Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sunday Reading

Apartheid’s Defenders — The passing of Nelson Mandela reminded Ta-Nehisi Coates of the shameful role American conservatives played in keeping apartheid in place.

For many years, a large swath of this country failed Nelson Mandela, failed its own alleged morality, and failed the majority of people living in South Africa. We have some experience with this. Still, it’s easy to forget William F. Buckley—intellectual founder of the modern right—effectively worked as a press agent for apartheid:

Buckley was actively courted by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Taiwan, Franco’s Spain, South Africa, Rhodesia and Portugal’s African colonies, and went on expenses-paid trips trips to some of these countries.

When he returned from Mozambique in 1962, Buckley wrote a column describing the backwardness of the African population over which Portugal ruled, “The more serene element in Africa tends to believe that rampant African nationalism is self-discrediting, and that therefore the time is bound to come when America, and the West … will depart from our dogmatic anti-Colonialism and realize what is the nature of the beast.”

In the fall of 1962, during a visit to South Africa, arranged by the Information Ministry, Buckley wrote that South African apartheid “has evolved into a serious program designed to cope with a melodramatic dilemma on whose solution hangs, quite literally, the question of life or death for the white man in South Africa.”

Buckley’s racket as an American paid propagandist for white supremacy would be repeated over the years in conservative circles. As Sam Kleiner demonstrates in Foreign Policy, apartheid would ultimately draw some of America’s most celebrated conservatives into its orbit. The roster includes Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, Jesse Helms, and Senator Jeff Flake. Jerry Falwell denounced Desmond Tutu as a “phony” and led a “reinvestment” campaign during the 1980s. At the late hour of 1993, Pat Robertson opined, “I know we don’t like apartheid, but the blacks in South Africa, in Soweto, don’t have it all that bad.”

Not all prominent conservatives were so dishonorable. When Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto of sanctions of South Africa, Mitch McConnell, for instance, was forthright—”I think he is wrong … We have waited long enough for him to come on board.” When Falwell embarrassed himself by condemning Tutu, some Republican senators denounced him.

But the overall failure of American conservatives to forthrightly deal with South Africa’s white-supremacist regime, coming so soon after their failure to deal with the white-supremacist regime in their own country, is part of their heritage, and thus part of our heritage. When you see a Tea Party protestor waving the flag of slavery in front of the home of the first black president, understand that this instinct has been cultivated. It is still, at this very hour, being cultivated.

Road Trip Through Wingnutistan — Eric Lutz at Salon took to the road to visit the places that elected Michele Bachmann and Paul Ryan.

Driving gives a person plenty of time to think about what they believe in.

I believe, for one, in compromise. I believe liberals and conservatives agree on more than we realize, and that much of today’s hyper-partisanship stems from our having retreated into the comfort of our own camps, where if we’re liberal we can watch MSNBC or if we’re conservative we can watch Fox, and each listen all day to opinions we already agree with. I believe that, for the most part, people are good and want what’s best for the country we all love, but have different approaches to solving our most complex problems, that we would find common ground through respectful, sober discussion. I believe getting out of our comfort zones, and not just dismissing the other side as evil or crazy, would move the country forward.

But what if the other side doesn’t want to compromise? What if they’ve actually campaigned on a refusal to compromise? And what if someone’s views aren’t just different than yours, but abhorrent, or just plain silly?

This is what I decided to call the Bachmann Conundrum.

Michele Bachmann, since her election to Congress in 2006, has been a greatest-hits collection of outrageous right-wing talking points. She doesn’t believe in global warming, arguing that carbon dioxide is a “harmless gas.” She also shamelessly traffics in race-tinged paranoia: In 2008, she was concerned then-candidate Barack Obama “may have anti-American views”; and in 2012, she suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood had begun a “deep penetration into the halls of our United States government.” And of course, she’s a career homophobe, terming homosexuality “personal enslavement” and “sexual anarchy.”

Where do you start coming to a compromise with someone who believes homosexuality is a disorder and opposed anti-bullying legislation on the grounds that there have always been bullies and to legislate against it would force “boys to be girls”?

That’s the Bachmann Conundrum.

* * *

Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District covers the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities. The district is upwards of 95 percent white and largely middle- to upper-middle class. If you’ve seen a suburb you’ve seen these. Historic downtowns surrounded by a sprawl of car dealerships, office parks, malls. Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart – the same stores as Wisconsin and Illinois, and everywhere else for that matter. Stately old houses, ugly cookie-cutter subdivisions. Nothing particularly mesmerizing about them.

