Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Iron and Wine - "Tree By the River"

The video takes a while to load, but it's a good version of one of the tunes from the new album. I caught Sam's show last night at the Wiltern here in L.A., with The Low Anthem opening. His KCRW session was also good.

Eclectic Jukebox

Seed of Sarah

This year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wanted to take a look at Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor by Judith Magyar Isaacson. It may not be the best known Holocaust memoir, but it's well-written, and I heard Isaacson give a talk several years ago and spoke with her briefly afterwards. She makes an impression. Apparently, she has a second book coming out (although there's not an English edition, at least yet).

Isaacson had rarely talked of her experiences until 1976, when she spoke in an informal discussion after a screening of Night and Fog at Bowdoin College. As students asked her questions – some very personal – she began to tell her tale, and wound up speaking past midnight. It prompted her to write Seed of Sarah and revisit her experiences.

Among other things, Judith Magyar Isaacson served as the Dean of Students at Bates College in Maine. I imagine it's not a coincidence that Bates got Elie Wiesel to be their featured speaker for a big college anniversary. I hear him speak then, and heard Isaacson at a later event. What struck me the most about both of them was a certain energy, a spiritual maturity - grace. That quality is all the more remarkable after hearing their life experiences surviving the Holocaust. Or maybe it's more explicable. I have heard at least one survivor speak who was extremely angry, not that one can blame him - that's lifetime pass territory – although I was more surprised to hear him harshly criticize other survivors, including authors like Viktor Frankl, whose work I value. However, Isaacson's internal path took her in a different direction. The prologue for her book is called, "How Can You Smile?" and I remember her as smiling often, with a grounded but very optimistic demeanor.

She was born in Kaposvár, Hungary in 1925, and thus a schoolgirl when Hitler began his rise to power. The Hungarian National Socialists used the arrowcross as their symbol. Hungary passed a series of anti-Semitic laws following the German model starting in 1938. Forced mass deportations of Jews and other victims to concentration camps didn't start in Hungary until 1944, much later than in Germany and Poland, but they were done with ruthless efficiency. Exact estimates differ, especially depending on what regions are included, but over 430,000 Jews were deported, and the total death toll exceeded 600,000.

Beyond Issacson's story of survival in the camps, what's most stuck with me is her tales of her schoolyard days, her reflections on forgiveness and her demeanor. Here's a few excerpts – but it's worth reading the whole book.

The year is 1938, and young Judith Magyar is 13, a bright student with a special love of poetry. Dr. Biczó, one of the most admired teachers at her school, picks her to recite a poem for the upcoming March Fifteenth Festival, a big event. She's nervous but excited. From chapter 1, "The Hidden Crowd":

I learned my poem by heart and rehearsed it for hours each night. Unfortunately it was a patriotically contrived ode, trite and childish. "Don't exaggerate that awful rhythm," mother coached, "you're rocking me to sleep. Tone it down. And make your voice resonant: like silver bells in the wind." But camouflaging the rhymes and rhythm wasn't easy. Even while I practiced diligently, I couldn't help but laugh at the poem, so amateurish compared to an Ady or a Babits. I complained to my aunt Madga. "It smacks of the principal," she jeered with the patronizing air of the recently graduated. "I'm sure Dr. Biczó didn't choose it." But as the weeks passed, the poem grew on me, and as I declaimed to mother, I waxed so emotional that tears collected on my lashes. Hadn't my great-grandfather Weiss volunteered in the revolution? Hadn't my father and my paternal uncles fought in the World War? Secretly, I prayed for another upheaval and the chance to risk my own life for my country.

A few days before the festival, Dr. Biczó listened to me recite the poem in its entirety. He nodded his bald head with satisfaction: "Just think what you could do with a great poet like Ady."

Before the festival, however, Hitler invades nearby Austria. Judith's parents become very worried. The atmosphere in town is getting nastier, and there's even the question of whether Judith, as a Jew, will still be allowed to deliver the poem. But Dr. Biczó says there will be no change. The big day comes:

Today, our classes were celebration, and the whole day was spent with history, poetry, and son. In the evening I arrived at school in Marika's splendid costume, jumping with excitement. Among the participants, I was the only child. Our art instructor made up my face with the concentration of a true artist. She held me at arm's length: "You look lovely, Magyar: the picture of a little Hungarian girl." She thinks I don't look Jewish, I figured, and skipped off, foolishly taking it for a compliment.

My poem was second in the program. All through the Bartók-Kodály choirs, I trembled behind the heavy, plush curtains, waiting for Dr. Biczó's cue. At the stroke of his plump finger, I parted the crimson drapes and stomped on stage. Mother had warned me of this terrifying moment: "Just pretend that all those heads are cabbages." But unfortunately there were no heads for me to see. Only darkness, threatening darkness. Under the dazzling light, I stood isolated, vulnerable. I curtsied, lifting the embroidered silk skirt with two fingers, and heard my voice choke up as I announced the title and author. Breathlessly, childishly, I began:

Magyar Iáyok, tudjátok-e
Micsoda nap van ma?
A Magyar nép dicsösétgét
E nagy naptól kapta.

