Saturday, July 19, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sunday Reading

Why Is The VA Underfunded? — Katrina vanden Heuvel at The Nation wants to know.

Though Republicans might not understand, it takes a lot more than bumper stickers to support the troops who fight their wars. It should be a no-brainer, but it seems like those who have determined to politicize the situation at the VA have forgotten the primary reason so many veterans are in such dire need of care to begin with, and why the scandalously cash-strapped department has been so hard pressed to provide it. As I said on Face the Nation this week, without considering the historical context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—namely, that they were both unnecessary and prosecuted with a stunning degree of ineptitude—and without considering Congress’s history of underfunding veterans healthcare, it’s irresponsible to dive-bomb the White House with finger-pointing and grandstanding speeches about who needs to resign, and when.

There’s plenty of blame to go around concerning the massive failures of the healthcare system in the Veterans Administration. Both the media and politicians are focusing on administrative failures at the top and are calling for the resignation of Eric Shinseki, the retired four-star general who heads the federal agency, as if such a high-profile decapitation will fix the problem.

But members of both parties agree: It will not. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) told Politico, “It shouldn’t be about a political scalp. It should be: How are we going to improve care for veterans?” And Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) belittled his colleagues’ knee-jerk demand for a cabinet-level resignation: “I’ve never seen [the tactic] work yet…. I’ve only been around twenty years.” Even Bob Dole has dismissed the notion that Shinseki should be forced out. Former Senator Max Cleland (D-GA), a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, wrote in a Politico op-ed, “As a disabled veteran myself, there is no one I would rather have heading up the VA now, in this turbulent time, than Eric Shinseki. In my experience, he is the best there is.” Cleland should know; in addition to being, like Dole, a genuine war hero, he also served under President Carter as administrator of veterans affairs (the predecessor position to Shinseki’s) from 1977 to 1981.

Obviously, the creation of secret waiting lists at VA facilities is horrible. There is no excuse for such dereliction of duty, especially when it again puts the lives of our brave veterans in danger after they’ve already been made to face enough. Simply put, those who are responsible for making these lists should be fired. And if their actions are determined to have been illegal, then they should be prosecuted for criminal activity.

But just as obviously, we need to recognize that those actions were not ordered by Shinseki, himself a veteran twice awarded the purple heart (and, as you might recall, the Army Chief of Staff who—presciently—dared contest the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz notion that postwar Iraq could be reconstructed with a mere 100,000 troops). Moreover, under Shinseki’s watch, the VA has cut the backlog of veterans-benefits claims by more than half. Veteran homelessness has dropped by twenty-four percent since Shinseki made it a priority in 2010.

[...]

It cannot be repeated often enough that, none of these politicians who involved us in the reckless and unjustified wars of the 2000s has ever been held adequately responsible for the massive damage they have done to our finances, international standing, military readiness, and health of our veterans. It might be convenient to pin all of the hawks’ failings (and they are legion) on Eric Shinseki’s shoulders, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson suggests, but it would be morally, historically and economically bankrupt to do so. It would suggest that we, as a nation, do not actually value the lives and health of our soldiers over the political and financial imperatives of our ruling class. It would suggest that we consider our troops to be nothing more than rent-a-cops, called in to do security for the big event, then forgotten the next morning.

Today’s lesson is quite simple: after conflicts are over, we need to fully fund the healthcare and medical needs of our veterans. Forever. Even if that means making the political and economic elite pay more in taxes. Even if that means taking politics out of the VA and focusing instead on the welfare of our veterans. That we have politicians and members of the media who need to be reminded of this is a disgrace.

Conservative Comedy and Other Myths — Frank Rich looks at why right-wing humor struggles to find an audience.

The right, like the left, has a habit of overplaying the victim card. Given that there are many out A-list Republicans in Hollywood, from Rupert Murdoch to Clint Eastwood to David Mamet to Adam Sandler, it would seem that all the paranoia about left-wing McCarthyism is unfounded. If anything, the history of networks’ canceling liberal comics, whether the Smothers Brothers in 1969 (CBS) or Bill Maher in 2002 (ABC), is more pronounced. Still, the hysteria of the anti-Colbert claque made me look at the right’s case again.

And at first glance, there is something to it. Conservative comedy is hard to find on television once you get past the most often cited specimen, Dennis Miller. But is this shortfall the fault of a left-wing conspiracy to banish brilliant dissident talent from pop culture’s center stage? As a conservative Christian stand-up, Brad Stine, has argued, people think “the left is funnier than the right” solely because the right hasn’t been “given the same options.” Or are conservative comedians languishing in obscurity because they just don’t have the comic chops to compete with Colbert, Jon Stewart, and their many brethren? What do conservatives find funny, anyway? Is the very notion of a conservative comedian an oxymoron, given that comedy by definition is often the revenge of underdogs against the privileged? If the powerful pick on the less powerful, or worse, the powerless, are the jokes doomed to come off as bratty, if not just plain mean?

[...]

Anger is a mighty source of humor, but it takes talent to refine a crude gusher of rage into comic fuel. Eric Golub, a fringe comic so far right he actually glories in the label conservative, has figured this out. “To blame Hollywood liberalism—which does exist—is an excuse,” he told Politico last year. “Maybe some of the conservatives that are trying are just not that talented.” To see Golub’s point, sample the comic stylings of one vocal complainer about Hollywood’s suppression of non-liberal humor, Evan Sayet, a former Maher writer who turned right after 9/11. His stand-up may have killed at the Republican Jewish Coalition banquet in Santa Monica, but it’s not remotely ready for prime time except as a vanity presentation on public-access cable.

Good Luck, Grads; You’re Gonna Need It — Thomas Frank on the woes of commencing life with a degree and debt.  (PS: The only people worse off than you are your teachers.)

Welcome to the wide world, Class of 2014. You have by now noticed the tremendous consignment of debt that the authorities at your college have spent the last four years loading on your shoulders. It may interest you to know that the average student-loan borrower among you is now $33,000 in debt, the largest of any graduating class ever. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, carrying that kind of debt will have certain predictable effects. It will impede your ability to accumulate wealth, for example. You will also borrow more for other things than people without debt, and naturally you will find your debt level growing, not shrinking, as the years pass.

As you probably know, neither your parents nor your grandparents were required to take on this kind of burden in order to go to college. Neither are the people of your own generation in France and Germany and Argentina and Mexico.

But in our country, as your commencement speaker will no doubt tell you, the universities are “excellent.” They are “world-class.” Indeed, they are all that stands between us and economic defeat by the savagely competitive peoples of Europe and Asia. So a word of thanks is in order, Class of 2014: By borrowing those colossal amounts and turning the proceeds over to the people who run our higher ed system, you have done your part to maintain American exceptionalism, to keep our competitive advantage alive.

