Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Armistice Day 11/11/23

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly. My new piece for this year is "The Iraq War in 2023."

Back in 2009, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon).

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

"The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (2015)

"The Battle of the Somme" (2017)

"The Graveyard of Democracy" (2021)

I generally update these posts later with links to appropriate pieces for 11/11 by other folks as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to link it in a comment. Thanks.

The Iraq War in 2023

The 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War was earlier this year in March, so the war seems like a fitting subject for this Armistice Day or Remembrance Day or Veterans Day. My 10th anniversary Iraq War post, "The Dogs of War," was pretty comprehensive and there's not much I'd add to it, especially if we include my other posts on Iraq, the war series and torture. It's worth looking at some old and more recent pieces.

I recently rewatched two of the best documentaries on the subject, both from 2007. No End in Sight meticulously explores why the U.S. occupation of Iraq went so badly, all the more powerful because most of the interview subjects who chronicle the debacle were conservatives and Republicans serving the Bush administration. Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, is an excellent and chilling primer on the Bush administration's torture regime.

PBS' Frontline did a number of excellent episodes on the Iraq War and the Bush Administration, including a few good piece on torture. This list rounds up many of the best episodes, and this topic page has almost everything related to Iraq.

James Fallows, who wrote numerous excellent articles on Iraq before and during the war, wrote yet another fine piece this March, "The Iraq War and Modern Memory." He also links some other retrospectives, and some of his past, key pieces on Iraq. Alternatively, you can also read some of his best contemporaneous articles in the book compilation, Blind Into Baghdad.

Via Fallows, Responsible Statecraft hosted a symposium asking the question, aside from Bush and Cheney, who is at fault for the Iraq War? Some of the choices are silly – and presumably the question also includes Rumsfeld by default, otherwise he'd be the obvious next choice – but a number of respondents make good picks that news junkies from the era probably know but the general public likely doesn't.

Driftglass and Blue Gal had a good podcast episode in their "No Fair Remembering Stuff" series back in March, "Iraq War and Remembrance." This year, they also featured Charlie Pierce's 2014 epic condemnation of Bill Kristol for being a war ghoul.

The PBS NewsHour did a few Iraq retrospectives. One piece interviewed some American Iraq War veterans. The most interesting piece interviewed Iraqis. (The PBS site also has an 2021 AP article that ran after Colin Powell's death, "Iraqis still blame Powell for role in Iraq war.") A timeline of the war piece has some use, but because it only starts when the actual war commenced, it omits significant events, including the fact that Saddam Hussein relented and allowed weapons inspectors into Iraq, but the Bush administration invaded anyway (which Bush later lied about and the press rarely challenged). I was disappointed overall by a Iraq War conversation with Paul Wolfowitz, Charles Duelfer and Vali Nasr, because the segment didn't deal at all with the Bush administration lying to the public and Congress to start the war – Wolfowitz is allowed to present going to war as a good faith exercise. He even defends disbanding the Iraqi army without pushback, despite widespread agreement that disbandment was one of the worst, most crippling decisions by the Bush administration about Iraq after invading, causing endless ongoing problems. (No End in Sight covers this in depth.) No one in the Bush administration has even ever acknowledged who actually gave the order (Wolfowitz has been floated as a candidate). Interviewer Amna Nawaz did allow Nasr the last word, though:

It's important to think about the fact that, had this war as Ambassador Wolfowitz suggested, been conducted differently after we entered into Iraq, had we left a different legacy there, the question of the reasons we went in would not loom as large as they do right now.

When we continuously debate reasons why we went in and question the motivations of going in, it's almost we are admitting to the fact that it's better we wouldn't have gone to war, because, if we went to war, we're going to make a mess of it.

And I don't think that's a good legacy for the United States. I think how we conducted the war after we arrived is as important as the reasons why we went in.

The Bush administration lied to the American public and Congress to start a war of choice, which is another way to say an unnecessary war, and thus inherently, deeply immoral. The Bush administration also instituted a torture regime, one of the most disgraceful, shameful actions of the U.S. in living memory. And members of the Bush administration largely got away with it, which is rather discouraging. Likewise, the Bush administration was quite authoritarian, and U.S. conservatives and Republicans have moved even further in that direction since.

I did find at least one hopeful point, though. The Pew Research Center has a superb piece, "A Look Back at How Fear and False Beliefs Bolstered U.S. Public Support for War in Iraq," which chronicles the shifts in public opinion over the years and also recaps the political history of the Iraq War pretty well. (It even links a piece by The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, whose fact-checking can be hit or miss, but wrote a pretty good piece about the claim that the Bush administration lied to start the war, all spurred by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer claiming that it was a lie to say the Bush team lied.) In the Pew article, the most interesting parts might be these charts:

The Bush team has mostly escaped consequences, certainly legally and professionally, but public opinion definitely turned against the Iraq War and that perspective has persisted. It's telling that, from at least 2015 onward, Donald Trump has lied to conservative and Republican voters, falsely claiming he had always opposed the Iraq War. He was and is pandering, of course, but it's interesting that, even when speaking to the demographic groups most likely to still support the Iraq War, he's thought pretending to oppose the war would play better.

I won't link all of my previous Iraq posts, but besides "The Dogs of War" from 2013, these are probably the most significant:

"Iraq and Vietnam: Selling the Stab-in-the-Back Myth" (8/30/07). (Note that Blogger has oddly resized some images from old posts, but trying to fix them can create other problems.)

If Shakespeare is your thing, you might appreciate "The Knaves of the Bush Administration (3/20/07).

"Day of Shame" (2/5/08) is about Colin Powell's 2003 presentation to the United Nations about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, a collection of falsehoods that was pivotal in selling the war.

I wrote several pieces on the "surge" of American troops in Iraq. "The Surge Is Still Not Working" (3/1/08) summarizes and links some of the others.

"John '100 Years' McCain" (4/9/08) took an in-depth look at remarks then-presidential-candidate John McCain made. His defenders complained he was taken out of context, but a fair assessment with much more context did not make him look much better.

"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels" (11/11/09) was one of the key pieces in a set of interrelated posts for Armistice Day in 2009, and the one most focused on the Iraq War.

"The Graveyard of Democracy" (11/11/21) was mainly about the Afghanistan War, but there's considerable overlap with the Iraq War, of course. The post cites Brown University's "Costs of War" project, which estimates the costs of all U.S. post-9/11 war spending at $8 trillion, which includes future obligations in veterans' care and financial debt for roughly 30 years.

May we remember history accurately, discuss decisions honestly and avoid all unnecessary wars in the future.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Banned Books Week 2023

It's Banned Books Week, which celebrates banned and challenged books. My archive in this category is here. Last year, we looked at how LGBTQ issues have been targeted, especially in Florida. Unfortunately, the situation has gotten worse: Recently, "librarians in public schools in Charlotte County, Florida, were instructed by the school district superintendent to remove all books with LGBTQ characters or themes from school and classroom libraries." So librarians were told that even books without sexually explicit content needed to be removed if any character is LGBTQ. (The district has since said that such books will remain available in school libraries, but for high school students only, and the books cannot be taught in class.) This stance is authoritarian and hostile to LGBTQ youth, as we covered last year, but it's also now an outright denial of reality, with conservatives both trying to pretend LGBTQ people don't exist and pretending that this gambit will somehow work.

