Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

State of the Union (and Response) 2012

Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday 1/24/12, and the Republican response from Mitch Daniels, are still being dissected and discussed. I've discussed it elsewhere (including at one of LA's Drinking Liberally chapters), but might as well weigh in here, characteristically long and late, and also more personally and profanely than usual. (Lucky you.)

CBS News has the video and full text of both the SOTU and response here.

Barack Obama

The American public had a largely positive reaction to this State of the Union. The pundits I hear were less impressed, but that's hardly a shock.

I listened to most of the State of the Union on the radio as I drove home, then turned on the TV (I've since watched it again). I'm rather obsessed with vocal work in acting (diction, inflection, accents, subtext, cadence and musicality), and the SOTU is certainly a performance and political theater, even more so than most other political speeches. When listening to the radio, there's only the voice and no visual cues, which has its both its drawbacks and benefits. Obama's a good writer and speaker, but I found it this one more processed and calculated than usual. One favorite pattern was: 1) lay out the situation in a relatively even tone, with some variation for bullet points, 2) raise the pitch to emphasize some point, usually to implore the audience or to point out that 'this makes no sense,' then 3) issue a challenge in a pounding cadence in a lower register. This isn't an unusual approach to political speechifyin', and Obama does it better than most. Structurally, the ending echoed the opening (not surprising, but reflecting basic craftsmanship).

Obama mentioned the drawdown of troops from Iraq. He also said "we've begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan," including a scheduled drawdown of troops this summer, but last I read, the final withdrawal date is delayed until 2014 for absolutely no good reason. I was disappointed but hardly surprised to hear no talk of ending drone attacks, or closing Guantanamo, or ending indefinite detention, or initiating torture prosecutions (or at least a Truth and Reconciliation Commission), or dismantling the American surveillance state. When it comes to the Beltway establishment and the leadership of the two major political parties, American imperialism is a matter of bipartisan comity (much less so in the roots, where's there's a far sharper divide).

Obama's general decision to run against a do-nothing congress and challenge the Republicans to deliver legislation they'd championed in the past to his desk to sign was both smart and valid. Invoking post-WWII infrastructure spending and the GI Bill was also sharp. Charles Pierce correctly notes that the Occupy movement drove Obama to use stronger populist rhetoric. Obama's best section on this was probably:

We don't begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it's not because they envy the rich. It's because they understand that when I get a tax break I don't need and the country can't afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference -- like a senior on a fixed income, or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet. That's not right. Americans know that's not right. They know that this generation's success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to the future of their country, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility. That's how we'll reduce our deficit. That's an America built to last. (Applause.)

Funny, an honest critique actually makes for both good policy and good politics. (Now what will come of it?)

One of my biggest criticisms of Obama is that he consistently adopts Republican/conservative frameworks, which is problematic because they do not reflect reality or good policy. Thus, in the tradition of Clinton triangulation and Broder centrism fetish porn, we received a great deal of talk about tax cuts, deregulation, drilling for natural gas, and so on. I don't blame Obama for the hand he's been dealt, inheriting several horrible situations and facing congressional conservatives who are the most obstructionist in history (unless you count the Civil War and secession, I guess – back when, ironically, Republicans were the party of Lincoln). Republican officials have almost no commitment whatsoever to responsible governance. They have pursued an unconscionable strategy of economic sabotage to seize more power for their party – at which point, they will not just continue but ratchet up their crappy, cruel, plutocratic policies. (Their attitude is that someone else has to be the adult – screw you, they've got theirs.) So I don't blame Obama for the awful hand he's been dealt, but I do criticize him for how he's played it on multiple occasions. Regardless of how one judges his motives and character, his modus operandi is to play conciliator. That could work if the Republican Party wasn't so batshit crazy and at times utterly nihilistic, and if there was a rabid America left to balance them out. Instead, the mostly centrist-to-conservative Obama (on some issues one could call him liberal) is denounced as a socialist, which presumably makes liberals flaming communists. Reality-based policies that honor the social contract have been consistently attacked as a great threat to America, rather than lauded as the source of its (potential) greatness. (Imagine if the American right was where Obama is, and he represented a mostly-sane and somewhat responsible Republican Party.) Obama does give lip service to social contract stuff, but he won't challenge the American ruling class that strongly. For instance, he deserves credit for consistently talking about raising taxes on the rich, but basically, he's always been fighting merely for a return to the extremely-generous-to-the-rich levels under Clinton with his kinder, gentler version of Reaganomics. The Republicans are completely corrupt and plutocratic, and Obama is better in comparison, but he's an establishmentarian who will only push so far. (One could argue that in our current, corrupt system of political donations and patronage, this is inevitable, but then let's acknowledge that.)

Case in point, here's Obama on corporate taxes:

We should start with our tax code. Right now, companies get tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas. Meanwhile, companies that choose to stay in America get hit with one of the highest tax rates in the world. It makes no sense, and everyone knows it. So let's change it.

First, if you're a business that wants to outsource jobs, you shouldn't get a tax deduction for doing it. (Applause.) That money should be used to cover moving expenses for companies like Master Lock that decide to bring jobs home. (Applause.)

Second, no American company should be able to avoid paying its fair share of taxes by moving jobs and profits overseas. (Applause.) From now on, every multinational company should have to pay a basic minimum tax. And every penny should go towards lowering taxes for companies that choose to stay here and hire here in America. (Applause.)

Third, if you're an American manufacturer, you should get a bigger tax cut…

Boy, those tax cuts conservatives are always shilling sure sound great, don't they? Some of this depends on semantics, and what's actually done remains the most important, but in actual practice, American corporations do not pay "one of the highest tax rates in the world." Many large corporations pay minimal taxes, and some pay effectively none. Let's force them to pay up first, then we can talk about "lowering" the corporate tax rate. Reversing the order will just mean they pay even less, which is of course their aim. Betting on the bad faith of the rich and powerful as a class (and their lackeys) is the safest wager you will ever make.

On education, Obama made a number of positive statements about college loans and the like. (The Republican position, that students should pay more to private companies and go deeply in debt, is absolutely unconscionable, whether it's held due to corruption, or ideological fervor, or some putrid mix.) Obama also said:

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced states to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies -- just to make a difference.

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. (Applause.) And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn. That's a bargain worth making. (Applause.)

Discussing Race to the Top in detail is a lengthy conversation in itself, as is the general vogue for one education fad after another. But to my ears, Obama shifted almost immediately from speaking out against bashing teachers to – bashing teachers. The main problem, again, is his adoption of a conservative framework, granting legitimacy to bad faith bullshit. The punitive mindset toward teachers, that firing more of them is the chief solution (plus union-busting) is entirely misguided. You will never hear this attitude toward other people who enter a life of service – military personnel, or firefighters, or cops, or nurses. (For that matter, just imagine religious leaders, with their tax-exempt status, being attacked as lazy freeloaders who should be canned.) If the first question you ask about improving education is, "How do we fire more teachers?" you have failed miserably. The important questions are, how do we make the teaching profession more attractive? How do we attract good candidates? How do we pay teachers more? How can we show them more respect? How can we support their efforts with students? How can we alleviate some of the outside challenges they face – students coming to school hungry, or with troubles at home, or troubles in their neighborhood, or with peers at school, or with large gaps in their education, or lack of study skills, or lack of basic language skills, or lack of parental involvement (sometimes merely due to lack of time, not caring)? How do we retain good teachers? How do we best share good ideas and effective teaching techniques? How much do we invest in professional development, and support teachers to safeguard against burnout? How do we restore a once good teacher who has been worn down? Ask all those questions, and make a sustained, good faith effort to address them, and then you can talk to me about firing teachers. But let's cut the scapegoating, class issues and political calculus (firing people who tend to vote Democratic) fueling all this bullshit. If you don't think movement conservatives hate teachers and the middle class in general, you're not paying attention. As we've covered before, some conservatives, such as the billionaire Koch brothers, pay millions every year for flacks to argue for defunding public education, public libraries, public media, and almost everything to do with the Commons. Discussions about public education should not occur in a vacuum.