Hungarian girls, say,
What day is today?
Magyar people's glory
Stems for this day.

"Shut up, Jewess!" a belligerent voice thundered from the void. Coarse shouts startled me from terribly near: "Dirty Jew!" "Away with the Kike!" Shrill, mocking whistles sprang up from all directions, hissing their hatred and spite. I shivered, terrified. Our friendly auditorium, where I had so often played and exercised, was transformed into an enemy den. Unseeing, I faced a nightmare. My knees shook above my white knee socks and my teeth chattered audibly. All my instincts propelled me backstage. But I would not give in.

I took a deep breath and dug my nails deep into my palms. My eyes had become accustomed to the spotlights, and I forced them to stare into the void. I gave another curtsy, this time low, unhurried, formal – just as I had learned in folk dance. Proud of my newfound courage, I smiled involuntarily.

Applause sprang from the dark hall, first sporadically, then solidly from all directions. Here and there, a mocking whistle soared above the clapping, but no one shouted anymore.

I decided to recite my poem from the start:

Hungarian girls, say,
What day is today?

My voice surprised me. It was fuller, stronger than before, almost adult. The large hall echoed it encouragingly, and there were no more interruptions until the final din of applause. One more curtsy, and I backed offstage, exhausted but exhilarated.

"Well done," smiled Dr. Biczó, and I ran to change into my navy dress uniform with the tricolor corsage.

It was with some trepidation that I went to Dr. Biczó's study the next morning to return the book containing my poem. What would he say about the Nazi interference? Could he possibly understand how terrifying it had been?

He received me kindly. "Excellent performance! Your voice is well suited to a large auditorium." Not a word about the demonstrators.

"The whistles..." I mumbled.

"Oh, yes!" he interrupted. "Some lunatic fringe, no doubt. Do you know, Magyar, how many Nyilasok - Arrowcross – there are in all of Kaposvár? No more than a hundred, surely. In a population of thirty-five thousand." He rapped his pencil against the desk for emphasis. "They pose no danger. I hope they did not frighten you."

"Oh, no..." I hung my head."

"have you ever read Plato, Judit Magyar?"

I hardly knew who Plato was. "We haven't had him, professor, sir."

Dr. Biczó stepped to the nearest bookshelf and slowly, with great formality, extracted a thin, worn volume and handed it to me. "You may take it home, Magyar, but please, be careful. I don't make a habit of lending my books to students. Note the dialogue Gorgias, and remember, Magyar, what Socrates teaches us: 'It is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one.'"

I held the frayed book as if in prayer. "Thank you, professor, sir," I curtsied. Down in the courtyard, a willful March wind bent the shivering poplars. I watched through Dr. Biczó's window as one of the young trees bowed humbly to the ground and stood upright again.

That's a lovely image. Dr. Biczó was probably seeking to reassure her. Along with a portrait of young courage, this story shows the influence of a supportive teacher. Similarly, Judith Magyar is very close with her mother and young aunt Madga, and it's those bonds that help them all survive later.

Most of the teachers at her school are decent people, but one, Köváry, nicknamed "Adam's Apple" by the girls, is a horrible anti-Semite, and he begins to show it after the first "Jewish Laws" are passed in Hungary. Using a revisionist, anti-Semitic history book, Köváry takes a perverse pleasure in forcing the Jewish girls in class to read the most bigoted passages. In Chapter 2, "Grandfather Escapes," Köváry is bullying his favorite target, a shy Jewish girl named Böde, who falters and falls silent in the middle of reading aloud an anti-Semitic passage. This does not go over well:

"Cow's udder between bull's horns!" Köváry bellowed. Thirty-night uniformed young ladies dipped pens into inkwells and copied "Cow's udder between bull's horns" into their notebooks. We loved to spread Köváry's novel vulgarities during recess. Böde clutched her desk and closed her eyes; two tears slid down her inflamed cheeks. But her tormentor hadn't finished. "Tell me, you offspring of blushing idiots, where did those worthless Jews come from? Stay mum another minute and I'll flunk you out of here without another chance. One less Jewish intellectual to worry about! Go, hide yourself in your father's grocery shop!"

That did it. Böde hated helping in her father's store. Burly peasants filled it on market days, and she was much too shy to take their good-natured pleasantries. Quickly, she quoted from our textbook: "During the Middle Ages, the Jews infiltrated Hungary, mostly from Poland, Galicia, and Rumania..." She hesitated, emitted a half-choked sob, then switched to the text we had three year previously: "But the Israelites in western Hungary are descendants of the Kazars!" We Jews of Somogy county prided ourselves on our "Aryan" ancestry: prejudice is contagious, and imperceptibly we had absorbed the media's bias. In self-irony, we often paraphrased Hitler's slogan "Herause mit den Juden! – Out with the Jews!" to "Heraus mit uns! – Out with us!"

