Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sunday Reading

First things first: if you live in a place that observes daylight savings time in the U.S. and Canada, did you move your clock ahead?

Obama’s America — Matt Ford in The Atlantic on what President Obama’s trip to Selma says about us and his view of America.

America is, like all nations, an idea. Unlike many other nations, this idea requires a little articulation. A nation built by waves of immigrants can’t rely on Old-World, blood-and-soil ethnic nationalism to define itself. The American idea is instead built upon a civic nationalism rooted in democratic principles and self-evident truths, even though Americans often fail to meet those ideals.

And so, quoting James Baldwin and the prophet Isaiah, President Barack Obama spoke in Selma on Saturday. His address commemorated the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” during the marches to Montgomery in 1965, but his rhetorical scope encompassed all of American history.

Obama has not always spoken so clearly about American exceptionalism. At a March 2009 news conference, he told a reporter that he believed in it “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” His political opponents incorporated this into a narrative that cast the president as anti-American, mistaking his ability to understand the pride of others abroad for a lack of pride on his own nation.

Obama corrected the record at Selma, making the case that we are not exceptional in the perfection of our virtue, but rather, exceptional in our relentless struggle to live up to our ideals:

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

Many will interpret this speech as a thinly veiled rebuttal to conservative critics like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who claimed last month that Obama “doesn’t love America.” Others will focus on Obama’s sharp attack on Congress for not renewing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Supreme Court gutted it in a 2013 decision. But the speech’s broader themes are far more important than its soundbites.

For Obama, the marchers at Selma helped set a new course for American democracy. “Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for African-Americans, but for every American,” he told the crowd. “Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian-Americans, gay Americans, and Americans with disabilities came through those doors.” Had one of his predecessors not already taken the phrase, perhaps he would have called this a new birth of freedom.

Few would disagree with this assessment, but the president’s speech went beyond simple praise. Obama has a rhetorical tendency to construct grand, sweeping visions of American history. His inauguration speeches and State of the Union addresses often demonstrate this, but the first, best example might be his concession speech during the 2008 New Hampshire primaries, where he linked his own presidential bid to the historical arc of American freedom.

In Selma, Obama avoided the simplistic narratives of America the perfect (or America the oppressive, as some conservatives allege) in favor of America, the struggle. Instead of relying upon “patriotism à la carte,” as my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates once phrased it, the president carefully wove the darker chapters of American history into its civic mythos:

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free—Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their kids to know a better life.  That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As he did with slavery and Japanese-American internment, Obama sought to incorporate Ferguson into the turbulence of American history. The Department of Justice’s damning Ferguson report, which it released last week after a lengthy investigation, depicted a present-day municipal government dedicated to the plunder and predation of its black citizens. Obama readily observed that Ferguson wasn’t an isolated case, but also noted that these racist acts are no longer “endemic” in America. He also refused to accept that Ferguson meant that the struggles of Bloody Sunday were for naught. “If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the 1950s,” he said to applause.

At times, it felt like Obama was addressing not the civil-rights movement veterans who had assembled in Selma, but today’s new generation of activists and marchers. “We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America,” Obama told the crowd and the country. “To deny this progress—our progress—would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

Transcript here via Washington Post.

Roberts’ Tell — Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker on the Chief Justice’s silence during the Obamacare hearing.

The Supreme Court oral argument on Wednesday in King v. Burwell featured thousands of words, dozens of provocative questions, two engaged and skillful lawyers—and one very striking silence. Chief Justice John Roberts, usually among the most active questioners on the court, scarcely said a word throughout the highly anticipated clash. The justices besieged Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Michael Carvin, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, who are challenging a central provision of Obamacare, with so many questions that Roberts gave the pair ten extra minutes a side. The chief himself didn’t take up any of that time until practically the last moment.

Roberts’s one question may turn out to be extremely important. The issue in the case is whether the Obama Administration, in implementing the Affordable Care Act, violated the terms of that law. The plaintiffs assert that the A.C.A. only authorizes subsidies for individuals who buy health insurance on the fourteen state-run exchanges, or marketplaces. Under their reading of the law, the eight million or so people in the other thirty-six states who currently buy their insurance from the federal marketplace should be denied their subsidies. Most of the justices’ questions dealt with the issue of how to read the law correctly, but Roberts, in his single substantive question, took a different tack.