Obama also said (emphasis mine):

I'm a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more. (Applause.) That's why my education reform offers more competition, and more control for schools and states. That's why we're getting rid of regulations that don't work. That's why our health care law relies on a reformed private market, not a government program.

On the other hand, even my Republican friends who complain the most about government spending have supported federally financed roads, and clean energy projects, and federal offices for the folks back home.

The point is, we should all want a smarter, more effective government…

Again, while what Obama actually does remains important, he's essentially accepting a conservative world view here. And again, that's problematic because it doesn't work – except for the rich or relatively privileged. If saying all this gives Obama cover to pass some good legislation, it's less troubling, but that hasn't been the general pattern, and it remains a serious concern. I can forgive punching hippies if it actually achieves political progress and some good deals, but it hasn't. Obama is too intelligent not to know that government-run health care, where essential care is not dependent on for-profit private insurance, is both more effective and far cheaper than any private approach. There's ample evidence of this in the United States alone. What benefit comes from lying about this? The more easy question to answer is, who does lying about this benefit? (Cui bono?) Why not instead frame the issue to the Republicans as, 'you got what you said you wanted,' as Obama has in the past, and did elsewhere in this very speech? Would that somehow convey "weakness" while the other passages did not? This sort of rhetoric, just as with Obama talking about so-called entitlement reform, is not something to cheer. In terms of elected national officials, the Democratic Party has a liberal subgroup but is not particularly liberal, certainly compared to other nations. (As should be clear, I really don't give a damn about the label, I care about good policies.) If political progress depends on moving the Overton window (to more reality-based policies that honor the social contract), Obama often undercuts these efforts.

(Personally, I don't always see practical value to debating Obama's motives and character, since progress depends on sustained political pressure regardless of an official's supposed virtue or lack thereof. Similarly, I don't expect many politicians to choose good policy when it's bad politics, but when politicians oppose measures that are both good policy and good politics, well then, it does raise the whole stupid-evil-crazy debate. We political junkies of the blogosphere often dwell on these things. I'll confess I find this stuff interesting, in much the same way I ponder and discuss King Lear and other good narratives, and I'm fascinated by human nature in general. I'd argue that anthropology and the arts often yield far more political insight than mainstream political commentary. However, on the political activism level, the answer to the stupid-evil-crazy question only matters to the degree that it affects your choices and actions. For instance, does thinking Obama is at heart a good guy make you pull your punches and not pressure your congressman about that bill? To what degree does it shape how you spend your limited time and energy politically? Will you focus on local issues, or on reforming one of the major political parties, or building a viable third party, or on single issue advocacy? All this is fodder for a later post.)

Obama's pitch in this SOTU was in some spots to liberals, but for the most part, I don't think he was trying to woo disillusioned liberals back; he was pitching to the supposed moderates, independents and swing voters (some of whom can be considered disillusioned as well). He was also challenging the Republican establishment, and trying to frame the upcoming fight to the media. It seems to have worked in the short run. We'll see how the Obama campaign adjusts its approach as the election year progresses.

Finally, let's consider Obama's big finish:

Which brings me back to where I began. Those of us who've been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn't matter if you're black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight. When you're marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you're in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.

One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn't matter. Just like it didn't matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates -- a man who was George Bush's defense secretary -- and Hillary Clinton -- a woman who ran against me for president.

All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn't deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job -- the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other -- because you can't charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there's somebody behind you, watching your back.

So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I'm reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other's backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)

This is a variation on Obama's rhetoric from 2008 and 2009, about there not being a red America, or blue America, but a the United States of America. (He used a few versions.) I heard at least one reporter call this closing stirring, and as mentioned before, the American public as a whole had a positive reaction to the speech. Jonah Goldberg launched a characteristically anti-logical attack ("illogical" would be too kind) on this section as... un-American. I'll turn that one over to Blue Texan, and Roy Edroso and the alicurati.

Honestly, I was rather creeped out and dismayed by this section. Yes, many conservatives/Republicans have been enormous hypocrites on bin Laden. Bush said he wanted him dead or alive, then said (after they apparently couldn't find him) that he didn't spend much time thinking about him. Several prominent, otherwise hawkish conservatives refused to congratulate Obama for killing bin Laden, or insisted that Bush deserved half or most of the credit. Given that the same people insisted we start two wars – and insisted, outrageously, that we go to war with Iraq because of 9/11 and bin Laden and that anyone who disagreed was a traitor – that's pretty galling. (Of course, lying to start an unnecessary war sorta permanently disqualifies anybody from being considered "honorable," so no great surprise.) Earlier, Obama mentioned infrastructure spending, and could have ended with the metaphor of building a bridge, or dam, or school, or something of that nature. Instead, he argued that Americans of all walks of life could come together in unity – to kill a terrorist.

One could argue this is a sad but realistic assessment of where America is. Movement conservatives, overwhelmingly white, hate a significant number of their fellow Americans, and even hate the countries of their ancestry in Europe. Consequently, are you really going to convince that group to stop hating brown people in foreign lands, when you can't even make progress on fronts one and two? Are you really going to persuade people who believe things that are simply not factually true of your policies' virtues? Are you going to persuade people screaming (due to idiocy or a paycheck) that the president is a flaming socialist (when this is laughable) that they should reinvest in infrastructure, education, research, and the social contract in general? So perhaps this closing metaphor is the best that America is capable of agreeing to collectively, a desperate appeal to conservatives who hate Obama passionately that surely they can put their differences aside on at least this one issue – killing a foreign Muslim terrorist. Perhaps. (And this will somehow lead to a better tomorrow. Or we simply get the metaphors we deserve.) But regardless of the accuracy of this diagnosis, I have to stick with my first reaction – that it was very dark, and astoundingly cynical. I won't weep for bin Laden, but I will over the sad state of my country.

Mitch Daniels

To anyone familiar with Mitch Daniels' career, his selection for the Republican rebuttal trumpeted bullshit before he even opened his month. Sure enough, Daniels delivered (emphasis mine):

The President did not cause the economic and fiscal crises that continue in America tonight. But he was elected on a promise to fix them, and he cannot claim that the last three years have made things anything but worse: the percentage of Americans with a job is at the lowest in decades. One in five men of prime working age, and nearly half of all persons under 30, did not go to work today.

"In three short years, an unprecedented explosion of spending, with borrowed money, has added trillions to an already unaffordable national debt…

Politifact has sadly undermined their own credibility elsewhere, but they do a decent job on some Daniels claims. Paul Krugman and Steve Benen have more on the Daniels rebuttal, and I'll just link a 2011 post on the Republican Party's utter hypocrisy on fiscal matters, "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice." It debunks many of Daniels' direct and indirect claims, such as the lie about "an unprecedented explosion of spending."

