benefit from this.

That's in huge contrast to the liberal view, which normally goes something like: Of course the game is rigged for the rich and powerful, but they benefit from this, other people get screwed, and we can build a better, fairer system for everybody. (Those few "social contract" conservatives buy parts of this, too.)

Members of Congress with a compromised, corporatist bent have a stance closer to: Sure, the game is rigged for the rich and powerful, but we can't change it that much, so we won't mention it too often - and let's try to get in on some of the action.

Further to the right, whether Democrats or Republicans, there's even less ambivalence. It's considered a breach of etiquette to speak of the game, let alone acknowledge it’s rigged for the rich and powerful. Behind closed doors, the attitude is: Why would you even want to change the game? Give me my piece!

Some Beltway denizens, especially journalists, really do seem to think: Of course the game isn't rigged! I got here (and stay here) solely due to my talents!

Other Villagers may or may not think the game's rigged, but what really gets them angry is if anyone denounces it. (Don't trash their place!) The Very Serious People are establishmentarians, and like their pal David Brooks, they know their ways are the best ways, and that things are the finest when they're on top. (How could it be otherwise?)

The Randians are similarly convinced of their superior talents, and have their own ideas about the game, but the defining attitude for them is simply: I got mine, screw you!

The truly callous and evil (the Catfood Commission and Estate Tax Repeal Club come to mind) believe: Sure, the game is rigged, and sure, many people are getting screwed – Now let's rig this sucker even more!

The teabagger rank and file, the target of the Southern Strategy, believe: The game is rigged, alright – to favor liberals, women and minorities! In many cases, they are being screwed, but they're blaming the wrong folks and not the people they voted into office for the past 30-40 years. Their ringleaders mostly know better, but they've got a good racket going. (And as Pat Buchanan and Lee Atwater might say, "You do not talk about White Club.")

(Feel free to improve on these breakdowns - I'm not entirely sold on all of them myself.)

A few other points bear mentioning. Generally speaking, liberals are focused on being fair while conservatives (movement conservatives at least) are focused on power. They're simply not playing the same game. (The same goes for wonks versus hacks.) This can make for some serious misunderstandings and cross-talking, most of all when liberals try to be fair-minded with people seeking their destruction. (Offering the olive branch is fine, Dems, even admirable, but after they smack you in the face with it, wise up.) While reasonable, wonky conservatives do exist, if you can't tell that Andrew Breitbart, Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove are hacks and extremely dishonorable men, it's time to recalibrate your bullshit detector.

Liberals generally embrace a cooperative paradigm, while conservatives are more likely to see things as a zero sum game. There's a huge difference between trying to make the game more fair for everybody and trying just to win it personally (or trying to control it completely and rig it further for your side). Movement conservatives are further likely to see things in terms of dominance, submission and humiliation. It's one of the reasons that trash talk is so important to them, and why they're such bullies when in power yet so ridiculously whiny when criticized. Check out Rush Limbaugh or any of the far right for long and you'll encounter that weird mix of asserted superiority alongside deep victimization. Reagan supposedly regretted calling the Soviet Union "the evil empire," but the far right loved it, just as they loved Bush saying "axis of evil." The language might have been juvenile and hurt international relations, but for the far right, insulting one's opponents is itself a victory. They see diplomacy as the failure of war, not the other way around. (To be fair, some of this is standard imperialist narcissism, and hawks in both parties share much of the same idiocy even if comes in a slightly different flavor.) Remember, Sarah Palin became a right-wing darling overnight, not for any cooperative, inclusive vision for America or command of policy (hahaha), but because she delivered a single attack dog speech at the RNC in 2008.

In contrast, while "foul-mouthed" liberal bloggers may swear and insult their conservative counterparts, they generally don't seek their destruction. Eliminationist rhetoric is pretty common on the right, and pretty rare on the left. Liberals may say mean things (preferably, true things, whether harshly put or not), but they also want their political opponents to have health care so they and their children, friends and family don't die unnecessarily. It comes with the bleeding hearts. Policy does matter, and it's not incidental to someone's world view.

These world views do clash, and sometimes get revealed in small exchanges. Betsy McCaughey, during her epic dissembling about death panels on The Daily Show, was flailing occasionally, and at one point tried an odd attack on Stewart. If you can stand watching it, it's in the Extended Interview Part 2 (1:55 in), but here's a transcript (they talk over each other throughout):

McCaughey: Well, you know, Jon, you're so rich –

Stewart: That is absolutely -

McCaughey: (to audience) He's got a great big penthouse –

Stewart: That is absolutely right, I can –

McCaughey: You are so rich, you can provide care for anybody in your family -

Stewart: That's right.

McCaughey: Whatever they need -

Stewart: That's right.

McCaughey: (to audience) But you -

Stewart: And that's why I don't mind being taxed a little more to help people who are not in as favorable a situation.

(Cheers from the audience.)

Stewart: I don't mind that. In fact, I welcome it, because it's a way for me to, to give back to the country that has allowed me to come this far.

Stewart's remarks completely shut her down. McCaughey clamed she agreed, and tried to move on to her next piece of bullshit. What's interesting is that she seemed to be trying to depict Stewart as a rich, hypocritical elitist, unconcerned about others, and herself as a populist champion (a classic Rove reversal). This was a planned "out" or trump card for McCaughey, but it didn't work as intended. She should have known that to Stewart's audience, those characterizations – especially the one of Stewart – would be laughable. McCaughey had a brief "curses, foiled again" moment of course, but it seems like it was more than that, because it looks as if she really hadn't anticipated that sort of response. The idea that Stewart would be rich, and would also support higher taxes on himself, and would also support some sort of governmental, universal health care to help everyone else, seemed to genuinely flummox her. (I could be wrong, and reading in a response I've seen elsewhere.) Yet while Stewart's extremely sharp, his stance in the clip is pretty standard for rich liberals: Yes, I want to take care of myself and my family, but after that, of course I'll tend to a favorite cause, the community, my city, my state, my country.

This strikes a certain breed of conservatives as bizarre, a foreign concept, a violation of the rules. Why the hell would you give up a personal advantage in the game? Occasionally this comes up in political discussions. It did during the 2004 presidential election season - shockingly, wealthy Bush wanted to continue or add to the tax cuts for the wealthy, while wealthy Kerry and Edwards didn't. It came up with the "Joe the Plumber" circus in 2008 and again with Joe Biden's remarks about paying taxes being patriotic. The Republican pitch, echoed by some political reporters, is that there's something awfully suspicious about a rich man who promises he'll raise his own taxes – never mind if it's for the good of the country - and something somehow trustworthy about a rich man eager to lower his own taxes and increase his own wealth. Vote for the upfront scumbag, I guess. The idea of being civic-minded has become viewed as utterly foreign and un-American to the party that claims to be more patriotic.