Unsurprisingly, the American Library Association's list of the most challenged books of 2022 hasn't changed much since the previous year. This year, the list has 13 titles instead of 10, due to ties:

ALA documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago. The unparalleled number of reported book challenges in 2022 nearly doubles the 729 book challenges reported in 2021. Of the record 2,571 unique titles targeted for censorship, the most challenged and reasons cited for censoring the books are listed below.

1. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
Number of challenges: 151
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

2. All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson
Number of challenges: 86
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

3. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Number of challenges: 73
Challenged for: depiction of sexual abuse, EDI content, claimed to be sexually explicit

4. Flamer by Mike Curato
Number of challenges: 62
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

5. (tie) Looking for Alaska by John Green
Number of challenges: 55
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

5. (tie) The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Number of challenges: 55
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

7. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
Number of challenges: 54
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

8. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Number of challenges: 52
Challenged for: profanity, claimed to be sexually explicit

9. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
Number of challenges: 50
Challenged for: depictions of abuse, claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
Number of challenges: 48
Challenged for: claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Number of challenges: 48
Challenged for: drug use, claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Number of challenges:48
Challenged for: profanity, claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
Number of challenges:48
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, providing sexual education, claimed to be sexually explicit

On its censorship by the numbers page, the ALA provides a map of which states have had the most book challenges (Texas is still the worst by far) and some other censorship charts. The downloads page compiles some of those charts in poster formats, including the one below (click for a larger view):

One of the troubling trends we covered last year is the rise in coordinated organizations, not individuals, bringing book challenges. But another problem is that an extremely small number of individuals drive a majority of book challenges. In both cases, the views of the majority, of professionals and the community, are often overruled. The Washington Post profiled one of those book-banning individuals, 48-year-old Spotsylvania, Virginia, resident Jennifer Petersen, in a 9/28/23 piece, "She challenges one school book a week. She says she’ll never stop." It's worth reading the whole thing, but I'll provide some key excerpts, including the opening:

Jennifer Petersen keeps 73 school books she detests in her basement.

She ordered most from Amazon. In the last year, she read each one. She highlighted and typed up excerpts from more than 1,300 pages — of the 24,000-plus pages she read — that she says depict sexual acts. Then she filed challenges against 71 of the books with Spotsylvania County Public Schools, the Virginia district where one of her children is a student and the other is a recent graduate. (Two books were removed before she could challenge them.)

Across 434 pages of challenges — longer than many of the books she objected to — Petersen offered variations on a theme.

“This book reads like a how to guide for raping teens,” she wrote of one.

“The book normalizes teen sex and ... glorifies and incites teens to have sex,” she wrote of another.

“What is the fascination,” she asked of a third, “with so many of these books containing detailed sexual content?”

Petersen, 48, is part of a small army of book objectors nationwide. School book challenges reached historic highs in America in 2021 and 2022, according to the American Library Association. And just a handful of people are driving those records. A Washington Post analysis of thousands of challenges nationwide found that 60 percent of all challenges in the 2021-2022 school year came from 11 adults, each of whom objected to dozens — sometimes close to 100 — of books in their districts.

Petersen is one of these serial filers, whose actions have riven her community, earning her fervent admiration and criticism.

What indeed is Petersen's fascination with reading books she finds objectionable? It's worth repeating the key problem with the book-banning crowd: they're free not to read books they don't like. They can also prevent their children from reading those books. But they're fighting to prevent anyone else from reading those books. That shouldn't be their call. Libraries can and do have challenge systems in place, but adding a title to a library generally involves plenty of discussion and research first, including public input. Removing a book should have a high threshold. A book that's considered a classic, important, or is generally well-regarded shouldn't be removed and denied to the rest of the community just because one person or a small group doesn't like it.

In Petersen's case, she objects to sex the most, but of the books she's challenged, according to the WaPo analysis, 25% are by or about people of color or deal with issues of race, and 27% feature LGBTQ characters. Her book challenges, as of the article, totaled 434 pages, "longer than most of the books she challenged," and 6,556 words. She's definitely been disruptive:

Petersen’s district has lurched from one book controversy to another in recent years. In 2021, the Spotsylvania school board voted to remove sexually explicit tomes from libraries, with two members suggesting burning them — remarks that drew national scorn. The board later rescinded that decision. Then, this spring, the superintendent pulled 14 books for “sexually explicit material” — including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — and suggested shutting down school libraries to address budget shortfalls. That proposal went nowhere, but the school board voted to make it easier to yank books with sexual content.

Much of the turmoil has been driven, directly or indirectly, by Petersen. In the decades before she began filing challenges, the district saw almost no objections, maybe one every five to 10 years, library staff said. Now, in addition to her flurry of filings, Petersen attends almost every school board meeting, sometimes reading aloud graphic passages from the books she is challenging — mostly sentences too explicit to be printed in this newspaper. . . .

To some, Petersen is a fanatic bent on crushing schools under the weight of prudish objections.

“This whole effort has been a waste of money, time and resources,” school board member Nicole Cole said. (The district said it has not tracked the money, time and work it spent responding to Petersen’s requests, although a top library staffer estimated that a team of 11 people spent 40 hours per week on her challenges last school year.)

Petersen is causing the district to lose staff as well as considerable time and money. She can't complain that her challenges aren't been taken seriously, because her challenges have been reviewed multiple times:

Cole said the district has lost staff members because of what Petersen is doing, although she could not provide an exact number. The district did not answer questions asking about Petersen’s effect on its personnel.

Kimberly Allen, library liaison and high school librarian for the district, estimates that, last school year, fielding Petersen’s challenges required 40 hours of labor per week from her and a team of 10 high school librarians, work they mostly did on their own time, late in the evening and on weekends, because they still had to keep up with their regular jobs. Neither she nor her colleagues received overtime pay, Allen said.

Per school district policy, each challenge at a campus required the principal, sometimes working with librarians, to form a school-level review committee comprising a half-dozen teachers and parents. Each committee recommended keeping the titles, Allen said.

But Petersen appealed every decision, leading to the formation of a second, district-level review committee, comprising another handful of teachers and parents — these selected by the Office of Teaching and Learning. Those panels, too, recommended keeping the books.

The superintendent has the final say: He intervened to pull 14 books this spring. Another 29 books await his verdict. (Five are still at the district committee stage.) So far, none of Petersen’s challenges has been rejected outright. . . .

In “most of the books [she challenged], we do not agree with her assessment, because ... you cannot base the merit of a book on just its parts,” Allen said. “She is weighing the whole book on single passages.”

Petersen is being given fair hearings; it's just that she doesn't abide by the outcomes. A single group of librarians, teachers, and parents reviewing the books and approving them should be sufficient – Petersen brought a challenge, the community considered and it approved the book, she doesn't have to read the book but the community can, case closed. But she's also forcing a second group to review the book – and still getting the same result. The superintendent should abide by those committee decisions, but isn't, presumably to try to appease Petersen. So two people (or one person and a kowtower) are imposing their will on professionals and the community. These are not healthy dynamics.

I've seen some people suggest a limit on book challenges, and that seems like a good idea. One challenge per person per month, perhaps. Petersen and others like her could still bring challenges, but not steal so much time (often unpaid) from librarians and teachers and effectively harass them.