Here’s a question I bet you won’t hear broached on the commencement stage: Why must college be so expensive? The obvious answer, which I’m sure has been suggested to you a thousand times, is because college is so good. A 2014 Cadillac costs more than did a 1980 Cadillac, adjusting for inflation, because it is a better car. And because you paid attention in economics class, you know the same thing must be true of education. When tuition goes up and up every year, far outpacing inflation, this indicates that the quality of education in this country is also, constantly, going up and up. You know that the only way education can cost more is if it is worth more.

In sum, you paid nearly sixty grand a year to attend some place with a classy WASP name and ivy growing on its fake medieval walls. You paid for the best, and now you are the best, an honorary classy WASP entitled to all the privileges of the club. That education your parents got, even if it was at the same school as yours, cost them far less and was thus not as good as yours. That’s the way progress works, right?

Actually, the opposite is closer to the truth: college costs more and more even as it gets objectively worse and worse. Yes, I know, universities today offer luxuries unimaginable in the 1960s: fine gymnasiums, gourmet dining halls, disturbing architecture. But when it comes to generating and communicating knowledge—the essential business of higher ed—they are, almost all of them, in a frantic race to the bottom.

According to the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty, only about 30 percent of the teachers at American colleges these days are tenured or tenure-track, which means that fewer than a third of your profs actually enjoy the security and benefits and intellectual freedom that we associate with the academic lifestyle. In 1969, traditional professors like these made up almost 80 percent of the American faculty. Today, however, it is part-time workers without any kind of job security who are the majority of the instructors on campus, and in general these adjuncts are paid poorly and receive few benefits. That is who does the work of knowledge-transmission at the ever-so costly, ever-so excellent American university: Freelancers. Contract laborers.

Doonesbury — Labor pains.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sunday Reading

Moderate This — Jonathan Chait takes on the hurt fee-fees of confused journalists.

The Obama administration, like previous administrations, holds frequent briefing sessions with straight news reporters and opinion journalists, both conservative and liberal. (I don’t recall the Bush administration ever inviting liberal opinion journalists to briefings, but I may be mistaken.) There are some liberal opinion journalists, most of whom generally agree with Obama’s policies.

It’s interesting to try to disentangle the competing strands of liberal ideology (which is a perfectly valid function of opinion journalism) and Democratic partisanship (which, at the very least, is not the same thing), and whether White House access can corrupt or influence their incentives. A National Journal story by James Oliphant, headlined “Progressive Bloggers Are Doing the White House’s Job,” horribly botches the topic by blurring everything together. Hence, Dave Weigel is cited as a prime example of the administration using liberal bloggers as a partisan message vehicle despite the fact that Weigel has not attended such briefings and frequently takes unfriendly stances toward Obama. Likewise, Ezra Klein is cited as both an example of a partisan water-carrier and an independent, truth-to-power-speaker in the same story. It’s a total, incoherent mess.

The way to make any sense of it, I think, is an expression of a certain kind of centrist worldview currently embodied in its most flamboyant form by Oliphant’s colleague, Ron Fournier. The foundation of the Fournier epistemology is the premise that the truth lies somewhere between the positions of the two major American political parties at any given moment. Deviations from that truth can be explained by partisanship or ideology, which Fournier regards as more or less the same thing. In Fournier’s mind, since any expression of non-partisanship is by definition true, any attack on such a claim is by definition partisan, and therefore false.

The Case for Joe Biden’s Candidacy — Peter Beinart in The Atlantic explains that “What the Democratic Party, and the nation, need is a real debate between Hillary Clinton’s interventionism and the vice president’s restraint.”

Although Biden, like Clinton, supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, those calamitous wars have instilled in him a new devotion to the cautious realism that men like Scowcroft and Baker exemplify. In 2009, according to Bob Woodward, the then-secretary of state argued passionately for sending 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, at one point pounding her fist on the table and declaring, “We must act like we’re going to win.” Biden, by contrast, didn’t think defeating the Taliban was either possible nor necessary, and argued for a narrower mission focused on al-Qaeda alone. What she feared most in Afghanistan was chaos and barbarism. What he feared most was quagmire.

Biden, according to Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s book, HRC, was also skeptical of a Western air campaign in Libya. Clinton supported it. Biden considered the raid on Osama bin Laden too risky. Clinton pushed Obama to go for it. Clinton, perhaps remembering the way her husband’s decision to arm Croat forces helped enable a peace deal in the former Yugoslavia, urged Obama to arm Syria’s rebels. Biden expressed caution once again. “Over the last few years, and especially amid the Arab Spring, events have forced the Obama White House to choose between its prudential instincts and its great ambitions,” Traub writes. “In almost every case Biden has sided with the skeptics.”

It would be a good thing for Democrats, and the country, if the private debate between Biden and Clinton went public. Otherwise, it’s likely that during the campaign Clinton will take stances more hawkish than Obama’s—partly because Ukraine has made hawkishness fashionable again and partly because that’s where her own instincts lie—but barely anyone will notice.

Unless, of course, she confronts the only other major potential candidate likely to stake out a position less interventionist than her own: Rand Paul.

Andy Borowitz on the most important thing Congress can do.

Millions of unemployed Americans who have fruitlessly been looking for work for months are determined that Congress get to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi, a new poll indicates.

According to the survey, job-seeking Americans hope that Congress will eventually do something about job creation, but they are adamant that it hold new hearings about Benghazi first.

By a wide majority, respondents to the poll “strongly agreed” with the statement “I would really like to find a job, but not if it in any way distracts Congress from my No. 1 concern: finding out what really happened in Benghazi.”

In related findings, a survey of Americans found that taxpayers overwhelmingly consider Benghazi hearings to be the best use of taxpayer money, well ahead of schools, roads, and infant nutrition.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner released the following statement: “I want to reassure the American people that, until we have completed our Benghazi investigations, there will be absolutely no action on job creation, infrastructure, immigration, education, housing, or food.”

Doonesbury — Art critic.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April Fool

I know it’s traditional for bloggers to do some post that is meant to gull you into believing something outrageous under the guise of plausibility and then let it dawn on you that you’re being played for a fool. Well, I’m not going to do that.

Or so I’d like you to think.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Reading

Supreme Being — Ta-Nehisi Coates on why progressives misunderstand the role of white supremacy in America’s history and present.

​Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America. There is a conservative and a liberal rendition of this tradition. The conservative version eliminates white supremacy as a factor and leaves the question of the culture’s origin ominously unanswered. This version can never be regarded seriously. Life is short. Black life is shorter.