Back in his day, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was denounced as a traitor to his class – he had battled against the code David Brooks still peddles. FDR named his enemies and declared that he "welcomed their hatred." Obama, whatever his other faults and merits, isn't as "lucky" as FDR in the hatred he receives from the right. He's not denounced as a traitor to his class – he's attacked as wholly alien to America.

It's been astounding to see the petulant rage that's erupted from conservative politicians and their far right base in reaction to Obama's election and presidency. After ignoring or even cheering on all the abuses of the Bush administration, suddenly under Obama they started attacking even those policies more conservative than Eisenhower's - or Nixon's - or of the Republicans of 10-20 years ago - as socialist. It may be because Obama broke the biggest unspoken rule of the game they thought they owned: You're not supposed to win. A similar dynamic drives all the reflexive hippie-punching and "center-right" blather from Beltway reporters. Liberal activists are very familiar with this rule, and have unfortunately seen plenty of it over the years, including during the current administration. Sensible policies have been denounced as too radical or "liberal" over and over again, watered down or completely eliminated. The conservative critique of Obama is that he's radically changed all the rules and is rigging the game against them – which might be poetic justice, but isn't true. The liberal critique varies, but it's generally that Obama has made some changes and improvements, but also has been too timid about changing the rules of the game, too accepting of how badly the game's rigged. The more sympathetic would argue he simply can't change things that much with an obstructionist GOP and other obstacles. The more critical think he's happy with a rigged game, or is making it worse, or is just too establishmentarian by nature (as with his economic team). If so, he's far from alone in Washington, more's the pity. But beyond any character assessments, the fact remains that good governance is not encouraged by the current rules of the game. Contrary to Brooks, the present set-up does not benefit us all, or anything remotely resembling a majority of Americans. When the dominant attitude in the Beltway is that liberals must always lose - and more importantly, that sensible, effective policy shouldn't guide decisions, especially if it's supported by the wrong sorts of people - it's time to challenge the rules, or change the game.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Won't Somebody Please Think of the Needy Wealthy?

Republican Senator Jim DeMint recently introduced an amendment to repeal the Estate Tax permanently. Not adjust it or improve it – repeal it entirely. Never mind that there's staggering wealth inequity in America. The amendment failed, but the GOP and some of the Blue Dogs voted for it. Like the Republicans, Blue Dogs Kent Conrad and Evan Bayh want to extend Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, despite the ineffectiveness of those cuts at creating jobs (and even though they don't affect more than 2% of family farms and small businesses). Needless to say, these are the same people who vote against unemployment benefits, fought for a smaller stimulus bill, and often oppose jobs programs. Their only goal seems to be to give more money to the wealthiest Americans, and everything else is secondary. As Paul Krugman points out, "The truth... is that the only problem Republicans ever had with George W. Bush was his low approval rating. They always loved his policies and his governing style — and they want them back."

Senator Bernie Sanders has been speaking out against this, and Nicole Belle at Crooks and Liars passes on a short video and Sanders op-ed. Here's DeMint, followed by Sanders:

And here's part of Sanders' op-ed in The Nation, "No to Oligarchy":

The American people are hurting. As a result of the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, homes, life savings and their ability to get a higher education. Today, some 22 percent of our children live in poverty, and millions more have become dependent on food stamps for their food.

And while the Great Wall Street Recession has devastated the middle class, the truth is that working families have been experiencing a decline for decades. During the Bush years alone, from 2000-2008, median family income dropped by nearly $2,200 and millions lost their health insurance. Today, because of stagnating wages and higher costs for basic necessities, the average two-wage-earner family has less disposable income than a one-wage-earner family did a generation ago. The average American today is underpaid, overworked and stressed out as to what the future will bring for his or her children. For many, the American dream has become a nightmare.

But, not everybody is hurting. While the middle class disappears and poverty increases the wealthiest people in our country are not only doing extremely well, they are using their wealth and political power to protect and expand their very privileged status at the expense of everyone else. This upper-crust of extremely wealthy families are hell-bent on destroying the democratic vision of a strong middle-class which has made the United States the envy of the world. In its place they are determined to create an oligarchy in which a small number of families control the economic and political life of our country.

The 400 richest families in America, who saw their wealth increase by some $400 billion during the Bush years, have now accumulated $1.27 trillion in wealth. Four hundred families! During the last fifteen years, while these enormously rich people became much richer their effective tax rates were slashed almost in half. While the highest-paid 400 Americans had an average income of $345 million in 2007, as a result of Bush tax policy they now pay an effective tax rate of 16.6 percent, the lowest on record.

Sanders gave a Senate speech on the same subject earlier in the week, which you can read or watch here, or watch below:

It's too bad Bernie Sanders isn't the norm rather than the exception, but it's refreshing to hear him speak. An earlier post, "Attack of the Plutocrats," goes into far greater depth, but as Bill Moyers says, "Plutocracy and democracy don't mix."

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)


Friday, July 23, 2010

Geeks 1, Homophobes 0

Actually, "homophobes" is too tame a word for Fred Phelps and the hate-filled gang of the Westboro Baptist Church. But when they showed up to protest at Comic-Con, they were met by some counter-protesters:

Unbeknownst to the dastardly fanatics of the Westboro Baptist Church, the good folks of San Diego's Comic-Con were prepared for their arrival with their own special brand of superhuman counter protesting chanting "WHAT DO WE WANT" "GAY SEX" "WHEN DO WE WANT IT" "NOW!" while brandishing ironic (and some sincere) signs.

The Phelps crowd might think they have God on their side, but do they really want to get into a stamina war with folks who can wait hours in line for a sneak peek at The Green Hornet or an autograph from Stan Lee or Ray Bradbury? Mess with fanboys and fangirls on Star Wars Day and the Force will not be with you.

Major style points to the counter-protesters on this one. There's a short video and more photos at the first link. (Via.)

Fox News immediately announced an investigation – where is the liberal media on robot-on-human violence? Why the double-standard?

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)


Daniel Schorr Remembered

NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr has died at the age of 93 after a lifetime in journalism. NPR has put together several pieces on him, including a 3 minute one, a 12 minute one, and a 55 minute memorial special (see the left column at the link). His stints in Moscow and Germany yield some interesting tales, and I found the Nixon and 70s era stories particularly fascinating. Here's one:

In 1975, Schorr reported on assassinations that had been carried out by the CIA. "The anger of the administration can be gauged from Richard Helms' denunciation of Schorr," historian Garry Wills recounts in his 2010 book, Bomb Power.