"You improvising donkey with an elephant's trunk!" Köváry sputtered. A shocked sigh sprang from the class. This was just too much – even from Adam's Apple.

Ági Torony stuck up both hands, waving them insistently. The daughter of a prominent gentile doctor, she would not be ignored. "Toronyi," Köváry nodded.

Ági took her time, for the stage was clearly hers. With an exaggerated poise, she smoothed down her pleated skirt and threw back her head. Instead of her boyish voice, she sounded resonant and calm, almost grown-up. "Professor, sir, we learned about the Kazars in first form. They were a nomad tribe who adopted Judaism before they joined the Magyars in the occupation of present-day Hungary."

"Who is teaching whom?" Köváry bellowed. "Jewish horsemen! Bahhh! Legends of the past. The Kazars are gone. Wiped out! There isn't even any mention of them in your textbook."

Évi Kárpárti couldn't take it anymore: her right arm waving like a flag, she cried out passionately: "They weren't lost for a thousand years! We still had them in first form!"

There was a peal of appreciative laughter, underscored by the bells for recess. Köváry grabbed his book and left the room, followed by a surge of my classmates.

Köváry's behavior is utterly appalling. On the other hand, I love this portrait of young civil disobedience against indoctrination. Teenagers and even younger kids often get what's going on much better than adults give them credit for. There's a dark undercurrent here, though, because as readers we know what the students don't fully grasp yet – that the situation in Hungary will grow far worse. Mocking petty authority and bigotry, satisfying and praiseworthy though it is, will prove insufficient for the scale of cruelty to come.

Still, this reminds me of another tale. During one of my brief teaching stints, I covered a unit on the Holocaust. One of the students had grandparents who were survivors, and had fought in the Dutch resistance. His grandfather had been interviewed by a local public television station in Atlanta, and we watched part of it in class, with the student teaching. His grandfather said something about sitting in on classes today and being struck by the way students challenged their teachers. And rather than scolding this behavior - he thought it was great. He said that as a schoolboy, he and his classmates had been taught to be obedient, and this made them – here he paused – "ill-equipped" to resist Hitler and the fascists.

Judith Magyar continues her schoolwork, but her dreams of attending the Sorbonne are denied - she is 19 when she is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She's later shuttled to the Hessisch-Lichtenau work camp in Germany. The middle chapters center on her family's struggle to survive under grueling, cruel conditions. Chapter 8, "Stay Together!" recounts the challenges for Judith, her mother Rozsa and aunt Madga to remain intact as a group in the face of Nazi selections. Those efforts sometimes increases their peril, but their family bonds remain essential. Judith also lives with a well-founded fear of rape in the camps. It's a perspective and experience that's not found in all Holocaust memoirs. (I won't try to summarize every event – it's better to read the book for one's self.)

In the 80s, Judith Magyar Issacson and her husband Ike return to the sites of the camps, partially so she can do research. She later attends some reunions in Europe and gives some talks. This last chapter, "A Time to Forgive?" is very thoughtful, and features some memorable incidents:

I spotted the intricate little railroad station from a distance, looking like an illustration for a Grimm Brothers' fairytale. "This station hasn't changed at all," I told Ike, "it gives me the creeps." Closing my eyes, I could see our trainload of decrepit women swarming by the half-timbered building, bent and skeptical.

Getting out of the car, I faced a stout, neatly dressed woman about my age, waiting on the platform for a train. "Pardon me," I addressed her in my rusty German, "can you tell us the way to the munitions factory?"

"Why go up there?" she asked, and I explained briefly. "Oh, yes, I remember you women," she said in the local dialect.

"You do?" I whispered, awed to find a witness.

"Of course," she shrugged. "We used to watch you file past the grocery store, where I worked as a girl. You'd trudge by in rows of five, accompanied by guards and dogs. Yes?"

"Yes," I nodded.

"Ah, I remember you well," she droned on, eyeing my tailored dress. "You arrived ragged, barefoot, shaven to the scalp... What were you, criminals?" she blurted with sudden interest. "Or prostitutes?"

"Neither," I shook my head. "One thousand Hungarian Jewish women."

Her face, puffy with years of fat, grew indifferent, and we left her behind, staring at us, expressionless.

It's a remarkable interchange. Stories like this aren't uncommon in Holocaust accounts. It's about as stark an example of cognitive dissonance as you can find. Some citizen sees a group of prisoners, who have clearly been treated poorly – so poorly it's genuinely shocking. Naturally, the citizen asks, "Why? What's going on here?" Faced with the sight of Nazis (or their collaborators) commanding these ragged prisoners, or perhaps after witnessing actual abuse, the answer the citizen often arrives at is, "Those people must have done something really terrible to deserve that treatment." The alternative realization - that they don't deserve it, that these people in power are abusing it - and thus the same thing could happen to me - is truly terrifying. (I've covered some of these dynamics in earlier pieces; more, perhaps, in later posts.)