I had a conversation with someone who heralded the bolded section above as honesty (Daniels indirectly admitting the Republicans shared some blame), but at best this is a necessary and begrudging planned concession in order to pivot to far greater bullshit (a move that is a David Brooks staple, by the way). An honest statement by Daniels, would go something like:

True, Obama did not create this mess – I did, along with George Bush, Dick Cheney, almost all the Republicans in Congress, and some conservative Democrats (the Blue Dogs). We did it over the objections of many Democrats, and it was a colossal exercise in bad faith, because we had to sunset these huge, budget-busting tax cuts for the rich and use the reconciliation process to get it all passed – and we've threatened to shut down the government twice now if those tax cuts were not extended. We didn't say jack shit about adding five trillion to the debt, and actually lied and demagogued the hell out of the issue. We've only started squawking now that a Democrat is in office, playing the game exactly as we did with Clinton. We'll do all that again and more if we get back into office, since every single Republican presidential candidate wants to lower taxes even more for the rich, including the complete elimination of the estate tax. We know none of our measures will do jack shit to help the economy, by the way. Still, we'll continue to pretend that merely charging the wealthiest Americans the tip money that the extremely generous Clinton tax levels would entail is nothing less than raging, flaming socialism. Obama won't challenge Wall Street that much, it's true, but we'll actively work to screw you over in new and more efficient ways, as part of our Road to Serfdom, Fellate an Aristocrat initiative. So vote for us.

Chris Matthews, who can be really hit or miss, liked Daniels' speech (Rachel Maddow did not). I think some people look at Daniels, see a boring milquetoast who makes some feints toward bipartisanship and accountability, and think that this somehow makes him a sober, responsible adult. (After all, when has a soft-spoken, bureaucratic white guy ever caused harm to the country? Give them a chance!) Maybe they're just grading Daniels and the rest on a curve, given the sorry state of the Republican Party, but somehow, Daniel's actual record and long history of flagrant dishonesty on his supposedly signature issues, the economy and fiscal responsibility, do in fact matter. Meanwhile, I remain astounded that anyone, even conservatives whose analysis amounts to little more than gushing fanfic, would anoint Mitch Daniels as a conservative heartthrob.

The Chattering Class

After the State of the Union and Daniels' response, Charlie Rose hosted a panel of folks to discuss it all: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bret Stephens, Mark Halperin, Al Hunt, Kurt Andersen and Andy Stern. I had this playing in the background and only caught snatches. Doris Kearns Goodwin has her detractors, but made good points and provided helpful historical context and comparisons. (She often does, and while I wouldn't have her as the only analyst, she's generally a positive addition to the mix.) Hunt provided decent but unexceptional boilerplate analysis. I probably missed most of Andersen and Stern.

Mark Halperin remains a little shit, an odious legacy troll who represents all that is shallow, obtuse and petty in our national political discourse. (He was #1 in Salon's Hack 30 for 2011, a well-deserved dishonor.) He yet again assailed Obama for not changing the tone in Washington. I'll quote from "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit" from July 2011 once again:

As of this writing, the Republicans have staked out an extreme, reckless position, refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and thus endangering the economy and America's future. Despite all this, Village idiots such as Mark Halperin have attacked Obama for his tone in criticizing the GOP's radical plan. It would be one thing if the Republicans were just offering an alternative, equally valid plan, but instead, they're threatening the government's very ability to function. Halperin refuses to acknowledge this; his analysis is insultingly obtuse. Not making a value judgment on two such stark choices is itself a value judgment; it legitimizes the extremists. Put another way: The Republicans have every right to make their pitch, but it should be fact-checked and put into context so viewers can better understand. What the two sides are fighting for does actually matter, and some basic substantive analysis, such as, oh, exploring and explaining the probable consequences of defaulting on the debt, would be both fairly easy and helpfully informative for the public.

The childish Halperin pattern of media criticism has prevailed throughout Obama's presidency. Obama has often been criticized for not fulfilling a campaign promise of changing the tone in Washington. Okay, he deserves some blame for that, in that it was a somewhat stupid promise, fine as an aspiration but requiring adjustments to the realities of the political landscape. However, most of the criticism Obama has received ignores that the Republicans play any role in all this. George W. Bush barely won election in 2004, yet this was hailed as a mandate. Meanwhile, the Republican approach was rejected by the American public in 2006 and 2008. In response, the Republican Party did not change their approach, and if anything, became more conservative and extreme. Their policies are neither good nor popular. Most of the corporate media has ignored all of this. Rush Limbaugh announced that he hoped Obama failed, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." As mentioned above, there's ample evidence of bad faith by Republicans on policy (follow the links). Yet somehow, this rarely gets noted by the so-called objective media. While Obama certainly deserves plenty of valid criticism, attacking him for "not changing the tone in Washington," while simultaneously ignoring Republican behavior, is absolutely imbecilic. As it stands, the blind, substance-free "bipartisanship" fervently urged by the DC Village can only be achieved through total capitulation by Obama and the Democratic Party. The Beltway gasbags don't seem to notice or care. (However, this only seems to be the case when it comes to Democrats; whether the Democrats are in power or not, and whether the public backs their policies or not, the Villagers somehow always feel that the Democrats are obligated to capitulate to the Republicans.)

I have many criticisms of Obama, but failing to "change the tone in Washington" is not one of them. As usual, it represents a Beltway obsession with cosmetics and rejection of substance.

I heard a voice petulantly complaining about Obama and his liberal perfidy, thought, "Who the hell is this guy?" and turned to see a slightly chubby youngish white guy in Brooks Brothers uniform and sporting a prep school coif. It turns out it was Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal. I try to avoid analysis by demographic, but sometimes you can just look at these fuckers, especially given their huffy, aristocratic, I've-just-smelled-something-unpleasant grimaces, and predict almost exactly what bullshit they're going to spout. They don't make actual arguments as much as sneer. Apparently, among the country club Republican, National Review, rabidly anti-egalitarian crowd, Stephens belongs to the "Kill all the brown people in the Middle East" subset, having penned an op-ed titled, "Why Hasn't Israel Bombed Iran (Yet)?" (Hey, as long as I'm insulting everybody, why stop now?) That's the great thing about affluent conservative punditry – you can find a wide variety of opinions on what the greatest threat to the aristocracy is, and who precisely among the lesser orders, foreigners and other perceived foes deserves the most contempt.

Anyway, that's my take on the whole affair, in a late, long post, as usual. I hope I've adequately proven my wide-ranging and abiding misanthropy to those who stuck it out the whole way. For other takes (that I haven't linked already), see David Dayen, Mike Lux, Steve Benen, the Professional Left Podcast, and just about any political blog you like, since I'm sure I missed plenty. And like the man said, "May the forces of evil become confused on the way to your house."

Friday, January 27, 2012

International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2012: Jew-Hunting Fun for the Whole Family

(Photos from BoardGameGeek of the board game "Juden Raus!")

This year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wanted to look at a Nazi-era board game titled Juden Raus! (Jews Out!) It was not made or marketed by the Nazis themselves, but the game company thought it would sell well in the climate of the time. The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide in London has a copy, and its director, Ben Barkow, has discussed it with a couple of media outlets. If you head over to the BBC site, you can see a short video that gives the best look at the board game's design and game play. The BBC's Mario Cacciottolo explains:

It requires the players to roll dice and move smiling, brightly-coloured figures about a village, picking up conical yellow figures - depicting Jews with grotesque faces - which fit on their heads.

The writing on the board declares that whoever carries six Jews out of their shops and properties and out of the village is the winner. It is a well-made, brightly coloured creation, and serves as a depressing reminder of man's ability to be fiendishly creative in his inhumanity to others.

Mr Barkow points out that the game was not produced by the Nazi party but was an opportunistic business venture by a German company, which simply seized upon the political mood of the country in the 1930s.

In the game, the collected Jews would then be shipped off to Palestine.