Helms, then the CIA director, confronted Schorr in the presence of other reporters at the White House, calling him names such as "son of a bitch" and "killer."

"Killer Schorr: That's what they ought to call you," Helms said.

In 1976, Schorr reported on the findings of the Pike Committee, which had investigated illegal CIA and FBI activities. The committee had voted to keep its final report secret, but Schorr leaked a copy to the Village Voice, which published it.

Schorr was threatened with a $100,000 fine and jail time for contempt of Congress. But during congressional testimony, Schorr refused to identify his source, citing First Amendment protections. The House ethics committee voted 6 to 5 against a contempt citation.

But CBS had already taken Schorr off the air. He ultimately resigned from the network that year.

"CBS found that, like other big corporations, it did not like to offend the Congress," Mudd said. "He broke his ties to CBS and before they could fire him, he resigned."

That's pretty gutsy. In the NPR pieces, Schorr's recent and past colleagues speak with him and about him with admiration and affection. And if one is also judged by the quality of one's enemies, Schorr did quite well:

Schorr was surprised to find himself on the so-called Enemies List that had been drawn up by Richard Nixon's White House when he read it on the air. The list — naming hundreds of political opponents, entertainers and publications considered hostile to the administration — became the basis for one of the charges of impeachment against Nixon.

Schorr, along with some other members of the list, counted his inclusion on it as his greatest achievement.

Update: Gordonskene at C&L has posted the audio of a piece by Schorr – the "CBS Reports documentary Berlin: Wall of Shame, which aired on January 4, 1962. A vivid picture of just how bad relations had become between East and West."

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)


Civil Rights and Shirley Sherrod's Family

Earlier this week, Digby posted some of Shirley Sherrod's speech - the parts Andrew Breitbart and his team chose to hide. (Media Matters has the video.) If you haven't seen it yet, it's pretty moving and thoughtful.

Three recent posts delve more into her story, her father's and her husband's.

"Hosie Miller: Shirley Sherrod's dad, and a casualty in a forgotten war," by Will Bunch:

How unusual was it for a black man to be killed by a white man in the Deep South up through the mid-1960s with no one brought to justice. Way too common. We hear a lot about one particular killing in Mississippi -- the 1964 murder of a trio of civil rights activists that included two white college kids from up North -- but in reality dozens of black men were killed for taking a stand, for trying to vote or just on a whim. If you want to read something sobering, check out this letter from 2007 from the Southern Poverty Law Center, asking the FBI to investigate some 74 additional unsolved deaths from the era.

"The civil rights heroism of Charles Sherrod," by Joan Walsh:

People who care about civil rights and racial reconciliation may eventually thank Andrew Breitbart for bringing Shirley Sherrod the global attention she deserves. Really. Her message of racial healing, her insight that the forces of wealth and injustice have always pit "the haves and the have-nots" against each other, whatever their race, is exactly what's missing in today's Beltway debates about race. What's even more amazing, but almost completely unexplored in this controversy, is the historic civil rights leadership role of her husband, Charles Sherrod, an early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who served on the front lines of the nonviolent civil rights movement in the early 1960s.

Despite Breitbart's attempt to cast Shirley Sherrod as The, um, Man ("The Woman" doesn't have the same ring), out to keep oppressed white folk down, under our first black racist president, she turned out to be the opposite, an advocate of justice for everybody. Given that history, it's fascinating to learn more about her husband, an early SNCC leader known for being willing to work with white volunteers even after tension developed over the role of whites in the organization. Charles Sherrod is important for much more than the fairness with which he treated whites, but given Breitbart's attempt to make his wife the poster woman for black "racism," that footnote to his leadership history is particularly noteworthy. If there's anyone more clueless about our civil rights history than Breitbart, as well as more abusive to it, I'm challenged to think of who it might be. He tests my commitment to nonviolent social change, but I'll share the work of Charles Sherrod to remember my values.

"Shirley Sherrod and the Dark History of Baker County," by Elizabeth Holtzman:

The bad news is that the forces of racism and those who cower before it are alive and well. The good news is that both the Spooners, the poor white farmers that Ms. Sherrod helped, and Ms. Sherrod were able to reject that racism to find what connected them. The best news would be if the country would decisively cast off the legacy of Sheriff Screws, Sheriff Johnson, and all the racist evil they represent.

Out here in L.A., some of the local PBS stations have been re-running Eyes on the Prize this year. I doubt Breitbart will watch it, but it seems it's always timely.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Inception Complete Spoiler Post (Beware!)

Yeah, don't read this one if you haven't already seen the film (which is very good and will play better on the big screen), 'kay?

Just some quick thoughts...

Inception isn't just the title of Christopher Nolan's new film; it's a description of what the film attempts to do to its audience. The film is extremely intricate and ambitious in its plot and structure, but also its meta-narrative games. It's commenting on and dissecting storytelling as it goes along, most of all in terms of audience members' reactions. Nolan throws so much at us that it can be confusing, dizzying. At times, film may seem too complicated, trying to be too clever for its own good and thus losing the story. (I was debating that occasionally while I watched the film, even though I enjoyed it.) But for good or ill, that complexity isn't just artistic vanity or ambition – it's both very intentional and, I believe, integral.

For an audience that's not consciously trying to predict the ending, the complex rules of the dream world and the discombulation of the elaborate, multilayered heist set up the finale: an open ending created by the final shot in a final mindfuck move. (Whoa, dude.) However, with narrative-savvy audiences, Nolan's playing an even more diabolical game – and just like the cons to the marks in the film, he tells us exactly what he's going to do first, all to psyche us out. We think we know what's going on, but he lets us think that so he can screw with us on a deeper level and plant an idea in our heads. A movie is in some sense a shared dream of audience members in a theater. At least twice, Cobb (DiCaprio) says that once an idea is planted in someone's head, it can be very hard to shake and it keep growing. The film handles most of the exposition pretty elegantly. Within the first 10-20 minutes, Nolan gives us shots of limbo and one of the final scenes in the "future" (presumably this is the case, looking back at them), shows us the idea of pulling a heist in someone else's dream, and also gives us the concept of a dream within a dream. This all might seem unnecessarily complex – but Nolan's setting up the idea that we can't trust what we see, and specifically the idea of a dream within a dream. If you're a narrative-savvy audience member, at this point, and at several points throughout the movie, you'll be wondering how the film will end, and what any twist will be. At some point, you will likely consider whether the entire damn film is a dream – or whether at least the ending will be. (Inception bears some striking similarities with another movie released this year starring DiCaprio, Scorsese's Shutter Island, most of all the unreliable narrator/what-is-real aspect, and a crazy wife.) Some of the elements in Cobb's seeming "reality" are intentionally odd – he's chased as he is the dream world, he encounters an improbably small alley, he has flashes of memories and a dream world, we never see the children's faces or Mal's mother, etc. Saito starts as an enemy or mark and then becomes an ally and employer.