This brings us to forgiveness. When I heard her speak, Isaacson shared a story that wasn't in the book (at least my edition), so my details may be off. On one of her trips to Europe, after giving a talk, she was approached afterwards by a man. He said he had driven some of the deportation trains. He said something to the effect of: I didn't completely know what was going on, but I partially knew, or suspected, and didn't really want to know. Can you forgive me?

Forgiveness exists on at least two levels. There's the historical, collective level. And there's a far more personal one. Survivor Primo Levi delves very deeply into both the treachery of memory and the issue of forgiveness in The Drowned and the Saved. Levi writes that he and his fellows didn't blame those without power much; but blame grew the further one went up the ladder. He also spends a great deal of time considering the lies people tell to protect themselves. He examines this in Nazi perpetrators, the tales they make up to exonerate themselves and in some cases convince themselves to be true. Yet even the capos and other dull brutes he describes knew, however dimly, they were being cruel. Meanwhile, he also recounts the tale of the family of a fellow prisoner who almost certainly died. When Levi visits them to give them the news, they stop him – and tell him a story they've heard that the man escaped to France, or elsewhere. The story changes a bit over time. They simply cannot bear to face the loss of their loved one directly. (More on this dynamic, too, in an earlier post.)

In Isaacson's case – yes, she could and did forgive the man. It was a remarkable gesture, one of tremendous grace, and it was moving to hear. One response to evil is to say, forgive but never forget, but on the individual level, forgiveness must remain an intensely personal matter. Forgiveness cannot be forced, and in some cases may never be earned or deserved. But despite that, an individual may still choose to forgive, for his or her own sense of peace, or dignity, or something else altogether. After her talk, I asked Isaacson a question, because she seemed so serene. It was something like – apart from having family members back, would you change your life if you could? She smiled and said no. In her talk, she had spoken of her beloved husband, whom she met after the camps, and of course she wouldn't change that - but all of her experiences, including the Holocaust, made her who she was. She appreciated her life very much, and felt she was lucky.

The nobility and grace of a victim's perseverance does not excuse the crime. On the historical, collective level, "forgiveness" generally can only follow after the law and justice have had their way. The perpetrators may not regret their actions, and there's also the great danger of revisionism and whitewashing. The point is to prevent such abuses from happening again. Consequently, history must be reported accurately. That said, on the personal level, I found much to admire in Judith Magyar Isaacson's compassion, serenity and wisdom. It's not surprising she went into education, and I imagine she was exceptional at it.

At the end of "A Time to Forgive?" she writes about the chapter title:

The question mark is meant for those who haven't come to terms with forgiveness, especially my fellow former victims. As for me, my recent trips to Germany have taught me to distinguish between the culprits and the innocents, the enemies and the friends.

As the prophet Micah said some three thousand years ago:

What does the Lord require of Thee?
To do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with thy God.

(Here's the VS Holocaust archive.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Petiton to Protect Social Security

The Campaign for America's Future has an important petition on Social Security for Obama:


Please reject the proposal by the co-chairs of your deficit commission to slash Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age.

Social Security has its own financing and does not contribute one dime to the deficit. Social Security has successfully provided secure retirements for 75 years. It is fiscally sound and will never go bankrupt. Yes, work to bring down deficits and spur economic recovery, but don’t cut Social Security, which contributes nothing to the deficit.

I’m also worried that if you embrace proposals to cut Social Security, you will continue to lose seniors and anger future retirees whose retirement security has just been hit hard by the recession. And losing that support would endanger your re-election chances and the rest of your agenda for change.

You have continually fought to protect and strengthen Social Security. Don't stop now.

Cutting Social Security would be bad policy and horrendous politics. CAF has much more on Social Security, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has some good number-crunching, and New Deal 2.0 ran a good series on Social Security last year. Digby, Crooks and Liars and many other bloggers have been writing a great deal on this, too.


Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK Day 2011

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding. It seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leave society in a monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Update: Digby has an excellent post for the day.