One of the odder asides in the profile of Petersen is briefly mentioning that she's a Buddhist, not a conservative Christian. Unfortunately, the profile doesn't delve any further into Petersen's claimed Buddhism, and avoids raising the issue that the principles of Buddhism are pretty incompatible with book banning. (For that matter, the principles of Christianity don't really suggest book banning, either, but for religious conservatives, the key part has always been the social conservatism, and the religion is more of a gloss, with religious principles selectively followed or just outright ignored.)

It's worth noting that Petersen is citing bad social science as part of her justification for obsessing about sex in books:

In some challenges, [Petersen] cited scientific research to back up her contention children could be harmed by reading about sex acts — in particular a 2020 paper she found in the National Institutes of Health’s online library that said “exposure to sexually explicit media in early adolescence had a substantive relationship with risky sexual behavior” in early adulthood.

In that study, the authors suggested one solution would be for schoolteachers and parents to provide teens with “appropriate information on sexuality,” including sex education classes. Another study published two years later found that exposure to sexually explicit material made some boys happy and upset some girls, but “the majority of adolescents felt neutral, which suggests that seeing sexually explicit materials is not as distressing as originally thought.”

There's also the issue of poor judgment on Petersen's part. As Kimberly Allen points out, Petersen is reading passages out of context and "you cannot base the merit of a book on just its parts." Context matters. Good librarians, teachers and sensible adults and readers understand this:

Gina Terry, a parent and former Spotsylvania English teacher, said in an interview that sexually explicit material is not always harmful — instead, it can be educational. She gave the example of “Sold,” a book told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl sold into sexual slavery. Terry praised the writing as “haunting,” although she acknowledged the text deals with complex, difficult and dark subjects.

“There is absolutely discomfort. But the whole point of the book is to bring attention to the real plight of real girls,” Terry said. “By saying it needs to be banned, we’ve taken these real stories about real people and denied them existence on our shelves.”

Terry makes excellent points, and it's also important to remember that a teacher in a classroom can help guide students through difficult material. So can parents, if they're not uncomfortable discussing such material with their children. But book banners tend to be the parents or other adults who are extremely uncomfortable having such discussions, all the more so if sex, sexuality, race, or racism is involved. Petersen certainly seems to fall in that category. Two passages leap out from the article:

Petersen, too, was alarmed. If children under 18 read about sex, she worries, they will be more likely to engage in unsafe sex or fall victim to sexual predators.

This makes no sense. Students who are taught age-appropriate, accurate sex education (and generally dealt with truthfully) are less likely to have unsafe sex, get sexually transmitted diseases, or get pregnant. They're also presumably less likely to "fall victim to sexual predators." This is just the familiar mentality of a parent uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality with her kids, even teenagers. It's the same mentality that leads to reality-denying "abstinence only" sex ed classes in conservative states and districts that increase the teen pregnancy rates. It's the same mindset that tries to deny that LGBTQ people, including kids and teenagers, exist.

The second passage is also a doozy:

In that first batch [of challenges], [Petersen] wrote of Beloved: “The book illustrates the horrors of our history. However, the passages outlined do not add to the story and they are sexually explicit.”

Beloved is a good, powerful novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and one of the reasons author Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Evidently, many people think it has value. (At the school where I taught, it was part of the English 12 curriculum at least one year.) But Jennifer Petersen, self-appointed literary critic and protector of the public, arrogantly thinks she knows better than all of them, that the sex scenes Toni Morrison included are unnecessary, and the book should be banned. It's not enough for Petersen and other book banners that they are free to disapprove of a book, don't need to read it, and can even write scathing reviews if they want to. They want to prevent anyone else from having the opportunity to read it and judge it for themselves. In this specific case, as is the case with many challenged books, readers would be denied a memorable, moving experience.

Part of being a healthy, thriving democracy is that people like Jennifer Petersen get their say. But another part of a healthy, thriving democracy is that other people get their say, too, and Petersen and her ilk don't get to make decisions for everyone else. Good public libraries and good public schools are essential for developing happy, inquisitive children, for helping teenagers explore adulthood, and for developing good citizens. Art is capable of saying more than one thing at once, and can be complex and multilayered. Art can be a rich and wonderful experience. If prudes and scolds wish to deny themselves that, that's sad but their right, but the rest of us must stay free to revel in the wonders of the arts (and share good book recommendations).

Saturday, September 30, 2023

The Tyranny of the Minority and The Extremism of the Republican Party

Part One: The Tyranny of the Minority

Two government professors at Harvard have a new book out called The Tyranny of the Minority, which accurately warns that the Republican Party has been increasingly anti-democratic and right-wing, despite or because of losing the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. The book, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is a follow-up to their 2018 book, How Democracies Die. The PBS NewsHour broadcast a decent interview with the authors on 9/14/23. You can view or listen to the 7:25 video or audio at the link above, or read a full transcript, or play the YouTube version below:

Some key excerpts, starting with Ziblatt:

To be a party committed to democracy, you have to do three very simple things. Number one, you have to accept election losses, win or lose. Number two, you have to not use violence to gain or to hold onto power. And then, number three, most critically, in some sense, for mainstream political parties, is you have to distance yourself and be explicit and open about condemning anybody who's an ally of your party that commits any of those first two types of acts.

To be a party committed to democracy, in order for democracy to survive, the political parties in a political system have to ascribe to all three of those principles. This applies to parties of the right and of the left.

And I think what is so concerning, as Steve described, is that over the last four years, we have seen a process of decay within the Republican Party where all three of those principles are violated, but, in particular, most recently among mainstream members of the Senate.


So, semi-loyal democrats are tricky, because they look like regular politicians. They look like mainstream politicians. They are, in fact, mainstream politicians.

They are in the halls of Congress. They are wearing suits. They look and talk and act like regular small-D democrats. But the key difference is their willingness to tolerate, to condone, to justify, sometimes to protect antidemocratic extremists.

And we have seen throughout history that when mainstream politicians of the left or the right tolerate, condone, protect extremists on the right or the left, democracies get into trouble. And so who are we talking about in the Republican Party today? Mainstream Republican Party leaders, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, leading senators, leading governors.

Both this book and their previous one offer some welcome international context on democracies in other countries and compare them to the United States – challenges, failures and better systems. Ziblatt touches on this briefly in the interview:

One big difference between the United States and a country like Hungary or other countries where democratic backsliding has really established single-party rule, we have constraints and there's a strong opposition to these forces.

That's certainly the case at the national level. What's so striking, though, because we have a federal system, that there are states in the United States where there are assaults on voting rights taking place, where there's extreme levels of gerrymandering, so that it makes it possible for a party that doesn't win the most votes to actually win control of state legislatures, where courts are then packed at the local — at the state level as well.

So what we see across the United States is increasingly a divide between states where you continue to have voting rights and democracy and states where democracy is really under assault.

Ziblatt closes by listing some concrete steps and perhaps some hopeful notes:

Some of the things that we discussed in the book and we propose, we have a 15-point set of suggestions in our last chapter, including things such as eliminating the Electoral College — we're the only democracy in the world with an Electoral College — introducing term limits and retirement ages for the Supreme Court.

We're the only democracy in the world that doesn't have retirement ages or term limits for national judges. We also propose some reforms that don't require constitutional reforms, such as eliminating or at least weakening the filibuster, the filibuster in the United States, since we're the only democracy in the world that has such a strong tool of obstruction in one of our chambers of Congress.

