On Thursday, November 10, 2016, I attended the protests that had unfolded across the street from Trump Tower after Donald Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States. I talked with anti-Trump activists, people who voted for Gary Johnson, people who voted for Trump, and people who didn’t vote at all in an attempt to understand how these unfathomable election results happened. (Running time: 32 minutes, 9 seconds)
No matter what kind of liberal or centrist you are, there’s a good chance you’re likely to look to recalcitrant Republicans blocking Obama’s appointment of a Supreme Court Justice or a redfaced fount of colossal stupidity and cartoonish arrogance who is currently running for President as prominent harbingers of our national ills. But in his new book, Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank, co-founder of The Baffler and author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, has boldly pinpointed the blame for our growing woes at a Democratic Party that has increasingly turned its back on the working class, cleaves to austere notions of meritocracy, is more likely to serve Wall Street than Main Street (despite campaign rhetoric from years back), and continues to adopt policies popularized under the Clinton Administration that have drastically altered the way seemingly liberal politicians serve the people.
I caught up with Frank as he was racing around the country on a book tour. He was gracious enough to respond to my whirlwind of questions — for his book is very much an argument that begets argument — while adroitly pushing his way through the publicity cyclone. Our lengthy conversation touched on the professional class, progressive Democrats who don’t fit within Frank’s theory, the degree to which one should hold a grudge against a politician, and the kind of bold experimentation that may be necessary to reverse income inequality.
EDWARD CHAMPION: Your book opens with an epigraph from David Halberstam’s excellent book, The Best and the Brightest, suggesting that Obama’s capitulation to corporate interests can be likened to some natural trajectory originating from Roosevelt’s Brain Trust to the many technocrats populating John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet who couldn’t handle Vietnam to the current “best and the brightest” Cabinet enforcing a “meritocratic” economy that has left many working-class people in the cold.
You point to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter calling Russia “unprofessional” when Putin launched airstrikes against Syria in the fall of 2015, as if bombing the bejesus out of another nation was akin to some middle manager throwing a tantrum over the room temperature during a pivotal board meeting.
I’m fascinated by this idea of any remotely dissenting comment being considered “unprofessional.” It seems a close cousin to the outrage culture that has popped up on social media, whereby any group outraged over an “inappropriate” remark proceeds to demand the immediate firing of those who uttered the sentiment. Both developments stifle necessary discourse that is needed to argue out a difficult subject. But I’m wondering how this relates to income inequality. Perhaps many Americans, from Obama on down, have become indoctrinated in a kind of voluntary censure of any remotely disagreeable opinion. And it cuts both ways. Obama did suggest in September that students were too “coddled” for complaining about offensive viewpoints. In all fairness, is this something that we can entirely level at corporate America? I doubt very highly that any brightly painted break room with pinball machines and Guitar Hero in the corner is going to transform workers into Babbitt-like conformists. So where are Americans learning these cues? What accounts for young voters rejecting the Faustian bargain with their support for Bernie Sanders (curiously unmentioned in your book) or, for that matter, mainstream Democrats who often vote against their own interests by endorsing an endless wave of centrist candidates?
THOMAS FRANK: What makes professionals interesting to me is that they are a privileged social class. They are not the billionaire Koch Brothers, but their top ranks include some of the richest people in the nation. Depending on how you define them, certain kinds of investment banking personnel are professionals, as are Silicon Valley CEOs, and most corporate managers, and so on. My goal in Listen, Liberal is to understand what happens when our left party is dominated by this cohort and dedicated to advancing their interests. The answer is: Income inequality grows and grows.
Basically, professionals are inequality on the hoof. They are inequality walking and breathing and singing little songs to itself about how noble and right it is that the tasteful and deserving people are on top and the boorish stupid ones are on the bottom. And then taking a break to smack their lips over a particularly piquant IPA or a delicately iced artisanal cupcake.
That professionals do these things —- that they sing their own triumph -— in a very nice and polite language really shouldn’t surprise you. The Victorians were the same way. The only thing that’s new is that this slice of our upper class has persuaded itself that their politeness is some kind of left-wing political virtue, that it somehow excuses or inoculates their class privilege, and that the bad manners of the lower orders disqualifies any grievances they might have against the system.
Bernie Sanders isn’t mentioned in Listen, Liberal because it’s a book about Democrats and he didn’t identify as a Democrat until very recently, which (by the way) seems to cause no end of annoyance for Democratic party leaders. I was fully aware of his existence, however, and in 2014 I conducted a long interview with him for Salon —- asking his opinion about Democrats, even.
The young voting for Sanders makes perfect sense to me. They are the new proletariat, saddled with crazy student debt and facing a world where the old middle-class dream is suddenly impossible. They did exactly what they were told to do —- go to college! study hard! —- and look at what happened. Look at what a shitty trick the adult world pulled on them. As soon as they were old enough to sign those student loan papers, we put them in debt.
CHAMPION: Your book spends a great deal of time quibbling with the way in which “the best people” are selected for prominent positions and for more lucrative jobs. But I don’t know if professionals can be entirely blamed for the vagaries that you ascribe to them. They may not be suffering like those who were victimized by lenders during the subprime crisis, but they too are motivated by the need to keep food on the table and must play the game if they hope to survive. If the professionals are being nice and polite, tweaking their LinkedIn profiles and marketing themselves at networking functions as “the best,” aren’t they merely succumbing to the rules and folkways of a ruthless capitalist system that no longer welcomes outliers or innovators? To what extent are professionals responsible for this apparent synthesis (to use a “professional” buzz word) between playing it safe and growing income inequality? When did this impulse start? Would you go out on a limb and call these professionals “willing executioners” (a la Goldhagen) in an altogether different nightmare?
FRANK: This is the biggest question of all, isn’t it, and it needs to be asked because I have sketched out a picture of a country in which invisible and even unmentionable forces like class interest seem to pull people this way and that. It is particularly noticeable because the people I’m describing are the ones we always think of not as being part of a “class” but merely as being “the best”: The highly educated people at the top of our system of status and respect.
I think they do have free will and agency, or else I wouldn’t write books like this one —- which is addressed to the very class I’m criticizing, with a big old index finger pointing at them from the cover of the book.
So I think they are culpable to some degree. They should know better. These are highly educated people we’re talking about and they should understand that much of their worldview is based not on fact but on superstition and prejudice —- their unquestioning attitude toward trade deals, for instance, or their knee-jerk contempt for working-class people. You mention their fixation on creativity and innovation, and it has always intrigued me that the literature of creativity and innovation is complete rubbish and yet they eat it up anyway, tuning in to the TED talks and going about their utterly un-innovative business.
The story has some complications, too. We have a powerful political party given wholeheartedly to the interests of professionals, but it seems not to notice that certain professions are crumbling (journalism, the humanities) and others are in danger of being corrupted altogether (accountancy, medicine, real-estate appraising). The professionals who have seen their livelihoods thus ruined are angry and even sometimes come to identify with blue-collar workers who have seen their cities destroyed by the Democrats’ great god “globalization.” But the party of the professionals doesn’t listen to these unfortunate members of its own precious cohort.
The ones out front keep playing the game, as you put it, weirdly unconcerned while the devil takes the hindmost. The devil will get to them too, eventually, but in the meantime the winners do not show any sign of awareness. That blindness fascinates me.
CHAMPION: But the Democratic Party is also the party of Elizabeth Warren, Barbara Lee, John Conyers, Robert Reich, and Donna Edwards, among other progressives. For all the justifiable criticisms leveled against Democrats for hewing too closely to mainstream neoliberalism — or, for that matter, the recent viral videos of Hillary Clinton refusing to address Black Lives Matter’s Ashley Wlliams on mass incarceration or angrily responding to Greenpeace’s Eva Resnick-Day — we are nevertheless dealing with a political climate in which “socialism” is no longer a dirty word. You criticize Reich’s The Work of Nations for endorsing the “symbolic analysts” even as he criticized income inequality and even as you point to his ongoing work against economic injustice. But is this really on the level of Deval Patrick joining the board of leading subprime lender Ameriquest in 2004 after fighting on behalf of the marginalized and the impoverished? Effective political reform is often about compromise. Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson have argued that standing doggedly for one’s principles and refusing to compromise is an endorsement for the status quo. Is there an acceptable level of compromise that can reconcile this disparity between an indignant working class that feels left out of the process and what you identify as a lack of awareness from the “party of professionals”?
FRANK: I acknowledge of course that there are exceptions to my theory, and that there are lots of good Democrats out there. There may even be good Republicans out there. Robert Reich is one of the good guys today —- one of the best guys, actually -— but The Work of Nations, which he published way back in 1991, really got the problem of inequality wrong. It heaped praise on what he called “symbolic analysts” (one of many terms of endearment Democrats have made up for white-collar professionals) and announced that, in the future, we would all either have to join their ranks or serve them.
You ask if that’s as bad as one of the missteps of Deval Patrick. I truly have no idea how I would make such a judgment. One is an influential book of economic theory, the other is a promising Democratic politician signing up with a notorious subprime lender. They are analogous deeds, in a way, but also in different categories.
Nor do I really know what the acceptable level of compromise is in some abstract way. I will say this, however: The entire history I trace is one of ordinary people’s interests being systematically ignored and overruled by a clique of upper-class liberals who are in love with their own virtue. They have no trouble with compromise in one direction. Leading Democrats are forever trying to strike a deal with the Republicans in Congress on Social Security and the budget —- think of Obama and his pursuit of the “grand bargain,” a phrase which was my working title for the book. But when it comes to people on the left, Democrats usually invite them simply to shut up. These are people they can’t stand. On this, see: The works and achievements of Rahm Emanuel.
CHAMPION: How does splitting hairs over a neoliberal position taken twenty-five years ago by someone who you now acknowledge to be a bona-fide progressive help us to understand how the Democratic Party has changed or what we need to do to combat it? Let’s contend with bigger fish. You heavily criticize Bill Clinton in your book. And I would tend to agree with you. Bill Clinton’s alliance with Dick Morris, his signing of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, his deregulation of telecom and interstate banking, and his willful repeal of Glass-Steagall all feel very much like the actions of a “bad Democrat” and the kind of narrative that gets swept under the rug in these discussions on how many Democrats aren’t terribly dissimilar from Republicans. I’m sure you’re familiar with the infamous story behind Bill and Hillary Clinton’s first date, which involved the pair crossing a picket line and offering themselves as scabs so they could see a Rothko exhibit at the Yale Art Gallery. This aligns neatly with the problems you’re identifying. But it also suggests that the more pernicious qualities of compromise lie dormant inside any politician who aspires to great power. You also observe that Obama’s three great achievements — the 2009 stimulus package, Dodd-Frank, and the Affordable Care Act — are undermined by Democrats who follow up with a professional-minded consensus. If we’re going to call out the “party of professionals,” don’t we need to consider the full narrative of how the more prominent figureheads have stood against the working class instead of singling out comparatively minor indiscretions from those who are now fighting against income inequality?
FRANK: You’re talking about Robert Reich and The Work of Nations again. My understanding of history is that we are supposed to seek the truth about how the past unfolded regardless of whether historical actors later change their minds or express regret for what they did. Bill Clinton has apologized several times for the 1994 crime bill as well as for many other things; that might make us think more highly of him as a person but it doesn’t undo the crime bill or erase its consequences from history. Similarly, The Work of Nations was an essential document of its time. It was very influential in the early years of the Clinton Administration. Its author was made Secretary of Labor. That Reich has changed his views since then is commendable —- and I think very highly of what he’s doing now -— but his conversion to a different point of view in recent years doesn’t change the political culture of the 1990s.
I most definitely think we need to underscore how prominent Democratic figureheads have stood against the working class, and in particular we need to look at their ideas and their legislative deeds. This is why I go into such detail on the legislative history of the Clinton years, focusing especially on the five items his admirers actually celebrated him for: NAFTA, the crime bill, welfare reform, deregulation of banks and telecoms, and the balanced budget. All of these were disasters for working people, either directly or indirectly.
The issue of compromise and consensus is a fascinating one. Democrats have been far more earnest seekers of consensus than Republicans, and I wanted to know why. This is one of the biggest differences between the two parties, and the “party of the professionals” hypothesis explains it perfectly. The politics of professionalism is technocracy, an ideology in which the solution to every problem is known to educated people and the correct experts. When they look at Washington, technocrats know that politics is just a form of entertainment that gets in the way of the right-minded; it blocks the educated people from doing what everyone knows is the right thing; and therefore technocrats always gravitate to the same answer: try to reach a grand bargain with the smart folks on the other side. Thus Obama on the budget, and thus Clinton on Social Security.
CHAMPION: History is certainly about understanding how powerful figures alter their viewpoints and adjust their positions. But if Reich was willing to change, why then is a putatively liberal government so unwilling to adjust its course? You point to how FDR employed experts — such as Harry Hopkins, Marriner Eccles, Henry Wallace, and Harry Truman — who were all outliers in some way, many with a lack of academic credentials that led to bold ideas and off-kilter policies. But Roosevelt’s response to financial paralysis was also famously guided by the mantra “Above all, try something.”
It was certainly “bold, persistent experimentation” that Roosevelt called for in 1932, but some historians have argued that it was both the law of averages and Roosevelt’s centralized authority that allowed for his much needed reform to happen. If we want to repair income inequality, is our only remedy some autocratic figure operating in the FDR/Hamilton mode who is granted supreme authority and willing to employ any tactic to do so? Or are there other remedies that aren’t teetering perilously towards such absolutism? To cite one example of the Beltway dynamics in play here, it remains to be seen whether Republican senators will change their mind on potential Supreme Court Justice Merrick Garland, but the legislative opposition suggests that “bold, persistent experimentation” isn’t going to be allowed anytime soon and that any future Democratic President is fated to be hamstrung by the very technocratic compromise that you’re understandably condemning. On the other hand, “bold, persistent experimentation” — as recently documented by journalist Gabriel Sherman — is precisely what has allowed Trump to sink his talons into the 2016 election as much as he has. Trump is a perfect example of politics as “a form of entertainment that gets in the way of the right-minded” and this didn’t even come from technocratic Democrats. So is there any real hope for repair? Do you feel that there’s any truth to Susan Sarandon’s recent suggestion to Chris Hayes, mired in controversy, that a potential Trump Presidency might inspire more people to take a gamble on a progressive revolution (if that is indeed what is needed here)?
FRANK: As it happens, there was a golden moment for boldness and experimentation in recent years, and it came and went in 2009 after the collapse of Wall Street and its rescue by the Federal government. Many things were possible in that moment that weren’t possible at other times. But that particular crisis went to waste. Obama deliberately steered us back toward the status quo ante, and worked hard to get everything back like it was before. “The Center Held,” to slightly modify the title of Jonathan Alter’s second Obama book.
Regarding Trump: I am a big fan of Franklin Roosevelt, and I don’t think that Trump is comparable in any way. Being willing to go before the cameras and say anything, like Trump, does not really put a politician in the same category as FDR, any more than does being a jazz musician who is a great soloist or a comedian who’s really good at improv.
Your concern about the present situation possibly requiring an autocrat or an absolutist is very intriguing, however, and it’s a common fear. But flip the question around a little bit. The way I see it, autocracy is already here —- economic autocracy, I mean -— and democracy is the solution. It is true what you say about Roosevelt wielding power like few other presidents, but the things that really turned this country around involved economic democracy more than they did the heavy hand of the state. I am thinking in particular here of two things that we identify with FDR, antitrust and organized labor. Both of them involved challenging oligarchy by empowering countervailing forces, either competitors or workers.
Let’s talk about unions for a moment. They are profoundly democratic institutions even when they aren’t full democracies themselves (a common problem) because they extend the idea of democratic rights and voice into the workplace. For decades Americans thought of unions as a normal part of civil society, and yet today they are dying, thanks to the one-sided power of corporate management -— and the indifference of their friends in the Democratic Party. What’s awesome about unions is that they would help enormously to reduce inequality, and they would do it without the heavy hand of the state. No need for massive redistribution by Washington: just allow workers to have a voice, let them negotiate a contract with their employer, and they will take care of it automatically. More democracy will solve the problem.
CHAMPION: But is democracy enough to combat economic autocracy? We’re dealing with a strong plutocratic base of mainstream Democratic voters and whatever fallout we’re going to have in this post-Citizens United political landscape. The “fight for $15” battle, arguably labor’s greatest recent development, is part of the conversation only because workers made this happen at the local level. There are also pragmatics to consider. Bernie Sanders gave a recent interview to the New York Daily News Editorial Board that has made the rounds. Aside from the stunning revelation that Sanders is unfamiliar with subway MetroCards (which is understandable), the larger concern was that Sanders appeared unable to pinpoint a precise method for breaking up the banks. At the beginning of the book, you describe a Seattle firefighter asking you if there was any economic savior that would prevent the middle class from sinking into poverty. You write, “I had no good answer for him. Nobody does.” If you’re asking the so-called “symbolic analysts” to jump on board the bus passing through Decatur, they’re going to need an answer. They’re going to need more than a loose theoretical idea of what the Fed can do to rein in JP Morgan Chase and corporate greed. What can you possibly tell them to shake them out of their status quo stupor? Is this a struggle where working and middle class liberals are fated to fight in their respective corners? How might technocrats be persuaded to become more inclusive beyond revisiting the historical record?
FRANK: There are all sorts of practical things that can be done to address inequality and halt the deterioration of the middle class; I mentioned two of the biggest in my last answer. Doing something about runaway financialization is also a good idea, even if Bernie Sanders couldn’t name the exact legal method by which he would do it in that one interview. Inequality is not an insoluble problem. What that firefighter was asking, however, was what kind of band-aid will be tossed to working people under our present course and our existing system. Clearly the answer to that is . . . nothing.
Well, maybe something. Maybe, under President Hillary Clinton, there’ll be microloans for all. Good times.