(The game pieces. The smiling figures are the player-controlled (presumably good) Germans. The conical "hats" with caricatured faces they are wearing are the Jews "captured" in the course of game play. Photo from BoardGameGeek.)

Juden Raus! was also featured on PRI's The World in December 2011. (Follow the link to listen to the audio.) Barkow and host Lisa Mullins discussed the climate in Germany in 1936 when the game came out, and the heavy proliferation of anti-Semitic materials, including those aimed at young children.

Barkow describes the game as "a considerable commercial success" and that "possibly up to a million copies" were sold, but there's some dispute about this. BoardGameGeek has an entry on the game, and Andrew Morris-Friedman and Ulrich Schädler wrote an article about it for the journal Board Games Studies. Their abstract is:

Board games can be used by cultural historians to gain insights into the values of different cultures. Many modern games have been based on the theme of teaching moral values of the cultures that produce them. One game of moral values however, stands out as the most infamous board game of all time. The game from Germany, “Juden Raus!” (Jews Out!) depicts the policy of racial hatred that defines the Nazi era. It was designed as a family board game that simulates the start of the persecution against the Jewish people of that era. As to the surprise of the producer of the game he had miscalculated: heavily criticized by the Nazis, the announced “bestseller” flopped, even before it was properly marketed.

Martin Solomon provides some quotations from the full article, including a negative review the game received in an SS newspaper. Apparently, the Nazis felt that Juden Raus! trivialized the "measures we have undertaken to fend off the Jewish rabble of murderers." In their minds, their cause was noble and the threat was dire, so it incensed them to see all that reduced to a:

…parlor game, where tiny little figures of Jews are slowly but surely deported to Palestine by the help of the dice cup. The political slogan “Jews Out” is exploited here as a big seller for all toy shops and trivialized to an amusing pastime for little children!

This invention (DRGM. Nr. 1 446 399!) is almost a punishable idea, perfectly suitable as grist to the mills of hate of the international Jewish journaille, who would show around such a piece of mischief as a proof for the childish efforts of the nazistic Jews-haters with a diabolic smirk, if it would appear before her crooked nose.

We do not slave ourselves away with the solution of the Jewish question, to relieve able manufacturers of toys of their worries about a great big seller or to help children with an amusing little game. We don’t push out the black Jews, and how often has it to be said, to make room for the not less dubious thirst for action of the white Jews. Let this be told to the Fabricius Company, before it dedicates itself to the realization of its somewhat rash dream to publish its completely unwelcome big seller for Großdeutschland at the forthcoming fairs in spring!

Jews out! yes of course, but also rapidly out of the toy-boxes of our children, before they are led into the dreadful error that political problems are solved with the dice cup.

The insistence of the zealot (the zealously, violently bigoted in this case) that their cause is deadly serious is striking but not surprising. The idea that "the political slogan “Jews Out” is [being] exploited here" is particularly astounding, and about as darkly ironic as one can get. So, too, is the indignation of a Nazi complaining that "We do not slave ourselves away with the solution of the Jewish question…" given the horrors of the slave labor and death camps instigated by the Nazis later on. (I wonder how common this word choice/metaphor was, and if there are any idiomatic translation issues, since I can't recall other instances of it, although the persecuted bully complex certainly is familiar.) I'm further fascinated by the hateful projection of sneering onto "the international Jewish journaille." This is a staple of authoritarianism, bigotry, and right-wing "literature": Those Other People? They're laughing at you. (There are a few exchanges in the excellent film Conspiracy that touch on these dynamics as well.)

The article's authors conclude:

…“Juden Raus!” is not a “Nazi board game” as it is sometimes called. There is no Nazi symbolism used in the game design and the article published in Das Schwarze Korps shows that the game was disdained – at least officially – in a major publication of the most important Nazi organization. But its true history may never be known for certain and many unsubstantiated rumors about the game exist.

What insights are achieved from “Juden Raus!” about Nazi culture? It is hard to imagine a family sitting at a table playing a game that taught racial hatred. Yet it seems there were people like Rudolf Fabricius who imagined that some families would do just that. Fabricius was one of those mere supporters who thought to make some profit by following in the wake of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. Today most people react with disbelief or disgust when informed of the game’s existence. “Juden Raus!” shows that after decades of propaganda, anti-Semitism was so deeply rooted in German society in the 1930s, that someone thought it would be a good subject for a children’s game. Racism is present in many board games, but “Juden Raus!” is unique in its portrayal of how racism manifests itself in society and is a terrifying example of the banality of evil.

If the board game was not a big success, that may be slightly comforting, but the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany obviously remains undeniable (even if the precise details continue to be studied). The Nazis really only objected to the style of anti-Semitism in the board game, as well the medium inculcating the bigotry. They did not object to anti-Semitic children's books, for example, where presumably their message could be finely calibrated for their intended audience. That the game company thought that Juden Raus! would sell at all – let alone well – remains disturbing. Similarly, it's instructive to look at the propaganda films the Nazis produced to try to sell the idea of "mercy killings" to the population (the subject of a 2008 post). The Nazis were not entirely successful in this, but their intent and techniques are important to study along with the public's reaction.

Casual, unconscious bigotry can be the hardest to fight. Studying U.S. history, it's informative to look at racial slurs in place names, products, and pop culture (and they were hardly limited to the South). Attitudes change, but the people in a given era and area might never give such things a second thought. This doesn't always mean they are (practicing) bigots (Jay Smooth's advice is pertinent), but it does illustrate how prejudice can become entrenched and the accepted norm. Unconscious does not mean unimportant… or innocuous. In addition to the many concrete, staggering crimes and explicit hate speech perpetrated by the Nazis, it's worth remembering and studying the more subtle forms of dehumanization, and their gradual (and terrible) acceptance. Juden Raus! is a striking case in point, in that its bigotry is taken as natural, a given and justified – so much so that its bigotry isn't just a regrettable and unnecessary flaw in an otherwise decent game; the bigotry drives the central game mechanic. Someone could make a game with similar game play but without bigotry, of course, but anti-Semitism – and making money off of it – were Juden Raus' entire reasons for being.

Cruelty and dehumanization exist on a continuum; such mindsets are not born overnight. Outright hatred from someone in a position of power is probably the most frightening form of bigotry, but treating hatred as a game is both absurd and appalling. There are other disturbing variations, too.

One of the most memorable passages in Primo Levi's memoir If This Is a Man (better known in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz, and the focus of a 2010 post) involves a kapo (guard), whose hands are dirty, and sees Levi merely as a rag:

Without hatred and without sneering, Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of his hand, to clean it; he would be amazed, the poor brute Alex, if someone told him that today, on that basis of this action, I judge him... and the innumerable others like him, big and small, in Auschwitz and everywhere.

If we're discussing the banality of evil, this certainly qualifies. Perversely, demonizing one's perceived foes at least grants them some value, although negative; the zealot longs for the clash of battle, and this requires an adversary who may be seen as inferior, but at least dangerous enough to compel combat, and thus grant honor to his conqueror. (Fear-mongering requires a threat, however illusory.) The demagogue wants in some sense to be hated and feared by his chosen enemies, and the immoral opportunist wants to make money off of such hatred. Kapo Alex is too unreflective to get even that far. He would have to have these concepts explained to him first before he could even reject them. He does not hate Levi per se – he simply does not value him at all as a human being. Prejudice has completely subsumed him as the unquestioned natural order of things. It is this unthinking, unquestioning dehumanization, the casual dismissal of that which is most precious, that can be the most chilling and discouraging. The SS felt their anti-Semitic agenda was far too critical to be represented by a mere "parlor game," Juden Raus! – but in a sense, for unreflective, "poor brute Alex," the stakes do not even rise that high; human dignity is not even as important as a board game.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Etta James – "At Last"

RIP. This is the obvious pick, but there's a reason this is her most famous song. Then there's her duet with Mike Finnigan, "You Gonna Make Me Cry."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tony Blankley, Civility and the State of Political Discourse

English-born conservative political commentator, former Newt Gingrich press secretary and former child actor Tony Blankley died of stomach cancer on January 7th, 2010, at the age of 63.