On y va.

The liberal version of the cultural argument points to “a tangle of pathologies” haunting black America born of oppression. This argument—which Barack Obama embraces—is more sincere, honest, and seductive. Chait helpfully summarizes:

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era….

Beyond Hobby Lobby — Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones takes a look at what the implications of the Supreme Court case concerning Obamacare vs. corporate religious freedom could mean for other interpretations of the law and Constitution.

…Of course, the case isn’t just about Hobby Lobby. The Supreme Court is using it to address dozens of similar lawsuits by other companies that, unlike Hobby Lobby, object to all forms of contraception. But the inconvenient set of facts here are just one reason why the case hasn’t garnered a lot of support outside the evangelical community. Many religious people are uneasy with the idea of corporations being equated with a spiritual institution. At a recent forum on the case sponsored by the American Constitution Society, the Mormon legal scholar Frederick Gedicks, from Brigham Young University, said he was offended by the notion that selling glue and crepe paper was equivalent to his religious practice. “I’m a religious person, and I think my tradition is a little different from an arts and craft store,” he said.

Women’s groups fear a ruling that would gut the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. The business community, meanwhile, doesn’t want to see the court rule that a corporation is no different from its owners because it would open up CEOs and board members to lawsuits that corporate law now protects them from, upending a century’s worth of established legal precedent.

No one seems to really have a sense of how the court might rule. On one side, court watchers have speculated that with six Catholics on the bench, Hobby Lobby has a decent shot of prevailing. But then again, one of those Catholics, Chief Justice John Roberts, is also sensitive to the interests of corporate America. He seems unlikely to do anything that might disrupt the orderly conduct of business in this country and make the US Chamber of Commerce unhappy, as a victory for Hobby Lobby could. Scalia is an ardent abortion foe, but his view of Native American peyote users might incline him to find for the government.

Finding a reasonable way out of this case won’t be easy. The litany of bad outcomes has some legal scholars rooting for what might be called “the Lederman solution“—a punt. Georgetown law professor Martin Lederman has suggested that the lower courts have misread the contraceptive-mandate cases by assuming firms such as Hobby Lobby have only two choices: provide birth control coverage or pay huge fines to avoid violating their religious beliefs. He argues that while the ACA requires individuals to purchase health insurance, it doesn’t require employers to provide it. If companies choose to do so then the insurance companies must cover contraception without co-pays. Hobby Lobby and the other companies currently suing the Obama administration can resolve their problems by simply jettisoning their health insurance plans and letting their employees purchase coverage through the exchanges.

An employer that drops its health plan would have to pay a tax to help subsidize its employees’ coverage obtained through the exchange or Medicaid, but this option is actually far cheaper than providing health insurance. And if a company doesn’t even have to provide insurance, much less a plan that covers contraception, Hobby Lobby doesn’t have much of a case that the ACA burdens its free exercise of religion…..

Mark Twain, Stand-Up Comic — In an excerpt from The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, Ben Tarnoff tells how Samuel L. Clemens, the writer that defined American literature, became Mark Twain.

…On the evening of October 2, 1866, the Academy of Music swelled to capacity. From the footlights to the family circle, the house was packed. “It is perhaps fortunate that the King of Hawaii did not arrive in time to attend,” cracked a journalist, “for unless he had gone early he must have been turned away.” The fashionable men and women of “the regular opera ‘set’ ” turned out in full. The wife of the current California governor, Mrs. Frederick Low, sat in a box. Even Harte came to show his support. He arrived with “a big claque,” an observer later recalled, almost certainly with Stoddard in tow.

At eight o’clock, the crowd started stomping its feet. When Twain appeared in the wings, they broke into thunderous applause. He ambled forward with a lurching, graceless gait, his hands thrust in his pockets. “I was in the middle of the stage,” he recalled, “staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away.” For several moments he stood silently staring, as the energy in the house ripened to an unbearable pitch. Then the words came: slow and deliberate, quirky and crude—the voice of the frontier, drawing its listeners under.

For seventy-five minutes, they laughed, clapped, and cheered. A “brilliant success,” raved the next day’s Evening Bulletin. Twain met the demands of a “serious” lecture by covering the islands’ economy, politics, history—yet he deftly interwove these with a current of comic tension that kept his audience on a hair trigger, primed to ignite at any moment. An absurdity might slip discreetly into the stream of his story, and then another, sparking laughter that rose and crested just as he suddenly shifted gears, delivering a passage of such heartfelt eloquence that the house fell solemn and silent. This was more than humor: it was “word painting,” said a reporter, a tapestry of anecdotes and images recorded by Twain’s all-seeing eye. He didn’t just make people laugh. As with “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” he brought a faraway place to life.

Ever since Twain first began writing, he had tried to give his words the flavor of living speech. Dashes, italics, phonetically transcribed dialect—these were meant to make readers hear a speaker’s special vibrations, the glottal tics of different tongues. Onstage, he could do this directly, breaking free of the filter that confined his written voice. He could feel out his audience, refine his rhythms. Unlike the spiritualists, suffragists, and fake scientists then sweeping lyceum halls across the country, he didn’t declaim in the usual authoritative style. He took a more intimate tone. He wanted to connect. He gazed at people’s faces. He played with his hair, kneaded his hands. He looked nervous, and dressed carelessly. He wasn’t a smooth performer, and this was the key to his peculiar charm. He didn’t hold himself apart; he talked plainly, unpretentiously. He brought people inside the joke. He made them feel like he belonged to them.

Doonesbury — Speak to me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Show Me the Funny

President Obama appeared on Funny or Die’s “Between Two Ferns” to promote Obamacare and the Villagers were having conniptions.

The New York Times‘ report on Obama’s stunt quotes a former press secretary fretting. (“We have to worry about the dignity of the presidency,” said Mike McCurry.) Former Bush administration spokesperson Dan Senor has likewise registered his displeasure. At the White House briefing today, ABC News correspondent Jim Avila asked if the presidency had lost dignity due to the appearance.

One can certainly understand why the White House would be concerned about upholding the dignity of the office. Presidential dignity is one of the most powerful tools the president has. He commands a vast state apparatus designed to create a sense of grandeur around him, and this aura bestows upon him a power unavailable to his rivals.

Is this apparatus really too weak? Why is it the role of the press to worry that the president is coming across too much like an equal citizen and not enough like a monarch? Washington’s dignity fetish is one of those manifestations of the cult of the presidency that expresses some really weird ideas about how democracy is supposed to work.