However, to make something real happen will require a major political reversal, a reversal in which politics once again reflects the interests of the country’s working-class majority. This will only happen if such people themselves demand it, and it heartens me to see that we are moving decisively closer to that this election year.
The main thing required of the comfortable liberal class in such a situation is to take a good long look at themselves and their happy world and understand that they aren’t the bearers of virtue and righteousness that the media constantly assures them they are. They need to understand that a good chunk of their political worldview is based on attitudes that are little more than prejudice toward people who didn’t follow the same university-based career path as them.
What they need is a moment of introspection. What they need is to understand that those people in Decatur are their neighbors, their relatives, their fellow Americans, and that’s why I wrote this book.
If you learned about Susan Sarandon’s remarks on Monday night’s installment of All In from a sensationalist Slate article written by Michelle Goldberg, you might have believed that the famed actress and lifelong progressive had called for balaclava-wearing Bernie Sanders supporters to throw Molotovs and overturn burning cars on live television. You might have believed that Sarandon had willfully aligned herself with the #NeverHillary campaign recently launched by Karl Rove’s super-PAC, basking in the prospective anarchy from a clueless tableau of Hollywood privilege. But after seeing Chris Hayes’s interview with Sarandon, I was stunned not so much by Sarandon’s remarks, which were observational and pragmatic and hardly evocative of Yippies levitating the Pentagon, but by the way in which Sarandon’s thoughtfulness had been so deliberately mangled by a “journalist” who had announced, only one month before, that she would be voting for Hillary Clinton.
Goldberg painted Sarandon as “a rich white celebrity with nothing on the line” and insinuated that she was part of a group of “posturing radicals on social media who pretend Clinton would be no better than Trump.” But Goldberg’s superficial remarks failed to fairly and accurately represent the far more important dialogue about what electing a compromise candidate to the White House really means. Can’t one have doubts about Hillary Clinton as President even as one simultaneously recognizes the threat of Trump? Why should such a position be shocking?
It was Chris Hayes who transformed the Sanders/Sarandon notion of revolution into “Leninist” with his leading question, not Sarandon. And it was Goldberg, cavalierly cleaving to Hayes’s framing, who trotted out the wholly inapplicable Ernst Thälmann parallel used so frequently to illustrate how German progressives failed to unite to stop Hitler’s election as Chancellor. Never mind that the German election of 1933 did not involve a two party election and that, should Hillary clinch the nomination, it is doubtful at this point that any Bull Moose-style third party will emerge to reproduce these conditions.
As Orwell once wrote, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” And the truth Sarandon was telling involved how income inequality, the erosion of the middle class, and the failure of career politicians lacking the spine to sign on for the Fight for $15, have caused a not inconsiderable number of Americans to place their stock in outsiders like Trump and Sanders. As I argued in December, one doesn’t have to be a Jacobin subscriber to comprehend that this is a perfectly natural response to an establishment that has failed to rectify serious injustices in any substantial way. We are living in circumstances that call for far more drastic progressive action than the Democratic status quo. This isn’t even that “revolutionary” of an idea, but it is revolutionary by weak-kneed American political standards. And if this quieter form of American “revolution,” which has been seen quite prominently with young voters flocking in droves to Bernie Sanders, is delayed this election cycle, then perhaps there is a stronger likelihood of a revolutionary front emerging after the atavistic horrors of a potential Trump presidency. That’s how revolutions work, you see. They revolt against an establishment. They don’t even have to be that extreme. But Chris Hayes and Michelle Goldberg refused to entertain these fine distinctions. For all their pro-Hillary pragmatism, they couldn’t seem to understand that you could play a comparable long game as a revolutionary.
Here is the pertinent transcript from the interview:
HAYES: Right, but isn’t the question always in an election about choices, right. I mean, I think a lot of people think to themselves well if it’s Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and I think Bernie Sanders probably would think this…
SARANDON: I think Bernie probably would encourage people because he doesn’t have any ego in this thing. But I think a lot of people are, “Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to do that.”
HAYES: How about you personally?
SARANDON: I don’t know. I’m going to see what happens.
HAYES: I…I cannot believe that as you’re watching the, that Donald Trump…
SARANDON: Some people feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately. If he gets in, then things will really, you know, explode.
HAYES: Oh, you’re saying the Leninist model of “heighten the contradictions.”
SARANDON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Some people feel that.
HAYES: Don’t you think that’s dangerous?
SARANDON: I think that what’s going on now — if you think it’s pragmatic to shore up the status quo right now, then you’re not in touch with the status quo. The statue quo is not working, and I think it’s dangerous to think that we can continue the way we are with the militarized police force, with privatized prisons, with the death penalty, with the low minimum wage, with threats to women’s rights, and think that you can’t do something huge to turn that around. Because the country is not in good shape. If you’re in the middle class, it’s disappearing.
And you look, if you want to go see Michael Moore’s documentary, you’ll see it’s pretty funny the way they describe it. But you’ll see that health care and education in all these other countries, we’ve been told for so long that it’s impossible.
SARANDON: It’s like we’ve been in this bad relationship and now we have to break up with the guy ’cause we realize we’re worth it. We should have these things. We have to stop prioritizing war. And I don’t like the fact she talks about Henry Kissinger as being her goto guy, for the stuff that’s happened in Libya and other things I don’t think is good.
“I don’t know.” Not #neverhillary. “I’m going to see what happens.” A reasonable statement given that the final election is still a little less than eight months away and that there is still plenty of time to deliberate. “Dangerous.” The idea of even remotely considering how our present system isn’t good enough to help out the working and the middle classes, even under a Hillary Clinton administration, and using the probability of a Trump presidency to consider future momentum.
This really shouldn’t be that shocking. Thomas Frank’s recent book, Listen, Liberal, of which I will have more to say about in a forthcoming dispatch, doesn’t mention Bernie Sanders at all, but points to several examples of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama failing to honor the needs of the working class and willfully distancing themselves from the New Deal. It is no great secret that the last three decades of mainstream Democratic politics have been less about providing a safety net for hard-working Americans and more about enforcing conditions in which they will have to go into debt and willfully acquiesce to an unchecked plutocracy. And it is shameful that any criticism or uncertainty expressed about this Faustian bargain, which uproots lives and diminishes American potential, is now considered by apparatchiks like Goldberg to be akin to pissing in the pool.
I get it. The 2016 presidential election has become so preposterously cartoonish that it almost seems as if Donald Trump will soon act out grotesque scenes from Pasolini’s Salò before an appreciative crowd. Trump is a highly frightening individual who believes the Geneva Convention to be a problem and who seriously suggested that women should be punished for abortion, statements that were so unthinkingly extreme that two pro-life groups issued statements denouncing Trump’s comments. It is enough for any sane and rational individual to clamber inside her own shell, pointing to the problematic Kissinger pal going out of her way to tone down hard truths as the lover you’ll settle for.
Let’s talk about the “gormless unreality” of Senator Elizabeth Warren hitting the Senate floor denouncing oligarchy, corruption, and Citizens United. Or how Los Angeles has led the charge to raise minimum wage, causing California Governor Jerry Brown to propose similar reform at the state level. Or the nonpartisan efforts of Rootstrikers calling for Wall Street reform. Or how the Sanders campaign learned important lessons from Occupy Wall Street on how to build a movement.
These are developments that allow any progressive to maintain some lingering faith in a feral political system and that demand higher dialogue, not clickbait snipers distorting and demeaning radical ideas for a paycheck.
It is all too easy to dismiss a Donald Trump voter as a mere xenophobic bigot or to assert that this flailing mass of supporters, which hangs upon the tyrant’s every terrible word, is little more than a blank uneducated slate with which to imprint the most sinister hatreds and sordid hypocrisies seen from an outsider presidential candidate since George Wallace. There are certainly polls which suggest that the Trump base is overwhelmingly white, with little more than high school education. But when you leave a person for dead, cut adrift without resources in a callous American wasteland, and when your answer to his unsavory entreaties is to leave him out of your Weltanschauung or to block him on Twitter, do not be surprised if he turns to a demagogue in anger. Do not be astonished when he turns furious when there are no jobs and his life is discounted and he is very much afraid and his griefs, which can be reckoned with if caught early enough, transform into a hateful cancer. Do not be shocked when a tyrant comes along who grants the illusion of inclusiveness and who plays into a voter’s fears with the most extraordinary and unthinkable statements imaginable. Because you, with your gluten-free meals and your yoga mats and your blinkered sunbeam privilege, were never there for him.
We have been here before with Ross Perot and the Tea Party and even John Anderson in 1980. But we have also been here with Occupy Wall Street and Ralph Nader and, presently on the Left, the promise of Bernie Sanders. Populism is an amorphous and intoxicating serpent, epitomized by the infamous 1829 inauguration of Andrew Jackson, in which a drunken mob stormed the White House shortly after this twisted Jeffersonian offshoot was sworn in as a “great” patriarchal protector, a throng that could only be coaxed from the inner sanctum by bowls of spiked punch stationed on the outside lawn. But like it or not, we must accept that the American people have been told repeatedly that their individual viewpoints matter, that an everyman’s perspective is just as valid as that of a statesman, and that the playing field, even after nearly every study has demonstrated that income inequality is worse now than it was during the Gilded Age, is level. It is a distressing mirage, an insurmountable dream that even our most level-headed politicians continue to prop up. But who can blame anyone for wanting to believe in it? If we didn’t have that promise, if we continued to accept doom and gloom and mass shootings as the new American normal, then we’d have no reason to participate in politics.
Trump understands all this. And he is willing to spout forth any prevarication if it will carry the public through the murk and into his manipulative hands. Trump has endured, despite his shocking proposal to block all Muslims from entering the United States, and has maintained a 20 point lead in the polls not so much because of his beliefs, but because no other politician, with the possible exception of Sanders, has sustained the image of a formidable leader who is well outside the tentacles of a broken establishment and who will fix every problem through the sheer force of his inflexible (if deeply problematic) will. That it has come down to some sordid and superficial yahoo who boasts of possessing “the world’s greatest memory” speaks to the ravenous American hunger for something great.
When populism has excelled in our nation, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats and his many personal visits to workers employed through the Civilian Conservation Corps or the WPA (even if this came with the double-edged sword of internment camps), it was established on an intimacy between leader and follower, but one in which the follower had some real sense that his views were being considered. This was a relatively benign relationship predicated on national pride, of a belief in America as a nation of greatness. And if we listen to why voters are gravitating towards Trump, it becomes very clear that all they want is someone, anyone, who is aware of their existence and who will do something about it. They want someone who will “make America great again” or to make “America the way we once were.” The first sentiment is taken directly from a Trump supporter who is parroting the slogan on Trump’s website, that is indeed purchasable as a baseball cap, and that is inherently no different from Obama’s “Hope” campaign in 2008. And while it’s tempting to view this notion of “greatness” as something that is a regressive throwback due the “way we once were” qualifier, what voters are really communicating is that they want to be part of something great, which need not be rooted in recycling the past but in ensuring that greatness, previously experienced, is a palpable quality of our future. The promise of hope and change is simply not enough anymore. The American people rightfully demand a leader who will create results, even if this ideal is completely at odds with the realities of political compromise and brokering deals.
It is clear that Trump cannot be stopped through reasonable denouncements or a rhetorical standoff or pundits repeatedly limning his lies. What’s needed to sustain the American faith and reach the people is a voice that can speak stronger and with greater empathy and inclusion: a principled leader who won’t leave a single person behind (including Muslims) and whose very power will deflate all the air out of Trump’s balloon, exposing him for the hollow carnival act he really is. The Democrats have not had any presidential frontrunner willing to substantially include a voting bloc outside its centrist, middle-class demographic (that is, “working class,” blue-collar, the unemployed, or the homeless) since Mario Cuomo’s famous 1984 speech at the National Democratic Convention. This has been a serious mistake, especially given the nimble methods that Republicans have employed to scoop up this abandoned group of people. What made Cuomo’s speech so stirring was not just its remarkable truth-telling, but Cuomo’s insistence that he was not afraid to stand up to Reagan’s myth of America as “a shining city on a hill.” It was very much the principled outsider responding with a sense of history and a sense of honesty and a sense of profound need that would, in turn, create a great nation. Indeed, the word “great” is mentioned many times in Cuomo’s speech: “on behalf of the great Empire state,” “thank you for the great privilege,” “Today our great Democratic party,” “We would rather have laws written by the patron of this great city,” “to occupy the highest state, in the greatest State, in the greatest nation,” and, perhaps most importantly, “for love of this great nation.”
I illustrate Cuomo’s use of the word “great” to demonstrate that using “great” need not be a reductionist Faustian bargain or a capitulation to sloganeering if it is used reasonably. Cuomo believed, in ways that many Democrats have not since, that our nation was capable of being truly great. His sense of greatness was convincing not only because of the nimble way he weaved it into eloquent rhetoric, but because the modifier actually stands as a reliable measure for American opportunity. Stacked next to Cuomo, Trump’s ideas about “great” are little more than cheap fizz skimming off the beer keg.
Anyone who wishes to defeat Trump, whether as a Republican contender or the leading Democratic candidate, might wish to observe how the word “great” has struck a chord with his supporters. “Great,” which is tied in our notions of the “Great American Dream,” the “Great American Novel,” and even Great American Cookies, clearly has enough life left in it to change the course of the next eleven months. The time has come to reappropriate “great” from Trump and use it with a more meaningful greatness that wins back voters. America is too important a nation to have its notions of “greatness” be defined by a man hawking snake oil and hate. And failing that, for the cynics and the skeptics understandably tired of all these platitudes, there’s always the giddy nihilistic prospect of “great” becoming meaningless through overuse. Which would reveal Trump’s notion of “making America great again” for the shallow mantra it truly is.
Robert A. Caro appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #455. He is most recently the author of The Passage of Power.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Expressing his determination to keep the forward thrust of America began with notable historians.
Author: Robert A. Caro
Subjects Discussed: Lyndon B. Johnson as a great reader of men, Horace Busby, Johnson talking with people until he got what he wanted, Johnson’s misread of John F. Kennedy, the 1960 Presidential Election and Johnson’s self-sabotage streak in seeking the nomination, Emmett Till and Autherine Lucy, passing the 1957 Civil Rights Act, Jack Kennedy’s use of television, Johnson having his staff calculate the odds of a U.S. President dying in office, “power is where power goes,” Sam Rayburn, Johnson’s mode of desperation vs. Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field,” Southerners as Presidents, Johnson’s decisiveness in the Senate, John Connally, Johnson’s fear of failure, Sam Houston, Johnson not wanting to be like his father, Johnson’s inability to stare physical reality in the face, smoking and fluctuating weight, challenging Arthur Schlesinger, Johnson being shut out from many of the key Kennedy meetings as Vice President, Johnson’s humiliations, LBJ being reduced to a “salesman for the administration,” the spiteful rivalry between Robert Kennedy and LBJ, character being a defining quality of politics, the importance of vote counting in Washington, Johnson as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson’s preying upon the loneliness of old men, Richard Russell, the Armed Service Committee, Johnson’s manipulation of Russell on civil rights and the Warren Commission, how Southern Senators were duped into believing that Johnson was against civil rights, the phone call in which Johnson forced Russell into the Warren Commission, how Johnson preyed on older men to get what he wanted, Kennedy’s tax bill, how Johnson worked on Harry Byrd, how Johnson dealt with human beings, the impact of personality on policy, Johnson’s terrible treatment of Pierre Salinger, Johnson bullying his subordinates, what Caro found the hardest to write about, triumphs of willpower, Johnson’s involvement with Bobby Baker, the Bobby Baker scandal, the surprising sensitivity with which the media handled Johnson’s corruption after the Kennedy assassination, the Life investigative team on Johnson (as well as Senate investigation), the lowering of the Presidency because of Johnson, some hints about Volume V, and Johnson’s legacy.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You challenge in this book Arthur Schlesigner’s long-standing notion about the relation between Kennedy and Johnson. Now Johnson is in the vice presidential seat. Schelsinger’s idea was that, well, Kennedy was absolutely fond, genial, and generous. The vice president was included in most of the major meetings. And then, of course, we read this chapter “Genuine Warmth” and we find out, well, wait a minute! That’s not always the case. According to Ted Sorenson, Johnson was shut out from a pivotal ExCom decision, a decision meeting relating to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that also is in large part because Johnson is a bit hawkish to say the least. So my question is: why has the lens of history been so keen to favor the Schlesigner viewpoint? And what was the first key fact that you uncovered that made you say to yourself, “Well, this isn’t exactly true”? What caused you to start prying further and further? That caused you to think, well, things are not all wine and roses.
Caro: Well, you know, part of it was that as soon as you start to look at Johnson and the Kennedys, you hear about the nickname that the Kennedy people called him. “Rufus Cornpone.”
Correspondent: That’s right.
Caro: “Uncle Cornpone.” “Uncle Rufus.” You know, they coined phrases for Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird. They used to call them “Uncle Cornpone and His Little Pork Chop.” Then you ask someone like Ted Sorensen, who helped me immensely. He was the person probably closest to Kennedy in the administration.
Correspondent: You spent a lot of time with him.
Caro: I spent a lot of time with Ted. And he said, yes, as has previously been said, Johnson was included in all the big meetings, the Cabinet meetings, the National Security meetings. But in the Kennedy government, those weren’t the meetings that mattered. The meetings that mattered were the small little groups that Kennedy would convene. And Johnson wasn’t invited to those. You know, when the 1963 Civil Rights Act is introduced by the Kennedys and Johnson has to say to Ted Sorensen — we happen to have a recording — “You know, I don’t know what’s in this act. I have to read about it in The New York Times.” The greatest legislator possibly of the century, the greatest legislator of the 20th century is not consulted on Kennedy’s legislation.
Correspondent: Why then has the Schlesinger lens been allowed to proliferate for so long? That’s the real question.
Caro: Well, I don’t know that it’s just the Schlesinger lens.
Correspondent: Or this idea.