I'll modify what I wrote elsewhere. I was sorry to hear this. Blankley was a regular on Left, Right and Center (produced by one of my local NPR stations, KCRW) and I heard him often. He was more moderate there than in his columns, which could be fire-breathing screeds against the supposedly encroaching socialism of centrist Democrats. He marketed himself as a "reasonable conservative" for the NPR/PBS set just as Davids Brooks and Frum do, and was similarly a champion of the aristocracy and apologist for the crimes of the Republican Party. He was a despicable hack most of the time, but he put more craft into his propaganda than many of his fellows. Additionally, Blankley was much more paid shill than true believer, and would have been a bearable dinner companion. (I'd prefer dinner with friends and/or well-informed liberals, but I'd certainly pick Blankley over Rick Santorum or Mary Matalin.) Most importantly, every now and then Blankley would be honest or gracious, at least on a personal level. Regardless of Blankley's political work, stomach cancer reportedly can be a painful way to go, and I hope Blankley and his loved ones were spared the worst. Dying, and losing someone, are never easy.

The Left, Right and Center thread for the most recent show when the news broke filled with messages of condolence, most from people who disagreed with Tony's politics. The following show (1/13/12) started with an appreciation of Blankley, and its thread also full of comments on Blankley.

It may seem I'm damning Blankley with faint praise, and I can't object strongly to that characterization. However, it's possible to express human compassion for Blankley and those who cared for him, yet also critique what he did in his public life. (I felt similarly about Tony Snow, who dissembled for a living, but also left behind a wife and two young children.) Obviously, there's a time and place for this; the admonition against speaking ill of the dead makes sense at a funeral. However, honest accountings should have their place as well. Blue Gal both expressed her condolences and also quoted one of Blankley's scurrilous attacks on the Occupy movement. Blankley made many such attacks – on several occasions, he said he liked that America was not as class-conscious as Britain. His loyalty was firmly with the aristocracy, who he wanted to stay in power. Basically, he was a Tory (like fellow Brit Andrew Sullivan; David Brooks is essentially the American version). Jimmy Dore, near the end of his show on 1/12/12, denounced Blankley accurately as someone who lied for money. I have to agree, and dissected Blankley in some previous pieces. Politically, he caused far more harm than he did good.

Perhaps most of this post would be better suited for a separate piece, but Blankley's death and the discussions about him have had me pondering ideas I've been kicking around for a long time. I've found myself wondering whether a Blankley is preferable to other breeds of conservative pundit, all of which ties into the general notion of "civility." I'm firmly in the "honesty over civility" and "accuracy over politeness" camps. Civility has its place, but it is of secondary value to truth. The Civility of Aristocratic Propriety and Privilege is a way to insulate the ruling class and their courtiers from legitimate and essential criticism. As explored in Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit" – although the notion is radical to many in the chattering class – actual policies affect real people and do matter. When one policy is significantly better or worse than another, especially when increased human suffering is a consequence of one of those choices, policy debates and pundit blather is not just a game. The notion that two pundits clock in to do battle "civilly" and then are chummy afterwards works decently between pundits who agree on a general social contract and the notion of responsible governance. However, anyone who's seriously followed politics at any point in the past thirty or so years knows that the conservative movement (almost all Republican political figures, and some Democrats) reject those two precepts (often utterly, sometime viciously). The "ideal" rules of discourse break down in the face of this, and the happy centrist illusion cannot hold. Honest discussion will necessarily be harsher because one side's policies are themselves harsh, or even... "uncivil," toward the basic dignity and value of their fellow Americans and humans (who they view as lesser beings).

Hey, I'm going to call you a socialist after the break. Where do you want to drink after the show?

Remember, Alan, you're the Washington Generals here. You're supposed to lose.

It's the Yuppie Nuremberg defense: I've got a mortgage to pay.

There's an argument to be made that the hacks who market themselves as "reasonable conservatives" to the NPR/PBS set do more harm than their more rabid fellow travelers. I agree that this is generally the case when it comes to low-information voters and (what shall we call them?) those "middle information" voters so desperate to believe in a mythical moderate or centrist salvation they will deny how insane the Republican Party and American conservatism have become. However, if you read the comments about Tony Blankley at the KCRW site, most of the liberals leaving condolences were able to disagree with Blankley politically or essentially call bullshit while still expressing human compassion for him as a person. It comes with the bleeding hearts, I guess (although Blankley, to his credit, had enough personal class he would have shown similar consideration to his more liberal colleagues).

The counterargument to the "reasonable conservatives" doing-more-harm position ties into an "Overton window" view of politics, where the contours of acceptable discourse are pushed in various directions (especially to the left and the right). In this view, letting Mary Matalin engage in McCarthyist attacks on liberals as traitors on Left, Right and Center (and she did something close to that in one appearance) is much worse than having Blankley on. I tend towards this view, despite my concerns about, and commitment to, challenging "reasonable conservatives" as well. Matalin might be so extreme that she turns off even those middle information voters (an inadvertent good), but I believe (and many other listeners agreed) she was so extreme and vicious she hijacked and effectively destroyed the show altogether. Perhaps this is more a matter of overall editorial judgment, and where one draws the line on acceptable guests, but regardless, featuring (and thus validating) a belligerent extremist undermines the whole enterprise of engaging in discussion in the first place.

This highlights a far deeper problem: it's nearly impossible (on the pundit level) to find an honest conservative in the first place – certainly one who still identifies as Republican and advocates for them – someone who will honestly state his or her views and acknowledge the probable consequences of enacting Republican policies. Most of the "honest conservatives" one could point to (Bruce Bartlett, Andrew Bacevich, Susan Eisenhower) have left the Republican Party. As we've explored many times before, large numbers of self-identified conservatives believe things that are simply not factually true, and they believe these things because their leaders lie to them. (As we’ve noted before, while the Democrats sure ain't perfect, the parties are not remotely equivalent in this respect.) Conservative guests lie in large part out of necessity, because their policies are often awful and favor a select few (normally those who are already the most privileged). They lie so frequently and deeply because they cannot possibly win an argument on the merits.

This is a serious issue for any program that purports to hear from "both sides," especially when those "sides" are defined by political party (and realistically, the political movements driving them). For instance, you could get a good discussion on economics with Bruce Bartlett representing the more conservative (but still reality-based) view and Paul Krugman representing the more liberal view. However, while Bartlett may be a fine guest on economic matters, movement conservatives and Republican officials have moved so far to the right that they view Bartlett as an apostate, and really, none of them share any of his views – to any degree. He may have fine ideas – and he does – but no one in his home party will heed them. Consequently, if the political discussion is centered on the political parties, their power, positions and likely actions versus the merits of various policy positions, it's not likely Bartlett will be booked (certainly not as the only "conservative"). The same goes for most issues. Take global warming – a merit-based discussion will focus on facts and invite experts and knowledgeable, honest lay people to participate, who will discuss various solutions. However, a politically-determined guest roster will undoubtedly include someone who denies that global warming is occurring at all (or denies its extent, or that it's man-made, etc.), and the only real mystery is whether they hold those positions out of proud, hard-won ignorance or due to a fat paycheck (or some mix).