Nolan is performing an act of inception on narrative-savvy audiences. He's planting the idea, early on, that the whole film may be a dream, or that some scenes of "reality" may be, making us wonder, like the suicidal Mal (Marion Coitillard, a great femme fatale), what is reality. In one sense, the last shot, the open ending, the mindfuck, is fairly predictable. In another sense, Nolan's anticipated that we would anticipate that ending, and the mindfuck is more subtle or devious, because we're now doubting something that we shouldn't. Again, as with the mark in the heist, he's used our own defenses against us. (Intelligence jujitsu, as with hypnosis.)

Now, maybe Nolan just constructed a good ride with an open ending and some ambiguous elements to set up the finale. I think that's all true, apart from the "just." Nolan is a smart guy and says it took him 10 years to write the script. He's also very ambitious. Given that and the subject matter, the themes, I don't see how he could avoid the meta-narrative angle. Put another way, I think at the very least Inception is very deliberately crafted, and the ending isn't just a tag – it's the entire point.

On one level, the whole heist is a MacGuffin in the vein of Hitchcock, who's still probably the master of playing with audience expectations. On another level, it's pretty important. Although Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) is fooled in that vault, he does actually experience catharsis, and he's still rich as hell, so breaking up his father's empire may really have been worth it, in addition to being a benefit to Saito and the world. If we accept what we see in the film's seeming reality world as reality, then Cobb similarly experiences a catharsis and a fairly happy ending by the film's end. He's finally let go of Mal. Is this a real release, or does this release, as with Fischer, make him vulnerable to a bigger con, whether pulled by someone else or his own mind (which has fucked with him throughout the entire film)? Has Cobb finally found some peace, both internally/subconsciously and in the real world, or has his subconscious finally outwitted him? The grief/guilt was his compass for reality, and now it is gone. For some audience members, briefly buying the happy ending and then being left uncertain by the ending is the mindfuck. For other audience members, anticipating that mindfuck and rejecting the happy ending because of that is the real, bigger mindfuck. (Both types of audience members do feel some brief relief before the ending regardless, though, because of the change in energy and pacing after the heist finally concludes. Nolan wisely gives a moment to catch our breath.)

Narratively, Inception reminds me the most of Philip K .Dick's short story "I Hope I Will Arrive Soon." Complete spoiler here – a man is in suspended animation on a long spaceship voyage. There's a malfunction and he stays conscious, and will stay conscious for many years as the ship makes its voyage. This might drive him insane. Trying to help, the ship's computer puts him in a series of virtual realities so he can pass the time. But the man rejects each of them as unsatisfying. The computer asks him what he really wants, and he responds that it's to be done with the voyage, to be home. So the computer (unwisely) creates a virtual reality where the man has completed the voyage and is home. However, the computer leaves out some details, and the man, still skeptical, will, for instance, take off the back of the virtual TV set and see that it's empty, proving that he's not in reality. The computer adjusts and improves its virtual world, and keeps trying. The man stays skeptical, and if anything grows more paranoid. By the ending, the man does arrive home in the real world, but now questions reality, and does not accept it. He'll take off the back of the TV set, and say, see, it's empty, and not notice that it's not. He sees the painting he and his ex-wife bought together, and not accept that it's real because they sold it. In the real world, she re-bought it, but he views it a tell, a mistake the computer's made in designing its virtual reality He won't accept the affection and reconciliation of his ex-wife (I think they're divorced or estranged, I need to re-read it) because it's a trick. Happiness itself is a con, not to be trusted. He was always a bit paranoid, but in trying to outwit a (well-intentioned but misguided) deceiver, he's broken himself. Inception is quite similar in its layers upon layers of reality, unreality and mindfuckery. Spin us around like a top until we get dizzy, and we won't know which was is up anymore. (Mal says something very similar.)

There are some odd things about the last scene, such as the absence of Mal's mother, heard before, and because we've seen the same setting and lighting before in dreams. However, the top teeters, as it did not in limbo (as I recall). Nolan cleverly ends when the top teeters but is still spinning fairly strong, leaving us guessing. (Rife with symbolism, Cobb lets the top go and doesn't check it himself.) We finally see the children's faces, which have been (in a brilliant move) denied to us throughout the film. This device sets up serious anticipation and dread in the late limbo scene with Mal and Ariadne (yeah, there's a mythologically-symbolically named character for ya) and in the final scene. If Cobb is in someone else's dream, whose is it? We're not really given many options there (possibly Ariadne). He could just be dreaming normally, if elaborately, with his dream his way of finally expunging his guilt and finding some happiness. He could be stuck in limbo. Maybe he never got out. Or he could (as with Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and its countless descendants) be dead or dying.

Nolan intentionally makes the finale open-ended and ambiguous, and I'll have to see it again. I think a few elements point toward it being reality (the teeter), and that the slickest mindfuck of the film is on terribly clever film viewers who reject the happy ending outright, who are convinced that's it's all a trick or illusion. There's not enough proof of that, either; it's not certain. The ending can simply be seen as a litmus test, more revealing about an individual viewer than anything else. Of course, since Nolan screws with really everyone in the audience, he's undermining a straightforward happy ending for everyone. Whether or not we anticipated the ending - we really want to see whether that top falls or not. We want confirmation. He's planted that idea, that questioning of reality, in everyone's heads, regardless of whether they anticipated it or not. And, of course, we can find that denial of certainty very satisfying as an audience. (Most audiences have, and I enjoyed the film a great deal.) Nolan has played with our expectations, frustrated them and satisfied them and around and around again, slyly grinning as he spins the top that is Inception and we watch, rapt.

Bonus: Here's Nolan on The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell. I intentionally only listened to it after I saw the movie, but they're careful not to give much away. I found Nolan's discussion of Memento especially interesting, because while I love the film (and wish I had written the damn thing), I think it's an impeccably crafted but cerebral work, and there's an emotional core missing in the final scene that could have made it much more tragic and moving. But I'm overdue for watching it again, too...