Friday, January 07, 2011

Defining "Common Ground" in Diagrams

To follow up on my previous post on common ground, here are my basic parameters. (This is basically a roundup of past posts, with much greater discussion at the links. Click any image for a slightly larger view.) I can find common ground with people who believe in the social contract: I could pretty much stop right there. The idea of a social contract is pretty basic, and was central to the founding of our nation, but modern conservatism overwhelmingly rejects the notion on almost every level and in virtually every arena. I can find common ground with people who recognize that plutocracy and democracy don't mix: I can find common ground with people who are members of the reality-based community, interested in effective policy and responsible governance. (They're "wonks" in this somewhat tongue-in-cheek diagram, explained seriously here and more flippantly here.) Related to the social contract above, I can find common ground with those who recognize the authoritarian strains in movement conservatism, and are instead interested in building, maintaining and improving on a fair system for everybody: Also related to the social contract, I can find common ground with people who don't have extreme goals or selfish, reckless behavior: I can find common ground with people who are anti-bullshit, who oppose false equivalencies, and aren't afraid to say so when both sides aren't equally to blame. As Daniel Patrick Moniyhan reportedly said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." Having an open mind means giving someone a fair hearing, not turning off one's bullshit detector. It doesn't mean wiping one's mind of all prior knowledge or ignoring the track record of the speaker. I'm happy to work with people willing to fight the Stupid-Evil-Crazy Vortex:
Read through the Danny Goldberg piece linked in the previous post, and it'll remind you that conservatives have lied outrageously about almost every single issue under the sun. Eight Republican senators voted to repeal Don’t Ask Don't Tell, which is encouraging. However, the GOP's die-on-this-hill stance for tax cuts for the richest Americans and its obstructionism on the START deal were horribly irresponsible, shamelessly disingenuous and utterly indefensible. START finally passed, but its passage never should have been in jeopardy. It should not be such a difficult fight - with the outcome seriously in doubt - when it comes to matters of basic sanity and essential need (like securing loose nukes). The Republican Party has not been run by responsible adults for some time now. This should be no secret whatsoever to anyone who's followed politics over the past decade or more. Moreover, ignoring this, and shrinking from challenging political figures who utter falsehoods, severely hurts our country. Currently, I'd say our situation looks something like this: Liberals criticize the Democratic Party for its failings all the time. Meanwhile, I've lost track of how many times I've put in a good word for reasonable, well-intentioned people who identify themselves as Republicans or conservatives (I know a few). I'll probably continue to do so, but sometimes I'm awfully weary of it, because that characterization is so laughable when it comes to the conservative political class. I'd love it if the few reasonable types left could take over their party, but I'm not going to pretend that the GOP is something other than what it's shown itself to be countless times: irresponsible, reckless, inhumane, corrupt, dishonest, plutocratic, and occasionally downright nihilistic. Neither am I going to pretend that denying that reality will somehow make things better. As I've often written, if both major political parties merely competitively pandered to the middle class, America would be in far better shape. But it's delusional to think scoundrels of any stripe will suddenly develop consciences on their own. Only a real threat to what they hold dear - only a loss of power – can curb them. Even then, they'll only change if obstructionism and waiting two to four years ceases to work. Banishment to the political wilderness for a generation or two is what's needed.


Thursday, January 06, 2011

Common Ground and Equal Blame

With this new year comes a new Congress, that season when an old pundit's fancy turns to familiar blather about "bipartisanship" and "common ground." However, the real problem isn't a lack of "bipartisanship," which is only a symptom, at best – it's the lack of responsible adults in Congress - and the parties are extremely lopsided in that regard. Neither is the problem a lack of civility per se – it's a lack of honesty and fact-checking. Beltway pundits endlessly fetishize "bipartisanship," but somehow it usually means, "Do whatever the Republicans want, regardless of whether they're in power or not." Strangely, a policy's merits and public opinion rarely seem to matter to the chattering class, either.

Trying to find common ground can be valuable, but among people of good faith, it's only part of a larger process – finding both points of agreement and points of contention. Assuming two people roughly agree on the facts and also on a solution to a given problem, they've found common ground and can proceed. However, our system is so broken that even common sense measures often become ridiculously politicized, and fail.

Meanwhile, some points of contention are trivial, whereas others remain extremely important. Arguing over whether a particular program gets slightly more or less funding this year is one thing, but it's vastly different from aggressively arguing that due process itself, a cornerstone of civilization, should be abandoned by our country - and that anyone who thinks differently hates America and loves terrorists. On the first issue, there can be haggling and compromise and the "bipartisan" comity that makes the David Broders of the world feel warm and fuzzy. On the second, essential issue, there should be no compromise - no abandonment of due process - and the proper place for "bipartisanship" lies in jointly condemning such crusades against the foundations of our justice system (not to mention their McCarthyist approach).

Coming up with wise solutions to complex problems is challenging enough on its own, but the sad reality is that, in our national political discourse, we rarely get that far. We have a political system - and that includes the media coverage of politics - that's saddled by a tremendous amount of corruption, bad faith, vapidity, sheer idiocy and bullshit. Large sections of the population believe things that simply aren't true. They believe them primarily because their leaders - and we're talking mostly about conservative Republicans here – lie to them. Meanwhile, these lies often go unchallenged by the media.

Danny Goldberg tackled these dynamics in an excellent piece in The Nation, Mad Men vs. Math Men (11/17/10):

Almost half of the public is either misinformed or subject to unanswered right wing narratives. If I believed that there was a chance of Sharia law being imposed in the United States I too would be gravely concerned. If I believed that most Europeans and Canadians had inferior health care to that of average Americans, I too would be against health care reform. If I believed that man-made global warning did not exist or that there were nothing we could do about it and that environmental efforts were responsible for unemployment I’d be against cap and trade. If I believed that prisoner abuse would make my family significantly less likely to be killed by terrorists, my thinking about torture would be different. And if I believed that the problems with the economy had been caused by too much government instead of too little, that my personal freedom was threatened by the government instead of large corporations, I’d probably be in a tea party supporter and a Republican.