This tool of obstruction blocks very often majority-supported policies, gun control, efforts to address climate change, the minimum wage. Things get held up in the national Congress, which frustrates citizens. So we think there needs to be a kind of a sweeping reform agenda.

And one of the things we have discovered looking at other democracies, I should add, is that, when constitutional reforms come, they tend to cluster together. Momentum is gained. People get – regain faith in their political system. And we think this is very much part of the American tradition.

Where we are operating today without this is outside of the American tradition. And this is something we need to get back to.

This is all on point, and it's heartening to see more people considered mainstream and respectable sound the alarm about U.S. conservatism and the Republican Party. The phrase "tyranny of the minority" is nothing new; Rebecca Solnit and Michelle Goldberg both wrote good pieces with that title in 2017, and similar critiques go back further. Liberals and progressives have been accurately pointing out these dangers for over two decades now at least, but we're often not heeded, which remains a big problem, but nonetheless any truth that breaks through is welcome.

For more on the book, The Harvard Gazette did an interview, Steven Levitsky gave a lectue at Brown University, and the New York Journal of Books and Vox both have reviews.

Part Two: The Extremism of the Republican Party

Most mainstream media outlets remain reluctant to call out the extremism of U.S. conservatives and the Republican Party, and by their reticence help normalize that extremism, however inadvertently. Politeness takes precedence over accuracy. The Republican Party has become increasingly conservative and increasingly right-wing, and as a result, in mainstream media labeling, the actual political positions held by political figures called "centrists" or "moderates" have moved further to the right as well. (Classic Overton window dynamics.)

The PBS NewsHour is a good program overall, but its team seems to have made an editorial decision that any conservative or Republican who isn't far right should be called a "moderate." I've noticed it for several years, and PBS is hardly alone in this approach. Although PBS' Laura Barrón-López is a pretty good reporter and interviewer, she did exactly this early in the interview featured above:

Do you see Senator Romney's retirement as a sign that, rather than weed out the extremists in their party, Republicans are weeding out moderate Republicans like Romney and Liz Cheney?

I'd let this go if other reporters didn't use similar, misleading terminology so consistently. This approach is an ongoing problem in U.S. political coverage – normalizing conservative and Republican extremism, and not just by hacks, but even by people who presumably are trying to provide good reporting. It would be accurate to call Romney more moderate than other members of his party on at least some issues, and Liz Cheney did comport herself well during the January 6th committee hearings. It is fair to say they're being weeded out. But both Romney and Cheney are conservative, in many ways extremely so, with some horrible positions, which not incidentally are common in the Republican Party. As of a 2021 analysis by FiveThirtyEight, Romney voted with the Donald Trump agenda 75.0% of the time (which was less than many of his Republican colleagues) and Cheney voted with the Trump agenda 92.9% of the time.

Romney does deserve some credit for voting to convict Trump in both his impeachment trials (even if his vote "no" that Trump didn't obstruct Congress remains ridiculous), and Romney did put common sense and by his own account conscience above significant political and social pressure. It's technically true but a bit misleading, however, to say that Romney is "the first senator who has ever voted to remove a president of his own party"; Richard Nixon would have been both impeached and convicted by members of his party as well, but he resigned before it could happen. (The House impeaches, and the Senate convicts.) Liz Cheney, meanwhile, voted to impeach Trump in 2021 for the January 6th insurrection, but voted against impeaching him in 2020 for "withholding military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to extract dirt on rivals including Joe Biden," and said in 2022 she does not regret that vote. Her defense that the "evidence that was put on didn’t make the case" strains credulity, given the evidence presented. The Republican votes in favor of Trump in both cases were pure political loyalty and sheer political corruption.

It's worth considering Cheney and Romney's histories in a little more depth. It is nice that Liz Cheney respects election results, low bar though that may be, but she's always been pretty authoritarian herself. Liz Cheney has supported torture, opposed due process, and opposed investigating and holding accountable the Bush administration torture team, notably including her own father, Dick Cheney. This 2010 post covers some of that territory and includes a roundup of links on a disgusting attack ad run by Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol's Orwellian-named group, "Keep America Safe." This 2009 post focuses more on Dick Cheney trying to whitewash his torture record, but also touches on Liz Cheney's efforts to cover for him and the corporate media enabling it. There's also Liz Cheney in 2009 echoing her father's attacks on then-President Barack Obama for proposing to shut down Guantanamo, and arguing for torture to Anderson Cooper, including brazenly lying to his face about the key findings of the Schlesinger report on torture, and shamelessly accusing Obama of covering up the truth of the torture program (she and her cohorts prefer the Orwellian term "enhanced interrogation techniques"). In no world are supporting torture and defending torturers "moderate" positions.

Liz Cheney also can be fairly called a plutocrat, like most of her Republican colleagues, having voted for the Trump tax cuts in 2017, which like the Reagan and George W. Bush tax cuts, were (to quote a 2022 post):

. . . plutocratic, funneling even more money to the wealthiest Americans to please rich donors. Contrary to Republican claims, the corporate tax cuts did not trickle down and the tax plan did not pay for itself; they just gave rich people more money.

As the Council on Foreign Relations summarized in 2022, "income and wealth inequality is higher in the United States than in almost any other developed country, and it is rising." That post, and the website Inequality.org, have some helpful charts. (My most in-depth post on income and wealth inequality was this 2010 one, with several other posts in the category.) Given how extreme income and wealth inequality already is in the United States, especially compared to other developed countries, and the increasing economic pressures on the majority of Americans, I consider it unconscionable (or just evil) to actively work to support more inequality, favoring the rich and powerful. That unconscionable mindset is unfortunately a common one among conservative politicians, but I don't think it can fairly be called "moderate." (I'll add that many political figures labeled "centrist" by the mainstream media are really conservatives in their actual positions, or at the very least establishmentarians.)

Romney was not in the Senate for the Trump tax cut vote, but states on his Senate website that he would have supported it – while simultaneously claiming he "fought against both tax cuts for the wealthy and tax hikes on the middle class"! Romney is counting on readers not knowing his record or details of the law, and not spotting the direct contradiction (or simply believes in his powers of bullshitting). Romney, like many conservatives, isn't merely plutocratic but downright neofeudalistic – when he ran for president in the 2012 election, he adopted his running mate Paul Ryan's extreme policies to give a massive tax cut to the rich but also to gut the social safety net, including ending Medicare as it existed. Romney didn't get the flack an honest assessment of his policies should have received, because voters "simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing." (Much more analysis and links in the stealthy extremist section of this 2012 post.) The same dynamics often play out for conservative political positions – mainstream media outlets seem reluctant to describe them accurately in terms of their likely effects or their extremism, which gives cover for their mostly Republican proponents.

As with almost every Republican presidential nominee since Nixon, Romney used racist dogwhistles. In August 2012, he boasted that "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate," feeding into the racist, bullshit "birther" conspiracies about Barack Obama. He also ran a number of ads with racist dogwhistles about welfare and Medicare, continuing, as Chauncey DeVega pointed out, "the Southern Strategy, and the politics of white racial resentment." Similar dynamics were at play with Romney's infamous remarks in 2012 that 47 percent of Americans would back Obama "no matter what" because they "believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them," and who "pay no income tax." Romney's claims were at best grossly misleading, and taken in larger context were outright false (as I covered in more depth in one section of a broader 2014 post, which did also cover Romney's multiple, contradictory revisions about his remarks).