Bachmann’s district office is in her hometown of Anoka, about half an hour north of Minneapolis.  People here, like everywhere I visit during the course of the trip, tend not to volunteer their deepest-held political opinions to random passersby, such as myself, in the middle of their daily routines.

I meet both Republicans and Democrats, and ask general questions about their views on national politics. Sample response: “They all need to grow up.”

And yet, despite disenchantment with politicians as a whole, gentle prodding frequently reveals partisan sentiments lurking below the surface.  People all seem to want the same things – fairness, stability – but often have different ideas about what those qualities entail, and what sorts of legislation can steer us there. In settings where they feel comfortable talking politics, people occasionally give off the affect of talking points. Still, most of those I encounter — say, at a gas station in Ham’s Lake, Minn. — politely inform me:

“I’d prefer not to be interviewed.”

In Anoka, folks are much more keen to discuss Halloween. The town bills itself as the “Halloween Capital of the World,” and features Halloween iconography on its permanent signage. Houses are still completely decked out nearly a week into November, which is all – needless to say – extremely cool.

Michele Bachmann, it turns out, hails from the Halloween Capital of the World.

A coffee shop owner tells me the town earned its distinction by hosting what apparently was America’s first Halloween parade in 1920. As the story goes, some local civic leaders were brainstorming a way to keep the youth of Anoka free of mischief, and decided that a structured celebration would cut down on pranks and vandalism. The strategy worked, and now the yearly celebration has grown to include two parades, a house-decorating contest, and a slew of other events relating to the holiday.

“You missed out on all the decorations,” a lady who works at the coffee shop tells me as she prepares a sandwich. Above my head, ghoulish figures are still dangling on wires from the ceiling.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Looks like you guys are still pretty good on the decorations.”

“No,” she says, looking up from the cutting board, “you missed it, believe me. This is nothing.”

Newt Gingrich Screwed Up — Tim Murphy and Tasneem Raja at Mother Jones explain how in 1995 the allegedly tech-savvy Speaker of the House killed an agency that could have guided the website through the minefield of start-up.

As the Obama administration continues to unsuck its health care website, one questions lingers: How did this important government project get so screwed up? If you ask technologist Clay Johnson, the insurance exchange’s problems began, in a way, in 1995, when “Congress decided to lobotomize itself.”

Johnson was referring to a specific action lawmakers took then: They killed a tiny federal agency called the Office of Technology Assessment. Established in 1972 as Congress’ nonpartisan in-house think tank, the OTA studied new technologies and offered recommendations on how Washington could adapt to them. But then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) turned off its lights.

Today, members of Congress have legislative counsels to help draft laws. They have the Congressional Budget Office to analyze how much laws will cost. But they don’t have the OTA’s experts to tell them how those laws will work.

“An OTA review might have prevented some heartburn and embarrassment” associated with the rollout, argues Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), an astrophysicist who has previously introduced legislation that would resurrect the agency.

Warning Congress about problems with—and explaining them—would have been right in OTA’s wheelhouse. The office, Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.) dryly remarked in 1995, was a “defense against the dumb.” During its 24-year existence, the agency developed a reputation for sharp, foresighted analysis on the problems of the new information age: It called for a new, reinforced tanker design a decade before the Exxon-Valdez spill; emphasized the danger of fertilizer bombs 15 years before Oklahoma City; predicted in 1982 that email would render the postal service obsolete; and warned that President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (better known as “Star Wars”) would likely result in a “catastrophic failure” if it were ever used.

Analyzing health care spending was one of OTA’s specialties. One of its final reports, “Bringing Health Care Online,” published in 1995, focused on the potential (and potential for mishaps) in electronic data interchanges. “Changes in the health care delivery system, including the emergence of managed health care and integrated delivery systems, are breaking down the organizational barriers that have stood between care providers, insurers, medical researchers, and public health professionals,” the report warned.

But thanks to Gingrich and the Republican Revolution, that OTA review of potential hurdles for the Obamacare website never happened. In 1995, Gingrich set the OTA’s funding to zero—and gave the ax to similar agencies, like the General Accounting Office (which lost half its funding) and the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (which was phased out). He told members of congress with tech questions to consult their local research universities instead.

Doonesbury — Military discipline.

2 barks and woofs on “Sunday Reading

  1. Bachmann + Halloween Capital of the World….lot of jokes there!

    Of course the OTA was trashed. Gubmint spending on nonmilitary items is a waste.

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