Caro: I really can’t answer that question. But when you talk to the surviving Kennedy people — like Sorensen — when you read their oral histories, you see it’s simply not true. I mean, Horace Busby talks basically about going to see Sorensen one day and asking, “Well, what role do you want Lyndon Johnson to play in this administration?” And Sorensen says, “Salesman for the administration.” I mean, this is Lyndon Johnson, who is to be the salesman for the administration. Johnson says to an aide, Harry McPherson — you know, they’ve turned the legislative duties over to Larry O’Brien. Johnson says, “You know, O’Brien hasn’t been to see me to ask advice once in two years.” So it’s undeniable that Johnson was shut out from Kennedy’s legislative processes and from the Cuban Missile Crisis — the key meeting of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He’s not invited to it.
Correspondent: I know. It’s really amazing. One of the other great showdowns in this book — the great clash is between Bobby Kennedy and Johnson. I mean, you want to talk about cats and dogs, these two guys were it. You have their first meeting in the Senate cafeteria in 1953 where Kennedy was glowering at Johnson and forced to shake his hand. Then years later, Johnson is Vice President. And he’s largely powerless as we’ve been establishing here. He serves on the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. And Bobby Kennedy shows up late, humiliates him over two meetings.
Correspondent: And then on the Saturday after the Kennedy assassination, there’s this misunderstanding over how the West Wing is going to be cleared out and ready for Johnson. There’s this very tense meeting not long after. But Johnson is in this interesting predicament of having to maintain the Kennedy faction all through Election Day in 1964. Yet he also tests the waters a bit with the Thomas Mann nomination. So my question is: was there any hope of Bobby Kennedy and Johnson putting aside their differences? What factors do you think caused Bobby to acquiesce to Johnson for the good of the nation while Johnson was President?
Caro: Well, he doesn’t always acquiesce.
Caro: We see him breaking with him strongly over Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and running for the nomination. I mean, when Bobby Kennedy enters the race, Lyndon Johnson bows out basically. You know, people don’t understand, in my opinion, enough. And I try to explain in my books how personality, how character, has so much to do with politics and government. And with Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, whatever the reasons are, at bottom you have this personal hostility. You talked about the first meeting. You know, this first meeting is when Lyndon Johnson is the Leader. He is the mighty Leader. Bobby Kennedy — I think he’s 27. And he’s just gone to work for Senator Joe McCarthy as a staffer. So Joe McCarthy — the Senate cafeteria is on the second floor of the Senate Office Building. And every morning, Johnson goes in there to have breakfast with his aides. And Joe McCarthy is sitting every morning at this big round table near the cashier with four or five or six of his aides, you know. And every time Johnson comes in, McCarthy jumps up as everyone does to Johnson and says, “Hello, Mister Leader. Can I have a few moments of your time, Mr. Leader? Good work yesterday, Mr. Leader.” One morning, there’s a new staffer there. It’s Robert Kennedy. Johnson walked over. Senator McCarthy jumps up. And so, as always, do all his staffers. Except one. Robert Kennedy, his 27-year-old staffer, sits there glaring at Johnson. Johnson knows how to handle situations like this. He holds out his hand to everybody sort of halfway out and forces Bobby Kennedy to stand up and take his hand. And George Reedy said to me — I said, “What was behind that?” George Reedy said, “You know, you ever see two dogs come into a room that never met each other and the hair rises on the back of their neck immediately and there’s a low growl?” That was the relationship between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Of course, there were other reasons. Robert Kennedy was very attached and devoted to his father, Joseph Kennedy.
Caro: And Johnson, who was close to Roosevelt, was always repeating these stories about Roosevelt firing Joe Kennedy, tricking him into coming back to Washington from England, and then firing him. Making him look bad. So I think that Robert Kennedy hated him for that. But it’s not too strong a word to use hatred for what was going on between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And, you know, at the convention, one of Johnson’s assistants, Bobby Baker, he thinks everything’s just politics. So he’s having breakfast in a coffee shop in Los Angeles at the convention. He sees Bobby Kennedy come in and says, “How about sitting down?” He’s Bobby Baker, sitting with his wife, having breakfast. Bobby Kennedy sits down. But within two minutes, he’s up. And he throws money on the table. And he says to Baker, “Don’t worry. You’ll get yours when the time comes.” Well, the time came. Johnson was Jack Kennedy’s Vice President. Bobby Kennedy has, in effect, power over him. And he makes life miserable for Lyndon Johnson.
Correspondent: What you said at the beginning of this, about character being a defining quality of politics. I mean, Johnson, as you establish in this book and in Master of the Senate, is a master vote counter. He has his tally sheets when he’s in the Senate. He’s going ahead and making sure he knows exactly how things line up. In this book, you point out during the wheat bill that not only does he want enough votes to make the wheat bill [an amendment from Sen. Karl Mundt banning sale of surplus wheat from Russia] die. He wants it murdered, as he says. So the question I have. He may have been a master vote counter. But how much character did he need to go along with that? Was vote counting enough for him? Was that relentless drive just as much of a quality as the sheer statistician approach that he had?
Caro: It was never a sheer statistician, of course.
Correspondent: Of course.
Caro: He was a great legislator. Listen. A key thing in politics is the ability to count. And Johnson was the great counter. He’d send aides to find out how senators were going to vote. So sometimes someone would come back. Usually they didn’t do this more. They said, “I think Senator X is going to vote this way.” Johnson would say, “What good is thinking to me? I need to know.” He never wanted to lose a vote. So vote counting. He was the great vote counter. He’s a young Congressman. He comes to Washington. He’s 29 years old. He falls in with this group of New Dealers, who later become famous. Abe Fortas. Jim Rowe. “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran. These are guys who live and breathe politics. And do you know what they do when they have a dinner party on Saturday night? They get together for dinner. They count votes. They say, “How is Roosevelt’s bill on this going to be?” And Johnson, they said, was always right. We might think this Senator was going to vote this way. Johnson always knew. He was the greatest vote counter. And when he was in the Senate, he was the greatest vote counter of them all. But that’s not all of why Johnson was great. Johnson was this master on the Senate floor. He got through amendments. And there’s the base. And there’s shouting back and forth. He can seize the moment. He sees the moment where he can win. And he acts decisively. He says, “Call the vote.” And he’s Majority Leader. And he would stand there at the Majority Leader’s desk. So he’s towering over everybody else’s front row center desk. He’s got this big arm in the air. And if he’s got the votes, he wants the vote fast before anyone can change. Or maybe some other people on the other side are absent and not there. He makes little circles on his hands, like someone revving up an airplane, to get the clerk to call the rolls faster. And if one of his votes wasn’t there, and he was being rushed from somewhere in a car across Washington, he would make a stretching motion with his hands. He ran this. There were a lot of things that went into Johnson’s dominance of the Senate.
Nancy Cohen appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #446. She is most recently the author of Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Getting in touch with his humanist side.
Author: Nancy L. Cohen
Subjects Discussed: Rep. Darrell Issa and the contraception hearing, Komen for the Cure, when the Republican Party was better about women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, the McGovernik principle that has crippled progressivism, challenging Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, the 2010 special election in Massachusetts in which Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s seat, Stanley Greenberg and Reagan Democrats, why gay marriage is only accepted in certain states, Prop 8, the Defense of Marriage Act, civil unions, the Democratic reluctance to embrace gay marriage, Chris Christie, parallels between civil rights and gay rights, Howard Dean’s early efforts to embrace the Internet, Democrats who “run into the present,” Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, Reagan’s silence on AIDS, conservatism as a three-legged stroll, silly attempts at a political Theory of Everything, Phyllis Schlafly, Ford’s support of the ERA, Carter blaming the feminists, political pragmatism as an excuse for diffidence, reproductive rights as a core right, Carter’s personal opposition to abortion, the Tea Party Express’s financial contributions, the influence of money on politics, the Arkansas Project, David Brock’s Blinded by the Right, why birth control hearings is now a wedge issue, the Tea Party as a rebranding of the Christian Right, efforts to dismiss Hillary Clinton, Gail Sheehy’s attacks on Hillary, attracting mythical male voters through the Margaret Thatcher strategy, motivating young people to vote as a winning progressive strategy, Obama’s timidity on reproductive/gay rights, the clown car of presidential candidates, the lingering effect of Sarah Palin, whether Republican women voters can be courted by Democrats, Lieberman as the first Democrat to denounce Bill Clinton about Lewinksy from the Senate chamber, Sen. Moynihan settling a score with Clinton, the mythical conservative middle, the problems with the 2000 Presidential election, Gore’s centrist campaign, the influence of the far right sexual fundamentalists, Mitt Romney’s effect on the sexual counterrevolution, and women’s rights in 2013.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Your timing is quite impeccable. Because I’m talking with you the day after Representative Issa to basically not allow a woman to testify at the all-male hearing on contraception. I’m talking with you a week after Komen for the Cure initially pulled its funds from Planned Parenthood, saying, “Well, we can’t support any organization that is under congressional review,” and then changing this to be “Well, we can’t support any organization that is referring out its mammograms.” So I gotta say, maybe this might be the opportune time to discuss how we got to this point in American political history. How does this constantly wavering excuse fit into the political strategy of the religious right and the forces of what you identify as the sexual counterrevolution? How did this come into play?
Cohen: Well, I’m an evil genius. And when I came up with this idea a couple years ago, I planned for these hearings to take place.
Cohen: No, seriously, the first line of my first chapter is “Perhaps if the pill hadn’t been invented, American politics would have turned out very differently.” And at the time, it was kind of a literary allusion. A way to get some history down. So what we’re seeing is really the logical end point of what I call the sexual counterrevolution. Delirium tells the story about how a small group of reactionaries who want to control sex have hijacked American politics. And what we’re seeing this week, and last week, is really the essence of the Republican Party. The id of the Republican Party coming out to play because they are so intoxicated with the power that they got in the last elections.
Correspondent: Yes. Well, the id wasn’t always there. As you point out in the book, I mean, it’s become increasingly id-like over the years. What of the sensible conservative idea? What of the rational reactionary?
Cohen: The sensible conservative ideas Back in the ’60s and the ’70’s, the Republican Party was the small government/personal freedom party. They actually meant it. They were better on women’s rights. They were better on sexual freedom really. Even before the sexual revolution, the Republican Party was better. But what happened was, with the sexual revolution and feminism and gay rights, a group of people — surprisingly mostly women — were appalled, freaked out about all these changes and sexual life and women’s roles and gays coming out of the closet. And they organized on a grassroots level against these changes. And so they went up against the Equal Rights Amendment. And they won. And then they went after publicly financed child care. And they won. And then they took civil rights away from gays. And they won. And then they methodically started taking over the Republican Party from local, state, and county committees on to the school board until 2008, when they had one of their own, Sarah Palin, on the presidential ticket.
Correspondent: Let’s get into this. You point out that George McGovern is one of the key figures responsible for Democratic timidity in relation to the sexual counterrevolution. You suggest that McGovern losing his temper, telling a voter to kiss his ass — that was one factor. The really terrible decision he made involving ordering milk with a liver sandwich in a Jewish deli. Not exactly the smartest choice. There was also this idea that McGovern, because he encompassed this cultural radicalism and failed, that this was what encouraged the Democrats to backpedal. So I’m wondering to what degree is this political temperament and to what degree is this, I suppose, a cultural radicalism that Democrats are afraid of? I mean, 2004, you have Howard Dean’s famous scream. And even before that, everybody was like, “Wow, this guy’s finally standing up for progressivism.” I mean, it seems to me that if you have a situation where the Democratic presidential candidates are limited in what they can say and how they can act, that this kind of progressive idea of, say, supporting something like the Equal Rights Amendment, you’re almost not allowed to do that. So how did this state come to be and what solutions do we have for the future?
Cohen: Good question. So the sexual counterrevolution has affected both parties. And in the Democratic Party, it’s really about their overreaction to every time they lose. And the way it goes back to McGovern’s election is that they convinced themselves that the reason McGovern lost by a landslide is because of all the gays and feminists and multiculturalists that he associated himself with. And so there’s this idea that Democratic progressives alienate mainstream America. Mainstream America is conservative. That idea is a fixation of the Democrats. But if you look at the studies of elections and you look at the studies of public opinion, it’s not true at all. Democrats have actually won elections for being the more culturally progressive party on women’s issues and gay issues and race issues. And so Democrats, I believe, would actually do better if they did embrace their voters’ live and let live attitude about people’s personal lives and stood on principle for civil rights for every American. But Democrats are timid and they have convinced themselves that they lose on this issue. So it would be good for them to start to recognize that it’s a winning issue.
Correspondent: But what data are they using? I mean, it can’t just be McGovern that’s the linchpin for this.
Cohen: No. So what they generally look at is exit polls and focus groups. And to get a little wonky here…
Correspondent: Sure. Feel free.
Cohen: What I looked at in the books so that no one else really has to — except maybe Democratic strategists can start looking at this stuff — is a lot of research by political scientists and sociologists that do regressions of public opinion polling and elections, and conclusively show that all the things we think are true — you know, that the white working-class man is an economic populist, but a social conservative? Wrong. It’s the reverse. He’s pro-choice and doesn’t like the Democrats’s economic policies. That Bush won the election on gay marriage? Wrong. No evidence. That Democrats lose elections for being pro choice? Wrong. Clinton won the election in 1992 on a huge upsurge of pro-choice women and pro-choice men.
Correspondent: You challenge Thomas Frank’s ideas in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by saying that he was condescending in believing that Kansans were duped into voting for more right-wing candidates and so forth. How do we go ahead and factor in, oh say, scenarios like Scott Brown in Massachusetts? Which is very much a scenario in which arrogance and technocratic approaches tend to destroy a Democratic seat. I mean, how does this play into the sexual counterrevolution? And how do you reconcile this, what seems to me, legitimate Thomas Frank idea with this?
Cohen: So I do criticize Tom Frank for being condescending. But I also criticize him for having no empirical evidence for his argument. And that’s the main case. His idea is premised that, one, the working class doesn’t vote for Democrats. They actually do. It’s premised on the idea that Kansas has been some bulwark of Democratic politics. It’s actually been a bulwark of right-wing evangelical fundamentalism. So there’s a number of other factual errors. I actually went into the book assuming that I was going to extend Tom Frank’s thesis. And I found that it actually went back to this anti-McGovern idea and discovered that there was no evidence for it. And that’s when I started moving in this other direction on the sexual counter-revolution. So an election like Scott Brown’s, a lot of health care money went in there. A lot of the people that they say are white working-class populist men are actually middle income or better off people. So what you have in a lot of these elections, like 2010 and the Scott Brown election, is you have very low turnout from poor Democratic groups. Young people. Single women. Low income people. And so when the exit polls do show a surge of white men, they often don’t figure out, well, where are these men economically? And I do agree that the smugness of the Democratic candidate in that election.
Correspondent: Who we don’t want to name. (laughs) And you didn’t name in the book and I won’t name on this show.
Cohen: I think she’s probably reformed. So I do think that was a case of a sense of the Democrats being entitled to a seat and didn’t really see this both right-wing and corporate money coming into that election that year.
Correspondent: If Tom Frank is so wrong with his evidence, then why is that book constantly cited? Why over many decades does the idea of the McGovernik still hold within the Democrats? I think that’s the thing I really don’t get. If all of the scientific evidence says otherwise, then why are serious Democratic leaders going by this?
Cohen: Well, actually, serious Democratic leaders aren’t going by it anymore.
Correspondent: It only took them several decades. (laughs)
Cohen: Yes, well, they read the polls and they read exit polls and they do their own political polling. They don’t necessarily read the academic literature. But the key person who articulated this idea of the McGovernik, about the Reagan Democrat: Stanley Greenberg, who I hear is a wonderful man and has done a lot of good work for progressive causes, was one of the people who kept this idea alive. And he runs a polling company. And he uses his own polls. So just after, since 2008, he’s basically said, “You know what? The Reagan Democrats aren’t the key voting bloc anymore. Democrats need to go for this multiethnic, cosmopolitan, progressive base and they’ll pick up enough of these white working-class men to win elections. So it is Tom Frank — and I haven’t read his new book, so I don’t know how he’s amended his thesis. But there has been a shift among the leadership of the Democratic Party. And I think you see with Obama not defending DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], right? Saying, “I think it’s unconstitutional.” This is a sign that they’re starting to see that good principles are good politics.
Shortly after the stroke of midnight, the last spasms of hate and homophobia flooded through a nasty man’s body. Or, to put it another way, Andrew Breitbart died of natural causes.
Breitbart was a malicious pontificator who liked to run websites which featured the word “big” — the three letter modifier existing in counterpoint to Breitbart’s small and shallow ideas. Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism, Big Peace. It was all bright and doddering fodder for Breitbart, who spent much of his career desperately seeking legitimacy from a mainstream media that enjoyed quietly pissing into his face. This was the only way to treat a man who was so subsumed with venom that, on the day Ted Kennedy died, Breitbart called him a “villain,” a “duplicitous bastard,” and a “prick.” This Tourette’s-like bile was appealing to a certain type of aggrieved and angry white male seeking a myopic demagogue during a time of political and economic uncertainty. Andrew Breitbart wasn’t terribly special. Yet if Breitbart did not exist, it would be necessary for Grover Norquist to create him.
The most frightening facet about Breitbart is that so many people believed in him. Did Breitbart ever have a nice thing to say about anybody? Why, yes. To Matt Drudge, the very man he sought to emulate. He liked to refer to himself as “Matt Drudge’s bitch.”
“I thought what he was doing was by far the coolest thing on the Internet. And I still do,” said Breitbart in a 2005 CNET interview. Yet Breitbart seemed confused about what real journalism entailed. “I guess I do a lot of new media,” said Breitbart during a 2009 C-SPAN appearance. “I have a website. Breitbart.com. Which is a news aggregation source. In all the years I’ve been on the Internet, all I’ve heard about is newswires. I figured out that that’s where the action is. When you watch CNN and FOX News, and somebody breaks in with a story and they act like somebody in that building actually discovered that story and reported on that story.”