Donald Trump lies almost constantly, and may be unbeatable in that category. But during his presidential campaign in 2011–2012, Mitt Romney told at least 917 falsehoods that Steve Benen diligently chronicled and fact-checked, and many were substantial lies at that. This wasn't a new trait, either; Romney was lying and bullshitting at least as far back as his 2007–2008 presidential run. (I have posts from 2007 on some Romney "hogwash" and the sophistry of his anti-JFK speech.)

Mitt Romney has often acted as other people are beneath him and lack the capacity to see through obvious bullshit, as when he argued opposite positions to different audiences in subsequent weeks. (The same trend comes up in Steve Benen's exhaustive series.) The most infamous example is probably from 2011, when at the Iowa State Fair Romney argued against increasing taxes on corporations by condescendingly telling a man that "Corporations are people, my friend." When the crowd responded by yelling out the obvious point, "No, they're not!" Romney replied with a straw man, "Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?" Besides these arguments being ridiculous on the merits, it's interesting that Romney believed they would be effective politically. Faced with a crowd who wanted to protect the social safety net, raise taxes on the rich and corporations, and presumably overturn the Citizens United decision – all for the benefit of the vast majority of Americans – Romney essentially argued that corporate profits benefit stockholders (who are, technically, "people") and thus critiques of economic inequality and unequal power were invalid. Romney did express (smugly) what and who he actually values in society, as he did with his 47 percent remarks, and also betrayed an entitled, privileged narcissism that seems extremely prone to bullshitting audiences he holds in slight to significant contempt. Although Trump remains much worse in this arena, Romney shares some of Trump's worst traits.

For much more on Romney, see Jon Perr's comprehensive 7/4/22 post, "Mitt Romney Is in Denial," which superbly shows how Romney is no elder statesman, and is in fact a raging hypocrite who shares much of the blame for the current problems in American politics, which Romney instead tries to blame on 'both sides.'

So it's fine to give Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney credit for their pro-democracy moments. And it's sadly probably accurate that Romney's replacement will be worse, and his departure means that congressional Republicans as a whole will become more extreme. But let's not ignore Romney and Cheney's records and other positions. Every time conservatives and Republicans get worse, there's a tendency to look back at some earlier time with rose-colored glasses and laud an earlier generation of conservatives and Republicans, who might have a bit better in some respects, but were honestly still pretty awful. It's both possible and necessary to acknowledge both realities.

And how awful are their fellow conservatives and Republicans? The vast majority of congressional Republicans voted to defend Trump's attempted coup on January 6th, 2021 and have fought against any accountability for Trump and his cohorts. Most of the Republican presidential candidates (or vice-presidential candidates) would support Trump as the Republican nominee even if he were a convicted felon. Republican legislators in at least 11 states have been working to make it harder to vote. Conservatism has always had an antidemocratic strain, but the Republican Party has become increasingly, overtly anti-democratic and extreme.

Conservatives and Republicans are fighting hard against LGBT rights. They're also fighting against accurate discussions of racial issues and history, with a particularly egregious Florida teaching standard claiming that slavery benefited some black people (a view that Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has promoted several times). Republicans are still both trying to gut the social safety net and lying about it. And as has been observed before, the Republican Party is really the only major political party in a developed nation that both denies climate change and opposes universal health care. Unfortunately, conservatives and Republicans have chosen to be bad on almost every issue. (A 2018 post surveys their policies in the most depth.)

As of the writing of this post, Congress has narrowly averted yet another Republican-led attempt to shut down the government. As the BBC points out, this doesn't happen in other developed countries. And as many folks have pointed out, the shutdowns are Republican attempts to enforce agendas that they cannot achieve democratically. (Conservative and Republican policies tend to be both bad on the merits and unpopular.)

Media coverage has occasionally correctly blamed the Republican Party for this latest shutdown attempt, but as Dan Froomkin, Ian Milhiser and James Fallows via driftglass have pointed out, there's still a strong media tendency to blame 'both sides.' This is inaccurate, irresponsible and dangerous. (It's also nothing new. I haven't covered every shutdown attempt in depth, but covered the same dynamics in 2011's "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice" and " 'Serious' Culpability on the Debt Ceiling Hostage Situation" and 2012's "Why We Can't Have Nice Things." See also the more general false equivalencies category.)

Defeating the tyranny of the minority depends on conscientious lawmakers, civil servants, activists and citizens. But it also depends on more accurate and honest reporting. Extremism should not be normalized, blame and credit should be justly and proportionally assigned, and anti-democratic rhetoric and actions must be called out.

Monday, May 29, 2023

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

The 2022 version of All Quiet on the Western Front is a decent war film. I just wish it wasn't called All Quiet on the Western Front, because it keeps only the basic framework of the novel and makes significant changes that weaken the core story. That's a shame, because this is the first German film version of the justly famous German war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, and I was intrigued to see it.

Directed by Edward Berger and cowritten by Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, the story still centers on Paul Bäumer, a German teenager who is inspired to volunteer for the army along with several of his classmates because of the patriotic speeches of one of their teachers. Their idealism is quickly crushed by the brutal realities of the conflict that came to be known as The Great War and later World War I. Paul and his friends do find a bit of luck in being looked after by an older, veteran soldier, Stanislaus Katczinsky, nicknamed "Kat," who has an uncanny knack for finding food in a war zone and has a host of useful survival tips. Paul and the others experience the terror of trench warfare and bombings, charging across no man's land against machine guns, awful and scant food, rats, cold weather, and the wounding, maiming or even death of their friends and comrades.

All Quiet on the Western Front is well-shot, with some memorable, haunting images. The score is mostly avant-garde, minimalist, and not period, but its main, three-note riff is effectively disconcerting, and earned composer Volker Bertelmann (a.k.a. Hauschka) an Oscar. One of the key sequences from the book, Paul faced with the prospect of killing a man to preserve his own life, is nicely done, capturing the fear and regret of the whole encounter. Multiple harrowing incidents and gruesome deaths leave no doubt that war is not glorious. (Some of the war scenes are quite effective, but I did find myself pulled out by others. 'How can he still be walking after that wound?' 'Why do those tanks have no support?' and so on.) The standouts in the cast are Felix Kammerer as Paul, Albrecht Schuch as Kat, and Daniel Brühl as Matthias Erzberger, a German politician (and real person).

The filmmakers often opt for spectacle and shock rather than more subtle human experiences. For instance, a character who in the novel is struggling to imagine life after the war with a missing limb dies in a nasty way instead. Taken on its own, the shock is effective, but we get plenty other similar moments in the movie, and lose a different color that could have deepened the story.

The novel stays focuses on Paul and his comrades, but this version shows German officials (most notably Erzberger) negotiating with the French for peace, and shows a German general hell-bent on seizing territory in the last hours before the armistice takes effect. The French are mostly depicted as cruel bastards at the negotiating table and on the battlefield. (And arguably in civilian encounters, too.) The scenes are interesting in that they're invented by the German filmmakers and postulate the roots of World War II, suggesting that the more right-wing German elements, especially in the military, blamed the German politicians and the intractable French for Germany's disgrace. Such attitudes certainly did exist at the time – shortly after the war, Erzberger was assassinated by a right-wing group, and Hitler and others enflamed their followers with the stab-in-the-back myth, or Dolchstoßlegende. So getting a contemporary German perspective on these past events was intriguing, but the film really seems to lay it on thick in villainizing the French. Likewise, the filmmakers' choices in changing the ending seem problematic symbolically. (I would hope the symbolism was unintentional, but if so, why didn't it occur to them?)