Aren’t these the same people who were concerned that President Obama was too aloof, that he kept his distance from people, wouldn’t mingle and chat with the important movers and shakers, and risked alienating possible connections that could help him accomplish his goals?  Oh, wait… they were complaining because he wouldn’t hang out with them, the Kool Kidz, but would go on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart six times.

Jealousy rears its shiny head.

The last time the Washington Post had an interview with Obama was in December 2009. The last time the New York Times had one was July 2013.

Oddly enough, I don’t remember the same outrage from the Village when George W. Bush went hunting for WMD’s on his hands and knees in the Oval Office in a video for the White House correspondents’ dinner.  They thought it was a real knee-slapper.  (The families of the dead and wounded soldiers were not so amused.)

Yesterday healthcare.gov was getting a ton of hits from the link at Funny or Die.  That’s what’s got them really honked off.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunday Reading

Losing the Plot — Jay Rosen on why political journalism sucks.

Nobody knows exactly when it happened. But at some point between Teddy White’s The Making of the President, 1960 and the Willie Horton ads in 1988, political journalism in this country lost the plot. When it got overly interested in the inside game, it turned you and me and everyone who has to go into the voting booth and make a decision into an object of technique, which it then tried to assess. We became the people on whom the masters of politics practiced their craft. Then political journalism tried to recover an audience from the people it had turned into poll numbers and respondents to packaged stimuli. Tricky maneuver.

This is what led to the cult of the savvy, my term for the ideology and political style that journalists like Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin spread through their work. The savvy severs any lingering solidarity between journalists as the providers of information, and voters as decision-makers in need of it. The savvy sets up — so it can speak to and cultivate — a third group between these two: close followers of the game. The most common term for them is “political junkies.” The site that Cillizza runs was created by that term. It’s called The Fix because that’s what political junkies need: their fix of inside-the-game news.

Junkies are not normal, but they accept their deformed status because it comes with compensations. They get to feel superior to ordinary voters, who are the objects of technique and of the savvy analyst’s smart read on what is likely to work in the next election. For while the junkies can hope to understand the game and how it operates, the voters are merely operated on. Not only does the savvy sever any solidarity between political journalists and the public they were once supposed to inform, it also draws a portion of the attentive public into emotional alliance with the ad makers, poll takers, claim fakers and buck rakers within the political class— the people who, as Max Weber put it in his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation,” live off politics.

But we’re not done. The savvy sets up a fifth group. (The first four: savvy journalists, political junkies, masters of the game, and an abstraction, The Voters.) These are the people who, as Weber put it, live for politics. They are involved as determined participants, not just occasional voters. Whereas the junkies can hope for admission to the secrets of the game (by taking cues from Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin and the guys at Politico) the activists are hopelessly deluded, always placing their own ideology before the cold hard facts.

HT to dread pirate mistermix.

No, Liberals Don’t Control the Democratic Party — So says Molly Ball at The Atlantic.

The misimpression that the liberals have taken the reins of the party has become widespread. To take just one representative example: “The mainstream of the party has now veered back toward its more populist and pacifist instincts,” Yahoo News‘ Matt Bai wrote Thursday, characterized by “outright contempt for the wealthy and for conservatives generally.” Like others who embrace this analysis, Bai draws the conclusion that this will be an obstacle to the presidential prospects of Hillary Clinton, who is perceived as hawkish, establishmentarian, and friendly to corporate interests.

Many Democratic insiders minimize the party’s divide. They note that there’s broad ideological agreement on social and cultural issues, from abortion and gay marriage to gun control and immigration. National-security and foreign-policy questions have the power to divide but are no longer litmus tests. Even on economic issues, the party generally speaks with one voice: in favor of universal healthcare, against reducing safety-net programs, for progressive taxation and government-driven economic stimulus. Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, told me in an email that the Democratic Party just doesn’t get hung up on internecine battles these days. “I believe that it’s a big-tent party that can and should accommodate centrists and liberals,” Tanden said. “That ideological purity has not been a winning strategy for the other side.”

But this high-altitude view elides real differences, such as disagreement over how much to raise taxes and on whom, how much to regulate industry, and whether to press not just to preserve but to expand those safety-net programs. (In addition to the Cuomo-de Blasio feud, Warren’s signature proposal would increase Social Security benefits, and Obama’s push for new free-trade agreements has run into resistance from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.) And the divide isn’t so much about issues as tone and tactics. The Warrenites harp on the gap between rich and poor and inveigh against big business; the centrists assure their big corporate donors that Democrats can be business-friendly.

Putin on the Titz — Andy Borowitz chronicles the latest atrocity from Sochi.

SOCHI (The Borowitz Report)—With the Olympics underway, hundreds of visitors to Sochi are complaining that they checked into expensive hotel rooms only to find them decorated with seminude portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The portraits, showing Mr. Putin shirtless and riding a variety of mammals, adorn the walls of virtually every hotel room constructed especially for the Olympics and were created at a cost of over two million dollars, Olympic officials said.

Tracy Klugian, who travelled from Ohio with his wife to attend the Sochi Games, said that he was appalled to find his hotel room dominated by a gigantic portrait of a shirtless Putin riding what appears to be a bear.

Said Mr. Klugian, “I did not travel thousands of miles just to be grossed out.”

For his part, President Putin has been dismissive of the complaints, today calling the hotel guests “babies who cry.”

“These people who are complaining about what is on their walls should be grateful,” he said. “At least they got one of the hotel rooms with walls.”

Doonesbury — Good news.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Reading

Here, Boy — Ian Haney-Lopez at Salon reports on how Ronald Reagan turned the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon and George Wallace into the mainstream dog-whistle of the GOP in the 1980′s.

Why did Ronald Reagan do so well among white voters? Certainly elements beyond race contributed, including the faltering economy, foreign events (especially in Iran), the nation’s mood, and the candidates’ temperaments. But one indisputable factor was the return of aggressive race-baiting. A year after Reagan’s victory, a key operative gave what was then an anonymous interview, and perhaps lulled by the anonymity, he offered an unusually candid response to a question about Reagan, the Southern strategy, and the drive to attract the “Wallace voter”:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—, n—, n—.” [Editor's note: The actual word used by Atwater has been replaced with "N—" for the purposes of this article.] By 1968 you can’t say “n—” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut taxes and we want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—, n—.” So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.

This analysis was provided by a young Lee Atwater. Its significance is two fold: First, it offers an unvarnished account of Reagan’s strategy. Second, it reveals the thinking of Atwater himself, someone whose career traced the rise of GOP dog whistle politics. A protégé of the pro-segregationist Strom Thurmond in South Carolina, the young Atwater held Richard Nixon as a personal hero, even describing Nixon’s Southern strategy as “a blue print for everything I’ve done.” After assisting in Reagan’s initial victory, Atwater became the political director of Reagan’s 1984 campaign, the manager of George Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, and eventually the chair of the Republican National Committee. In all of these capacities, he drew on the quick sketch of dog whistle politics he had offered in 1981: from “n—, n—, n—” to “states’ rights” and “forced busing,” and from there to “cutting taxes”—and linking all of these, “race . . . coming on the back burner.”