Through such painfully simplistic observations, Breitbart erected a one man media empire devoted to loud eructations. He savaged political careers with unmitigated deception and selective editing — most notably, Anthony Weiner and Shirley Sherrod. With Sherrod, you could almost hear the self-satisfied swish of Breitbart hoisting his own private Confederate flag up a proud pole. In 2010, Breitbart posted two video clips of Sherrod, who was then the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture.
The videos suggested that Sherrod had deliberately discriminated against a white farmer. Breitbart seized upon this apparent smoking gun with a theatrical glee comparable to William Shatner’s performance in Roger Corman’s The Intruder as a speaker who moves from town to town stirring up bigotry through lies. “Sherrod’s racist tale,” wrote Breitbart, “is received by the NAACP audience with nodding approval and murmurs of recognition and agreement. Hardly the behavior of the group now holding itself up as the supreme judge of another groups’ racial tolerance.” The controversy forced Sherrod to resign. Yet the full video and the timeline reconstructed by Media Matters demonstrated that Sherrod was offering a far more complex take on race. The NAACP, White House officials, and the Secretary for Agriculture were forced to apologize with considerable embarrassment.
How could such a louche loudmouth, who enjoyed marinating his racism in the stew of libertarian entitlement, be taken so seriously? Because FOX News had him on all the time and because outfits funded in part by Richard Mellon Scaife were fond of giving Breitbart dubious honors such as the Accuracy in Media Award.
Yet when confronted with serious questions about what Breitbart’s “accuracy” entailed, Breitbert preferred fuming to reason. When James O’Keefe, the young man whose selective editing and faux undercover videos helped give one of Breitbart’s websites a big start, was revealed to be a racist and a white nationalist, Breitbart demonstrated that he wasn’t quite so courageous when it came to confronting the truth.
Journalist Max Blumenthal calmly asked Breitbart at the very same conference where he received the Accuracy in Media Award about all this. Breitbart fulminated back, “Accusing a person of racism is the worst thing that you can do in this country.”
Breitbart could not see the irony in his own remarks.
“Why are you so angry?” asked Blumenthal later in the video.
“Because you’re a punk!” sneered Breitbart. “You destroy people! Because you’re trying to destroy people’s lives through innuendo.”
Breitbart was so guided by deranged mania, so without reconsideration or nuance, that his unhinged homophobia would flow like an alcoholic’s stool sample from his Twitter account over the slightest emotion. When Dan Savage made a foolish remark on Real Time with Bill Maher and later apologized for it, Breitbart resorted again to his tired tactic of accusing the other side of the very thing he was practicing.
When he was dumped from ABC Election Night coverage in 2010, you almost wanted to send him a sympathetic fruit basket or a plate of fresh cookies. You figured that something would have to calm the man down — especially since the elephants couldn’t use the tranquilizer gun to put down one of their own. But then Breitbart would work himself into a lather and accuse the people who canned him of cowardice. And you realized he was beyond repair.
The American political kitchen is filled with pots that are fond of calling the kettles black. The American right is populated with leaders who not only refuse to compromise, but who refuse to understand that the beloved Republicans who came before them were forced to compromise to get things done. Andrew Breitbart represented the worst of them. Yet even as I write these words, this baleful pox is being lionized rather than lambasted, fondly remembered rather than coldly resented, even vaguely considered as a hero by the mainstream outlets. These lamentable results represent the nadir of present-day politics, but they also reveal why a gutless political fool placing bullying and spite before reason and might should be thoroughly denounced.
Arthur Goldwag appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #435. He is most recently the author of The New Hate.
PROGRAM NOTE: In Show #430, we asked our listeners if they could share their introvert and extrovert experiences. We received numerous stories and read many on the air at the head of this program.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering the dangerous possibilities of innate extremism.
Author: Arthur Goldwag
Subjects Discussed: Hate in the heart, Barfly, Richard Hofstadter, the Illuminatus, Glenn Beck, attending a white nationalist convention, how to reason with a crazy person, attempts to talk rationally with a 9/11 truther, conversing with a murderer, catered lunches at white nationalist conventions, the difficulties of spewing cant when the people who oppose it too, Michelle Malkin’s “progressive climate of hate,” Malkin’s hate, why the haters insist that they are the ones who are persecuted, name-calling in blog comments, Gingrich’s lack of ideology and his use of hatred as a demagogic tool, Herman Cain’s meltdown, political sex scandals, people who want to believe that their victims, Thomas Frank‘s Pity the Billionaire, the right mimicking progressive politics, Father Charles Coughlin’s confused ideology, William Buckley’s mission statement for The National Review, Revilo P. Oliver’s conspiracies, rational reactionaries, Robert W. Welch, Jr., the crazy classist idea that America was poisoned by the French Enlightenment, anti-Semitism, Ron Paul, the Weatherman Manifesto, people who believe that they are patriotic Americans, Republican insiders who claim to be outsiders, unrealistic goals of change and creating past political mythologies to house them, the Wild West, innate extremism, William Dudley Pelley‘s crackpot tendencies and fleeting literary career, demagogues who come from shoe factories, the hazards of being a Kabbalist, having a Messiah complex, hateful texts lifted from satirical texts, The Report from Iron Mountain, The Education of Little Tree, haters who are certain that their enemies are having better sex than they are, the Ground Zero mosque and the Christian American Family Association, Democratic cowardice and Harry Reid, Pam Geller, Anders Behring Brevik’s manifesto, Islamophobia, fear and mugging, how New Yorkers reacted to 9/11, Coughlin and the development of hate-oriented talk radio, David Graeber’s Debt, entertainers who don’t have political influence, class rage, Michelle Bachmann, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, all-purpose hate fragmenting over the years, and the right-wing crackup.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Arthur, you’re a very huggable guy. But how are you doing?
Goldwag: I have no hate in my heart.
Correspondent: No hate in your heart? Well, let’s get down to this business of hate. I mean, I couldn’t help but think of Mickey Rourke’s line in Barfly when I was reading this. “Hatred! The only thing that lasts!” One of the starting points of this book is Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He pointed out that status politics was more likely to be expressed in this vindictive sense rather than through a proposal for positive action. So I’m wondering. To what degree is vindictiveness the natural mode of status politics? I mean, why don’t we have a lot more hugging and kissing and love-ins? Why isn’t that more of a draw? Maybe we can start from there.
Goldwag: Well, I think it depends on which side of the status divide you are. And I think on the relatively educated, prosperous side of the status divide, there’s a positive sense of smugness that infuriates the people on the other side of the divide.
Correspondent: Can violence be smug?
Goldwag: Well, that’s kind of the feedback loop of our politics. Weak people get smugger and smugger, and they get more and more infuriated. And it works to the advantage of people that aren’t actually involved in status politics at all. They’re involved in money politics. But it works very much to their advantage.
Correspondent: I’m wondering. Do movements and demagogues tend to time their vindictiveness in any way? I mean, just looking at the various historical examples, have you noticed any specific vindictive trends?
Goldwag: Well, we’re living through such a bad moment. We’re probably living — if America is going the way other big empires have gone, we’re beginning our decline. We’re well into our decline. And there were a lot of people who were doing very well in America who weren’t doing so well anymore. When you look at the history of the United States, when you look at it closely and not in terms of the stories that politicians tell on the stump, you realize there’s been very few good times in this country. I grew up in an age of unprecedented prosperity. But, you know, it was an age of tremendous ideological conflict. It was the civil rights movement. The Vietnam War. But there was a lot of money. Thanks to unions and the New Deal, people that were relatively uneducated were doing pretty well. And that’s not happening anymore.
Correspondent: But why don’t they look at those achievements and say to themselves, “Well, hey, maybe I can be part of that?” Why do they feel the need to be hateful? I mean, is there something inevitably wrong with the political mechanism that forces them to hate. Do people not really have a voice? And is this one of the reasons why they resort to this vindictiveness?
Goldwag: These people actually — they couldn’t answer that question. Because they never describe themselves as haters. I went to a white nationalist convention in Washington a couple of months ago.
Correspondent: Oh yeah?
Goldwag: And over and over again, they told themselves — because there weren’t outsiders there, except me and one or two other reporters. They’re telling themselves, “Look, we don’t hate anybody. Our thing is: we love white people.”
Goldwag: They love whiteness. And I talk about that in the book too. And Hofstadter talks about it when he gets into the status politics. You know, if whiteness is the only thing you have, you’re going to hold onto it very tightly. And then there’s a whole complex of things that go with it that, you know, they’re not bad things. They don’t actually have anything to do with whiteness. I mean, one of the things that I actually learned at this convention is that white people really love their families. But that’s not a white attribute.
Goldwag: But the other side of that, of course, is if you love yourself to the exclusion of somebody else is the somebody else. And there’s the specter in America — you know, it’s a darkening country. One of the speakers who made a very moving speech in a way — he said, “Imagine a country with no blonde women.” That’s like, okay. Imagine that. There’s countries in the world where there are no blonde women. But America, we’re an unusual country. Blood and soil, it’s a much more natural idea in Europe than it is over here. Maybe as things are coming apart over here, it’s starting to become a part of American identity now.
Correspondent: I notice that you offer a smile every time you mention that things will fall apart over here. This leads me to wonder whether, I suppose, the erosion of the American government might in fact encourage people to love each other more. Do you think that hate will actually dissolve once we really don’t have a political mechanism with which to contain it?
Goldwag: I don’t. Because I think that I’m not a religious person. But I believe in the fall of man. On the other hand, I’m not an optimistic person at all. But I believe we’ve made tremendous cultural and spiritual progress in this country. You know, there’s this incredible resentment of our African-American President. But he got elected by a landslide. There’s this incredible homophobia. But in an astonishingly short amount of time, there has been such a raising of consciousness. I would have never imagined ten years ago that gay marriage would be as accepted as it is today.
Correspondent: But we still have white nationalist conventions that you’re attending.
Goldwag: Yeah, but they’re small.
Correspondent: They’re small?
Goldwag: What disturbs me, and what made me write this book — you know, I had written this other book called Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, and it was encyclopedic. And it was also, it was like a browsing book. And it was like a gee whiz book. Like these are the crazy things that people believed. And after the book came out, some of these people that I had blithely thought were crazy people kind of introduced themselves to me. And I discovered that they’re out there. And then, almost simultaneously with the publication of my book and the inauguration of Barack Obama, it’s the debut of Glenn Beck on FOX News. And Glenn Beck, he’s not on mainstream TV anymore. I don’t want to give him any more credit. He’s an entertainer. But he was channeling all this stuff. I mean, if you had been as immersed in this stuff as I was, none of it was unfamiliar. It’s called the John Birch Society, basically. That’s the template. And the John Birch Society template goes back to the origins of modern Western conspiracy theory, which is that fear of the Illuminatus. People that listen to rap music think the Illuminatus is something new.
Correspondent: But on that subject, in the book, you cite tenuous connections between Michael Jackson and Jay-Z. I mean, how much does the Illuminatus or the Masonic society even matter in 2012 America? I got a lot of historical examples from you.
Goldwag: It matters in the imagination. It matters as an idea. Real Masons are regular people. And some of them are very sophisticated people. But they’re not the figures in the Dan Brown book or the figures on the cover of Jay-Z records. It’s something else. But ideas are important. Human beings live by ideas.
It is estimated by The American Cancer Society that 39,510 women will die of breast cancer in 2012. But the death rate, as severe as it is, has plummeted considerably since 1990 — in large part because women were screened at an early stage. One clinic these women went to was Planned Parenthood, which conducted 747,607 breast exams (PDF) (or 14.5% of its total services) during the year 2010.
You’d think these great dents to a serious threat would be celebrated by politicians of all stripes as an American innovation. Breast cancer is nonpartisan. It doesn’t care whether the victim is Republican or Democrat. But the politicians would rather paint the town red with their twisted tales. Newt Gingrich has recently pledged to defund Planned Parenthood by 2013, conveniently omitting the fact that the organization isn’t just about abortion. He said that he would rather use the money “to promote adoption and other pro-family policies.” But how is family unity bolstered by restricting the ways in which women get screened? Gingrich is right about one thing. If the blessed matriarchs of his twisted Handmaid’s Tale fantasy have dropped dead from breast cancer, then someone will certainly need to spring for the adoption costs.
The anti-abortion, pro-breast cancer screening type may well ask why an “abortion mill” like Planned Parenthood should be funded at all. Well, it’s the same reason why Big Mac haters occasionally dip into a McDonald’s for the addictive fries. If the previously cited breast screenings aren’t enough for them, what of the pap smears, the prenatal care, the diabetes screenings, the STD testing, the male infertility screenings, and the menopause help? Even if we confine Planned Parenthood’s acceptable services to breast screenings, consider the many free exams that Planned Parenthood has offered, including gratis screening in Boise last June. Financially strapped and uninsured women were able to get the needed treatment for early stage breast cancer.
Funding for the Boise exams was provided by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a leading breast cancer charity based in Dallas. This financial support allowed Planned Parenthood to perform more than 170,000 breast exams over the past five years. Yet on Tuesday, Komen put a stop to its PP partnerships. $680,000 of badly needed funds will be withheld because Komen is too gutless and too cowardly to stand up to the ignorant bullies who cannot comprehend that breast cancer is a nonpartisan issue. It has opted to cave to what Nancy L. Cohen identifies as “the sexual counterrevolution” in her recent book, Delirium. And in so doing, Komen aligns itself with a long litany of spiteful mongrels like Jerry Falwell declaring that “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals” and deranged outliers like Mike Huckabee, who remarked last year of a pregnant Natalie Portman, “It’s unfortunate that we glorify and glamorize the idea of out of wedlock children.”
Komen has claimed that newly adopted criteria prevents the charity from offering grants to any organization that is under investigation by local, state, or federal authorities. This would include Planned Parenthood. The investigation which Komen is referring to involves Rep. Cliff Stearns’s probe from last September, in which the Florida Republican ordered Planned Parenthood to turn over numerous financial documents at considerable inconvenience. But as Reps. Henry Waxman and Diana DeGette responded, “The HHS Inspector General and state Medicaid programs regularly audit Planned Parenthood and report publicly on their findings. These audits have not identified any pattern of misuse of federal funds, illegal activity, or other abuse that would justify a broad and invasive congressional investigation.” It’s also worth pointing out that, last year, when an anti-abortion activist attempted a James O’Keefe-style undercover video, Planned Parenthood was quick to alert the FBI.
But which organization is really being the opaque one here? Komen certainly hasn’t been transparent about releasing its new guidelines to the press, much less entering into a discussion about what “investigation” implies under this new policy. Shortly after the defunding news was reported by the Associated Press, Komen spokesperson Leslie Aun scurried away from The New York Times‘s efforts to seek clarification on Tuesday night. Nor did she offer another representative to answer Times reporter Pam Belluck’s claims. It was more cold corporatese about “[implementing] more stringent eligibility and performance criteria.”
In other words, Komen wishes to engage in kangaroo court politics whereby Planned Parenthood is deemed guilty long before the trial is done. As Slate’s Amanda Marcotte has helpfully pointed out, this is hardly the first time that Komen has played needless hardball with organizations fighting the good fight against breast cancer.
That Komen’s move comes in the wake of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signing a bill last May cutting all government funding to Planned Parenthood in his state is fitting. With one draconian sweep of his pen, Daniels refused to consider how federal law already prohibits federal funds from being spent on abortion, as well as the fact that abortion accounts for only 3% of all Planned Parenthood services. Much as Daniels’s preposterous and self-serving effort to woo hard-line conservatives was a redundant piece of legislation unfairly singling out a group providing vital services, Komen’s turncoat tactics are equally callous in the way organizational image has been prioritized over human lives. The Komen capitulation is a disgraceful deracination, a move more attuned to Afghan moral crimes than a country predicated on separation of church and state. It’s a giant gob of spit dripping down the graceful face of a courageous woman who found hope and humor as she was dying and who longed for other women to live. Under the current Komen regime, these noble ideals have evaporated. The time has come to seek more courageous foundations and win the war against breast cancer.
Thomas Frank appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #428. He is most recently the author of Pity the Billionaire.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Grover Norquist keeps leaving voicemails about tax pledges.