The ultimate fate of key characters in this film version versus the book remain the same even if the particulars differ, and the general idea that war is often pointless and full of needless suffering does come through. The exact ending of the novel is also admittedly somewhat difficult to convey on film, although the 1930 adaptation does a pretty good job of devising a visual and emotional equivalent. Still, some of the particulars of the original ending are arguably rather important. The filmmakers opt to convey the idea that violence and hatred are cyclical, and passed down, which is all well and good, if an add-on. But much of the strength of the novel, and 1930 film, hinges on the bond between Paul and Kat. We do spend time with them in this film, but we really get to know and like them in the novel and the 1930 film. That gives the older movie much more emotional heft. One of the cardinal rules of good adaptation is that, if you change something, make it better. Perhaps you need to translate a moment into the new medium (as, for instance, The Lord of the Rings trilogy often does). The 2022 version of All Quiet on the Western Front strays from the central story to make other commentary, which would be fine in another film, or perhaps a better adaptation could have handled both elements. But here, the significant changes feel like unforced errors and a waste of stronger and more compelling source material.

U.S. and U.K. critics generally liked the film; it was nominated for nine Oscars and won four, including Best International Feature Film, and was nominated for 14 BAFTAs, winning seven. German critics were less kind, feeling it was deliberate Oscar-bait, historically inaccurate and did a disservice to the novel, a staple of many German school curricula. The most scathing critique probably came from Hubert Wetzel, who said "you have to ask yourself whether director Berger has even read Remarque’s novel." I'm guessing he read it but didn't understand the heart of the story. This version definitely feels like it's capitalizing on the famous title to make a different film. I do think that different film is still worth a look with appropriately lowered expectations, but given the title and the hype, I was hoping for better.

It's been years since I read the novel and saw the 1930 film (I haven't seen the 1979 TV adaptation), so I decided to watch it again. Directed by Lewis Milestone, it won him Best Director and Best Picture at the Oscars. It holds up fairly well and is a pretty faithful adaptation. The talkies era was still relatively new, and microphones not great. Some of the acting is theatrical and dated. Other moments, especially silent facial expressions, are quite effective. Many of the shots, including a wide shot of a town and the battle scenes, are very technically impressive for the era. About 50 minutes in, there's a roughly 10-minute sequence of an attack on the trenches and a counterattack, with long dolly shots moving one way and then back, with machine guns sputtering away and men charging and falling, that remains a marvel of storytelling and technique. It is harrowing, it is shocking, it is relentless, it is moving. (Steven Spielberg reportedly watched every war movie he could find before making Saving Private Ryan, and he definitely watched the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front.) There's a bit in the novel about Paul's group of soldiers talking about taking their dying friend's nice boots, which might seem ghoulish to those back home, but they reason that someone else would just steal them and he'd have preferred that one of his buddies get them instead. In the 1930 film, this bit is rendered as a scene and a short, wordless montage. Read the passage and then see the movie sequence and you'll recognize it as a fine piece of adaptation and cinematic storytelling. The film's biggest strength is its emotional core, which depends not just on the combat scenes but the human relationships. Katz, played by Louis Wolheim, rather than being the tough-as-nails veteran scolding the new guys that we've seen in countless movies, is disarmingly compassionate, even when a greenhorn soils his pants in fear. We really get to like Katz, Lew Ayres as Paul, and some of the rest of the squad. I admired and appreciated some of the scenes in the 2022 film. But I was honestly much more moved by the 1930 film. There's no reason you can't watch both (and read the novel as well), but unless you can't stand old movies, if you could see only one version, I'd go with the 1930 one. (The Universal Blu-ray is a nice transfer, and it's remarkable to think that the film is almost 100 years old.)

Friday, April 28, 2023

National Poetry Month 2023

April is National Poetry Month, and before it's over, I wanted to feature a poem. As usual, I'll link the wonderful Favorite Poem Project. I'll also link the Academy of American Poets website, one of the better poetry sites available. The organization posts poems on Facebook occasionally, but from time to time donors get a poem in the mail as well. I received the one below and quite liked it. Ada Limón is the current national poet laureate.

Instructions on Not Giving Up
By Ada Limón

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

Happy National Poetry Month!

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Oscars for the Films of 2022

The pandemic has certainly changed movie-going, at least for me. I used to see 20 to 30 films a year in the theater (more in earlier decades), but in 2022, didn't see any. I did catch several Oscar nominees via streaming services or on disc.

This year's Oscar recipients included at least two comeback winners and another two long-time stalwarts finally getting recognized, making for a pleasant night.

Jimmy Kimmel delivered a decent opening monologue. Despite a hoarse voice, Elizabeth Banks was funny copresenting the Visual Effects award with an actor in a bear costume, a nod to her recent film, Cocaine Bear.

Charlie Mackesy and Matthew Freud were charming and Britishly self-effacing while accepting their win for Best Animated Short, "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse." (I haven't seen it yet, but it's got a cool, lovely style in the clips.) Freud started by saying, "I know the protocol is to say 'thank you' a lot, but I'm British, so I'm more comfortable saying 'sorry.' "

Ke Huy Quan opened the night on a strong note with an emotional, grateful speech for winning Best Supporting Actor. Viewers of a certain age may remember Quan fondly from 80s films Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, and he gives a memorable, affecting performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once. It makes for a nice comeback story. Meanwhile, one of his costars, Jamie Lee Curtis, who's been working and good for ages, gave a gracious speech thanking her crew and everyone with the refrain, "We won an Oscar."

Rounding out the acting categories, Brendan Fraser gave a moving, emotional speech about his career and how thankful he was for its resurgence. Fraser's acting chops were probably somewhat overlooked in his earlier, bohunk days, but he's always been solid, and particularly memorable in Gods and Monsters, the fun and eminently watchable The Mummy and a great episode arc on the TV show Scrubs. I was happy to see him win. As a long-time fan of Michelle Yeoh, I was likewise glad to see her win and hear her speech, thanking parents, speaking to "all the little boys and girls who look like me," and saying, "Ladies, don't let anyone tell you you are ever past your prime."

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert ("the Daniels") took the stage three times, first for Best Original Screenplay , giving a warm shout-out to teachers. The second time was for Directing, and the speeches thanked parents, film crews, and expressed support for LGBT kids and immigrants. The third time was with the rest of the cast and crew for Everything Everywhere All at Once winning Best Picture. I need to see the film again, but I liked it overall. I thought it went on a bit long and became somewhat repetitive, but I appreciated its originality, energy, and willingness to be silly, bizarre and sometimes flat-out bonkers. It was also enjoyable to see 94-year-old cast member James Hong making the awards circuit, getting a Hollywood star, and talking about how much things have changed for the better for Asian actors in Hollywood.