When Reagan picked up the dog whistle in 1980, the continuity in technique nevertheless masked a crucial difference between him versus Wallace and Nixon. Those two had used racial appeals to get elected, yet their racially reactionary language did not match reactionary political positions. Political moderates, both became racial demagogues when it became clear that this would help win elections. Reagan was different. Unlike Wallace and Nixon, Reagan was not a moderate, but an old-time Goldwater conservative in both the ideological and racial senses, with his own intuitive grasp of the power of racial provocation. For Reagan, conservatism and racial resentment were inextricably fused.

In the early 1960s, Reagan was still a minor actor in Hollywood, but he was becoming increasingly active in conservative politics. When Goldwater decided to run for president, Reagan emerged as a fierce partisan. Reagan’s advocacy included a stock speech, given many times over, that drummed up support for Goldwater with overwrought balderdash such as the following: “We are  faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars. There can be no security anywhere in the free world if there is no fiscal and economic stability within the United States. Those who ask us to trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state are architects of a policy of accommodation.” Reagan’s rightwing speechifying didn’t save Goldwater, but it did earn Reagan a glowing reputation among Republican groups in California, which led to his being recruited to run for governor of California in 1966. During that campaign, he wed his fringe politics to early dog whistle themes, for instance excoriating welfare, calling for law and order, and opposing government efforts to promote neighborhood integration. He also signaled blatant hostility toward civil rights, supporting a state ballot initiative to allow racial discrimination in the housing market, proclaiming: “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”

Reagan’s race-baiting continued when he moved to national politics. After securing the Republican nomination in 1980, Reagan launched his official campaign at a county fair just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town still notorious in the national imagination for the Klan lynching of civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner 16 years earlier. Reagan selected the location on the advice of a local official, who had written to the Republican National Committee assuring them that the Neshoba County Fair was an ideal place for winning “George Wallace inclined voters.” Neshoba did not disappoint. The candidate arrived to a raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000 whites chanting “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”—and he returned their fevered embrace by assuring them, “I believe in states’ rights.” In 1984, Reagan came back, this time to endorse the neo-Confederate slogan “the South shall rise again.” As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert concludes, “Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.”

State vs. Family — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on life vs. death decisions.

Marlise Munoz was 33 when she died.

She was at home when she collapsed from an apparent blood clot in her lungs. It was an hour or more before her husband Erick found her. He says doctors pronounced her brain dead, though. John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, citing privacy concerns, has declined to confirm that diagnosis.

It is, at any rate, nearly a month and a half since this happened, yet Marlise remains hooked up to life support. Her mother wants her removed. Her father wants her removed. Her husband wants her removed. He says his wife — like him, a paramedic — specifically said she never wanted to be kept alive by artificial means.

But the hospital has refused the family’s requests, citing a Texas law that prohibits taking a pregnant woman off life support. And Marlise, the doctors found, was 14 weeks along.

As it happens, this family’s plight is the inverse of another which has recently transfixed the nation. Marlise’s family wants her removed from life support, but the family of 13-year old Jahi McMath fought to keep her attached. McMath was declared brain dead by a hospital in Oakland after complications from surgery to remove her tonsils. This triggered a legal struggle that was resolved last week when the hospital released Jahi to the coroner and the coroner released her to her mother’s custody. Jahi is now receiving “treatment” at an undisclosed facility and her family says her condition is improving.

It seems unlikely. The cessation of neurological function is not some “technical” death. Experts say that in such cases, the brain liquefies, which would seem to be about as dead as you can get. So one suspects Jahi’s family is simply seeing what it needs to see.

That said, who can blame them? Who among us has the right to foreclose their prayers or the wisdom to draw some hard and fast line beyond which faith becomes foolishness and steadfastness an excuse to ignore reality? Who among us in the same situation would want somebody to substitute their judgment for ours — particularly if that somebody was some politician who’d never met us or our loved one?

This is what makes the situation in Texas particularly galling. Why is the state — not a doctor, not a faith leader, but the state — interposing itself in one of the most wrenching and intimate moral choices a family can ever make? What gives it the right?

News to Him — Andy Borowitz has the latest from New Jersey.

TRENTON (The Borowitz Report)—At a hastily called press conference today, Chris Christie revealed that he only became aware that he was the governor of New Jersey in the past seventy-two hours.

“Unbeknownst to me, some people I thought I could trust were secretly working to elect me governor of this state,” a visibly stunned Christie told reporters. “I have acted swiftly and fired them all.”

While asserting that he had terminated all of the people who were involved in the scheme to elect him, he said that, if he finds additional conspirators, “I will deal with them accordingly.”

Christie struggled to explain how he remained in the dark about being governor, a position he has held since 2010: “I guess I’m just not much of a detail person. People think I’m a micromanager. I’m not. If a bunch of people are going behind my back and plotting to make me the governor, that’s not the kind of thing I pick up on.”

Reflecting on his reaction to the news that he is the governor of New Jersey, Christie said he felt “angry, embarrassed, and humiliated, but mainly just sad.”

“It’s sad that this was allowed to happen,” he said. “It’s a sad situation for me and for New Jersey.”

Doonesbury — Coming up short.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sunday Reading

It’s Over — Josh Marshall thinks the fight against marriage equality is over.

Since the Supreme Court ruling in June, the writing has been on the wall for banning of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples in the United States. Since June the number of states with marriage equality has jumped from 12 to 18. But last week’s lower court decisions in Utah and Ohio leave little doubt that the political fight over gay marriage is now essentially over and that gay marriage will be the law of the land in every state in the country in the pretty near future.

The fact that gay and lesbian couples are now lining up to get married in Utah of all places – arguably the most conservative state in the country – might tell you this on a symbolic level. But the logic that points to the end of the political fight over gay marriage is more concrete, specific and undeniable.

Utah, rightly, got the most attention. But there were two cases last week. The other one in Ohio dealt with a much narrower question: whether the state had to recognize gay marriages in the issuance of death certificates. But both cases rested on the same essential premise: that if the federal government can’t discriminate against gay couples, states – by definition – cannot either.

As Judge Timothy Black put it in the Ohio case: “The question presented is whether a state can do what the federal government cannot — i.e., discriminate against same-sex couples … simply because the majority of the voters don’t like homosexuality (or at least didn’t in 2004). Under the Constitution of the United States, the answer is no.”