Author: Thomas Frank
Subjects Discussed: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s notion of “compromise,” the Republican failure to acknowledge Reagan’s complete history, Reagan’s Continental Illinois bailout, efforts to “erase” liberalism from Washington, Barack Obama’s failings, Congressional disapproval by the American people (as reflected by recent polls), how George W. Bush became a toxic Republican figure, the Tea Party movement, the Great Recession, how the Right co-opted populism after 2008, the 2010 extension of the Bush tax cuts and Bernie Sanders’s filibuster, Obama signing the NDAA “with serious reservations,” the Democratic Party less about the working man and more about expertise and technocrats, Obama’s TARP bailouts vs. Roosevelt’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation bailouts, government agencies that become instruments of Wall Street, “purified” capitalism, firing bank managers, conservatives mimicking progressive ideologies of the past and protest movements of the 1930s, co-opting outrage, Orson Welles’s influence on Glenn Beck, The War of the Worlds, being subscribed to Beck’s email newsletter, Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, the Republican base being united over the past few decades by “quasi-military victory” and lack of civility, Howard Phillips and “organized discontent,” why the Democrats are allergic to discontent and anger, Roosevelt’s tendency to stump and explain legislation vs. Obama’s failure to do so, the Democratic tendency to use experts as a selling point, Jon Stewart and the New Political Privilege, the Rally to Restore Sanity, Occupy Wall Street, blue-collar invisibility in DC, living in a neighborhood in which 50% of the population have PhDs, NASCAR, idiosyncratic hangover cures, diffidence and resistance against righteous indignation in the last few years, the hard times swindle, Scott Walker and attacks on the Wisconsin labor movement, attempts to investigate why liberalism can’t stick in recent years given The Wrecking Crew‘s suggestion that people inherently expect a liberal state, the myth of small business job creation (specific data breakdown on new jobs creation from 1992-2008 from Scott Shane discussed by Correspondent and Frank), George Lucas calling himself an “independent filmmaker,” C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, small business serving as a propaganda front for big business, America’s reticence in discussing how we are all corporate slaves in some sense, Tea Party memorabilia, Glenn Beck’s CAPITALISM painting, Rep. Nan Hayworth’s dodging questions about Verizon with empty utopian bluster, whether it’s possible to take back the term “small business,” the Black Panther Party, ways to organize political movements, whether it’s possible to build a dedicated base to combat a corrupt two-party system, legal blockades to third party movements, protesting out of resentment and self-pity, self-pity and the resurgent Right, whether the Tea Party is protesting with a shared sense of humiliation, populist politics as a gateway drug, searching for good things to say about the Tea Party, liberalism and populist movements, Atlas Shrugged, Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs biography, Jobs being selfish with his money, why selfishness is a uniquely American draw, retreating into laissez-faire purity, Ayn Rand’s prose style, capital strikes as fantasy, leftist versions of Atlas Shrugged, John Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Frank’s collection of proletarian fiction, Upton Sinclair, the cold sex and descriptions of steel and machinery in Atlas Shrugged, the connections between recent political movements and mythology, German sociologists from the 1930s, the social construction of reality, Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, how the Left might find political possibilities in passion, pragmatism, and anger, the neutered Left falling prey to forms of mythology that are just as nefarious as present myths on the Right, organized labor, Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze, how politics tends to inspire perverse behavior, and train wrecks.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: We’re talking only a few nights after a really fascinating 60 Minutes interview with [House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor. I’m not sure if you saw this.
Frank: I didn’t see it.
Correspondent: Well, it was interesting. Because it reminded me very much of your book. I’m about to talk with you and this happens. So [Cantor] appears. And it’s this fairly amicable, typical segment. And then Lesley Stahl basically says, “Will you compromise in any way?” And he dodged the issue of being able to compromise on anything. And then Lesley, of course, brings up the Reagan tax increase.
Frank: The 1986?*
Correspondent: Yes. And he denies that Reagan ever did that. And then, to add an additional monkey wrench into this, there’s an off-camera press secretary who says that’s a lie. And then, of course, they play the clip.
Correspondent: Yes! And they play a clip of Reagan using “compromise” as a verb** when he’s talking about this tax increase. So this seems a very appropriate beginning to some of the issues in your book.
Frank: That’s amazing. That’s exactly what I’m writing about. These people who are essentially blinded by ideology. But when I say it that way, it sounds like some kind of slang term. Or something like that. But I mean it in a very serious way. That these are people who have bought an entire utopian way of seeing the world and are able to close their eyes to things that are obvious. And what you just said about Reagan, that would be a juicy detail that I would have loved to have had for the book. But there are so many other examples — essentially, they deny. Look, I went to a graduate school and studied history. One of the baseline things that historians agree on is that for the last thirty or forty years, we’ve been in a conservative era. That people around the world — governments, politicians, elites around the world — have discovered the power of markets and have moved in this direction towards markets that are deregulated, have privatized, have done all these things. This is common knowledge. A conservative movement today — you talk to a guy like Eric Cantor? No, that’s never happened. We’re still living under socialism. And we have been since Woodrow Wilson. Or something like this.
Correspondent: But why is it that Cantor and the Freshman Republicans want to just keep their blinders on about history? About their man Reagan? Is there a specific…
Frank: They have to have a hero and they’ve thrown George W. Bush under the bus. Because of the bailouts. But at the end of the day, look, it’s opportunism. Reagan is very popular. Bush is not popular. Nixon is not popular. So they have to have a hero. And it has to be someone who is beloved. Ipso facto, it has to be Reagan. But they have to deny all sorts of thing about Reagan. For example, Reagan bailed out Continential Illinois Bank — at the time, the biggest bank failure in U.S. history. Reagan, as you’ve just mentioned, raised taxes. Reagan sold weapons to Iran. You remember that one? Iran-Contra. I mean, there are all sorts of other crazy things that Reagan did that don’t look so good. I mean, Reagan really liked Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan was a more complicated person. But none of that is admissible. If you’re going to follow this ideology and this utopian vision that they have of what I call “market populism” — if you’re going to follow that all the way — and, of course, part of the idea of this is that you’re going to have to follow it all the way — and we’ll get into that a minute — you basically have to whitewash history. I mean, it’s almost Soviet, what you’re describing.
Correspondent: The phrase you use in The Wrecking Crew. “The Washington conservatives aim to make liberalism not by debating, but by erasing it.” And I’m wondering if there’s any past political precedent that would suggest they could entirely efface liberalism from our political machinations.
Frank: Or from our memory.
Correspondent: Or from our memory. It’s very strange.
Frank: Well, that was the big subject a few years ago — when The Wrecking Crew was published. One of the topics of conversation was these grand schemes that the Republicans kept coming up with. The Republicans in Washington here, I’m talking about. I’m not talking about your rank-and-file Republicans. But the Republicans in Washington kept coming up with the grand schemes for some kind of political checkmate. Some kind of move that would end the debate forever and yield victory for their side forever. And they include — privatizing social security was a big one. Another one — the one that I focused on in The Wrecking Crew — is deficits. And that, I’m sorry to say, I turned out to be right about the one. By deliberately running up the deficits in the Bush years, it doesn’t give them permanent victory, but it does stay the hand of whoever, whatever liberal follows — in this case, Barack Obama — and it has worked exactly as they planned it to. Although Obama pushed it a little farther than they thought possible with the stimulus package. But now look at what’s happened with the debt ceiling catastrophe and all that sort of thing. So that turned out to be effective. They were able to limit the debate by some deeds that they pulled while they were still in power. And some of the other things that they are trying or will try or I predict they’ll try, they are things about tricking the franchise. Somehow keeping or dissuading people from voting. That sort of thing. But there’s always this search for the doomsday device. Yes, and it still goes on.
Correspondent: But this level of no quarter, no compromise. I mean, isn’t there some kind of “uncanny valley” or Hubbert’s Peak to what they can do before it’s just not acceptable? I mean, there was that latest Rasmussen poll where Congress got a 5% approval rating. That was a few days ago.
Frank: Well, that makes a difference in the Presidential Election. But that really won’t make a whole lot of difference, strangely enough, in the Congressional Election. Because people might hate Congress, but they like their own Congressman. That’s the classic, the old saw. But, look, what you’re getting at is a really interesting phenomenon of these people, instead of being pulled to the center — as all of your political science theorizing and all of your DC punditry insists that the gravity of politics pulls people to the center. Political scientists have believed this for fifty years. And this is a pet peeve of mine. Because I think it’s rubbish, okay, for reasons that we’ll go into. But it’s been just dramatically disproven in the last couple of years. Think back to 2008. You had the Republican Party in ruins. You had all these scandals in the Bush Administration. All this corruption. And then it ends with this catastrophic meltdown in the market. The housing bubble bursts. The banks start to go under, one after another. Then Wall Street starts shedding 700 points per day. It’s this crazy disaster. The financial crisis. And then they do the bailouts, forever sealing Bush’s fate not only with the general public but with the Right. One of the most unpopular Presidents of all time. The Republican Party is in ruins in 2008. And you have pundit after pundit weighing in and saying, “These people are done for. Bush led them too far to the right.” The era of George W. Bush was where they went too far to the right, and Tom DeLay and all those guys, they went too far to the right, and now they have to make their way back to the center or they will risk being irrelevant forever more. Or for the next twenty years or something like that. And look what happened. They did the opposite. Guys like Eric Cantor, they did not embrace the moderates in their party. They excommunicated them. They purged them. I mean, these guys, they behave like Communists in a lot of ways. This is one of those things. They purged these guys. They throw people out. And they don’t want them in the Party anymore. And they moved deliberately to the right. Way to the right. That’s what the Tea Party movement is all about. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. They just scored their biggest victory in eighty years. Or seventy what — a whole lot of years in the 2010 off-term elections. They had a huge victory. So obviously that strategy has vindicated for them. It worked! It paid off! And there’s no reason why they would go back on something that just succeeded. It was a success.
Correspondent: But in the chapter in this book, “The Silence of the Technocrats,” you describe this collapse of Democratic populism from 2008. You point to the failings of the Democrats to challenge the Tea Party, people at the town hall meetings. You point also to the manner in which they formed corporate alliances with healthcare and also the bailouts that we were just talking about. The failure of the stimulus package. The list goes on. Only a few days ago, Obama signed into law the NDAA, which essentially gives the government the right to detain any citizen, and he had this whole “with serious reservations” claause that he did while he signed it. So the question I have is: if Democrats are offering the defense that Obama is being forced into this predicament…
Frank: They’re listening to the pundits. The Republicans did the opposite of what the pundits suggested. The Democrats are listening to them. There’s this DC elite that the Democrats are listening to. This is what Obama’s Presidency is all about — it’s looking for a grand compromise. But the Republicans, they’re not interested. Make him come to us, they say. He can come to us. He can compromise in our direction. Look, at the end of the day, this is something you can figure out with game theory. It’s really simple. If they’re the side that stands pat and makes the other guy come to them, they win. But that’s neither her nor there. I think the Democrats really misplayed the hand they were dealt with. I mean, misplayed it in a colossal manner. In a catastrophic manner. And Obama may well get re-elected in 2012 at this point. Who knows at this point?
Correspondent: Well, with the crop of candidates, it’s a big clown car.
Frank: Elected for what purpose? After what’s happened, why bother? They didn’t understand the needs of the moment. The cultural and political needs of the moment, which were populist. They didn’t understand that all that political science theorizing that I was telling you about, where the center is where the gravity always pulls you — you have to move to the center. You have to make compromises with the other side. That all of that old way of thinking about everything was discredited. The financial crisis. The Great Recession. The huge business slump. We were going into Great Depression II, it looked like back then. And what was called for was 1930s style politics. The conservatives offered it. The Republicans offered it. Or I should say the Tea Party offered it and has since grafted it on the Republican Party. And the Democrats behaved as if everything was just as it was in the 1990s. That if they acted like Bill Clinton, everything would be fine. They did not understand that the old scheme was completely out the window.
Correspondent: Why though would they continue to act as if they wished to rise above partisanship? This notion…
Frank: That’s who they are.
Correspondent: I mean, even after the whole debt ceiling showdown. That whole business.
Frank: Can you believe that? Don’t you think that that would be the big convincer?
Correspondent: But why do you think this is? I mean, why didn’t Obama just go to the people and say, “Look, this is going to have serious actions even if I approve it or veto it. I am actually going to you, the American people, and I am explaining to you that the Republicans want to throw the Bill of Rights into a flaming trash can…
Correspondent: “So I can’t in good conscience sign this.” Why do you think he can’t do that?
Frank: Well, the point where this really got out of hand — I mean, there were several big turning points in the Obama Presidency, but the one that really just blew my mind because it was such a misplayed moment. And we think Obama’s a very intelligent man. And he is. I met up. He’s a super-duper smart guy. But some of the political moves have just been total rookie mistakes. The one that got me was when he still had a Democratic Congress. It was a lame duck session. This would have been at the end of 2010. And he renewed the Bush tax cuts. Why not make the Republicans come to him and offer something in exchange for that? No. He just gave it to them. It’s like the biggest prize on the table. And he just handed it over.
Correspondent: Leaving Bernie Sanders to do that long filibuster. But that ended up being all for nought. Even though it was an impressive theatrical display. Everybody was behind Bernie Sanders. Finally somebody standing up.
Frank: Oh sure. But it wasn’t up to Bernie Sanders. It was up to Barack Obama. And he just gave it away — the one ace he had in the hole, he just gave it away. And so maybe he did it as a good faith gesture to the Republicans. And look what it got him? This terrible smackdown with the debt ceiling crisis.
Correspondent: An embarrassment.
Frank: The kind of naivete that that takes. To not understand that that’s how these guys play the game. There’s plenty of journalists that wrote about the DeLay Congress and the Gingrich Congress. We know how these guys play. Or George W. Bush. Look at the career of Karl Rove. These guys play to win. They don’t mess around. And the innocence of Washington that it took to make a blunder — let’s call it what it is. A blunder like that is shocking to me.
Correspondent: If he’s so smart, why does he constantly come to them? I mean, why give the game away like that?
Frank: Because that’s who they are. That’s the Democratic Party nowadays.
Correspondent: It’s been like that for a while though, you know?
Frank: It has. And, hey, let’s be fair. Obama isn’t the — all of their last six Presidential candidates have been cut from the same cloth. I think Obama is, in lots of ways, smarter and a better speaker, and more talented than a lot of their previous leaders. But this is who the Democratic Party has become. Many years ago, they were the party of the working man. Everyone knew that. They were also a party that had an ideology. An ideology that arose from organized labor, that arose from the New Deal. And that has been lost. They are the party of technocrats now. Look, everything I’m telling you right now is right on the surface down at Washington DC. The big Democratic Party thinkers talk about this all the time. We are the party of the professional class. And if we aren’t that yet, that’s who we’re going to be when we’re done. We’re going to get there eventually.
* — This is a very pedantic stickler point, but one that nonetheless demands clarity. Reagan raised taxes twelve times during his administration. Frank is referring to the Tax Reform Act of 1986. But, to be clear, Stahl was specifically referring to Reagan’s 1982 tax increase in the 60 Minutes segment.
** — Another highly pedantic (and perhaps needless) stickler point. Reagan used “compromise” as a noun, not as a verb: “Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise.” And while Reagan’s specific words convey the same point (indeed more definitively with a noun), it is important to remain committed to painstaking accuracy — especially when the corresponding approach being discussed over the hour involves how political parties cleave to mythology.
William Kennedy appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #427. He is most recently the author of Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.
For related material, you can read my Modern Library Reading Challenge essay on Ironweed.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Caught in a migratory comedy of errors.
Author: William Kennedy
Subjects Discussed: Resonances in historical fiction that align with the present day, the William Gibson notion (“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”), Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding, the 2008 Greek riots, writing Ironweed while being firmly immersed in the 1930s, referring to the homeless before “homeless” existed as a word, prophetic novelists, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, the tradition of torture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Roscoe, writing about the Albany political machine for forty years, stolen elections and kickbacks, interviewing morally shady figures as a novelist and as a journalist, meeting with Charlie Ryan, Dan O’Connell, how Kennedy coaxed political figures to tell him stories over the years, sources who insist on being on the record as insiders, intrusive noise, the journalist as the intellectual equivalent to the bartender or the barista, politicians who talk differently when microphones are present, Newspaper Row in Albany, lead filings and rats descending from newspaper ceilings, journalistic squalor, Kennedy’s relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, Pulitzer’s notion of journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, fiction vs. journalism, The Ink Truck, Fellini, how a multidimensional fictitious form of Albany sprang from extremely devoted research, writing seven drafts of Legs, invention and informed speculation, the importance of letting imagination settle, Legs‘s resistance to realism, structuring a novel on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, discovering newness as a writer, precedents for Ironweed, parallels between Cuban history and civil rights, efforts to find the right Cuban history period for Chango’s Beads, Fulgencio Batista’s kids going to school in Albany, the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses as a possible inspiration point, The Gut in Albany, Black Power and community action during the late 1960s, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X sitting in the balcony of the New York Senate, Eldridge Cleaver, the Albany Cycle beyond 1968, telescoping Albany history for the sake of telling a story, arson and riots, the figure of Matt Daughterty, having to publish newspaper stories in out-of-town newspapers to avoid the wrath of the Albany political machine, comparisons between Quinn’s Book and Chango’s Beads, following personalities contained within fictitious families over many years, journeys away from Albany in the Albany cycle, avoiding Albany burnout, a new play based on a departure from Very Old Bones, and fiction driven by bullet-like dialogue.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: We were drawing a distinction between the journalist who is the bartender or the barista — the intellectual equivalent to that — and the novelist, who may in fact have an even greater advantage. Some novelists who were former journalists have told me that they’ll get people to talk with them more if they say they’re a novelist. I’m sure this has been the case with you.
Kennedy: Oh yeah. When the Mayor invited me over to talk about writing a book with him, he didn’t say quite why. I couldn’t understand it. Because I thought he had great antipathy toward me. But I went over. And we just had this conversation. And I sat there and talked to him. And I took a lot of notes. And he said he wanted me to maybe interview him and dredge up whatever I wanted to and write whatever I wanted to. And then he would rebut it. And I didn’t think that was going to work. But I knew that it was a great opportunity to talk to the Mayor.
So anyway we carried on. And it turned out I did write a lot about him in this book. It was kind of a biography. I wrote three pieces actually on him. And he was great in the first meeting. And then the second time, I brought over a mike and a tape recorder. And he clammed up. I mean, he didn’t stop talking, but he didn’t say anything. I mean, he was very salty in the first conversation. And he was a very intelligent man and very well-educated and smart as they come politically. And he had a great sense of humor. But it was boring in the second interview. So I took him out again. I took him to lunch. And he opened right up again as soon as he knew there was no tape recorder. And I took notes. He’s safe with notes because he can say, “He got it wrong.” There’s no proof.
Correspondent: Well, I actually wanted to ask — speaking of history, there are moments in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Quinn’s Book where you have newspapermen who are wearing hats as the lead filings are falling upon them. In the case of Billy Phelan, there’s actual rats falling from the ceiling.
Kennedy: That’s true.
Correspondent: I’m curious. Did you have first-hand experience of this?
Kennedy: No. This was at the newspaper that I was working on. But in their previous incarnation, which was only a few years before I got there, they were on Beaver Street in a very old, old center of the city. The South End. In The Gut. And it was Newspaper Row. The Albany Journal was there. The Albany Argus. The Knickerbocker News. The Knickerbocker Press. Etcetera etcetera. The Times Union was up the street a bit. And then they moved into new digs. But I remember that one of the reporters and the copy editors said that the rats used to come down, walk the ceiling. The composing room was upstairs. Over the city room. And there was always these lead filings that were coming through the cracks in the floor. And so these guys wore their hats around the desks. And the reporters wore their hats indoors.