Sarah Polley gave an eloquent speech accepting the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Besides thanking her cast, crew, and loved ones, she said, "Miriam Toews wrote an essential novel about a radical act of democracy in which people who don’t agree on every single issue manage to sit together in a room and carve out a way forward together free of violence. They do so not just by talking but also by listening." I've liked Polley since her days as a child actress in the The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, liked her performances as a young adult in Go and The Sweet Hereafter (also her singing in that one), and I've been glad to see her become successful as a writer and director.

The Oscars' montage game is typically strong, and this year featured a nice one celebrating Warner Brothers 100th anniversary. Disney was celebrating 100 years, too, but unfortunately chose to use its time to hawk its live-action remake of The Little Mermaid instead.

Musically, David Byrne and Lady Gaga both started surprisingly off during their best nominated song performances, with Byrne being off-key and Gaga sounding pretty rough, although both seemed to recover. I thought the best nominated song was "Lift Me Up" from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, cowritten and performed by Rihanna, and Danai Gurai gave the song a nice introduction honoring Chadwick Boseman, gone too soon. Still, it was neat to see a Bollywood nominee win, "Naatu Naatu," and its team gave a rousing performance during the Oscars. Meanwhile, Lenny Kravitz did a lovely job performing "Calling All Angels" during the Montage of Death.

All in all, it was one of the more enjoyable Oscar ceremonies of recent years. I like seeing good work recognized and people whose work I like getting awards. This year, I was particularly pleased to see that one of the honorary Oscars went to Australian director Peter Weir. It's well worth checking out Jeff Bridges' introduction and Peter Weir's speech, because they can speak for 10 to 15 minutes and tell some great stories. You could also check out some of Weir's superb movies, including Galipoli, Witness, The Year of Living Dangerously, Dead Poets Society, Fearless, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

No epic film roundup this year, but I might post some film reviews later and link them here. It can be harder to see more independent fare on streaming services, and I still order discs, but the 2022 films I saw were Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Fabelmans, Women Talking, All Quiet on the Western Front, Death on the Nile, Glass Onion, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, Prey, and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. I'll be seeing Living later this year and probably Triangle of Sadness. Feel free to pass on any film recommendations.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Conservatives Are Still Awful (Feb. 2023 Edition)

The state of the union and its responses earlier this month were revealing for both rhetoric and policy. President Joe Biden started his state of the union speech on a collegial tone, saying nice things to the conservative Republicans in Congress. He did draw distinctions between their policies, and Republicans booed and yelled at him at times, but that said more about them than Biden. He repeatedly spoke about working together, and in at least one poll, 72 percent of viewers had a positive reaction to the speech.

In sharp contrast, in the official Republican response, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders quickly shifted to a right-wing, hyperbolic, cultural war speech designed to rile up Fox News viewers and the conservative base, not to persuade anyone else. A few sentences in, she claimed that "Democrats want to rule us with more government control," and the core of her speech consisted of even more straw men and bullshit:

[Biden's] the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can't even tell you what a woman is. In the radical left's America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country. Whether Joe Biden believes this madness or is simply too weak to resist it, his administration has been completely hijacked by the radical left. The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy. 

She was correct about the last part, but not in the way she meant. The rest of her speech featured plenty of other charged and ridiculous rhetoric:

Upon taking office just a few weeks ago I signed Executive Orders to ban CRT, racism, and indoctrination in our schools, eliminate the use of the derogatory term 'Latinx' in our government, repealed COVID orders and said never again to authoritarian mandates and shutdowns. . . .

After years of Democrat attacks on law enforcement and calls to defund the police, violent criminals roam free, while law-abiding families live in fear. . . .

We are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn't start and never wanted to fight. Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is, your freedom of speech.

Perhaps her most outrageous moment was invoking the Little Rock Nine, the black students who faced harassment in 1957 for attending the previously segregated, whites-only Little Rock Central High School. On PBS the night of the speeches, Jonathan Capehart reacted strongly to the hypocrisy and gall of Huckabee Sanders:

This speech, I'm, I'm, trying not to levitate from my chair, because there were so many, she leaned so hard into the culture wars that she just slid right into ignorance. And for her to say, to revel in the fact that an alum of Little Rock Central High School, and lauding the Little Rock Nine, and their stature, they're memorialized – when the Republicans, particularly in Florida, but I guess now in Arkansas, are going to make it illegal for students to learn about why the Little Rock Nine are significant and in bronze, in Little Rock. This speech was entirely offensive.

Another poll reported that viewers found Huckabee Sanders' speech more extreme and divisive than Biden's. It's hard to imagine that many people outside the conservative base found her compelling.

The most striking moment for policy – and issues of accuracy – in the state of the union was Biden saying, "Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans – some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I'm not saying it's a majority…" He was shouted down by Republicans, most notably Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who yelled "Liar!" But of course, Biden was telling the truth. As political historian Heather Cox described the scene the next day:

Biden did something astonishing. He tricked the Republicans into a public declaration of support for protecting Social Security and Medicare. He noted that a number of Republicans have called for cutting, or even getting rid of, Social Security and Medicare. This is simply a fact—it is in Senator Rick Scott's (R-FL) pre-election plan; the Republican Study Committee's budget; statements by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Ron Johnson (R-WI); and so on—but Republicans booed Biden and called him a liar for suggesting they would make those cuts, and they did so in public.

Seeming to enjoy himself, Biden jumped on their assertion, forcing them to agree that there would be no cuts to Social Security or Medicare. It was budget negotiation in real time, and it left Biden holding all the cards.

The Hill provided a nice roundup of specific statement from conservative Republicans in support of cutting Social Security and Medicare, and Chris Hayes and Seth Meyers presented good video segments. (The most striking may be Senator Mike Lee of Utah saying, "It will be my objective to phase out Social Security, to pull it up by the roots and get rid of it.")

Wanting to gut the social safety net, and Social Security and Medicare in particular, are nothing new for conservatives and Republicans. Sticking just to this century, in 2005, George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security, but failed because his plan was wildly unpopular, not to mention awful policy that would have shifted the program from a social guarantee to gambling on the market.

Former Speaker of the House, Republican Paul Ryan, proposing cutting both programs for years. In 2012, Ryan became Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate, and Romney adopted Ryan's polices for his campaign. The "Stealthy Extremist" section of a 2012 post, "The Four Types of Conservatives," provides a bevy of links and passages analyzing Paul Ryan's policies attacking the social safety net. Read it for far more detail, but the key point may be Paul Krugman's: the objections to Ryan's plans weren't solely that they were cruel; Ryan's plans were "disingenuous and fraudulent." Not only were his goals immoral, Ryan constantly lied about the numbers. Of course, that's a feature, not a bug, of many conservative policies. They're awful on the merits, and don't fare well when discussed honestly and accurately.

On the PBS News Hour this month, conservative Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), spoke about the federal budget and cutting "entitlements," meaning Social Security and Medicare, and insisted that cutting military spending was not the answer. Cole managed to sound more reasonable than many of his fellow conservatives to casual viewers, even agreeing to a question about raising taxes that "revenue would have to be on the table." Cole omitted plenty, though, and it's one thing to pretend to be a reasonable conservative to the PBS and NPR crowds and another thing to act accordingly. In 2017, Cole voted for the Trump tax cuts, which were a budget-busting, funneling of more money to the wealthy. And the best way to lower the costs of Medicare and Medicaid would be to join the civilized nations of the world and pass universal health care. Cole was practicing the classic conservative starve the beast strategy – run up the debt with tax cuts for the rich and military spending, and then claim the debt requires gutting the social safety net.