Unless and until progressives change the mind sets of the tens of millions of people who believe right-wing mythology, who never read the New York Times or listen to NPR, who never watch any TV news other than Fox, future elections will have disappointing results for progressives regardless of who is in the White House.

Even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have limits to their ability to de-program those who have been indoctrinated by conservative orthodoxy. As David Bromwich recently wrote in New York Review of Books, “You can learn from them why the wrong ideas are funny, but you cannot learn why the wrong ideas are wrong.”

It's hard to find common ground with people living on another planet. Generally speaking, in terms of people spouting falsehoods and the Stupid-Evil-Crazy spectrum, average folks are more likely to be sincere but misinformed, and someone's degree of "evil" is typically proportionate with their power. Members of Congress and political pundits have exposure to much more information than the average voter. For example, Bob the angry tea partier probably doesn't know how severe wealth inequity is in America, but John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan certainly do. As Paul Krugman recently observed (with a striking example), "It’s always important to realize that someone can disagree with you politically without being a bad person. But there are bad people in politics, too."

It's crucial to nail down the meaning and consequences of someone's political rhetoric as well. It can be easy to agree with political platitudes – that's why they're used – but the "common ground" they offer is generally illusory. What's the actual plan, what does it entail, who will benefit, and what are the likely consequences? Fine, Carly Fiorina, you say you want to shrink the deficit with spending cuts - how are you actually going to do it? Especially when measures championed by you and your party (further tax cuts for the wealthy) will increase the size of the deficit? Fine, Bob the tea partier, you're all for "freedom" – but what does that actually mean in practice for you? As Steve Benen explored in "Movements are about Something Real" (8/28/10):

For a year and a half, we've seen rallies and town-hall shouting and attack ads and Fox News special reports. But I still haven't the foggiest idea what these folks actually want, other than to see like-minded Republicans winning elections. To be sure, I admire their passion, and I applaud their willingness to get involved in public affairs. If more Americans chose to take a more active role in the political process, the country would be better off and our democracy would be more vibrant.

But that doesn't actually tell us what these throngs of Americans are fighting for, exactly. I'm not oblivious to their cries; I'm at a loss to appreciate those cries on anything more than a superficial level.

This is about "freedom."

Well, I'm certainly pro-freedom, and as far as I can tell, the anti-freedom crowd struggles to win votes on Election Day. But can they be a little more specific? How about the freedom for same-sex couples to get married? No, we're told, not that kind of freedom.

This is about a fight for American "liberties."

That sounds great, too. Who's against American "liberties"? But I'm still looking for some details. Might this include law-abiding American Muslims exercising their liberties and converting a closed-down clothing store into a community center? No, we're told, not those kinds of liberties.

This is about giving Americans who work hard and play by the rules more opportunities.

I'm all for that, too. But would these opportunities include the chance for hard-working Americans to bring their kids to the doctor if they get sick, even if the family can't afford insurance? No, we're told, not those kinds of opportunities.

Do read the rest. It's not hard to find two opposing parties who both like the word "freedom," but their conceptions may be immensely different; they may both praise the Constitution, but their knowledge and understanding of it may be wildly off. Let's make sure people – particularly those with power and influence – define their terms, explain their meanings and spell out the consequences of their proposals. (Fact-checking them would be good, too.)

We don't all live in the same reality, we don't all mean the same thing when we use the same words, and we don't all have the same goals. Some political players don't give a damn about the "common good" or working for a sustainable system. Many voices in the political discourse aren't blathering in good faith. And both major political parties are not 'equally to blame' for America's woes.

Saying or implying that the blame isn't equal makes some Americans – many of them well-intentioned and some even well-informed – extremely uncomfortable.

A case in point is Jon Stewart, whose Rally to Restore Sanity was very well-intentioned and civically-minded (and risky in its way), but wound up mostly preaching to the converted. Stewart explained his views more in this interview with Rachel Maddow (worthy of its own post), and responded to her criticism that he overdoes the "both sides do it and are equally to blame," false equivalence shtick. To his great credit, Stewart is extremely smart, consistently entertaining, and calls bullshit on the powerful with wit and style. The "both sides do it" framework (also favored by Obama) can have rhetorical value if it helps some sincere but heated person take a step back and recommit to fighting skullduggery, especially on his own side. It also can help insulate the speaker from charges of bias (although those are often inevitable regardless). However, "both sides do it and are equally to blame" is often simply not true, and sometimes laughably false. Stewart has suggested targeting "corruption" versus a specific party instead, and that's good, but the reality is that's precisely what many activists have been doing all along. (Most liberal activists haven't stopped criticizing the Democratic Party for its faults.) It's just that, if one genuinely targets corruption, skullduggery and the like, one party's rap sheet quickly grows much longer and much more damning.