Update: Via Drioxbie, this:

During the film I noticed the rhythm in the Piaf piece, and how (ironically) it made things tense, but I didn't consciously make the direct correlation. Neat!

Marvin Gaye - 'What's Happening Brother"

I was listening to What's Going On the other night - it's still one of my all-time favorite albums. As the Wiki entry explains, "The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred." (Marvin's brother served in Vietnam.) The YouTube description for this video says, "A visual montage taken from photos in the SOUL SOLDIERS exhibit and the film directed by Chris Ivey at the Heinz History Center."

Eclectic Jukebox

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Five Circles of Conservative Hell

In American politics today, there are five circles of conservative hell. Unlike those in Dante's Inferno, these are primarily states of pain and suffering that conservatives seek to impose on others in this earthly world - or places of torment where they drag their fellow Americans for company. After all, there's no problem in the country that's not made sweeter by domineering spite!

Note that these are conservative movements, not solely Republican, since the conservative Democrats, the Blue Dogs, are indisputably unrepentant scumbags. That said, it's movement conservatism that really excels at toxicity and dumb, destructive authoritarianism.

(This post is a ruder companion to my more serious one on The Social Contract. Needless to say, this one is partially tongue-in-cheek. Partially.)

Preserve Cultural Privilege: This category probably has the sharpest party divide, since preserving cultural privilege is really the raison d'ĂȘtre of those French-hating social conservatives. Theocrats and Christian Dominionists can be found here, but they appear further down, too. The anti-gay marriage and forced pregnancy movements operate on this level, as do really all conservative culture warriors. Many of the teabaggers, who are mostly just conservative Republicans after an astroturf-funded makeover and Glenn Beck tongue bath, can be found in this circle. Not all of them are racist, but almost half of the teabaggers feel that blacks are poor because they're lazy. Meanwhile, teabagger scumbags like Mark Williams and Ryan J. Murdough go much further, testing the very limits of "racist," "asshole," and of course "racist asshole."

Preserve the Aristocracy: No one works this beat quite like David Brooks, leading marketer of the "reasonable conservative" brand. (Sprinkle in a little truth to make them drop their guard, and then spring that false equivalency to disappear the disasters that were the Bush and Reagan administrations!) Unlike some of his more rabid party members, Brooks actually expressed concern for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. However, he is first, last and always a class warrior shilling for the aristocracy. He'll claim that the rich are harder-working and more virtuous, and compare populism to racism, but he sorta gave up the game when he admitted that "the rich and the powerful do rig the game in their own favor." (However, according to all Brooks columns, this is in your best interest – he followed that admission with his usual pitch: "Simply bashing the rich and the powerful will still not solve the country’s problems." Uh-huh.) When Brooks couldn't derail health care reform by his usual means, he became increasing desperate, lying about Senate procedures, and claiming that something precious would be murdered, forever, if it passed. For if the majority party, the Democrats, responded to this urgent policy need, the desires of the public, and dared to win - it would hurt the Republicans' feelings. Yes, it was laughably pathetic, but arguably better than claiming that providing health care would kill our sense of adventure, dampen our fighting spirit, or sap our Precious Bodily Fluids. (Flaccid courtier apologia doesn't just write itself, ya know!)

Repeal the New Deal: We can still find plenty of teabaggers here, and plenty of conservative politicians, especially in the current climate of kicking the poor and stealing their lunch money. But now we're also into the long-standing professional wankery of such wingnut welfare outfits as the Peterson Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, National Review... really every conservative think tank and loss leader magazine. Nothing chafes a rich wingnut's ass quite like the idea of the wrong sort of people living in anything better than abject poverty, especially without their permission. These are the type of people who rewind the first part of A Christmas Carol over and over again and never go to the end, so they can enjoy the part where Scrooge is still a dick. (Yeah, one of the movie versions. What, you think they're readers?) Republican president Eisenhower made his peace with the New Deal, in large part because it worked extremely well, but these assholes won't be happy until they're destroyed the social safety net for all those lesser, "non-rich" Americans, and the elderly have to eat cat food. (The Blue Dogs are fans of forcing grandma to eat cat food, too, and good lord, they give Palin a run for her money in the dumb category.)

Repeal the Constitution: We're still seeing teabaggers, who want to repeal some of the amendments. Of course, their ignorance on the Constitution outstrips even their impressive ignorance in other areas. The hard-core religious authoritarians who want to impose a Christian theocracy fall here as well. The war porn and neocon penis welfare crowd, led by smirking Bill Kristol, can be placed here, too, given their dual disdain for the wishes of citizens in occupied countries (get out of Iraq) and the wishes of American citizens (get out of Iraq, don't go to war in the first place). Worst of all is the Dick 'n' Liz Cheney American Fascism Tour (Now with Extra McCarthyism!). They want to – hell, they just went ahead and did, during the Bush administration – strip all due process and civil liberties from everyone they chose, torture them, and lie about it. Lying the nation into an unnecessary war was fun, sure, but that only devastated someone else's country, and there's much more damage still to be done here. Their contempt for democracy would make Machiavelli blush, and it's impossible to overstate how arrogant, ambitious, delusional and dangerous these people are. Unfortunately, they've been getting more company, as with Broder's best authoritarian buds, John McCain and Joe Lieberman, who also want to strip due process rights. And while Obama didn't create the messes at Guantanamo or Bagram, he and his administration have continued to hold prisoners without charges, and claim that they can do so indefinitely. This is not the bipartisanship we were looking for, folks.

Repeal the Enlightenment: Several groups can be found here. There's of course the anti-science folks, of a religious, corporate, or confused bent, who ran many agencies under Bush. The most rabid of theocrats push a Counter-Enlightenment agenda. Most dangerous are probably the plutocrats and Randians, pushing for a neo-feudalist system to undo most of the best ideas of America's founding, and to eliminate all of the progress achieved since then. They're a spiteful crowd, and don't believe that everyone is created equal or deserves basic rights. Theirs is a highly regressive agenda. The economic neo-feudalists are a callous, reckless bunch, but the legal neo-feudalists that flourished in the Bush administration are even scarier. They are probably best described by their ruthless and sometimes violent opposition to the reality-based community. It's not accidental that they borrowed torture techniques from the Spanish Inquisition. It's not that they don't know better; it's that, like O'Brien in 1984 (which they regard as a how-to manual), they just don't fucking care.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)


The Social Contract

Sorely lacking from the chattering class' discussions on national politics is the concept of the Social Contract. There have been different takes on it throughout history, but the basic idea of creating a fair society, one 'ruled by laws not men,' of checks and balances on power, and of shared, basic prosperity, was central to the founding of the United States. The plutocrats, Randians and neo-feudalists preaching today about the pressing need to give more money to the super-wealthy, to cut regulations on powerful corporations and to slash the social safety net seem to have forgotten that the United States began by overthrowing a monarch.