Both judges, perhaps with an element of trolling or humor, cited Justice Scalia’s furious dissent in United States v Windsor, in which he claimed that the Court’s decision to overturn DOMA would lead logically and inevitably to overturning every state gay marriage ban in the country.

Now, this might all be written off as the work of two federal trial judges. But the tell is in the response of the 10th Circuit, one of the country’s more conservative. When Utah appealed to the 10th Circuit to block further gay marriages until its appeal could be heard on the merits, the judges said no. Because the two standards for such a denial are ‘irreparable harm’ and likelihood to prevail on appeal, the appellate judges – one Bush appointee, one Obama appointee – seemed to be hinting that Utah is likelihood to lose.

In other words, the inexorable Scalia logic appears clear to them too.

[...]

In pretty short order, the Supreme Court will be forced to revisit the issue. And their logic in the Windsor case will join forces with the march of public opinion to make it almost impossible for them not to issue a broad ruling which invalidates every gay marriage ban in country.

I think everybody, on each side of the issue, has realized for the past two or three years that it is only a matter of time until this happens. But the decade or so of different policies from state to state now appears quite unlikely. I don’t want to end without noting that a lot of lawyering remains to be done. Nothing is ever certain. And even when it’s all but certain it’s still not easy. But I see little way to look at the last week and not conclude that gay marriage will be the law of the land in every state in the country in the near future. Probably during the Obama presidency and maybe sooner still.

Out For A Cruz — Dave Weigel in Democracy looks at the Tea Party’s plan to make Ted Cruz the 2016 nominee of the GOP.

It was in Iowa last summer, two-and-a-half years before the 2016 presidential caucuses, that conservatives first pitched me on President Ted Cruz. The first-term Texas senator was in the state to rally for the defunding of the Affordable Care Act. His venue was the annual gathering of the FAMiLY Leader, a social conservative coalition; its president, Bob Vander Plaats, happened to endorse the winners in the last two Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. The enthusiasm for a Cruz run filled the room like the sound from a Marshall stack.

“Before, there was never a mixture of the limited-government, fire-breathing prophet with a Christian conservative, moral-based guy,” said Jamie Johnson, a Republican Party activist who’d backed Santorum in 2012. “When the conservative base of the Republican Party has a David, to use a biblical analogy—when they have their David, it’s obvious who their David is—it doesn’t matter where the money is. Ted Cruz is the only guy who fits that bill.”

Johnson’s comment stuck with me because I heard so many versions of it, from so many Iowans. The conservative base of the Republican Party takes no responsibility for the party’s 2012 defeat. It takes no responsibility for the 2008 loss, either. In its telling, the base was too slow to pick its champion. Its vote was split, coalescing too late behind one candidate—Huckabee in 2008, Santorum in 2012. So the Republican establishment force-fed it two “electable” candidates named John McCain and Mitt Romney. This is the ur-myth of the modern GOP; it will scare the base into organizing more adeptly than it’s ever done before. Since the rise of party primaries and binding caucuses, only twice—1964 and 1980—has the conservative base overcome the party “establishment.” Ronald Reagan was a two-time loser (he ran briefly in 1968 in addition to 1976) before he won; and when Barry Goldwater triumphed, only 16 states held true primaries. There’s no precedent for a true conservative insurgent taking the nomination in the modern age of drawn-out, expensive ballot contests.

But there are cracks in the dam. Mitt Romney, a runner-up in the 2008 contest, faced an incredibly weak 2012 field. That didn’t stop him from becoming the first Republican to lose the South Carolina primary on the way to nomination, losing “conservative” voters—two-thirds of that state’s electorate—by 21 points. It didn’t stop him from having to fight a month-long mop-up operation against Santorum, who won more states than Romney in the South and nearly won in the Midwest, where he was outspent nearly 5-to-1, even before PAC money was counted. The weakest insurgent candidate in memory actually won 11 state contests, four more than John McCain won in his still-celebrated 2000 run against George W. Bush.

[...]

So, how does the Tea Party win the nomination? It copies, as best it can, the model Indiana conservatives used in 2012. Burned by 2010, when a messy Senate primary produced a moderate candidate, Indiana’s Tea Party organizations united under the banner of Hoosiers for A Conservative Senate. They cleared the boards for Richard Mourdock, who went on to obliterate Senator Richard Lugar in the primary (although he lost the general). In 2015 and 2016, the Tea Party would need to copy this as best it can in a rolling primary system, minimizing possible spoilers and locating a white knight. It might take until South Carolina or Florida, but if only one candidate is left by then—a Ted Cruz, a Rand Paul, a Scott Walker—he’d be in a stronger position than any insurgent since Ronald Reagan in 1976.

If It Quacks…. — Andy Borowitz satirizes the suspension of the Duck Dynasty dude.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia lashed out at the cable network A&E today, calling its decision to suspend Phil Robertson, the star of the TV series “Duck Dynasty,” unconstitutional, and demanding that it be overturned at once.

Speaking at a press conference with fellow Justice Clarence Thomas, a visibly angry Scalia told reporters that Robertson was “exercising his First Amendment right to express an opinion—an opinion, I might add, that many other great Americans agree with.”

He warned that the suspension of the “Duck” star would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech in America: “If Phil Robertson can be muzzled for expressing this perfectly legitimate view, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening to, say, a Justice of the Supreme Court?”

He added that, while he was a huge “Duck Dynasty” fan who never misses an episode, his objection to Mr. Robertson’s suspension was “purely on Constitutional grounds.”

Declaring that A&E’s decision “will not stand,” Justice Scalia said he would ask the Supreme Court to meet in an emergency session to overturn it: “This offensive decision by A&E is a clear violation of the Constitution, and I’m not the only one on the Court who feels that way. Right, Clarence?”

Justice Thomas had no comment.

Update: A&E has reinstated their star.  Money talks.

Doonesbury — Dream of Fields.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Reading

Phil Robertson’s America — Ta-Nehisi Coates on the world as seen by Duck Dynasty.

I’ve yet to take in an episode of Duck Dynasty. I hear it’s a fine show, anchored by a humorous and good-natured family of proud Americans. I try to be good natured, and I have been told that I can appreciate a good joke. I am also a proud American. With so much in common, it seems natural that I take some interest in the views of my brethren on the history of the only country any of us can ever truly call home:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field …. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

That is Robertson responding to a reporter’s question about life in Louisiana, before the civil-rights movement. I am sure Robertson did see plenty of black people who were singing and happy. And I am also sure that very few black people approached Robertson to complain about “doggone white people.”