It's worth pointing out that the problem is not solely Republicans, but conservatives, a group that includes many political figures the mainstream press calls "centrists" and "moderates." In 2010, Barack Obama asked Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles to head up a commission to look at fiscal reform. The commission never managed to agree on official recommendations, but that didn't stop Simpson in particular from publicly advocating for particular policies, most notably cutting taxes on the wealthy and cutting the social safety net. This is the same crap peddled since at least the Reagan era, whether it's called supply-side economics, voodoo economics, trickle-down economics, or just conservative economics. Strangely enough, for Simpson and many other "very sensible centrists," giving more money to the rich and powerful is never a problem – plutocracy and oligarchy are just fine – but social programs that will help the vast majority of Americans are somehow clearly unsustainable. (Digby wrote quite a bit about the Simpson and Bowles gambits at the time, and has since written about their successors.)

On February 18th, Heather Cox Richardson followed up her initial take on the state of the union with a great summary of conservative and Republican policies – their paucity, their unpopularity, and their history. Here's a lengthy quotation, but you should be reading Richardson regularly anyway and it's an excellent primer:

Republican leaders are recognizing that the sight of Republican lawmakers heckling the president of the United States didn't do their party any favors.

It not only called attention to their behavior, it prompted many news outlets to fact-check President Biden's claim that Republicans had called for cuts to Social Security and Medicare or even called to get rid of them. Those outlets noted that while Republicans have repeatedly said they have no intention of cutting those programs, what Biden said was true: Republican leaders have repeatedly suggested such cuts, or even the elimination of those programs, in speeches, news interviews, and written proposals.

Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) told Alexander Bolton of The Hill that Republicans should stick to "reasonable and enduring policy" proposals. "I think we're missing an opportunity to differentiate," he said. "Focus on policy. If you get that done, it will age well."

But therein lies the Republican Party's problem. What ARE its reasonable and enduring policies? One of the reasons Biden keeps pressuring the party to release its budget is that it's not at all clear what the party stands for.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) refused to issue any plans before the 2022 midterm election, and in 2020, for the first time in its history, the party refused to write a party platform. The Republican National Committee simply resolved that if its party platform committee had met, it "would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party's strong support for President Donald Trump and his Administration." So, it resolved that "the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President's America-first agenda."

Cutting Social Security is a centerpiece of the ideology the party adopted in the 1980s: that the government in place since 1933 was stunting the economy and should be privatized as much as possible.

In place of using the federal government to regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, protect civil rights, and promote infrastructure, Reagan Republicans promised that cutting taxes and regulation would free up capital, which investors would then plow into new businesses, creating new jobs and moving everybody upward. Americans could have low taxes and services both, they promised, for "supply-side economics" would create such economic growth that lower tax rates would still produce high enough revenues to keep the debt low and maintain services.

But constructing an economy that favored the "supply side" rather than the "demand side"—those ordinary Americans who would spend more money in their daily lives—did not, in fact, produce great economic growth or produce tax revenues high enough to keep paying expenses. In January 1981, President Ronald Reagan called the federal deficit, then almost $74 billion, "out of control." Within two years, he had increased it to $208 billion. The debt, too, nearly tripled during Reagan's term, from $930 billion to $2.6 trillion. The Republican solution was to cut taxes and slash the government even further.

As early as his 1978 congressional race, George W. Bush called for fixing Social Security's finances by permitting people to invest their payroll tax themselves. In his second term as president in 2005, he called for it again. When Republican senator Rick Scott of Florida proposed an 11-point (which he later changed to a 12 points) "Plan to Rescue America" last year, vowing to "sunset" all laws automatically after five years, the idea reflected that Republican vision. It permitted the cutting of Social Security without attaching those cuts to any one person or party.

But American voters like Social Security and Medicare and, just as they refused Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security, recoiled from Scott's plan. Yesterday, under pressure from voters and from other Republicans who recognized the political damage being done, Scott wrote an op-ed saying his plan was "obviously not intended to include entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security—programs that hard-working people have paid into their entire lives—or the funds dedicated to our national security." (The online version of the plan remains unchanged as of Saturday morning.)

Scott attacked Biden for suggesting otherwise, but he also attacked Mitch McConnell, who also condemned Scott's plan, accusing them of engaging in "shallow gotcha politics, which is what Washington does." He also accused "Washington politicians" for "lying to you every chance they get." Scott's venom illustrated the growing rift in the Republican Party.

Since the 1990s, Republicans have had an ideological problem: voters don't actually like their economic vision, which has cut services and neglected infrastructure even as it has dramatically moved wealth upward. So to keep voters behind them, Republicans hammered on social and cultural issues, portraying those who liked the active government as godless socialists who were catering to minorities and women. "There is a religious war going on in this country," Republican Pat Buchanan told the Republican National Convention in 1992. "It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America."

A generation later, that culture war has joined with the economic vision of the older party to create a new ideology. More than half of Republicans now reject the idea of a democracy based in the rule of law and instead support Christian nationalism, insisting that the United States is a Christian nation and that our society and our laws should be based in evangelical Christian values. Forty percent of the strongest adherents of Christian nationalism think "true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country," while 22% of sympathizers agree with that position.

Scott released his 11-point plan because, he said, "Americans deserve to know what we will do when given the chance," and his plan reflected the new Republicans. Sunsetting laws and tax cuts were only part of the plan. He promised to cut government jobs by 25% over the next five years, "sell off all non-essential government assets, buildings and land, and use the proceeds to pay down our national debt," get rid of all federal programs that local governments can take over, cut taxes, "grow America's economy," and "stop Socialism."

But it also reflected the turn toward Christian nationalism, centering Christianity and "Judeo-Christian values" by investing in religious schools, adoption agencies, and social services and calling for an end to abortion, gender-affirming care, and diversity training. It explicitly puts religion above the law, saying "Americans will not be required to go against their core values and beliefs in order to conform to culture or government."

The document warned that "[a]n infestation of old, corrupt Washington insiders and immature radical socialists is tearing America apart. Their bizarre policies are intentionally destroying our values, our culture, and the beliefs that hold us together as a nation." "Is this the beginning of the end of America?" it asks. "Only if we allow it to be."

That new worldview overlaps with the extremist wing that is trying to take over the Republican Party. It was at the heart of the far-right challenge to House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). It informs Florida governor Ron DeSantis's abandonment of small-government Republicanism in favor of using the power of the state government to enforce a "Christian" vision, including on businesses.

Conservative economic policies don't need to overlap with authoritarianism and (in America and some other countries) Christian nationalism, but they do so quite easily, and Richardson is wise not to look at efforts to gut the social safety net in isolation. Put another way, to quote a post from last December, "U.S. conservatism focuses on fighting for power and privilege; it believes in bullying to defeat merit, and sometimes democracy itself. It is almost always plutocratic, often bigoted, and sometimes authoritarian (which intertwines quite naturally and toxically with the first two)." (The same post looked at how many conservatives and Republicans supported the January 6th, 2021, insurrection and support similar efforts in the future.)

As has been the case for decades, all that U.S. conservatives and the Republican Party can seem to offer the American people are spite, fear, lies, and awful policies that hurt the middle class and the poor. But the unequal, unfair, oppressive power structure they're fighting for is even more dangerous than their policies themselves.