America's origins are far from perfect of course, given our history of slavery and conquest, and the long denial of voting rights to women and minorities. But as E.J. Dionne wrote for Independence Day, 2006:

...The true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction. I'd assert that this is a better argument for patriotism than any effort to pretend that the Almighty has marked us as the world's first flawless nation.

One need only point to the uses that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. made of the core ideas of the Declaration of Independence against slavery and racial injustice to show how the intellectual and moral traditions of the United States operate in favor of continuous reform.

If you were to create a fair society from scratch, what would it look like? What mechanisms would you put in place to keep it fair? How would you encourage it to self-correct or progress, as Dionne describes? What rights would be guaranteed, how would abuses and excesses be curbed, and what resources would be shared? What if you didn't know what class or position you'd have in this new society? How might that change your design? How would you help the least fortunate? (Build on the ideas of your favorite "Social Contract" philosopher, or imaginative author, or dip into anthopology if you like.) John Rawls approached these questions by way of the "original position" and the "veil of ignorance," nicely discussed by driftglass and Blue Gal in one of their June podcasts. But there are many ways to approach these issues.

If we try to visualize what this might be in America – a Social Contract for a fair, sustainable, dynamic system - I think we get something like this:

In this model, individuals, groups and companies have an enormous amount of freedom, but there are certain common sense parameters. The U.S. is a democratic republic, and in theory at least, we have majority rule, and the governing approach should benefit the majority of Americans. However, there are certain fundamental rights such as due process that all Americans possess, and the majority cannot strip these from any minority group or individual (again, in theory for all of this). Companies can pursue their goals, produce goods and make profits, but they face certain restrictions and can't infringe unduly on the public good. For example, marketing a dangerous, unsafe product or massively polluting public air and water might boost a corporation's bottom line, but harms the public. That's a bad, unnecessary tradeoff. Meanwhile, the American Dream rests on the idea that the U.S. is at least partially a meritocracy. If one works hard and plays by the rules, one can achieve some basic prosperity. If one's particularly talented and industrious, one can excel. Not everyone will start with the same resources, opportunities and support, but everyone deserves some basic tools, otherwise the promise of "freedom" rings hollow. Society as a whole benefits from investment in basic prosperity and opportunity, in public works and services, such as basic education, public libraries, public parks and public roads and transportation.

It's possible to be extremely individualistic (or even personally misanthropic) and still see the value of public goods such as basic education, after-school programs and a city fire department. Public works and services generally exist for moral, practical and economic reasons. For instance, universal health care tends to deliver better results and be much cheaper than other systems, leads to a healthier workforce, and greatly facilitates job changes and entrepreneurship. (Also, fewer people die unnecessarily.) In some arenas, private enterprise might work better, or coexist well with public equivalents. This model allows for all of that, and for initiative of all sorts. But only individuals of royal wealth could afford to own the equivalent of a national park, the public library system of a major city, the art collection of a local museum, or a state highway network. Public access to these clearly benefits individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole. (It's also silly to extol Wall Street profits as a the pinnacle of human achievement, de-fund scientific research, the arts and humanities, and then complain about a lack of creativity.)

The model above stands in stark contrast to the hierarchical model of feudalism or modern authoritarian regimes, where any degree of freedom, justice or prosperity depends almost entirely on the whims of those in power. However, this diagram represents more a philosophy of governing than a socioeconomic pecking order. There's also room for considerable debate within its framework. (What's the right level of regulation? What's the right amount of infrastructure investment? What civil liberties are essential?)

I'd say most modern democracies follow something like this model, even if the execution or mix varies significantly. It can work extremely well. America has employed some version of it, and we still have some vestiges, but obviously many of the principles behind it have been under assault in this past decade, and really the past 40-some years. As explored in much greater depth in "Attack of the Plutocrats," America has staggering income and wealth inequity. Progressive taxation, social spending and other factors (represented by the red and blue parts of the diagram) helped close those gaps from the New Deal up until the onslaught of Reaganomics. Since at least Reagan, those gaps have widened again, and now income and wealth inequity are back to Gilded Age levels. Meanwhile, it's disturbingly common to hear rich pundits express disinterest in or active disgust at the idea of helping their fellow Americans. This isn't a coincidence. As Bill Moyers puts it, "Plutocracy and democracy don't mix."

There's really nothing that new about that diagram – half the point is that these are very old principles. It's just that these days, it's not uncommon to hear the red, blue and even gray elements attacked as radical, socialist or un-American. The Social Contract in America has been badly torn by incompetent and corrupt governance, by selfish and reckless ideology, and by plutocrats eager to destroy any social safety net for their fellow Americans. Randians and neo-feudalists have no interest in the "self-correction" or improvement mentioned by Dionne. Some aggressively seek to impose a more regressive system on America, while others simply pursue personal gain and power, damn the consequences. Given this situation, restoring, honoring and improving the Social Contract is kinda the height of patriotism. After all, the concept is intrinsic to our origin as a nation.


Some Social Contract philosophers were suspicious foreigners with funny-sounding names like you might find on some artsy TV show, and unlikely to pass muster with the flag-wavin' Texas State Board of Education. However, America was founded with basic ideas about core rights and balancing principles in mind. Let's start with the gray foundation of the diagram. On the rights of individuals, and the potential tyranny of the majority over the minority, Thomas Jefferson stated:

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

Moving on the red part of the diagram, in terms of regulations and restrictions, Thomas Paine asserted that "government even in its best state is but a necessary evil," but also that:

Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.

James Madison expressed similar thoughts in The Federalist No. 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This also speaks to the "freedom" section of the diagram. A key concept throughout all these passages and most of the founding documents is balance. Freedom is the overall goal, but realistically, this requires a balance of power, sometimes countervailing forces, and often wise judgment. Liberty and equality can clash at times, and how do you balance one person's freedom with another person's rights?

When it comes to basic prosperity and opportunity (the blue part of the diagram), the Founding Fathers and later generations of Americans have argued about the details, but most have supported the general concept. The Declaration of Independence's most famous words are probably: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The preamble to the Constitution includes the term "promote the general welfare." Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, was a fierce advocate for publicly-supported education; he saw it as an unqualified good. First, it was a basic right:

I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it.

Second, it was a means of spurring activity and innovation:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries.

