Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Reading

Town Crier — Frank Rich thinks Glenn Beck may be on to something.

Beck has notoriously defamed Obama as a “racist,” but the race card is just one in his deck. His ideology, if it can be called that, mixes idolatrous Ayn Rand libertarianism with bumper-sticker slogans about “freedom,” self-help homilies and lunatic conspiracy theories. (He fanned Internet rumors that FEMA was establishing concentration camps before tardily beating a retreat.) It’s the same crazy-quilt cosmology that could be found in last weekend’s Washington protest, where the marchers variously called Obama a fascist, a communist and a socialist, likening him to Hitler, Stalin, Castro and Pol Pot. They may not know that some of these libels are mutually exclusive. But what they do know is that they need a scapegoat for what ails them, and there is no one handier than a liberal, all-powerful president (who just happens to be black).

Beck captures this crowd’s common emotional denominator — with appropriately overheated capital letters — in his best-selling book portraying himself as a latter-day Tom Paine, “Glenn Beck’s Common Sense.” Americans “know that SOMETHING JUST DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT,” he writes, “but they don’t know how to describe it or, more importantly, how to stop it.” This is right-wing populism in the classic American style, as inchoate and paranoid as that hawked by Father Coughlin during the Great Depression and George Wallace in the late 1960s. Wallace is most remembered for his racism, but he, like Beck, also played on the class and cultural resentment of those sharing his view that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between the two parties.

Now, as then, a Dixie-oriented movement like this won’t remotely capture the White House. Now, unlike then, it is a catastrophe for the Republicans. The old G.O.P. Southern strategy is gone with the wind. The more the party is identified with nasty name-calling, freak-show protestors, immigrant-bashing (the proximate cause of Wilson’s outburst at Obama) and, yes, racism, the faster it will commit demographic suicide as America becomes ever younger and more diverse. But Democrats shouldn’t be cocky. Over the short term, the real economic grievances lurking beneath the extremism of the Beck brigades can do damage to both parties. A stopped clock is right twice a day. The recession-spawned anger that Beck has tapped into on the right could yet find a more mainstream outlet in a populist revolt from the left and center.

The problem, however, is that ranters like Beck do nothing more than just rant. They don’t offer solutions, they offer conspiracy theories. They find enemies to hate, then stand back and let the crowds riot in the streets; Mr. Beck didn’t even show up at his teabagger festival in Washington. He lets others do the dirty work and then stands back and refuses to take responsibility for what others do in his name. That’s not leadership, it’s cowardice.

Continued below the fold.

Faking It — Leonard Pitts, Jr, on the pitiful state of rebellion today.

I blame Elvis.

With Chuck Berry, Little Richard and other icons from rock’s first generation, he pioneered an incendiary idea: that music could be more than a medium of entertainment, that it could and should also be a tool of cultural revolution. It was not, after all, just music that moved town fathers to ban rock concerts and angry men with sledgehammers to smash jukeboxes containing rock records.

No, it was what that music meant, the notion of white kids mixing with black ones, of status quo under siege, of girls having sex before they were 30.

More, it was the realization that the staid old lives the town fathers lived and the staid old things those angry men believed were about to be washed away upon a tide of change.

That big bang still echoes; nearly 60 years later, we are still wed to the idea that the music that has meaning is the music that causes unease.

But it takes more to do that now than it did in Elvis’ day.

So pity Kanye West, the mercurial rapper who is in America’s dog house for his antics at last week’s MTV Music Video Awards. If you haven’t heard about it, you need to get out more.

Suffice it to say he rushed the stage as doe-eyed teenage country music star Taylor Swift was giving an acceptance speech, grabbed her mike and declared that she didn’t deserve the award, Beyoncé did.

It was par for the course for West, whose previous stunts and intemperate outbursts have earned him a reputation as unhinged and self-centered. Some have suggested this incident, along with Serena Williams’ tennis court meltdown and Rep. Joe Wilson’s boorish behavior in a joint session of Congress, signals a loss of American civility.

Maybe it does. But I feel it also suggests a popular culture that has run out of things to rebel against. Think about it: Everything those city fathers and angry men of six decades ago feared has come to pass and then some. The black kids are making babies with the white ones, status quo died of natural causes, and penis jokes are at home on prime-time TV. What was once the outrageous is now the everyday.

As popular music’s ability to shock has declined, its attempts to do so have only become more naked and needy. From Britney kissing Madonna on MTV to Janet Jackson’s bared breast at the Super Bowl to West’s serial episodes of juvenility, pop musicians now give us stunts that seem more desperate than truly dangerous.

It’s hard to be a rebel, though, when you make more money for one concert than the President of the United States does in two full terms in office.

How Much? — Ezra Klein on the true cost of healthcare.

Imagine if people who touched a hot stove felt only a small fraction of the pain from the burn. That’s pretty much what’s happening in our health-care system. It hurts enough that we would prefer it to stop, but the urgency is lost.

That’s the dilemma for Washington wonks trying to fix this mess: They look at the numbers and see health-care costs crushing our economy, overwhelming our government, swallowing our wages. But the public isn’t feeling it. Virtually no one cuts a $13,375 check for health care. Most pay 27 percent of it, or even less. The surest way to cut health-care spending would be to make people shoulder more of the burden directly, as opposed to hiding it in taxes and lost wages. But that’s about as popular as a puppy pot roast.

Doonesbury — Tweeting the war.