Anthony Kennedy had asked about “Chevron deference,” a doctrine of law that describes how much leeway the executive branch should have in interpreting laws. Verrilli, not surprisingly, said that the Chevron doctrine gave the Obama Administration more than adequate permission to read the law to allow subsidies on the federal exchange. “If you’re right about Chevron,” Roberts said, at long last, “that would indicate that a subsequent Administration could change that interpretation?” Perhaps it could, Verrilli conceded.

The question suggests a route out of the case for Roberts—and the potential for a victory for the Obama Administration. Roberts came of age as a young lawyer in the Reagan Administration, and there he developed a keen appreciation for the breadth of executive power under the Constitution. To limit the Obama Administration in this case would be to threaten the power of all Presidents, which Roberts may be loath to do. But he could vote to uphold Obama’s action in this case with a reminder that a new election is fast approaching, and Obamacare is sure to be a major point of contention between the parties. A decision in favor of Obama here could be a statement that a new President could undo the current President’s interpretation of Obamacare as soon as he (or she) took office in 2017. In other words, the future of Obamacare should be up to the voters, not the justices.

Why No One Cares About Bill O’Reilly — Eric Alterman at The Nation.

To anyone who has paid attention to O’Reilly or any of the Fox “anchors” in recent years, none of this should come as a surprise. There are many precedents in O’Reilly’s career (including a lie about, and faux on-air apology to, yours truly). No doubt one could find plenty of similar fabrications, exaggerations and purposely misleading statements on any given Fox program. That is, after all, the purpose of the network. It flatters the ignorance and prejudice of its audience even as it corrupts the larger media discourse on behalf of those same ignorant prejudices (as well as the financial interests of Rupert Murdoch, its billionaire owner, and Roger Ailes, its president and CEO). Hence, unlike NBC, which at least evinced some embarrassment over Brian Williams’s serial fabrications, Fox is totally down with its lying, bullying, name-calling host. Indeed, a Fox anchor or host would be far more likely to lose his or her job for telling the truth. (Things you’ll never hear on Fox: “Yes, global warming is man-made and a genuine danger to the security of our nation and our planet.” “Yes, President Obama was born in the United States and is a believing Christian.” “Yes, that entire Iraqi WMD thing was nonsense.” “Yeah, OK, the security arrangements at the US Embassy in Benghazi are not really the job of the secretary of state, much less the president.”)

To recap briefly, the mainstream media and the liberal blogosphere have recently been filled with stories in which O’Reilly placed himself at the center of world-historical events—or in imminent danger—and was found to be full of it. Contrary to O’Reilly’s claims, he was more than 1,000 miles from the Falkland Islands during the war there. He did not see any nuns murdered in El Salvador. He did not cover the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. He was not threatened by rioters in Los Angeles, and he was nowhere near the suicide of a man who claimed to have information about the assassination of President Kennedy. For all we know, he may not even be named Bill O’Reilly (though there’s apparently no truth to the rumor that he stole the dog tags off a dead soldier in Korea).

What is perhaps most disturbing about this story is the bifurcated reaction of the mainstream media. Almost no one who occupies a chair in a “respectable” media organization has taken the position that O’Reilly is a liar and Fox is filled with liars and it’s about time we stopped taking the network seriously as a news source. Rather, we hear from Politico’s Dylan Byers that “the Bill O’Reilly charges aren’t sticking.” Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine believes they have “backfired.” Jeremy Stahl in Slate says the case is “open to interpretation.” And a front-page New York Times analysis by Jonathan Mahler and Emily Steel describes O’Reilly as “a man who perhaps more than any other has defined the parameters and tenor of Fox News, in the process ushering in a new era of no-holds-barred, intentionally divisive news coverage.” The Times reporters leave it to the experts to decide whether what he says is true, though some of these experts—not incidentally, also cable-news veterans—are not so sure that it matters. “Bill’s credibility with his audience is not based on his record as a traditional journalist,” former CNN/US president Jonathan Klein told the reporters. “His credibility, in the view of his fans, is based on his trenchant analysis of the events of the day, his pulling no punches, his willingness to call it like it is”—which is apparently the way one defines lying, prevaricating and bullying in the world of cable news (and the Times’s “expert” sourcing).

More from Jeb Lund at Rolling Stone.

Doonesbury — Charlie Hebdo’s denizens live on.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

Comments are closed.