And third, an educated, informed electorate is a necessity for a healthy democracy:

...Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

Jefferson also assumed that local governments would care for the poor in some manner. Later Americans have fleshed out the idea of public works and support. Teddy Roosevelt was a champion of national parks. Eisenhower created the national highway system. Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the New Deal and Lyndon Baines Johnson had his Great Society. Activists such as Dorothea Dix, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King and many others worked both to secure fundamental rights for all Americans and to let them share in some basic prosperity.

Some of these measures have more contentious than others, of course. But in terms of finding "common ground" with one's opponents, I feel it's possible to work with people who differ on the details but agree with this basic model, who believe in a social contract and actually want to run things well. The wonks and sincere, responsible adults have plenty to discuss within this basic framework.

Recent History and the Current Day

Unfortunately, if we limit discussion today to those who "want to run things well," it disqualifies some politicians from one major political party, and almost everyone in the other. As Misty at Shakesville recently pointed out, the Republican Party platform of 1956 expressed many of the values espoused above, but as Digby's pointed out, they'd be denounced as socialists by today's GOP. Paul Krugman shows in The Conscience of a Liberal that during most of America's post-war boom from the mid 40s to about the mid 60s, the Democratic and Republican Parties were far more bipartisan than they are today in terms of voting on each others' measures. However, this wasn't blind Broderism; it was because they generally were working together on shared goals such as investing in the middle class and national infrastructure. (Not coincidentally, this more "liberal" economic approach was highly successful, and a huge improvement on the approach of previous eras.) Eisenhower, a Republican, made his peace with the New Deal and built on parts of it rather than trying to repeal it. The New Deal worked, and it was popular, so why not? Of course, not everyone shared in that national prosperity or had the same freedoms, particularly women and minorities. Thus, the Civil Rights Movement hit its full stride in the 60s out of necessity. With LBJ pushing civil rights legislation, Nixon developed the Southern Strategy in response, and the party of Lincoln started exploiting racial resentments to win elections. Reagan further perfected the conservative shell game, telling voters that it was minorities and the cultural elite who were oppressing them, rather than the wealthy elite. He then cut taxes to give massive amounts to the super-rich and ramped up military spending, making the deficit and debt skyrocket. His attacks on unions and business regulations didn't help, either. He might have seemed avuncular to the middle class citizens who voted for him, but he was screwing them over.

During the Bush administration, Dick Cheney remarked privately that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." It's this statement, this attitude, that encapsulates movement conservatism and the modern Republican Party: Who cares about running the country well if we win elections? Who cares about the country as a whole if we can enrich ourselves and our donors? Thom Hartmann provides a good brief history in "Two Santa Clauses, or How The Republican Party Has Conned America for Thirty Years," but the conservative approach results in spending huge sums of money to give tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and to increase military spending, all while attacking social spending. It's not exactly a secret, but you'll rarely hear Beltway reporters put it all in context. Meanwhile, certainly no one could have predicted that crony capitalism, horrible governance, fantasy-based policy, abandonment of the rule of law, a drowned city and two wars under Bush would make things disastrously worse.

The Republican Party has not been run by responsible adults for decades now. Their leaders have no interest whatsoever in running the country competently. They don't give a damn about the consequences of their reckless decisions – deficits are things to be balanced during Democratic administrations, if at all. The same goes for ending wars and any of a number of other problems. Conservative pundits - who cover politics for a living, after all - get paid for pretending not to notice any of this, most of all their own side's damning culpability. (While the Democrats aren't stellar, at least they occasionally do things for their average constituents.) None of these dynamics will be revelatory to political news junkies. For just one glaring example, check out Talking Points Memo's piece "It's Unanimous! GOP Says No To Unemployment Benefits, Yes To Tax Cuts For The Rich." Read the piece, and you'll see, for the umpteenth time, leading Republicans spout outrageous falsehoods about important matters. Some of them may know better and are lying, some may be zealous true believers, but as a whole, it's that they simply don't give a damn whether what they say is true or not.

Realistic Models versus Dogmatic Demands

National political news would benefit immensely from fact-checking, but also from some degree of nuance. Issues are also often framed in an overly simplistic, prejudicial and sometimes downright juvenile way. Consider regulation, covered in the red part of the diagram above. Continuing our theme of balance (and not in the "he said-she said" reporting sense), regulation can be visualized like this:

(Update: Here's an alternative graphic.)

Looked at one way, "regulation" itself is a public good that requires balance and good judgment. Looked at another way, "regulation" itself is neither good nor bad, it's a necessity. The sweet spot of regulation is optimal, while on either side, overly restrictive and dangerously permissive regulations need to be adjusted. If, for example, a specific financial regulation is silly or ineffectual, get rid of it or rework it, but eliminating financial regulation altogether makes no sense.

This is a simple, pretty common-sense model, with the aim of running things well. But many politicians and pundits, especially among conservatives, reject any model this accurate or complex in both their rhetoric and their voting. Newt Gingrich isn't interested in making government effective, or as Bill Scher puts it, "representative, responsive and responsible." Gingrich isn't aiming to make government as large as it needs to be, but as small as possible. He only wants to shrink government (often by privatizing or eliminating effective public services). Grover Norquist isn't interested in finding the optimal tax rate. He's working hard only to lower taxes, regardless of the circumstances, and eventually to eliminate taxes altogether. John Boehner and many other Republicans aren't trying to find the right level of regulation. They're aiming to halt regulations, or eliminate them altogether.

In the same vein, libertarian John Stossel can, like Rand Paul, argue that private businesses should be able to racially discriminate. The idea of good or necessary regulation, or finding a balance, seems to be entirely beyond his vocabulary (whether for cognitive or profitable reasons, or both). In any case, Stossel can also decide to ignore the near collapse of the world economy from lack of financial regulation, to argue instead that the main problem with government is – it over-regulates. His proof? Ayn Rand decried regulation, and banning fish pedicures is silly! (Seriously, that's about all he's got. Follow the link.) Therefore, all regulation is bad, or something. Never mind about the global financial meltdown, or any of a hundred other examples! If you merely ignore world events and human nature, and instead cherry-pick minutia and cite really crappy fiction, you, too, can become the proud, smug, intellectual giant that is the dogmatic libertarian. (To be fair, Stossel has a point - when fish pedicures are outlawed, only outlaws will get fish pedicures.)