Correspondent: The pre-OSHA days. (laughs)
Kennedy: You know, it had a practical application, those hats. In addition to being the style of the day. And the rats used to come down and eat the paste out of the paste pots.
Correspondent: Which is also immortalized in Billy Phelan.
Kennedy: That’s in Billy Phelan. They were all stories that these guys who had grown up there, they’d seen it. One of my buddies, he’d been a reporter for ten years or so all during that period in Beaver Street. And he was a great storyteller. And he told me…well, you know.
Correspondent: Did you experience any first-hand journalistic squalor?
Kennedy: Journalistic squalor.
Correspondent: Along those lines. Or perhaps other forms of squalor.
Kennedy; (laughs) Well, no. Not quite like that. The paper had modernized. I mean, I was there in the age of the typewriter and the clacking teletypes and papers would stack up on the floor like crazy. At the end of the work day, everybody threw everything onto the floor. The old newspapers. All the old teletypes. And it was a great mess. There was….hmm, squalor. (laughs)
Correspondent: Rotting walls? Asbestos-laden environments? (laughs)
Kennedy: Sorry, I can’t. I knew all the guys who had gone through it.
Correspondent: Well, on a similar note, Hunter S. Thompson. I have to ask this largely because The Paris Review interviewed you and cut this bit. He said, “He refused to hire me. Called me swine, fool, beatnik. We go way back.” But I also know that he wrote you a quite hubristic letter. How did you two patch things up after this early exchange of invective and all that?
Kennedy: Well, I never called him a swine.
Kennedy: It’s possible in a letter, in later years, I might have called him a swine. But that was his terminology.
Correspondent: He was trying to prop you up.
Kennedy: I would just throw it back at him or something like that. You know, there was no rancor at all. After the first exchange of letters, almost immediately it was patched up. I mean, he was furious at me for rejecting him when he applied for a job. You’re talking about the quote there where he said…
Correspondent: He said that on Charlie Rose.
Kennedy: Charlie Rose. But he was referring to my attitude toward The Rum Diary. Which was the novel that he was writing down in Puerto Rico when I got to know him. And he had just started it. And in later years, he sent it to me. I wish I had kept it. I don’t know why. I can’t find it. I don’t think I have any remnants of it and I’ve got a lot of his stuff. But maybe I have some pieces. But I don’t remember. And I can’t even remember the letter I wrote. But I wrote him a letter and I told him, “Forget about this novel. You can’t publish this. This is terrible.” And it was a big fat novel. It was fat and it was logorrhea. And it was a young man’s ruminations and discoveries of all of that.
Correspondent: A journalist aspiring to be a novelist.
Kennedy: Right, right, right. And he was a smart guy. Very, very smart guy. But that novel just didn’t work. What was published — the book that was published is one third of the text of the old book. It doesn’t have any of those flaws that I could see — I just started to read it again the other day. I tried to see the movie three times, and I can’t.
Correspondent: Oh really?
Kennedy: Well, I’m in the Academy and I get these screeners from the Academy. But it didn’t work. The screener didn’t work. It says “Wrong disc.”
Correspondent: Oh no.
Kennedy: So I have to get another one. But I’m anxious to see it. I think it’s full of probably libelous accusations against the [San Juan] Star, the newspaper down there and the people who run it. But that was expected from Hunter.
Correspondent: What do you think distinguishes your approach — being a journalist turning into a novelist — from Hunter’s approach? I mean, was he just not serious enough and you were more devoted? Was it a matter of being well-read? What was it exactly that distinguished the two of you?
Kennedy: Well, I was a serious journalist. I mean, he presumed to be. That was the basis for our initial argument about that bronze plaque. You know about that? The bronze plaque on the side of The New York Times — it’s a quote from Joseph Pulitzer When that building was home to The New York World, a great newspaper that Pulitzer ran in New York. Anyway, he revered that. You know, it’s this high-minded attitude toward the news. No fear of favor or whatever. Work against the thieves. Whatever. I’ve absolutely forgotten what Pulitzer said.
[Note: The Pulitzer plaque reads: “An institution that should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”]
Kennedy; I remember its tone. And I could find it. And this whole episode is summed up in the introduction to Hunter’s book, The Proud Highway — his first collection of letters. He asked me to write an introduction to that. And I told the whole story of how he applied for the job and didn’t get it and so on. But his attitude toward journalism was high-minded. But when he started to practice it, a year or so later, roaming around South America, he started writing — he was winging it, you know? He wasn’t interested in “Just the facts, ma’am.” He was half a fiction writer in those days. Roaming around. Whatever caught his fancy or his imagination, he would write it. I mean, it came to a point where he went to the Kentucky Derby and that was the one that really put him on the map. “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.” It ran in Scanlan’s Monthly, I think. And it had nothing to do with reporting. He was making it up. And it was fiction.
There may have been some basis in all that happens in the story for it. But he just invents the dialogue that goes on between the various people and follows his own chart and reacts as a novelist, and then presents it as journalism. This is what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was presumably journalism. But it’s fiction. It’s a novel. And he claimed in retrospect that he had notes to prove every element in that novel. But he didn’t. (laughs) I mean, all the hallucinations. Whatever his hallucinations were, they were hallucinations. And they’re his. And they’re internal. And who’s to say who’s hallucinating when he’s writing what he’s writing. The sum and substance of Thompson was that he started off as a journalist and he became this wild crazy gonzo journalist, which was half a fiction writer’s achievement. And he was always in the early days thinking about the novel and new forms of the novel. And he created one. Novels are very valuable in their wisdom and their insights and their reporting and their historical penetration of the world that they’re centering on. And he was famously talented in all those realms to achieve those things. And he did. But in the end, I mean he comes off as a career journalist and a singular one. There was nobody like him and there never will be. A lot of people have tried. He’s inimitable. But when he started out, he had all the baggage that goes with the aspiring novelist. And he always made the distinction that I started off to be a journalist and turned into a novelist and he started off to be a novelist and turned into a journalist. And that’s true enough.
My journalism very rarely could be challenged — it could never be challenged as a work of fiction. I never did anything like that. I found ways to enliven the text with language. So did Hunter. But Hunter also reimagined history and reimagined daily life when he invented his world.
Correspondent: To go to your work, The Ink Truck — I wanted to ask you about this. Your first published novel. This is interesting because, unlike the topographical precision that you see in the Albany Cycle, the details of Albany in The Ink Truck are not nearly that precise. They’re more abstract. And I’m curious why that sense of place only emerged in the subsequent novels.
Kennedy: Well, because when I wrote that novel, I was reacting to my resistance to traditional realism and naturalism. You know, I had been there with Steinbeck, Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and so on. And Hemingway also was a great realist. Not the naturalist, but the great realist and the great reporter. And I was in a different mode. I was immersed in Joyce at that time and very much aware of Ulysses and the wildness of the invention that pervades that novel. I was thinking of the surrealists. I was in the grip of Buñuel the filmmaker. I loved his work.
Correspondent: Also a wonderful late bloomer too.
Kennedy: (laughs) And Fellini. I though that 8 1/2 was one of the great movies ever made. It may be the greatest to me and I’m not sure I don’t think that still.
Correspondent: What of Satyricon? (laughs)
Kennedy: Well, I thought it was interesting. So much of Fellini I do love. But 8 1/2, because it was in one guy’s head and it just went in and out of reality, that’s what I wanted to do. I used to say that novel was always six inches off the ground. So levitating was important. And I wasn’t really interested in grounding myself in the squalor of that situation. That was a pretty squalid time when we were in the guild room during that strike. There was a strike that I went through and was the inspiration for that novel. But that book is sort of an excursion to comedy and surreal comedy. I mean, it presumes to be serious in certain stages of its intensity. But basically it’s a wild, crazy, surreal story.
Correspondent: But when you have the character of Albany begin to appear in your work, suddenly I think there’s more of a kitchen sink approach. You have very hard-core realism. You have hallucinations. Surrealism. You have all sorts of things. Almost a kitchen sink approach. And I’m curious if the increasing complexity of your books, where this comes from. Does it arise out of your very meticulous and fastidious research? Does it arise from wanting to reinvent the form of the novel? To not repeat yourself? Does it arise from having established a Yoknapatawpha-like universe of characters? What of this?
Kennedy: Well, all of the above. Everything you said. I was always trying to do something that I hadn’t done before, that I couldn’t attach to anybody in particular. You know, you can’t imitate Joyce. You can’t imitate Hemingway. I tried and I did all the way along in various failed enterprises. And I knew that it was a dead end. I was trying for something new. With Legs, I was inundated with research. I spent two years under the microfilm machine. We no longer have to do that. Just punch in Google. Now it’s amazing. But in those days, I would spend days. All day. Half the week inside the library. Not only microfilm, but all the books of the age. All the magazines. I went to New York and got the morgues of all the major newspapers. The Times. The New York Post. The Daily News, which was fantastic. And so on. And I researched everything there was to find on Legs Diamond serendipitously. And then I also kept turning — I probably interviewed 300 people. I don’t know how many. Sort of cops and gangsters. Retired gangsters with prostate trouble. And I really stultified myself at a certain stage in that novel. And I had to stop and take account of what was really going on. And I had to reinvent the book.
Correspondent: You wrote it seven times, I understand.
Kennedy: I guess the seventh was the final time. I wrote it six times. Or was it six years and eight times? The eighth time was a cut. I had finished it but it was too fat. So I cut 70, 80 pages. I don’t remember what I cut. But I don’t miss them. Whatever I cut, it was all right. But I started from scratch really. After six drafts, I went back and spent three months just designing the book all over again and designing history of every character all over again and putting a totally new perspective on it. Because I had too much material. And there was no way to stop it from coming to me. Except to just close it off and say, “I’m not going to read another newspaper. I’m not going to crack another book. I’m going to write the story. I’m done with the research.” Of course, that never really happens. You have to go back and check. But that’s what I did. And that’s how I finished the book.
(Image: Judy C. Sanders)
“All violence consists in some people forcing others, under threat of suffering or death, to do what they do not want to do. And therefore those who are coerced will only do that which they do not wish to do while they are weaker than the tyrants and cannot avoid doing it from fear of the threats for not fulfilling what is demanded. As soon as they grow stronger, they naturally not only cease to do what they do not want to do, but, embittered by the struggle against their oppressors and everything they have had to suffer from them, they first free themselves from the tyrants, and then, in their turn, force their opponents to do what they regard as good and necessary. It would therefore seem evident that the struggle between oppressors and oppressed cannot unite people but, on the contrary, the further it progress the further it divides them.” — Leo Tolstoy, “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence”
It was a political act committed by a weak man. Don’t let any sugarcoating naif or maundering bumpkin scared to stare down the truth tell you that it wasn’t.
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a pragmatic Blue Dog Democrat in Arizona, was shot in the head at point blank range while holding an informal town hall meeting at a supermarket. A federal judge is dead. Five others, including a nine-year-old, are also dead. They did not want to be dead.
These were assassinations. Assaults on people who, never mind their party, wished to engage in civil discourse. It was a secret attack designed with a political point in mind — one that told us that, no matter where our position on the political spectrum, our thoughts and feelings were lesser if they didn’t mesh with yours.
The assassinations were committed by a psychologically imbalanced and irrational man with a gun. But we still don’t know for sure if Jared Lee Loughner was inspired by Sarah Palin’s now removed, now infamous map, which targeted Rep. Giffords and 19 other people with a prescription to the solution. We may never know. And we may never know if he really wanted to do what he did. What we do know is that Loughner was coerced and he felt that what he was doing was good and necessary. His YouTube videos tell us this. Loughner thought that “the population of dreamers in the United States of America is less than 5%.” A recent study revealed that one in 20 adult Americans experienced psychological problems during their childhood years. Or about 5%. But maybe Loughner was referring to some other faction. It was all set down in his head. Why didn’t we feeble peons comprehend his genius?
The new question — offered not long after the NewSouth scrubbing of words from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — is whether or not an actual assassination, especially one committed by a man with psychological problems, is equal to the suggestion of an assassination.
This afternoon, Jack Shafer made a case for inflamed rhetoric, responding to knee-jerk suggestions that the debate must be turned down with a less classier riff on Voltaire: “I’ll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me.” But Shafer’s swiftly typed sentiments may have arrived too late. Already, Rep. Robert Brady will be introducing legislation that will make it a federal crime for a person to use symbols or language that someone might perceive as a threat or an inciting to violence against a federal official.
This is overkill. There are already laws on the book (specifically 18 U.S.C. § 876 and 18 U.S.C. § 876) that deal with this. If you knowingly threaten a judge, a law enforcement officer, or a federal officer with death, you will face a fine and ten years of imprisonment if you are convicted.
What makes Brady’s proposed legislation insidious is the way he takes “knowingly” out of the equation altogether. Threats may be expanded to the manner in which someone perceives a threat. And this is an alarming attack against free expression: an altogether different assassination telling us that some forms of vitriol, swiftly reduced to calmness after one has expressed it, are lesser because they don’t mesh with Rep. Brady’s view of the universe.
Does Brady’s legislation mean that Shafer can be arrested because some looneytune reading his column perceived his “punch out the lights” sentence as an excuse to attack a member of Congress? If I suggest that Rep. Brady’s house should be TPed before the week is up (and I append a symbolic Photoshop image to the clearly satirical suggestion), and some nut job attempts to kill Rep. Brady by stuffing several rolls of toilet paper down his mouth, then should I be accused of inciting the nut job to violence?
The proposed Brady legislation, predicated upon the myth of zero tolerance, assumes that the person who lets off steam can keep track of every person who is listening. The legislation is a perfectly understandable reaction, but one motivated by fear rather than reason. Fear isn’t the best emotion with which to consider the full implications. Consider Rep. Brady’s alarmingly autocratic response at the end of the CNN article: “Why would you be against it?”
And why would you assume that every American will act like Loughner?
Loughner’s videos are an incoherent hodgepodge of senseless syllogisms: an insane nightmare founded upon notions of currency, grammar, the number 8, and a medley of perceived slights. Loughner announces in his welcome video that his favorite activity “is conscience dreaming; the greatest inspiration for my political business information. Some of you don’t dream — sadly.”
We’ve been here before, of course. On November 18, 1978, Congressman Leo J. Ryan was killed in the line of duty. The cause was the cult of Jonestown. The cult killed Ryan, a Temple defector, and three journalists. 918 people drank the Flavor Aid that evening.
But that was in Guyana, not our home turf. The terror went down in a place remote enough for psychological experts to offer “rational explanations of how humans can be conditioned to commit such irrational acts” (as Time put it on December 4, 1978). The news was horrifying, but we still understood then the irrational had infringed upon the rational. Ryan had been assassinated. In 1978, the Internet did not exist to present us with an image.
The above picture comes from Mamta Popat at the Arizona Daily Star. The caption reads:
Jackie Storer, right, tries her best to figure out the clues on a giant crossword as Jared Loughner, a volunteer, stands in the background during the Tuscon Festival of Books.
One is struck not just by the “clues” contained in the photo’s crossword, but by the clues contained in Loughner’s stance. His right foot juts forward against the sidewalk and he hangs his right arm languorously against the crossword display. Does he know the clues already? Even accounting for the photographer’s posing instructions, Jackie Storer clearly isn’t noticing him.
But do any of these observations permit us to better understand Loughner?
There are bullies who horde all the wealth and keep good people unemployed. There are bullies who grope us when we don’t want to be violated by a backscatter X-ray. There are bullies who berate us and scare us and feed us misinformation. There are bullies who foreclose on our homes because we failed to comprehend the language above the dotted line when we were young and hungry and wanted some stake in the American dream.
On Saturday, we learned that the bullies are within our fold. They’re waiting patiently around us, providing us with “clues” just before they pull out the gun. Should we stop believing in humanity?
A cynic will tell you that Saturday’s senseless violence confirmed America’s station as a savage nation. A soul seeking vengeance will point to the Palin map, its three targets hovering over Arizona and impugning the narcissist who saw fit to publicize the two-hour finale of Sarah Palin’s Alaska on her Twitter feed before offering empty condolences.
The cynic and the vigilante are both right, but we may soon be asked to test our core constitutional values.
The time has come to fight tooth and nail to maintain the last of our rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of mind. This can all be done without a single bullet or a knowing threat. The time has come to stand up to men like Robert Brady, who cannot see how their seemingly helpful acts turn them into bullies who ask the uncivilized question, “Why would you be against it?” Because, Representative Brady, we are not weaker than the tyrants. And we do not want to see another civilized soul fall down the rabbit hole.
“Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too. It is the sole consolation of weak minds in this short and transitory life of ours.” — Voltaire, “Toleration”
I did not attend Saturday’s rally because, like many Americans, I could not afford to. I did not have the cash for the $60 Boltbus round trip, the $100 or so to spring for a night in a motel room, and the $40 (very conservative estimate) for food and water. $200.
Now imagine the tab if you have a kid. Factor in childcare and you’re easily getting into the $400 range if you were a parent hoping to participate in a rally that was being compared in some corners to Martin Luther King. Sure, you could blow a few hundred bucks to make a purported difference or you could put that money into your kid’s Halloween costume. Or maybe that’s a few weeks of much needed groceries. Or maybe that’s what you need at the end of the month to make mortgage or rent.
The upshot is that, in this economy, $200 is a lot of money for many people. If you are among the 10% of Americans who remain unemployed, the ones who are being told that economic recovery is just around the corner, then those two Ben Franklins are worth a good deal more. And these are the people we’re not talking about. These are the people we can’t talk about. Because unless it’s a message from the Rent is Too Damn High Party, talking about poverty and class division isn’t nearly as entertaining as an episode of Jersey Shore.