Furthermore, how do we define "conservative" anyway? As Corey Robin points out, "conservatism" has always been reactionary in nature, and thus mutable in terms of actual positions or details. At some point, "conservatism" represents not some older, less destructive manifestation of the term, but what the overwhelming majority of self-described conservatives say it does. That's not to mention that that supposedly less destructive, more pure strain of conservatism was almost always much nastier than its champions would have you believe (basically, see Driftglass' entire archive on Andrew Sullivan and Davids Brooks and Frum). In this sense (and to use an old model) debating whether it's preferable to have a hack or a zealot representing the conservative side in a discussion merely points out that there are almost no honorable conservative wonks (substitute "movement conservative" or "Republican" if you really prefer).

Hacks marketing themselves as "reasonable conservatives" can definitely do a great deal of harm (David Brooks certainly does), but there is an ironic sense in which their presence is a positive sign. Blankley was almost always fighting a rearguard action against progress, trying to 'stand athwart history yelling stop.' That he had to do this meant his movement was losing (on at least some issues; some they've pretty much won). Blankley, like Brooks (and Matalin), was fond of falsely claiming that America was a center-right nation, and both Brooks and Blankley pleaded that something essential would be lost in the American spirit and congressional comity if the Affordable Care Act passed. Once they'd gotten to that stage, reduced to desperate and farcically illogical emotional appeals, it was clear they had nuthin'. None of this means that "reasonable conservatives" shouldn't be challenged; they should, and the slicker hacks can be harder to fight than the zealots. The major battle on "reasonable conservatives" is making those staying-in-my happy-place middle information voters acknowledge what scumbags these pundits really are (or at the very least, that they are wrong). Put another way, to paraphrase a line from Michael Clayton, Blankley and the other "reasonable conservatives (tm)" are 'the guys you buy.' Some are more personally and/or philosophically vile than others, but if you achieve progress despite their dissembling, they will set up a new redoubt. In one sense this dynamic is infuriating, but it also reflects that positive change can indeed be achieved despite these scoundrels. (History bears this out.) Blankley and Brooks fall in the hired-gun, hack category, while Karl Rove and Mary Matalin are hacks but also zealots. Zealots will fight to the death, but hacks try to avoid this; they are survivors and opportunists. (They are Thénardier versus Javert, knaves versus true believers or upfront villains.)

When it comes to Left, Right and Center specifically, I preferred Blankley to Matthew Continetti and definitely to the vile Mary Matalin. He was also less slimy than occasional guest David Frum, who has gotten more honest and accurate since being canned from his wingnut welfare gig at a conservative think tank, but has never fully abandoned his hackish ways (and remains a Tory, no surprise). Host Matt Miller, who describes himself as the "radical center," is very much a Beltway Establishment pundit, something of a centrism fetishist with a thing for fashionable contrarianism, often a dolt, but has his moments and is not irredeemable (for instance, he supports universal health care and more aid to the poor). Canadian Chrystia Freeland is normally pretty sensible (and the way she say "about" is charming). Besides checking out the spin and the bullshit of the week, I mainly listen for Robert Scheer. I don't always agree with Scheer, particularly on details, but he is doggedly honest and willing to criticize the Democratic Party far more sharply than Blankley or any conservative guest has ever dared to do with the Republicans (see Scheer's book The Great American Stickup, among other pieces). Scheer can be overly prickly (his colleagues sometimes goad him), but I admire his seemingly endless capacity for outrage at injustice.

On that point – bloggers, commentators and political activists who value the whole "conscientious citizen" thing come in many styles. Some excel at calm advocacy, detailed analysis and sober debunks. Some are wired for earnest outrage, while others are wired for snark and humor (at its best, true wit). Personally, sometimes I struggle with outrage fatigue; similarly, I can't always muster the detachment necessary for a satirical take, because the reality is just too appalling. That said, I think a sense of humor when dealing with assholes and Team Evil can be essential for one's mental health, and also more effective.

"Appreciating" the craft of someone's hack work while dissecting it might seem callous towards those the hack work hurts ("Cut food stamps for the poor!"), and certainly such analysis can be amoral if insightful. ("Amoral insight" is what little shits like Mark Halperin aspire to, but they only achieve the first part.) However, in the liberal blogosphere, I find that humor and wit tend to come with compassion and a moral compass (just as with serious analysis). Humor is often a coping mechanism. We may be fucked (have you noticed how insane and mean the American ruling class is?), but at least as the world burns, we can be in the company of some people we like and swap a few funny and kind words (plus pet photos). And while humor is sometimes mere consolation for the screwed and relatively powerless, it can also be an extremely effective political tool. When the problem is routine bullshit from Team Evil (which pays well), serious debunks have great value, but mockery plays better than outrage with low and middle information voters. The key reason that conservative and Establishment scolds attack The Daily Show, Colbert, and the wittier bloggers (Chuck Todd is the latest) is precisely because humor can be so effective and insightful. As Michael Palin points out:

…It is a brilliant form of subversion. And it's something I think modern revolutionaries should remember. If you can make fun of somebody, it's often very much better and far more effective than shooting them or making a martyr of them… And there's nothing [those in power] can do against it, really.

Good comedy depends on calling bullshit, while the modern political media machine depends on generating it. Even the most skilled hack or conscienceless scumbag can fall before a skilled exposé or on-target comedy.

Related to all this, I'd rather debunk the Tony Blankleys and Charles Krauthammers of the world, hired guns who at least take pride of craft in their propaganda, than tangle with the weak, incoherent flailings of Megan McArdle, the embarrassingly bad, whiny arguments of Ross Douthat, the slick disingenuousness of the significantly more malevolent Karl Rove, the cruel War-on-Compassion-Itself by Michelle Malkin and the fire-breathing right-wing base, or the gaping abyss of pure, unrelenting, nihilistic evil from the entire Cheney family and their ilk. (Your mileage may vary.) The passionate balderdash of Antonin Scalia at least shows some personality. The panache of select merry hacks at least shows a zest for life (think Nick Naylor versus the pre-conversion Scrooge). The foibles of certain hacks betray their suppressed humanity, which can, in the right circumstances, undermine their darker impulses and lead them to do good, despite of their own supposed nature and hefty paychecks. Most conservative political operatives are bought and paid for, and irredeemable, but historically, some have eventually changed their ways. Expose them, make them laugh at themselves, and make the audience laugh at their bullshit, and some of them will give up the game... or at least be forced to invent a new one. (I demand a better quality of bullshit from you, sir.) Their ultimate redemption is not something to count on at all, but playing the game that way can keep us sane, amused and effective in the meantime, and pushing the Overton window to include more humanity certainly can't hurt.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Election Rituals

Election coverage has a number of silly rituals and tropes. NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen at PressThink has a great piece up called "A Viewer’s Guide to Iowa Caucus Coverage" (1/3/12). Some of it pertains exclusively to the Iowa Caucus completed two weeks ago, but much of it applies to election coverage in general. His key point is:

The Iowa Caucuses are presented as a news event, a mini-election with an informational outcome, a winner. But what they really are is a ritual, the gathering of a tribe, which affirms itself and its place in our political system by staging this thing every four years.

This is spot-on. The specific reason for this is that “the Iowa caucuses will award no delegates to any candidate.” More generally, while the Iowa Caucus does hold some real consequences (candidates with very low numbers dropping out), there's no doubt that its importance is massively and artificially inflated. It should not hold the prominence it does. The same goes (to a lesser degree) for the New Hampshire Primary. Their predictive value regarding the eventual nominee is quite poor, and neither state is populous or demographically representative of the nation as a whole. (I explored much of this in "That Fragrant Horse Coverage" in 2008, a year that saw some high marks – or low marks – in idiocy in election coverage.)

