Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sunday Reading

Police Assistance — John Cassidy at The New Yorker notes that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are getting some help from an unlikely source.

Is Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly a closet supporter of Occupy Wall Street, the anti-establishment protest group that has been camped out in the financial district for the past week and a half? That’s what it’s looking like. Thanks to the N.Y.P.D.’s heavy-handed response, what began as a small-scale and relatively innocuous demonstration has turned into a riveting piece of political theatre that now has the eyes of the mainstream media upon it.

Over the past couple of days, the protesters, who are occupying Zuccotti Park, between Broadway and Trinity Place, have garnered headlines as far afield as London, Athens, and Jerusalem, as well the support of Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Cornel West, and Noam Chomsky. Where their protest goes from here is hard to say—it is supposed to last several months—but safe to say it has already succeeded beyond the imagination of its organizers, whoever they are.

On its regularly updated Web site,, the group describes itself as “a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions,” likens itself to anti-government protesters in Egypt, Spain, and other places, and adds, “We plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America.”

That sounds a bit self-glorifying, but what the heck? We live in an interest-group democracy, where those who shout loudest and organize most effectively exercise power. Over the past couple of years, Tea Party protesters have been claiming Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and other popular heroes of the Revolutionary War as inspirations in their efforts to emasculate the federal government, slash taxes, and roll back the welfare state. Partly as a result of a vacuum on the left, the Tea Party has already been able to shift the political debate dangerously to the right. Merely to balance things out and protect some things the Tea Party would do away with, the country would benefit from the emergence of an energetic left-wing protest movement. If the actions of Kelly’s goons help, in any small way, to shift things in this direction, it would be to the good.

More below the fold.

Those Were the Days — Cliff Schecter mourns the passing of the Rockefeller Republicans.

Essentially, the face of the GOP has gone from Mark Hatfield and Charles Percy to David Vitter and Tom Coburn, which would explain why a once-respected profession has lately morphed into something more closely resembling the oldest one.

It may be hard for those who either were not alive (which includes me) or have not studied what the times were like to understand how different our legislating process and political culture was when men like Percy strode the halls of the Capitol like a colossus.

It was a time when there were scores of Republicans who were more progressive on civil rights, war & peace and even social programmes than some Democrats. Percy supported legislation to stimulate the production of low-cost housing for the poor. He joined Senator Hubert Humphrey in creating an “Alliance To Save Energy” because of the OPEC oil embargo.

Hatfield, meanwhile, one of the first military servicemen to enter Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, opposed Vietnam and the first Gulf War and offered his view of national security thusly:

“Every president other than Eisenhower has been seduced by the military concept that that is our sole measurement of our national security and the more bombs we build, the more secure we are.”

He would be branded a peacenik today. Concurrently, there is about as much chance of that coming out of the mouth of any Republican legislator today (and most Democrats) as the numerical value for pi – or even an understanding you can’t eat it.

But that is where the Rockefeller Republicans earned their paychecks. As Democrats still had many segregationists in their ranks – those who would later be seduced by the Republican Southern Strategy – or just didn’t have the numbers to pass good bills now and again, men and women like Margaret Chase Smith, Jacob Javitz and George Aiken were essential to getting this done and helping main street just a bit more that other street with the big bronze bull and habit of playing taxpayer-insured roulette.

These Republicans of conscience, who held real sway in the party, as its congressional leaders and even presidential candidates, played a pivotal role in deals made by Democratic presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson, who needed their numbers to pass The Civil Rights Act (over 80 percent of the Republican Senate Caucus ultimately sided with Johnson and civil rights).

In fact, their disappearance from our politics has led not only the Republican Party to resemble a Darth conference at the Hilton. But it has taken our entire political culture to a point just to the right of not working, such that President Obama is more conservative than was Percy, even if one were to compare their records as Senators from Illinois alone.

Drink Up — Neil Genzlinger previews Ken Burns’ new documentary “Prohibition” airing on PBS starting tonight.

Tune in a documentary about the Civil War and you expect it to resonate in the present, since the racial issues that emanated from the era of slavery are still very much with us. But a program about Prohibition? Flappers in speakeasies and biddies beating temperance drums: hardly seems a recipe for modern-day relevance.

Yet you can hear history talking directly to the Americans of 2011 all through “Prohibition,” an absorbing five-and-a-half-hour documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that runs for three nights, beginning on Sunday on PBS stations. Especially now, the story of America’s disastrous experiment with banning alcoholic beverages seems made for Santayana’s phrase about learning from the past or being condemned to repeat it.

The template that Mr. Burns first used more than 20 years ago in his landmark series on the Civil War gets a boost from the availability of plenty of film to augment the slow pans of still photographs. The generals of wartime are replaced by an impossibly colorful cast of characters: the hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation; Wayne Wheeler, the master manipulator behind the Anti-Saloon League; showboating gangsters like Al Capone.

And, more subtly, the divisions explored in “The Civil War” — North/South, black/white — are replaced by others just as sharp (and still familiar today): native-born versus immigrant, rural heartland versus the cities.

Doonesbury — There’s an app for that, too, dude.