How does a conscientious person respond to that? Given that reality, accurate reporting can be branded as "partisan," yet imposing a false "balance" on a story can be misleading, and rob the audience of the ability to make informed decisions. Meanwhile, it's one thing to be polite to a bald-faced liar or raging asshole out of respect for a venue or as a rhetorical strategy – swearing at Newt Gingrich ain't gonna play on PBS' NewsHour. It's another thing to be so guileless as to believe that Gingrich is actually operating in good faith and not prepare to combat his preferred bullshit of the week. Calling bullshit can be done politely at times, and some people are masters at this. However, sometimes politeness can severely conflict with honesty. Given the enormous preponderance of bullshit out there and the severe harm it actually causes, the important thing is to call bullshit in some fashion on shameless, destructive hacks. It's also important to know that this action will always strike a certain crowd as terribly rude. Beltway social norms "demand vehement repudiation of petty acts of incivility... while tolerating and even approving of extremely consequential acts of indecency as long as they're advocated with superficial civility." This is especially the case for the Beltway Villagers when a member of their own crowd, of that general class and with some power, commits the "indecency." Put another way, elite political bullshitting is an extremely cushy gig with a grotesque thought-to-dollar ratio, and being part of the bullshitting club transcends all other allegiances. If some foul-mouthed upstart is allowed to call out Bill Kristol on his bloodthirsty ways or staggering error rate, why, then, Cokie Roberts could be next! Civility has its place, but it's absolutely essential to have honest political discussions somewhere, particularly since they generally ain't gonna happen on the Sunday talk shows.

Jon Stewart does believe in calling bullshit, but also seems to sincerely buy into some of the "both sides are equally to blame" stuff. However, take that second tenet too far, and it severely crimps the first one. That second tenet's not so bad in small doses, and fine as a conclusion if it's truly accurate, but it shouldn't be predetermined; the first tenet is the much better starting point. Let's say you lean toward one party but try to be fair-minded; you confront those grossly unequal rap sheets, but cling to that second tenet; you wrestle with it all, but finally blurt out the accepted conventional wisdom of the church of the savvy pundit - "BOTH SIDES DO IT!" Do that all the time, come to that conclusion every time regardless of the evidence or the scale of the offense, and you're no longer just calling your own side on its crap, a valuable service – you're minimizing or outright denying the crap the other side is doing. It's well-intentioned, but dishonest. Plus, genuine scoundrels never stop voluntarily – they just exploit such good will. (Again, average citizens tend to be more sincere and honorable than political figures.) If one never holds the scoundrels accountable, the situation only gets worse.

Stewart was tested on that second tenet ("both sides") in the wake of some truly despicable maneuvers by the Republican Party, who yet again were blocking health care for 9/11 first responders. Stewart skewered the GOP in an excellent segment in standard Daily Show form, but then broke from the usual format to invite first responders on the show. Both segments were great, and Stewart's coverage helped get the bill passed. That's to his immense credit – but it also puts the lie to that second tenet. Now, while "both sides are equally to blame" overstates the case, there's some truth to it on some issues – neither major party is pushing hard to end the wars. (The division on the activist level is much sharper, though.) Similarly, the Dems enacted weak financial reform and aren't eager to challenge Wall Street – but the GOP wanted no financial reform whatsoever, so even that's not "equal." Meanwhile, both sides are not equally deserving of blame and credit at all on the 9/11 bill, or health care reform, or Don't Ask Don't Tell, or the Lilly Ledbetter Act, or S-CHIP (health care for kids), or unemployment aid, or a host of other measures. Democratic leaders are partially corrupt and plutocratic, while Republican leaders are entirely corrupt and plutocratic, even neo-feudal, and reckless and nihilistic to boot. As Danny Goldberg's piece above explores, rank-and-file conservatives believe utter falsehoods on almost every major issue of the day, and they believes these because their leaders lie to them. There's little equivalency between sides when it comes to being "reality-based" and responsible.

Blue Gal and driftglass covered Stewart and many of these issues in last week's Professional Left podcast, and driftglass delved into them further in "As Reasonable as Hell":

Jon's problem is that, for all of his formidable comedic and observational skills, he is still in an almost catatonic denial about the country in which he lives. He obviously, deeply wants us to be something more than we are. Something better than we are. A place where people with different but sincere and well-reasoned beliefs can fight hard, come together afterward to figure out a good-enough compromise, and then move on to the next thing.

You know who else wants that? Every fucking Liberal I know.

But this simply is not that country: not some feisty middle-brow Camelot with a couple of equally wacky, equally flawed and equally honorable political philosophies contending in an arena with rules and referees. Instead, this is a country where one political party is ruled by loathesome men with grotesque motives on behalf of a tiny clique of plutocrats and bulwarked by an electoral army which is kept constantly tweaked to the point of near-riot by a carefully-cultivated media cocktail of rage, ignorance, bigotry and God.