Rosen features some sharp observations from Joan Didion and the late James W. Carey. Here's Didion:

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. “I didn’t realize you were a political junkie,” Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.

Rosen adds:

Then she goes in for the kill. “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” Yes! That is something else I want you to watch for tonight. That remoteness.

Sadly, remoteness seems to be a defining feature of mainstream election coverage. Here's Carney:

What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of contending forces in the world. Moreover, as readers make their way through the paper, they engage in a continual shift of roles or of dramatic focus. A story on the monetary crisis salutes them as American patriots fighting those ancient enemies Germany and Japan; a story on the meeting of the women’s political caucus casts them into the liberation movement as supporter or opponent; a tale of violence on the campus evokes their class antagonisms and resentments. The model here is not that of information acquisition, though such acquisition occurs, but of dramatic action in which the reader joins a world of contending forces as an observer at a play.

Rosen comments:

Carey‘s point in “A Cultural Approach to Communication” is not that the transmission view is “wrong,” but that it cannot illuminate much of what is happening when we encounter the news. A feature on the candidate’s media adviser invites us behind the scenes, where appearances are contrived for an unwitting audience from whom we are now separated by our superior knowledge of the mechanics of manipulation. A television report puts us inside the cockpit of a fighter jet, zeroing in on an enemy target with high-tech precision. We might call this the “positioning effect.” It occurs regardless of whether the journalist-as-author takes a position or produces a neutral, “objective” account. Something else I want you to watch for tonight. How are we–the users, the viewers–being positioned by the reporting and commentary we are given?

I've long felt that, unfortunately, imbibing a great deal of mainstream political coverage can easily leave someone less informed than before, but with a false sense of confidence that the opposite is the case. As studies have shown, this is certainly true for Fox News viewers, but if we're discussing political understanding and context, I would contend the problem is much more widespread. In terms of knowing that specific events have taken place, avid news consumers will more informed and conversant than average Americans, but in terms of political insight, they can wind up worse than before. The conventional Beltway wisdom on any given subject reflects the social norms and consensus of the chattering class, but it is rarely actually wise. The political analysis in mainstream outlets is often appalling shallow and vapid if not factually incorrect. Smart and skeptical news consumers can sift through the dross in coverage, of course, but less grounded viewers can be misled – especially when poor political conversation is the norm. For instance, consider that the dreadful Mark Halperin, who is almost unfailingly wrong and chronically shallow, but is presented to viewers as a political sage. Halperin "won" #1 on Salon's Hack 30 in 2011, a well-deserved dishonor (he was #2 in 2010), but the other 29 are similarly presented as Very Serious People… and there are many more who didn't make the list. (These dynamics are explored in more depth in "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit.")

As Bob Somerby has often opined, many prominent political reporters write novels rather than journalism, selling narratives that are almost always misleading and superficial, and often outright false. As Geoffrey Nunberg has observed, the selection of political pundits on talk shows resembles sitcom casting, with "types" of political observers being selected. (I have more on this in reference to Ann Coulter in this 2006 post, and Nunberg's insight deserves more discussion in a future post on political theater. "Silent Questions" also covers some of this material, more tangentially.)

This year, Mitt Romney was announced the winner of the Iowa Caucus (by a mere eight votes over Rick Santorum, although the results have been questioned, and now it appears Santorum won). Romney also won in New Hampshire, and is predicted by most analysts and odds-makers to be the eventual Republican nominee. The primary season is less suspenseful because of this, although there have been some interesting elements. Romney is absolutely despised by most voters in the conservative base (they didn't like McCain, either, but they hate Romney more vociferously). Watching those dynamics play out, and the rise and fall of a series of Not-Romney candidates, has been amusing. Meanwhile, the Super PAC money has made things more tumultuous. Such groups can widen the lead for the frontrunner (a Romney Super PAC slammed Newt Gingrich relentlessly and successfully), but a single rich donor can give a flailing candidate new life (A Nevada billionaire gave a Gingrich group five million dollars). With Romney pulling ahead, most of the other candidates have eagerly broken Reagan's "11th commandment" (thou shalt not talk ill of a Republican) in going after Romney as too liberal, too moderate, and even too conservative and heartless. This, too, has been pretty amusing, especially given the rank hypocrisy and bad faith of most of these attacks. Most importantly, with only a few exceptions, the actual policies the Republican candidates have been presenting have been absolutely horrible (Lower taxes on the poor rich!). The candidates, just like many of the reporters covering them, would prefer to keep everything on the level of personalities and gossip versus serious policy analysis and discussion of the likely consequences of their proposals (further devastating the middle class and the poor to give more to the most rich and privileged, mostly). None of this requires arcane knowledge to divine, either. Rosen presents some election rituals and other things he "want[s] you to watch for tonight" in election coverage, and news junkies and conscientious citizens should always keep an eye out for the bullshit: the old, recycled and revered, the re-vamped and re-branded, and the new.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Peach Kings – "Thieves and Kings"

The SOPA/PIPA Protests

If you went on the internet tubes at all yesterday, you probably saw that Google, Wikipedia and many other sites protested the SOPA and PIPA acts, and provided readers information about contacting their members of Congress. On one level, this battle has involved competing corporations, but their positions have not been equally valid, and smaller entities and bloggers has overwhelmingly opposed SOPA and PIPA. While online piracy is a legitimate issue, the legislation as written was badly flawed and could lead to serious abuses .

I wrote more about SOPA and PIPA here (with links to analyses of the bills). Digby posted a great deal on it yesterday, xkcd has a SOPA strip up, The Oatmeal posted an animated gif yesterday (possibly NSFW) and a follow-up post on the massive play it received. The cartoonist behind Get Your War On has made some funny Get Your Censor On strips. Democracy Now (with Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales) and To the Point both covered the story today.

One of my local news stations (the local ABC affiliate) covered the story last night in a positive way, noting the massive response and overwhelmed switchboards in Congress. The reporters interviewed a few college students, including one who had never previously heard of the bills, but read more on them and signed a petition when he went to look something up on Wikipedia. (Digby covered this angle, too.) It's a bit funny, but as always, the best political campaigns hit people where they live.

Reportedly, several members of Congress have dropped their support for the bills or have called for their revision. We'll see how things develop, but so far, the day of protest seems to have been a great success, and an encouraging sign of the positive things that can be accomplished… especially with a free internet.

Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK Day 2012

In previous years for Martin Luther King Day, I've featured King's words and other civil rights material (see the "MLK" category below). This year, I wanted to at least link a few pieces focused on MLK himself (along with the Guantanamo piece). It's sometimes startling to remember he was only 39 when he was assassinated.

Democracy Now ran "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in His Own Words."

Rick Perlstein wrote a good piece back in 2008, "Conservatives and Martin Luther King." We've covered conservatives' attempt to appropriate King before, and it's especially amusing and shameless given their opposition to the actual man in his lifetime. As always, Perlstein provides some great details.

In a similar vein, Blue Texan has "Republicans and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: A Reminder." (Voting records are pesky things.)

Finally, one of my local PBS stations re-ran a 2010 special, "In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement." If you've got a soft spot for folk music, especially civil rights music, check it out. (I wasn't crazy about every performance, but some of the renditions are pretty good.)

Update: Roy Edroso: "Every MLK Day you get conservatives talking about how Martin Luther King was kind of a Rick Santorum type. At The Heritage Fondation this year, Matt Spalding drew the short straw..."