[...]

That is because governance in Phil Robertson’s Louisiana was premised on terrorism. As late as 1890, the majority of people in Louisiana were black. As late as 1902, they still lived under threat of slavery through debt peonage and the convict-lease system. Virtually all of them were pilfered of their vote and their tax dollars. Plunder and second slavery were enforced by violence, as when the besiegers of Colfax massacred 50 black freedmen with rifles and cannon and tossed their bodies into a river. Even today the Colfax Massacre is honored in Louisiana as the rightful “end of carpetbag misrule.”

The black people who Phil Robertson knew were warred upon. If they valued their lives, and the lives of their families, the last thing they would have done was voiced a complaint about “white people” to a man like Robertson. Ignorance is no great sin and one can forgive the good-natured white person for not knowing how all that cannibal sausage was truly made. But having been presented with a set of facts, Robertson’s response is to cite “welfare” and “entitlement” as the true culprits.

The belief that black people were at their best when they were being hunted down like dogs for the sin of insisting on citizenship is a persistent strain of thought in this country. This belief reflects the inability to cope with an America that is, at least rhetorically, committed to equality. One can clearly see the line from this kind of thinking to a rejection of the civil-rights movement of our age:

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” [Robertson] says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

This is not just ignorance; it is a willful retreat into myth. And we must have the intellectual courage and moral strength to follow the myth through. If swindlers, goat-fuckers, and gay men are really all the same—disinherited from the kingdom of God—why not treat them the same? How does one argue that a man who is disfavored by the Discerner of All Things, should not be shamed, should not jeered, should not be stoned, should not be lynched in the street?

Further retreat into the inanity of loving the sinner but hating the sin—a standard that would clean The Wise Helmsman himself—will not do. Actual history shows that humans are not so discriminating. Black people were once thought to be sinners. We were rewarded with a species of love that bore an odd resemblance to hate. One need not be oversensitive to be concerned about Phil Robertson’s thoughts on gay sex. One simply need be a student of American history.

It’s An Outrage — In a new book The Outrage Industry, Jeffrey M. Barry and Sarah Sobieraj examine the growth of right-wing journalism and how it went out of control.

Fire and brimstone political inflammation was first brought to mainstream American media by a Catholic priest, Charles Coughlin, who captured the rapt attention of an estimated third of the country during his radio show’s peak in the 1930s. Remarks such as “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing” remind us that the vitriolic personalities we know today are not the first of their kind. And yet, Coughlin’s work came long before outrage could be understood as a genre.

For his time, Coughlin was more aberration than exemplar. American mass media have not always delivered an abundance of such voices. The new popularity of today’s outrageous political personalities comes in the wake of a golden age of journalism when the most visible voices in political television were known for their sobriety rather than their sensationalism. In the 1960s and 1970s political information was dominated by the three broadcast networks and the leading newspapers, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, which reached new heights in the quality and depth of reporting. Although news gathering by such organizations today is undertaken with leaner staffs and budgets than in the 1980s, the spirit of the work done in large conventional news organizations creates a product that remains profoundly different from the political information circulated by the colorful giants of political opinion media.

It may seem unfair to draw this contrast—there is, after all, an important, if blurry, distinction between news and opinion and people certainly still get news from traditional news organizations. Access to conventional political reporting has become ever easier in the Internet era and more people today read content produced in a newspaper newsroom than at any time in American history. But political news and commentary must be discussed side-by-side as both make up vital pieces of our broader political curriculum via the media, and the information, arguments, and stories presented in both venues work their way into public political discourse, becoming part of the cultural landscape even for those who do not tune in directly.

Political news and commentary were born and remain in dialogue with one another. While it is not necessary to revisit the entire history of American journalism, we see the history of network news as a particularly important point of reference for placing contemporary political commentary in context. Unlike early American newspapers, which were born teeming with opinion and persuasive content (having pre-dated our socially constructed notions of journalistic objectivity and, indeed, pre-dated even our notion of journalism), broadcast news was mindfully presented as unbiased from the outset. This attempted objectivity had little to do with the new medium but rather reflected a complex history of postwar anxieties about the use of newspapers as political tools. Journalists and editors began to frame their profession in general, and news products in particular, as objective in order to build their credibility. This commitment to neutrality was then canonized through the growing ranks of journalism schools, professional associations, and awards, most notably, the Pulitzer Prize. In the process, value-neutrality became not only the hallmark of high-quality news but also a requirement for ethical reporting. This objectivity imperative transferred to both radio and television news.

Carl Hiaasen — Silent Flight

An absolutely true news item: The Federal Communications Commission is considering a rule change that could allow airline passengers to use their cellphones during flights.

Good morning, everybody, and welcome to Jet Miserable. Please take your seats as quickly as possible so we can close the cabin doors and be on our way.

I see that many of you are already taking advantage of our nonstop cellphone connectivity, but please give me your full attention for a few moments.

Hello? Hey, look this way! See my arms waving?

Ok, I’ll crank the volume and try again: YO, MOTORMOUTHS! LISTEN UP!

That’s better, thanks.

While major airlines such as Delta, JetBlue and Southwest have decided to remain cellphone-free, we here at Jet Miserable have dedicated ourselves to you, the obnoxiously talkative traveler.

Please hang up and take a break — HEY, PADRE, THAT MEANS YOU! TELL THE ARCHBISHOP YOU’LL CALL HIM BACK! — while I review the new safety procedures and regulations.

If for some reason the plane loses cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will automatically drop from a compartment above your seat. Before strapping on the mask, you must first stop talking and put down your cellphone.

Let me repeat: The oxygen mask is not designed to fit over your mouth, nose AND phone. If you’re traveling with children, gently pry their phones away from their faces before attaching the breathing masks.

In the event of an emergency that requires a water landing, let me remind you that your cellphone is not a flotation device. I don’t care if you spent $79 on a waterproof case — let it go, people, and use the seat cushion.

As a convenience, Jet Miserable has divided the cabin into separate sections, according to the various ways our passengers like to use their cell phones. Please check your boarding passes now to make sure you’re seated in the right place.

Rows 25 to 30 are reserved for those needing a little extra privacy, such as dope dealers, Ponzi schemers, mob bosses, undercover cops and anyone who’s in the middle of breaking up with somebody else.

Rows 20 to 25 are designated for our anxious flyers who are constantly on the phone with incredibly tolerant family members. If you check the seat pockets on those rows, you’ll find reassuring statistics about the safety of air travel, along with some useful tips on the appropriate dosages of your favorite sedatives.

If you’ve flown with Jet Miserable before, you know that the middle section of the aircraft, Rows 10-20, is always set aside for our loudest, rudest, most unbearable passengers.