If you could afford to go to Washington last weekend, you practiced your new political privilege. This privilege was reflected in the mostly white demographic that turned up in Washington. It was reflected in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s performance of “The Greatest Strongest Country in the World”:
Stewart: They don’t care about the gays
Colbert: That’s mostly true
Stewart: They’re terrified of Muslims!
Colbert: Well, they scare you too!
Stewart: But I would never talk about it / Folks would get annoyed
Colbert: You’re a coward
Stewart: Yes, but I’m still employed (going into a falsetto yodel)
The satirical song’s message, a sentiment also reflected in Stewart’s closing speech, is that there is no longer any room for hyperbole, extremist rhetoric, and “insanity.” If you’re lucky enough to remain gainfully employed, maintaining a Spock-like commitment to cold “logic” while others face the savage brunt of rising costs and diminishing prospects, keeping your job is more important than speaking your mind or commiserating with the hard realities of a family who has to skip a few hot meals. The message is this: It could have been you, but, hey, you’re still employed. Don’t take a chance. People might get annoyed.
And how exactly does this represent togetherness? Togetherness doesn’t mean shunning people, but listening to the viewpoints you despise. And while you may be bathing in a Stewart-Colbert afterglow, the “insane” people will be there in the voting booths on Tuesday. There will be hard and possibly irreversible developments because a bright red cluster was just told that its feelings didn’t matter. That the manner, however inappropriate, in which people responded to justifiable concerns about unemployment and foreclosure wasn’t valid. Yes, they amplified their messages until their posters turned into increasingly stranger exemplars for Godwin’s Law. But if the corporations had given them jobs as Wall Street enjoyed its best September since 1939 or someone had listed to justifiable concerns about being forced to pay exorbitant costs thanks to one of the biggest giveaways to private industry in American history, would we even have Christine O’Donnell as a candidate? Would we even be diminishing political discourse by considering the gentlemanly angles on muff diving?
While keeping atavistic sentiments out of evenhanded analysis is a worthwhile goal, there are several problems with Stewart’s overgeneralized view of the way the media and the political conversation operates — hardly limited to what David Carr has courageously and reasonably offered. As Glenn Greenwald wrote in September, where’s the space for someone engaged in genuinely independent and non-ideological inquiry? The fact that the audience applauded strongest when Stewart yodeled about keeping his job suggests that public discourse is not necessarily about the politics, but about keeping one’s privileged position. The new privilege is, irrespective of Rick Sanchez, being able to hold onto your job and being able to spend money to go to a rally. What of those who aren’t part of this illusory middle class? The ones who were left behind like the poor saps missing the rally, stuck in traffic on the “free” Huffington Post buses? Was Saturday, as Mark Ames suggested, more of “an anti-rally, a kind of mass concession speech without the speech–some kind of sick funeral party for Liberalism, in which Liberals are led, at last, by a clown?”
I don’t want to pin the blame on the 215,000 people who attended the rally, particularly since many conservatives are attempting to undermine this number with dubious metrics. These goodhearted people attended this exercise in good faith, seeking confirmation that there was a safer way to express their political commitment. As someone who witnessed firsthand in San Francisco the manner in which suburban people were squeezed out of the Iraq opposition rallies on February 15, 2003 (the largest global anti-war rally in history) after the protest turned bad, discouraged by the loud and loutish voices who caused their swift surrender, it was a great relief to witness a new political unity.
But if the cost of this unity involves slicing the edges off the political spectrum, if it involves ignoring the obvious facts that Goldman Sachs created an orphan month to puff up its earnings and good people had their lives changed by subprime loans and the derivatives casino rewarded the rich at the expense of the poor, then there is something seriously wrong with our priorities. It involves embracing a myth that is just as dangerous as the fabricated Reagan prosperity narrative promulgated by the Tea Party crowd.
The people who attended this rally may very well be without this Wall Street greed. But the ones who have caused our national problems have been anything but civil. The Glenn Becks and the Keith Olbermanns who fulminate hysteria are not, it is important to be reminded, selling our grandchildren into slavery.
In his speech, Stewart talked about the “selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst.” Not at all. These selfish jerks are hired in droves on Wall Street. Reason won’t deter the very insane avarice and the unremitting selfishness of the economic elite. You can’t always bring a book and a calm demeanor to a knife fight.
In fact, few have remarked upon the selfish qualities contained within Stewart’s speech. The first sentence: “I can’t control what people think this was.” Near the end: “If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence here was what I wanted.” You will not find the verbs “want” or “control” in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In Obama’s much longer and more nuanced “A More Perfect Union” speech, you will find our future President using the phrase “we want” (not “I want”) numerous times, but never “control.” King and Obama brought people together during these moments not because they dictated to their audiences what they wanted (and thus, as Stewart has done, dictated how they should respond), but because they invited their listeners to become part of their journey.
The difference is that Stewart can rescue himself from any criticisms because he can always play the “I’m a comedian” card. Yet it isn’t too much of a stretch to see that Stewart’s “I want” has now eclipsed Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Stewart suggested to his audience that “because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through this darkness and back into the light we have to work together,” but he has, rather brilliantly, sandwiched this facile notion of working together within the troubling crust of “I can’t control” and “I want.” And “I want” is a more dangerous beast than the fleeting optimism contained within “Yes we can.”
“I want” is the mantra of entitlement. “I can’t control” is the sentiment of someone whose view of the “opposition” is relegated to a quick glimpse of someone in a car, where judgments as superficial as Beck and Olbermann reduce a complex individual to a neat demographic label. The mom with two kids who can’t think about anything else. The Oprah lover. What about the people who don’t have the money for gas?
Stewart is on firmer ground when he suggests that racists and Stalinists are “titles that must be earned” and that labels should be granted to those “who have put forth the exhausting effort it takes to hate.” But what about more subtle disgraces? Systemic issues? By these standards, the cab driver who does not stop for a black man, the gay couple that is not permitted the same benefits as a married couple, or the ongoing wage gap between men and women should be given less amplification.
As John Scalzi recently noted in a list, you don’t have to worry about any of this. You can attend a rally and feel good about yourself. What you may not realize is that clowns much bigger than Stewart and Colbert — the ones who took your tax dollars during the bailouts and the ones who speculate on commodities and raise your daily prices — are laughing at you.
Chris Coons: I believe churches have the absolute right to believe whatever religious doctrine they wish to, but you cannot impose…
Christine O’Donnell: And do local schools have the right to teach that?
Chris Coons: They do not.
Christine O’Donnell: Local schools do not have the right to teach what they feel? Well, there you go.
Chris Coons: Religious doctrine does not belong in our public schools.
Christine O’Donnell: Do you want a senator who is going to impose his beliefs? Talk about imposing your beliefs on the local schools! I’m saying that if the local community wants to teach the Theory of Evolution, it’s up to the School Board to decide. But when I made those remarks, it was because the School Board wanted to also teach the Theory of Intelligent Design, and the government said that they could not. You have just stated that you will impose your will over the local school district, and that is a blatant violation of our Constitution.
Chris Coons: And to be clear, Ms. O’Donnell, I believe that creationism is religious doctrine and that evolution is a broadly accepted…
Christine O’Donnell: How about the Theory of Intelligent Design?
Chris Coons: Creationism, which is…
Christine O’Donnell: Theory of Intelligent Design!
Chris Coons: ….is a religious doctrine.
Christine O’Donnell: No, two different things.
Chris Coons: Evolution is widely accepted, well-defended, scientific fact. And our schools should be teaching science. If we want to instruct our children in religious doctrine and religious practice, as my wife and I choose to, that’s wonderful. That’s what our churches are for. That’s what private or parochial schools are for. But our public schools should be teaching broadly accepted scientific fact, not religious doctrine.
Christine O’Donnell: Wow, you’ve just proved how little you know, not just about constitutional law, but about the Theory of Evolution. Because the Theory of Evolution is not a fact. It is indeed a theory. But I’m saying that theory — if local school districts want to give that theory equal credence to intelligent design, it is their right. You are saying it is not their right. Then that is what you’ve gotten our country into this position. It’s the overreaching arm of the federal government getting into the business of the local communities. The Supreme Court has always said it is up to the local communities to decide their standards. The reason we’re in this mess we’re in is because our so-called leaders in Washington no longer view the indispensable doc, uh, principles of our founding as truly that. Indispensable.
Chris Coons: And why doesn’t this…
Christine O’Donnell: We’re supposed to have limited government. Low taxes….
Moderator: All right.
Chris Coons: Can I have one of those? The indispensable principle is the separation of church and state.
Moderator: Okay. With that. We’ve had a very good dialogue. We appreciate that. Let’s move on so we can get through all the panelists and cover other areas.
Christine O’Donnell: Uh, where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?
(Uncomfortable laughter from the audience.)
Here is a listing of racist incidents involving United States Senators presently in office:
On March 13, 1998, during investigations pertaining to the 1996 Presidential Campaign, Sen. Bennett remarked, “I stepped in and said, `No. I have owned a business in Asia. I have done business in Asia. Charlie Trie’s actions are the typical actions of an Asian businessman.'” (CSPAN — video and transcript)
On July 16, 2009, at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, Sen. Boxer was speaking to Harry Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce (an organization that Boxer confused with the NAACP), when the following exchange occured:
Boxer: Then we’re going to put the NAACP resolution that passed saying this: The NAACP approved a historic resolution addressing climate change legislation for the first time in the organization’s history.
Alford: What does that mean?
Boxer: Sir, we’re gonna put that in the record, and you can read it cuz I don’t have the time, but I’ll read the rest-
Alford: What does that mean though? I mean, the NAACP has a resolution. What does that mean?
Boxer: Sir, they could say the same thing about what do you mean? I’m just telling you they passed it-
Alford: I’ve got documentation!
Boxer: Sir, they passed it. Now, also, if that isn’t interesting to you, we’ll quote John Grant who is the CEO of A Hundred Black Men of Atlanta. Quote: Clean energy is the key that will unlock millions of jobs, and the NAACP’s support is vital to ensuring that those jobs help to rebuild urban areas. So clearly there is a diversity of opinion.
Alford: Madame Chair-
Boxer: If I can-
Alford: -that is condescending to me.
Alford: I’m the National Black Chamber of Commerce-
Boxer: If this- if this-
Alford: -and you’re trying to put up some other black group up to pit against me.
Boxer: If this gentleman- if this gentleman were here, he would be proud that he was being quoted. Just as-
Alford: He should have been invited.
Boxer: Just as- He would be proud-
Alford: It is condescending to me.
Boxer: Just as so- Just so you know, he would be proud that you were here. He is proud I am sure-
Alford: Proud, proud (bitterly and contemptuously).
Boxer: -that I am quoting him.
Alford: All that’s condescending-
Boxer: Well, Sir.
Alford: -and I don’t like it. It’s racial.
Boxer: What’s racial?
Alford: I don’t like it.
Boxer: Excuse me, Sir.
Alford: I take offense to it.
Alford: As an African-American and a veteran of this country, I take offense to that.
Boxer: Offense at the fact that I would quote-
Alford: You’re quoting some other black man. Why don’t you quote some other-
Alford: Asian? Or some other-
Boxer: Well, lemme-
Alford: I mean- what- You are being racial here.
On July 10, 1997, when questioning a witness about a reward from Asian-Americans that Democratic fundraiser John Huang was to receive, Sen. Brownback remarked, “No raise money, no get bonus.” (USA Today, Seattle Times)
“Senator Byrd quit the Klan in the 1940s and has renounced it since. On the other hand, his history is worth revisiting, since it’s something Democrats have been willing to tolerate, despite Lott-like remarks that would have ended a Republican’s career. Only last year Mr. Byrd told Fox News that ‘there are white niggers. I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time, if you want to use that word. But we all–we all–we just need to work together to make our country a better country and I–I’d just as soon quit talking about it so much.'” (Wall Street Journal)
During the July hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Sen. Coburn impersonated Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, saying, “You have lots of ‘splaining to do!” (YouTube clip and The New York Times)
During his 2006 campaign, Sen. Corker used fears of interracial relationships and stereotypes against his opponent, Harold Ford, who was African-American. “Harold Ford looks nice,” says one African-American woman, “isn’t that enough?” “I met Harold at the Playboy party,” says a scantily clad white woman. (Truthdig with video clip)
During the health care debates, Sen. Graham argued the following: “I have 12 percent unemployment in South Carolina. My state’s on its knees. I have 31 percent African-American population in South Carolina.” Later in the speech, Sen. Graham said, “My state, with 30 percent African-American citizens, a lot of low income people in South Carolina is going to cost my state a billion dollars, that’s the same old stuff that I object to. That’s not change we can believe in. That’s sleazy.” Rachel Maddow concluded, “The argument here appears to be that Sen. Graham believes it is sleazy to expect a state with lots of black people in it, to have health reform.” (Rachel Maddow video and Raw Story)
During the 2000 campaign, Sen. McCain told reporters, “I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 2, 2000)
In 1983, as a young congressman, Sen. McCain voted against the recognition of Martin Luther King Day. (ABC News)
In an August 1, 2008 post, Capitol Hill Blue’s Doug Thompson noted additional anecdotal examples of racism. (Capitol Hill Blue)
In John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s new book, Game Change Harry Reid stated that Barack Obama could become the first African-American President because he was “light-skinned” and because he did not speak with a “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” (New York Times)
In 1986, Sen. Sessions was rejected from an Alabama judiciary seat by the Senate Judiciary Committee seat. In previous remarks, Sessions had claimed that the NAACP was “un-American,” calling an African-American aide “boy,” and describing a white civil rights attorney as “a disgrace to his race.” Sessions also claimed that Klansmen were “O.K.” until he learned that a few of them smoked pot. (Numerous articles through Meet Jeff Sessions. See also The New Republic.)
Before he switched parties from Republican to Democrat, Sen. Arlen Specter spoke at a November 1, 2008 pro-McCain rally, where he noted “a couple of hidden factors” in the 2008 presidential election: “The first is that people answer pollsters one way, but in the secrecy of the ballot booth, vote the other way.” (Salon)
In October 2009, an interracial couple was denied marriage by justice of the peace Keith Bardwell. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Gov. Bobby Jindall both called for Bardwell’s firing. But Sen. Vitter was the only senior official who refused to comment, running away when asked by a guy with a video camera. He also refused to comment when asked three times by MSNBC. (YouTube video, Talking Points Memo)
President Barack Obama stood tonight before the seated West Point cadets and revealed himself to be a shallow political opportunist, a man who views mortal sacrifice with all the cold and uncomprehending analysis of a clinical dilettante who is in over his head. Obama stared hard into his twin prompters, as if expecting some illusory plane to crash and conflagrate. One detected the whiff of self-sabotage as this newly christened lame duck spoke without spontaneity, failing to hit any note that even approximated empathy. Yes, he had signed letters of condolence to the families of every American who has given up a life. But there was nothing in his dead eyes to suggest a solace that extended beyond bureaucratic acts or a leader who knew what he was doing. This was shallow and unconsummated political theater, and, for me, a profound feeling of nausea kicked in at the ten minute mark.
Obama preferred to regale the crowd with hollow tough talk, but, judging from the few cutaway shots, the West Point throngs didn’t seem terribly convinced. He reminded us all, including those brave progressives daring to huddle around high-def sets for some benefit of the doubt, that he was the Commander-in-Chief. In a line that will no doubt be fiercely argued by febrile teabaggers, he declared that he had seen “firsthand the terrible wages of war.” It was as if he still needed to prove something just less than a year into his Presidency. But in an age of economic disaster, unseen relief, and international terror, the time for needless reminders and phony platitudes has now passed. Actions that live up to the mandate have become beyond necessary, and Obama demonstrated again that he cannot deliver. This geeky, number-crunching adolescent, who painfully reminded us that he had once stood against the Iraq War, pretended once again to be an adult, and his speech was a firm betrayal of the alleged ethos that secured his November victory. When that dreadful noun “hope” came up thrice, applied to Afghanistan’s untenable wasteland, the linguistic political operator and almost certain one-term President came out of the closet. It was also an unpardonable insult for Obama to suggest that “we must come together to end this war successfully,” a sentiment at odds with the exigencies of healthy democracy and language uncomfortably close to the previous Oval Office hick now laughing his ass off in Dallas. One expects a failure to grasp the realities of human conflict from some desperate corporate leader making an awkward speech at a company retreat, but not the ostensible leader of the free world. Had a cadet yelled, “You lie!” tonight, I would have applauded him as a patriot.
This was a hard spectacle for anyone on the left to endure. The social networks were strangely silent. It was eerily symbolic that YouTube opted to live-stream an Alicia Keys concert over tonight’s cold hard truth. Obama, the man who had fueled his base through the Internet, had been abandoned by his most fervent online boosters. And this sizable cluster was really the canton who needed to hear this speech more than anyone else. Perhaps they will be braver in the morning, when they can stomach some predawn douse of icy and abrasive water. Obama’s speech was a tremendous slur against optimism and possibility, for it invited cynicism rather than respect. This was not a delivery that could galvanize the hardscrabble American heart, for it offered only fungible realities.
Obama failed to sell the brave recruits or the American people on the reasons behind the Afghanistan surge. Lives would be lost, but for what? These unspecified threats and specious connections were the reasons why so many of us opposed Bush. Obama said that he owed us “a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service,” but remained too general on the details. His objectives involved denying al-Qaeda a safe haven, reversing the Taliban’s momentum, and denying them the ability to overthrow the government. But these goals carried distressing echoes of the administrative arrogance depicted in David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and remained doubly troubling with the assumptive hubris. For Obama was there to tell us that those seeing another Vietnam were relying upon “a false reading of history” and offered no text in return. His inference rested on the principle that Vietnam was the natural parallel, rather than the failed ten-year campaign by Russia, much less the ongoing clusterfuck in Iraq, which, in Obama’s words, was “well-known and need not be repeated here.”