Guantánamo at Ten

This past Wednesday, 1/11/12, marks the ten-year anniversary of the first prisoners' arrival to Guantánamo Bay. The American facility at Guantánamo remains a shameful stain on our national honor. The facility itself isn't as important as what went on there – torture and abuse, and prisoners known to be innocent being held for years – and what's still going on there – the indefinite "detention" of individuals without charges.

Unsurprisingly, the ACLU has one of the best statements on this disgraceful milestone:

Ten years have passed since the first prisoner arrived in Guantánamo Bay, making it the longest-standing war prison in U.S. history. Almost 800 men have passed through Guantánamo’s cells. Today, 171 men remain. Fashioned as an “island outside the law” where terrorism suspects could be detained without process and interrogated without restraint, Guantánamo has been a catastrophic failure on every front. It is long past time for this shameful episode in American history to be brought to a close.

Guantánamo started with two false premises: that the men sent there were all terrorists picked up on the battlefield and that, as “unlawful enemy combatants,” they had no legal rights. In reality, a very small percentage of the prisoners were captured by U.S. forces; the vast majority were seized by Pakistani and Afghan militias, tribesmen, and officials, and sold to the United States for large bounties. On instructions from senior White House and Defense Department officials, the men received virtually no screening before being shipped thousands of miles to Guantánamo. The only “process” these prisoners received upon arrival in Guantánamo was coercive interrogation.

As documents secured by the ACLU demonstrate, Guantánamo became a perverse laboratory for brutal interrogation methods. Prisoners were subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, stress positions, extreme temperatures and prolonged isolation. So inhumane was the interrogation regime that the FBI instructed agents not to participate. Within the Department of Defense, too, there were courageous objectors, but they were largely ignored.

Our nation continues to pay the price for those egregious errors. Torture is the principle reason for the astonishing fact that, more than ten years after 9/11, the alleged perpetrators of those attacks—though in U.S. custody for as many as nine years—have not been brought to justice. And it is the principle reason why federal courts were rejected in favor of military commissions with looser evidentiary standards. Even under this imbalanced system, only six Guantánamo prisoners have been convicted of crimes before a military commission. Only one prisoner has been tried in federal court, in a case that showed the strengths of our criminal justice system: after considering the evidence, the jury refused to rubber stamp the government’s case, convicting the defendant on the one charge it found justified, which still resulted in a life sentence. That case should have put to rest any unfounded fears that federal courts cannot conduct fair and safe trials for Guantánamo prisoners, just as they have in hundreds of other terrorism cases. Instead, fearmongerers spun the case as a defeat for national security. Bowing to pressure and unwilling to fight Congress’s subsequent attempts to ban the transfer of detainees to the United States for federal prosecution, the Obama administration restarted the discredited military commission trials.

The United States’ reputation as a defender of human rights has been profoundly diminished because of Guantánamo’s continued existence, damaging our ability to effect change on the world stage. Our allies have refused to share intelligence out of concern that it will be used in unfair military commissions, and will not extradite terrorism suspects if they will end up in military detention or face military trials. Perhaps most critically, military officials acknowledge that Guantánamo has been used for years as a recruiting tool by our enemies -- creating far more terrorists than it has ever held -- undermining rather than enhancing our security.

Each branch of government shares responsibility for the perpetuation of Guantánamo’s legacy...

Read the rest at the link. In his piece on this anniversary, Scott Horton makes many similar points, and adds:

The second underreported lesson of Gitmo relates to the poisonous effect of partisan politics. No one expected matters as deeply felt as 9/11 to remain entirely outside of partisan politics, but the idea of Gitmo was cast soon after the attack, amid a political campaign. Republicans made it an issue in the midterm elections of 2002, marketing it as a “robust” or “proactive” approach to defending the nation against terrorists. The message worked marvelously, scoring enormous gains for the G.O.P.

Unknown to most Americans, though, just before the fall vote, representatives of the CIA and FBI went to the White House to break the bad news: Gitmo had been filled not with dangerous Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but with a bunch of nobodies. Political considerations plainly dictated the response. The government would not review the prisoners’ cases or grant releases, we were told; instead, “the president has determined that they are all enemy combatants.” Not only did this approach deny facts later borne out in case reviews and habeas petitions, it aggressively demonized the Gitmo population in order to create a sort of political insurance policy.

The Bush Administration’s shameful response continues to distort the domestic political dialogue about Guantánamo, which amounts to an extended effort to avoid accountability for a series of stupid political mistakes. In the end, it has been effective domestic politics. But it has cost America enormously on the global stage, diminishing the country’s influence and degrading its moral image to an unprecedented degree. This, more than any other reason, is why Obama’s pledge to close Gitmo was fundamentally wise, and why Obama should be reminded of that pledge and pressed to bring it to fruition.

Lakhdar Boumediene was an innocent man held prisoner for seven and half years at Guantánamo without charges, and only released in 2009. He explains some of his ordeal in a New York Times op-ed, My Guantánamo Nightmare:

Some American politicians say that people at Guantánamo are terrorists, but I have never been a terrorist. Had I been brought before a court when I was seized, my children’s lives would not have been torn apart, and my family would not have been thrown into poverty. It was only after the United States Supreme Court ordered the government to defend its actions before a federal judge that I was finally able to clear my name and be with them again...

The fact that the United States had made a mistake was clear from the beginning. Bosnia’s highest court investigated the American claim, found that there was no evidence against me and ordered my release. But instead, the moment I was released American agents seized me and the five others. We were tied up like animals and flown to Guantánamo, the American naval base in Cuba. I arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.

I still had faith in American justice. I believed my captors would quickly realize their mistake and let me go. But when I would not give the interrogators the answers they wanted — how could I, when I had done nothing wrong? — they became more and more brutal. I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget...

I will never forget sitting with the four other men in a squalid room at Guantánamo, listening over a fuzzy speaker as Judge Leon read his decision in a Washington courtroom. He implored the government not to appeal his ruling, because “seven years of waiting for our legal system to give them an answer to a question so important is, in my judgment, more than plenty.” I was freed, at last, on May 15, 2009...

I’m told that my Supreme Court case is now read in law schools. Perhaps one day that will give me satisfaction, but so long as Guantánamo stays open and innocent men remain there, my thoughts will be with those left behind in that place of suffering and injustice.

The ACLU has an audio podcast with Boumediene, as well as a video series , Voices From Guantánamo. Digby passes along Boumediene's appearance on Up (along with a reminder about a similar, disturbing case):

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Boumediene's words, "I still had faith in American justice," strike deeply, and remind me of the words of an abused Iraqi prisoner quoted in a previous post": "When you came to our country, we hoped law would return. We still have that hope."

If you would like take action, you can sign the ACLU petition to President Obama. You can also check your congressperson and senators' stances on the issue, and voice your opinion to them (including thanking them, if appropriate).

America's history has never been pure, nor has any nation's. But as E.J. Dionne put it in an Independence Day column back in 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.

There is, moreover, a distinguished national tradition in which dissident voices identify with the revolutionary aspirations of the republic's founders.

MLK Day is a good time to remember these things. Due process is one of the cornerstones of the civilization, not to be abandoned lightly, and not to be violated without consequences. Of all the human or civil rights, it perhaps the most basic and essential. It's heartening that other nations take American war crimes seriously (and perpetrators are scared to travel abroad), but it's shameful that America doesn't want to account for its sins itself. America's best tradition has been its commitment to improvement and better honoring its stated ideals. In this case, the necessary "improvement" is a reclaiming of principles we once held dear but our elected leaders have since abandoned.

(The ACLU has an excellent infographic on Guantánamo. Follow the link to see the whole thing.)