What Jon cannot face is that he will never have the country he wants -- that we all want -- by clevering and cajoling and joking and reasoning it into existence.

We've tried that for the last 30 years...

Again, do the read the rest. But given this situation – which is hardly a secret – the responsible thing to do is (as driftglass says) take sides. At this point in America, truly 'rallying to restore sanity' requires more than quiet decency in solidarity with one's fellow Not-Insane Americans; it requires speaking out against insanity and taking action. It's not as if it was hard to find insanity this past year: opposition to the 9/11 first responder bill, opposition to START, Liz Cheney's crusade to eliminate due process, the pro-torture brigade, the push to give further tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, the campaign to destroy Social Security, opposition to badly-needed jobs programs and infrastructure spending, godawful media coverage... There is no lack of worthy causes going forward. In our current political system, the amount of bullshit far outstrips the amount of outrage and the number of responsible adults. These situations won't magically get better on their own if people of conscience stay mute. If political figures pushing bad ideas are never forced to make their case - if people with good ideas never bother to explain anything well - if bullshit goes largely unchallenged - why the hell should we expect that the "mushball middle" (as Al Franken calls them) will somehow figure everything out and make good, informed decisions? "Team Evil" pays well, doesn't take days off and plays for the long game as well as the short one. Good causes don't triumph all on their own, without smart, sustained effort. To borrow from an old post, a national political discourse with one party attacking false scapegoats and the other too gutless or corrupt to call out real villainy is simply toxic. If "bipartisan" sanity, decency and responsibility can't be found in the current landscape, well then, it's time to make an informed, critical judgment, pick a side, and fight.

(Edited for clarity. There's a companion post, "Defining "Common Ground" in Diagrams.")


Science Fiction Double Feature

The first version apparently reflects Richard O'Brien's original idea for the opening credits of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The second is O'Brien performing a cool acoustic version.

This has probably always been my favorite song from Rocky Horror, for its geek bait lyrics and the wistful yearning of its chorus. I was introduced to the soundtrack as a teenager by a friend who was absolutely obsessed with the film, and mined it for profundities about life the way others might meditate on a favorite play or novel. (I've never felt as strongly, but it's entertaining.) I saw a live stage version in Edinburgh years ago (an official re-release), which meant the actors could interact with the audience and heckle them back. It was pretty fun. The usherette/candy girl who sang this (and also played Magenta) absolutely nailed it.

RIP Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen.

Eclectic Jukebox


Keep your wits about you, and well fed and sheltered. Quoth the TBogg:

Roy Edroso, possibly the Single Greatest Blogger in the Universe, has hit a bad streak and, despite the entreaties of his minions, refuses to ask for help…. the big fucking martyr.

So frequent commenter and occasional TBogg blogger JayB has set up a paypal account, the proceeds of which will go towards getting Roy over the hump. So maybe you could see clear to forgoing your erectile dysfunction drugs for a week or two or put off buying that Collectible NASCAR Commemorative Plate for a month and help a brother out.

Think of it as the March of Dimes for Snark. There are big karma points to be had here and after how you acted last Saturday night (yeah, you know what I’m talking about) I’d say you should collect them before the police show up and/or the results from the health department come in the mail. Certified.

Several other bloggers have helped spread the word, and Jay B has linked them over at the Edrosothon site linked above. (Roy's also written a thank you post.) Roy picked this as his best post of last year, and if you're not reading his weekly right-blogger roundups, you're really missing out. If nothing else, check out his piece on the The 10 Best Rightblogger Rants of 2010. (Finally, I'd say the Alicublog comment threads are some of the best out there.)


Film Obits 1-6-11

Actor Pete Postlethwaite recently died at the age of 64 from cancer. He was earthy and intense, and never gave a bad performance. (I'm fond of great character actors.) I'd rank In the Name of the Father and Brassed Off as his best work of that I've seen, although he was also memorable in The Usual Suspects and The Lost World, among many others.

Director Blake Edwards died at the age of 88 back in December. Among his many comedies, he directed most of the Pink Panther series, starring Peter Sellers. Roy Edroso has two great clips. (I linked one of my other favorites in the comments.)

Anne Francis recently died at the age of 80. Her most iconic role (at least for me) was in the 50s sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet.

I also never wrote anything for one of her co-stars in that film, Leslie Nielsen, who died late last year at 84. Nielsen started as a dramatic actor, but really found his calling with comedy in the Airplane! and Police Squad franchises. Nielsen once demonstrated the difference between acting in drama versus comedy with two line readings. First, he delivered the "dramatic" reading, with appropriate gravitas. Then, he delivered the "comedic" reading – exactly the same way. There are different styles of comedy, but Nielsen understood that his brand depended on him playing everything straight, as a man oblivious to the madness to the world around him, and most of all to his own ridiculousness.