I can say that over the intercom because they’re all babbling on their phones again, totally ignoring me.

Doonesbury — Not ready.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sunday Reading

Fascist Superheroes — Richard Cooper in Salon on the reality of the men of steel.

Critics tend to renounce superhero films only if they don’t like that kind of thing anyway. Everything has a political dimension, but this is all too often forgotten with superhero narratives, as defenders of the genre respond to any criticism with the fallacious standby, “What were you expecting, ‘Citizen Kane’?” The reason it’s so difficult to convince people that a superhero movie could be intelligent rather than fall back on right-wing clichés is because it’s been so rarely done: After so many movies that are clearly no more than bubble-gum, most people with a taste for proper drama understandably cut their losses and look for intelligent narrative elsewhere.

Yet the critics can’t leave them alone. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the Marvel-led boon in comic-book movies (which had actually already gotten underway before 9/11 with “Blade” in 1998, ”X-Men” in 2000 and “Spider-Man” filmed in the summer of 2001) — should have coincided with the “War on Terror.” What has been overlooked, though, is just what a lousy metaphor superheroes are for nations. The main problem is force: sheer physical force, which lies at the heart of the superhero myth, something Steven T. Seagle observed nicely in “It’s a Bird…”, his poignant autobiographical graphic novel about his reluctance to write for a Superman comic, in which he points out that Superman triumphs by being able to move faster and hit harder than everyone else: essentially a fascist concept.

I was reminded of this by Jor-El’s speech in “Man of Steel”:

You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.

How, though? Those watching him can’t fly, topple buildings or fire heat rays from their eyes. What else does Superman do other than these purely physical feats? The 1978 version of Jor-El warned: “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history. Rather let your leadership stir others to.” Can you really inspire others with steel? At this point it’s interesting to reflect on the real-life leader who chose a name meaning “Man Of Steel”: Stalin.

Fascism also reduces the role of anyone who isn’t Superman to that of an adoring onlooker. Anyone who has ever daydreamed about heroic activities as a child might remember the passive role the imaginary spectators take on while you rescue them, display superpowers or battle your antagonists. As China Miéville said of Frank Miller’s earlier celebrated comic-book miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns”: “The underlying idea is that people are sheep, who need Strong Shepherds.” Throughout Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the people for whom Batman is fighting are absent. There are some awed children, and a couple of people foolish enough to think that they could dress up as Batman, but they put in no more than fleeting appearances.

A Princely Sum — Michael Ignatieff concludes that Machiavelli was right about politics and politicians.

Obama_and_Biden_await_updates_on_bin_LadenYou remember the photograph: President Obama hunched in a corner of the Situation Room with his national-security staff, including Hillary Clinton with a hand over her mouth, watching the live feed from the compound in Pakistan where the killing of Osama bin Laden is under way. This is a Machiavellian moment: a political leader taking the ultimate risks that go with the exercise of power, now awaiting the judgment of fate. He knows that if the mission fails, his presidency is over, while if it succeeds, no one should ever again question his willingness to risk all.

It’s a Machiavellian moment in a second sense: an instance when public necessity requires actions that private ethics and religious values might condemn as unjust and immoral. We call these moments Machiavellian because it was Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, written in 1513, that first laid bare the moral world of politics and the gulf between private conscience and the demands of public action.

The Prince’s blunt candor has been a scandal for 500 years. The book was placed on the Papal Index of banned books in 1559, and its author was denounced on the Elizabethan stages of London as the “Evil Machiavel.” The outrage has not dimmed with time. The greatest modern conservative political theorist, Leo Strauss, taught his students at the University of Chicago in the 1950s to regard Machiavelli as “a teacher of evil.” Machiavelli’s enduring provocation is to baldly maintain that in politics, evil deeds cease to be evil if urgent public interest makes them necessary.

Strenuous efforts are being renewed in this 500th-anniversary year to draw the sting of this stark message. Four new books argue that to understand Machiavelli’s brutal candor, we need to grasp the times that made him: the tangled and violent politics of Italy between 1498, when he took office as a senior official in Florence, and 1527, when he died. Alan Ryan returns Machiavelli to his blood-soaked context, the decline and fall of the Florentine republic. Philip Bobbitt positions Machiavelli as the great theorist of the early modern state, the first thinker to understand that if power was no longer personal, no longer exercised by a medieval lord, it had to be moralized, in a new public ethic based on ragion di stato—reason of state.

Maurizio Viroli wants us to grasp that The Prince was not the cynically devious tract it seems, but rather a patriotic appeal for a redeemer politician to arise and save Italy from foreign invaders and its own shortsighted rulers. Corrado Vivanti’s learned intellectual biography reinforces Viroli’s image of Machiavelli as a misunderstood forerunner of the Italian Risorgimento, calling for the redemption of Italian republicanism four centuries before the final reunification of the Italian states.

All of these authors are at pains to stress that the “evil Machiavel” was in fact a brilliant writer, a good companion, and a passionate patriot. All stress that his ultimate ethical commitment was to the preservation of the vivere libero, the free life of the Florentine city-state and the other republics of Italy. The man himself certainly comes alive in his wonderful letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, written in 1513 after he had been thrown out of office, tossed into prison, and tortured. (Machiavelli was wrongly accused of conspiring against the Medicis, who had defeated the Florentine army and ousted the republican government the year before.) In the letter, he describes lonely days after his release from prison, hunting for birds on his small estate, drinking in the local tavern, and then coming back home at night to his study, to don the “garments of court and palace” and commune with “the venerable courts of the ancients.”

It’s True — Andy Borowitz reports that the Grand Ayatollah agreed to the nuclear deal to distract from Obamacare.

TEHRAN (The Borowitz Report)—The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told reporters today his nation agreed to a deal on its nuclear program in the hopes that it would distract attention from the trouble-plagued rollout of Obamacare.

“It’s true, we’ve resisted any deal on nukes for over three decades,” the Ayatollah said. “But when we saw how much trouble Obama was having with his Web site, we realized it would be uncaring of us not to try to help him out.”

The Ayatollah said he was not “overly optimistic” that signing a nuclear treaty with the West would be sufficient to distract attention from the President’s Obamacare woes, but, he added, “You never know. Every little bit helps.”

He said that he and Iran’s leaders will be putting their heads together in the days and weeks ahead to see “if there’s anything else we can do to help Obama out of this health-care mess.”

“One idea we’re tossing around is to get the Iranian people to stop chanting, ‘Death to America,’ the way they have for the past thirty-four years,” he said. “At the very least, maybe dial it back until he gets that Web site straightened out.”

Doonesbury — Please hold.