For freedom to really flourish and society to function – and not in a fantasy realm or feudal state - there needs to be some sense of balance and some sort of healthy social contract. Anonymous Liberal summed this up nicely in a piece on Rand Paul's views:

While libertarians claims to be driven by a goal of maximizing freedom, what they mean by "freedom" is not what most people take that word to mean. To a libertarian, the only freedom that really matters is freedom from government intrusion. But often, meaningful freedom can only be created through government intervention.

Take education, for example. The existence of a public school system greatly enhances freedom by giving everyone the opportunity to get at least a basic education and opening the doors that go along with that. Similarly, without a social safety net (government programs like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, unemployment insurance, etc.) people would literally starve or die of from lack of medical care and extreme poverty would be epidemic. This isn't conjecture. This was the reality before these programs were put in place. That's not "freedom" in any meaningful sense.

Indeed, in the health care context, I am continually perplexed by the suggestion that universal health care somehow inhibits freedom, rather than enhancing it. How liberating would it be to know that you could do whatever you choose from an employment perspective and not have to worry that you or your family will be denied access to health care? How liberating would it be to know that there's no risk that illness or injury will unexpectedly derail your dreams and bankrupt you? Even if the only freedom you care about is entrepreneurial freedom, how can it be denied that lack of universal health care discourages people from taking entrepreneurial risks, that there are people out there who would love to quit their jobs and start a business but can't because they would lose access to affordable health insurance?

Similarly, government spending on roads, transportation systems, and other infrastructure increases our physical freedom to move around and enjoy our physical environment. Government spending on law enforcement reduces crime and enhances our freedom from a physical security standpoint. Government regulation of industry keeps the air that we breath and the water we drink clean and the food and drugs we ingest safe. It gives us the freedom to enjoy our physical environment and partake of the myriad of products and services available to us without fear and without significant risk to our well-being. These are all very liberating things. I don't know about you, but my conception of freedom is not a world where I can't get a breath of fresh air, can't swim, fish or enjoy the outdoors because of pollution, and am constantly playing Russian roulette every time I go to the grocery store.

I realize there are tradeoffs with everything, that in exchange for these freedom-enhancing benefits, I have to pay a little more in taxes and deal with a little more red tape if I want to do business. But libertarians seem to deny that there is any tradeoff going on; they seem to think that freedom is only a factor on one side of the equation. The reality is that lawmaking involves balancing freedoms...

Yup. That's well put, but the core ideas are pretty much common sense.

For some issues, it might be useful to modify the original diagram:

Here, government and major forces are in the frame versus outside it and implied. And better models can certainly be devised, but one virtue of the first diagram is that it depicts a healthy society and good governance as a balancing act versus using an overly simplistic, black-and-white paradigm.

Competing Icons

One last way of looking at the Social Contract is through competing political icons.

We'll start with Ronald Reagan. In his successful 1980 presidential campaign, he said, "Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago?" In one sense, it was a fair, basic question, and Reagan did mention unemployment and other national issues. However, Reagan was also presenting the election as a referendum on Carter, not really as a contrast in policies and governing styles, with true evaluation of the consequences. Reality-based conservative Andrew Bacevich, no fan of Carter, nevertheless finds fault in Reagan's pitch:

Reagan did not call on Americans to tighten their belts. He saw no need for sacrifice. He rejected Carter’s dichotomy between quantity and quality. Above all, he assured his countrymen that they could have more...

To call Reagan a hypocrite is to miss the point. The Reagan Revolution was never about fiscal responsibility or small government. Far more accurately than Carter, Reagan understood what made Americans tick: they wanted self-gratification, not self-denial. Although always careful to embroider his speeches with inspirational homilies and testimonials to old-fashioned virtues, Reagan mainly indulged American self-indulgence.

Reagan ignored the energy issues Carter highlighted, and that was just the beginning. George H.W. Bush called Reagan's policies voodoo economics; Reagan was always selling a fairy tale. Rather than asking "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" or "Am I not better off today?" Reagan could have have asked, "Are we better off today? Is America? What do we need to improve it, and fix these problems?" But Reagan didn't, nor was this accidental. The Reagan method is one approach to governing, and we've seen its harmful effects over the past 30 years. In a similar vein, after 9/11, rather than issuing a national call to service, or fostering a new sense of community, or working toward energy independence, Bush told Americans - to go shopping. (Oh, and also to attack Iraq.)

In sharp contrast, John Kennedy famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." (He continued, "My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.") This sentiment absolutely hinges on the idea of the Social Contract. (Predictably, the speech disgusted Ayn Rand.) Kennedy's plea rings hollow if the government is oppressive, if society gives nothing to the individual, and if public institutions don't fulfill their part of the contract and provide basic rights, basic protections and basic opportunities. Government should be "representative, responsive and responsible." However, if one is given these things, what's the rationale for opposing Kennedy's words? It's a stirring call to action. Don't most human endeavors that don't screw over one's fellow human beings contribute in some small way to the nation as a whole? Doesn't doing something well, and fairly - running a small business or a medical center or a school or a library or a community center or creating a work of art - make the world a better place?

Zealots like Ayn Rand see the world in black and white, in paranoid terms of domination and submission, as a zero-sum game. Control and power are their aims, not running things well. They cannot truly grasp any idea of balance, equality or sharing of power. Nor can they acknowledge the value of public goods, or that investing in basic prosperity for everyone has a positive ripple effect throughout the entire nation.

The same dynamics hold true for Glenn Beck and his teabagger groupies, screaming about "taking our country back." Taking it back from whom? The party that fairly won the last two major national elections? Their fellow Americans? (And were they comatose for the past decade?)

Meanwhile, Michelle Malkin could hear 12-year old Graeme Frost speak about how a government health care program for kids helped save his life and his sister's after a horrific accident. Malkin's response was to say, How dare you presume that I would care about a fellow human being! I refuse to, even for a child! What America really needed, in her view, was the launching of a spiteful War on Compassion. The Social Contract is a fool's game, you see. Not acting like a complete and total asshole would play right into the liberals' hands.

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Ayn Rand saw this as a threat. She couldn't hear its poetry. That's sad, but it's okay. There's plenty of room in the country for those who can't hear America singing, or can't sing the body electric, or those who churn out 2000 plus pages of tedious agitprop grunting out "the song of myself, and only my glorious, superior self, you goddam moochers." It's just that such people can't be trusted with power. There are far better ways to run a country that the Randian, plutocrat or neo-feudal models. There are more wonderful things in America and humanity than are dreamt of in Rand's dogma. Kennedy's words were never about some ridiculous, absolute self-denial or martyrdom. They were a renewal of the Social Contract, an invitation to cooperate, to work together to improve the America we all share.

Slightly revised for clarity. Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.