Obama claimed that “this is not just America’s war,” He preferred to mimic the language of our previous President, awkwardly jutting his chin in deference to the eight-year charlatan’s cowboy tic. But it did not seem to occur to him that such arrogance — conveyed through subdued and unconvincing burlesque and a stunning failure to be even remotely real — is not how any nation builds coalitions.
This was a Powerpoint presentation delivered without the slides. Obama sweated, looking like a boxer past his prime, and didn’t seem to comprehend that human lives were in the balance. When Obama stated that “the days of providing a blank check are over,” one was speedily reminded of the no-strings-attached check handled to the rapacious thugs at Goldman Sachs and the $787 billion stimulus package that has allegedly “created or saved” 640,000 jobs (or about $248,000 spent for each job). Obama offered a timeline, but for all of his talk about “addressing these costs openly and honestly,” he was reticent to drop specific pecuniary numbers for his escalation plan. He offered yet another hollow promise to close Guantanamo Bay, but the travesty that continues to sully alleged American virtues must end with a decisive action.
When speaking about Afghanistan, Obama looked directly into the camera, as if expecting a pockmarked population to watch, and said, “We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours.” But I did not believe him. And there is no reason to expect an Afghanistan civilian to believe him. Before the speech, two of his officials had used the word “surge” in relation to these developments. And Malalai Joya, writing bravely in The Guardian, intimated that an escalation of troops is a war crime against her country. (Both links found helpfully through Glenn Greenwald.)
None of these concerns were considered. There remained the cliched faith in “workers and businesses who will rebuild our economy,” but none of this could atone for the pressing reality that more than a tenth of us are without a livelihood and nearly one fifth of African-American males are far worse off. As Obama heads on to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize, one is reminded of the 1973 Swedish hypocrisy. One begins to hear Kissinger’s duplicities in Obama’s dulcet voice.
Which leads anyone living in the waking world to conclude justly that Obama’s idealism is gone. His rhetoric is hollow. This is a dead parrot.
Alan Grayson: “Well, listen, I didn’t call names. What I said is true. The Republicans have even nothing resembling a plan. And when you don’t have a plan, what that means is your plan is ‘Don’t Get Sick.'”
Or does he? Has Rep. Paul Kanjorski ever known a day without a hot meal? Or a day in which he had to scrape together change from under the sofa to buy groceries so that he could feed his family? Has he ever fallen behind on rent? Utilities? The electric bill? You see, those are the facts that millions of Main Street Americans — many of them recently unemployed — are now living. Or is Kanjorski one of those types who believes that one cannot live in New York City on less than $500K a year? Rep. Kanjorski’s claim in the above clip — that the world economy would have collapsed within 24 hours had not guarantee money been granted to banks — is, to say the least, highly suspect and deserves careful and detailed scrutiny by economists. Like the supply-side schemes of the past, the money has not trickled down. And if the Democrats cannot produce tangible evidence that it will trickle down, then they must be called on the carpet. Assuming that the carpet does not fray up before a reasonable answer.
Robert G. Kaiser recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #264.
Robert G. Kaiser has worked at the Washington Post since 1963. He is most recently the author of So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Still waiting for the lobbyists to work out a deal with him.
Author: Robert G. Kaiser
Subjects Discussed: Obama’s first executive order, revolving door bans, Tom Daschle’s recent troubles, “exceptions in extraordinary circumstances,” candidates for office with lobbying backgrounds, Gerald Cassidy, picking a character for a Washington narrative, the birth of the lobbying firm Schlossberg-Cassidy Associates, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, Cassidy falling into second place, lobbying problems and the 1994 Republican Revolution, the K Street Project, lobbying and partisan politics, Cassidy’s lobbying style vs. Abramoff’s lobbying style, Tom DeLay, safe seats, John Lewis, Richard Lugar, Chuck Schumer, the likelihood of an equitable earmarking system, Columbia’s early lobbying efforts with the chemistry lab, peer review, attempting to sort out differing accounts concerning the Tufts Nutrition Center, Jean Meyer, Edward Bernays and why his influential essay, “The Engineering of Consent,” took a few decades to catch on in Capitol Hill, Joe McGinnis’s The Selling of the President, Roger Ailes, the abandonment of objective reality over the past 45 years, the Jim Wright ethics investigation and whether or not Cassidy was culpable in Wright’s downfall, Newt Gingrich’s rise, and the potential for a return to the comparatively virtuous pre-Nixon Congress.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You also bring up one moment in the book, where you depict Senator John Stennis — the man, of course, who wrote one of the first Senate ethics codes; in fact, the first Senate ethics code. And who had not raised more than $5,000 for all of his campaigns in the past. Now here he is up for reelection in 1982. And he needs to raise $2 million. He is now forced to accept this devil’s bargain. This leads me to wonder whether, in fact, there is even room for a Sam Rayburn type of Congressman anymore. Whether it’s even possible for someone of any ethical core to be in this deeply ingrained system. If John Stennis can’t do it, then who can?
Kaiser: Well, it’s one of my favorite stories in the book. I’m glad you noticed it. But all these things are complicated. For example, in today’s Congress, in the House, we have 435 members. Probably 200 of them — or even 220 — are in totally safe seats. That is to say, they can win reelection without campaigning at all probably. Or very minimally. And that’s because of the impact of, now, two generations of very aggressive gerrymandering. We call it redrawing of the districts and state legislatures every ten years after the census is done, in which both parties have accepted the same rule of thumb that the ideal outcome is to maximize the number of safe seats for our side and minimize them for the other side. You remember this episode in Texas, which actually lead to DeLay’s downfall, when he overplayed his hand on this subject and got the Texas legislature as soon as it was under Republican control to add four more Republican seats from Texas. Which he got away with initially. But he eventually got indicted for it. And that, I think, was the beginning of the end for DeLay.
Anyhow, there are opportunities because of these safe seats for people who don’t raise any money. And they don’t participate in the corrupt system at all. Which is an interesting footnote. It just means that a large portion of members are exempt from the usual pains and tribulations of trying to raise all this money. Not true in the Senate, where everybody is theoretically more vulnerable in a way. They all try and raise the dough.
Correspondent: But if there are so many safe seats, is it possible that there could be some sort of Sam Rayburn type in a safe seat? Someone who refuses to, of course, accept any money. Pays his own way, as Rayburn did.
Kaiser: John Lewis of Atlanta. The great leader of the civil rights movement and fascinating figure, who I know slightly. I heard him preach on Sunday before the inauguration in a black church in Washington, which I just went to by chance. I didn’t realize he was going to be preaching there. He gave a remarkable presentation. But John Lewis has a very safe seat in parts of Atlanta. He’s a revered figure. I have no idea how much he raises for his elections. I should probably check that out. But Lewis is a good example of a distinguished citizen in Congress who is not corrupted by this system, as far as I know. And there are people who build up a kind of invincible status. Richard Lugar of Indiana would be a really good example of this. Lugar: former mayor of Indianapolis, Rhodes Scholar, good citizen. Conservative Republican. Nixon Republican originally when he came to town in the 70s. Lugar wins reelection, as he did this time, by huge majorities and doesn’t have to do any bad stuff, I don’t think, to raise money. There are a number of such figures who could fulfill your definition, I think, of a Sam Rayburn-like independent man. But they are the exceptions certainly.
Tonight, while delivering a speech at a Washington hotel, Attorney General Michael Mukasey began slurring his words and lost consciousness. He collapsed and was rushed off to George Washington University Hospital. Mukasey’s Wikipedia page has been undergoing numerous revisions, with versions of the page claiming that Mukasey is dead. But there isn’t any hard or credible information to suggest that Mukasey has passed away. If there is any reliable information to report, I will update this post.
There are lies, damned lies, and exit polls. A purported connection between race and homophobia has recently made the rounds, prompting big think pieces from the likes of the Washington Post. We’ve been told that 7 out of 10 African-Americans who went to the California polls voted yes on Proposition 8 — a measure that passed on Tuesday overruling the California Supreme Court judgment that legalized same-sex marriage.
Even more amazing than this is the way this correlation is getting a free pass. The only way you can bring a demographic into election statistics is through the exit poll. But exit polls have problems. Back in 2006, Mark Blumenthal initiated a helpful series of posts summarizing some of the flaws: where the interviewer is standing in relation to the polling place, how well-trained the interviewer is, the tendency for voters who volunteer to participate upon seeing the interviewer with the clipboard, the inclination for the polls to favor Democrats in presidential election since 1988, and so forth. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that interviewing for the 2004 exit polls was “the most inaccurate of any in the past five presidential elections.” Large numbers of Republicans refused to talk with interviewers, and this, in turn, led to an inflated estimate for John Kerry. But despite these problems, exit poll faith is a bit like stubborn fabric softener sticking to a hard wonk’s argyle sweater. In a longass Rolling Stone article, even Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. believed in the gospel, suggesting that exit polling was the first indicator that the 2004 election had been stolen. Political slickster Dick Morris went further, stating that “exit polls are almost never wrong.”
Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International were the team behind the 2004 polling botch, and this dynamic duo also spearheaded this week’s California exit polling. The hard data is not yet available at the Edison/Mitofsky site. But the Associated Press has reported that 2,240 California voters (of these, 765 were absentees interviewed by landline telephone), interviewed in 30 precincts, represented the total number of people that Edison/Mitofsky interviewed. Which means that some percentage of these voters were African-American. Let’s give Edison/Mitofsky 50%. That leaves us with a mere 1,120 voters.
A quick jaunt to the California Secretary of State’s website reveals that there are 25,423 precincts in California and that 10.5 million people turned out on Tuesday. In other words, Edison/Mitofsky is making a major claim based on 0.11% (a little more than one-tenth of 1%) of the total precincts, and a sample of voters smaller than a crab louse dancing in a thorny thatch of hair. Is this really large enough? Exit polls have proved somewhat accurate in relation to simple binary choices, but I’m wondering if it all turns to bunk when it comes to correlation. Perhaps a legion of statistics experts can help explain why Edison/Mitofsky can get away with this. Because I’m tempted to view this as a strange offshoot of the Bradley effect.
Just in time for Election Day! David Rees appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #248. Rees is most recently the author of Get Your War On: The Definitive Account of the War on Terror: 2001-2008.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Struggling to cast his vote.
Author: David Rees
Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wanted to also ask about the use of white space, and often the lack of white space, with some of the panels that have this extraordinarily long rant that one of the characters is conducting versus using the clip art and shifting it to the right hard edge of the panel or the left hard edge of the panel, or what not. What is your criteria in terms of white space and filling up the panel? Is it contingent upon the words you have to deliver for any particular strip?
Rees: You probably don’t know this, but the U.S. government allots all political cartoonists a given amount of white space in a year, and a lot of budgetary issues. If you don’t use your white space in a year, you don’t get it back the following year. There’s no rollover white space.
Correspondent: Yeah, yeah, it’s the appropriations and the earmarks I’ve heard.
Rees: So you have to really challenge yourself every year to use just enough white space, so that they’ll give you more white space next year. You have to submit this form. A white space form. Form JKL-202. And you submit this form. And they will give you more white space. And so as a political cartoonist — I mean, if you’re registered with the government, which I am, which all political cartoonists are supposed to be, if you find yourself at the end of the year that you haven’t used enough white space, then you go on a big rant. So there isn’t much white space around. You know what I mean?
Correspondent: Sure. Sure.
Rees: Because you don’t want to go over your limit immediately. Because you’ll be penalized.
Correspondent: But with all the “fucks” within the rant, that can be very problematic. I know you’ve gotten into trouble based off of that. Because of the specific requirements of this act.
Rees: Right. You’re referring to the Left Wing Political Cartoonists Profanity Allotment Act of 2003?
Correspondent: Yeah, yeah, I am. The number of “fucks” are quite frenetic. Exactly.
Rees: Well, I trade on the gray market. I trade — you know, cap and trade with carbon emissions? They set up the same thing for cartoonists, where you get a given amount of profanity. Fuck, goddam, asshole, shit, cocksucker, bitch, all that stuff. And then if you want to use more, you buy a set on the International Profanity Market. You buy a certain amount from other cartoonists.
Correspondent: They come in 200 units, I think.
Rees: Right. Well, it’s 200 syllables. You don’t actually buy the profanity by the word. You buy it by the syllable. So “motherfucker” is four syllables. You can use those four syllables to deploy one “motherfucker” or four “asses.” So I usually just buy them from cartoonists like Bil Keane, who does The Family Circus. He never uses his allotment. In a year, he never says “fuck” in The Family Circus more than ten times. So I will buy him out usually at the beginning of the year, so that I have enough to get me through a season.
The New York voting machine is a wonderfully antediluvian monstrosity. It consists of a giant and sprawling white board depicting all known candidates for all open offices — divided in tabular form by party, including the Socialist Workers Party — with a gigantic red lever that, upon sliding quite powerfully to the left, makes you feel as if you’ve put in an order from an Automat menu. Alas, I did not receive a days-old sandwich in a triangular plastic carton. But I was offered a donut. I’ve never been offered a donut while standing in line to vote. So this was certainly a plus.
I informed a chatty but amicable gentleman behind me that there was free ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s and free coffee at Starbuck’s. He thought I wasn’t serious. I told him that I was very serious, and that I was known to temporarily change my dietary habits on Election Day. I told him that I was prone to screaming at 2 AM in the streets while the results came in. Yes, I said, I am a very serious voter. So serious that I will drink the blood of a rat if it will give me extra energy to vote.
He tried to tell me who he was going to vote for, and I told him that this was unethical and that I would make a citizen’s arrest if he continued. He concealed his partisan button and insinuated that he was wearing underwear that included the name of his candidate. I told him that I approved of his right to run around the streets of New York wearing underwear, or indeed nothing at all. We should all experience the fantastic sensation of a gust of wind drifting up our ass crack. But I would still make a citizen’s arrest if he was wearing political underwear within 100 feet of the polling place. He told me that this wouldn’t be a problem, and we then carried on a conversation about the typography of the Dunkin Donuts logo.
I did manage to place my vote. On the way out, I asked one of the election workers if she required a tip. She pointed me to the exit door and told me to get out — thus cementing in my mind the idea of the polling place as a harried diner. I feel very happy about my decision, but I’m still wondering if I should go back to the polling place and ask for a sandwich.
I’m quite happy that I voted. But I am finding that I am experiencing severe proposition withdrawal. You see, back in California, I was accustomed to a considerable number of local and state propositions on the ballot: anywhere from twenty to fifty. If you couldn’t get another person to agree on a candidate, you could always find some middle ground through one of the crazy props. But in New York, I only had one proposition to vote for: a middling measure on veterans benefits. There was nothing on the ballot for gay rights, nothing that involved naming a sewage treatment plant after George Bush. Presumably, either current government policy or the lack of space on the voting machine’s big board hinders numerous proposition options from presenting themselves to the public. I had not anticipated the sacrifice of my propositions upon moving to New York. I don’t know if there’s much I can do to make up for the missing propositions other than to make impassioned pleas at government meetings.
But I did research all the candidates. And I did vote. Barring a major scandal or the almost total capitulation of the public’s senses, the man I voted for will likely be our next President.
The time has come to drink and wait it all out. This will be something of a nailbiter.
Recently, I received an email from Colleen Mondor in relation to Blog the Vote, an effort to collect various ruminations from bloggers and writers regarding Tuesday. Colleen has urged me to be “non-partisan.” But being non-partisan about this subject is a bit like sitting in one of those antediluvian non-smoking sections in a restaurant (back when restaurants still allowed smoking). You can sit in a seemingly pristine booth all you want, but the smoke will drift over from the smoking section. It will still get in your hair and clothes, and possibly influence your conversation.
First and foremost, I should point out that I plan to spend Tuesday night with others drinking a considerable amount of alcohol, screaming at the television like a reality show addict waiting for the right people to be kicked off the island, bringing a copy of Gregory Corso’s “Bomb” to recite (just in case), sobbing on sundry shoulders if certain California propositions aren’t defeated, laughing maniacally at all the deserving bastards who go down, and worrying very much about the fate of this nation. (I have decided to not spend Monday worrying, as this is probably better for my blood pressure.) This seems the American thing to do, as no other presidential race in my lifetime has been this important.
And no other presidential race in my lifetime has required such a gonzo approach. Given these circumstances, I do not think clinging to a laptop is a good idea. And I think that I may likewise employ the cautionary measure of disabling my ability to Twitter from my cell phone. (Not that I use the cell much anyway. I have discovered that very often the cell is dead, and that it has been this way for days.) I’ve made these decisions not for my protection, but for yours. The last thing the Internet needs is another jittery crank writing deranged rants in real time. But what the Internet does need, as Colleen rightly points out, are reasons to vote. (Some additional suggestions: I would advise not voting and drinking, given the unreliability of some of the machines. I would also advise not drinking as you are determining who to vote for, as you may begin confusing candidates and regretting who you vote for. I would advise drinking after you vote, no matter when the hour. But gather with friends. Don’t be alone. This is not a night to be alone.)
Let us put such trivial matters as this nation’s trajectory over the next thirty years under one of two administrations, and look upon the situation from a purely mercenary standpoint. On Tuesday, Ben & Jerry’s is offering free ice cream. My neighborhood cafe is serving free coffee to those who’ve voted. Starbuck’s is doing something similar. I’ve even heard of delis offering free heroes. I never expected so many freebies. It’s better than cutting coupons in the Sunday newspaper. Alas, it’s also better than the number of specials you can claim on your birthday. And I feel tremendously sorry for anyone in the position of blowing out cake candles on Tuesday. It’s a bit like having a birthday on Xmas, and having to endure all the assholes who give you a present for both Xmas and your birthday. For those who aren’t celebrating a birthday on November 5, you have everything to gain. But should you have a Scorpio friend in this predicament, do try and allocate some of the perks to your Scorpio friends. That way, they’ll have an added incentive to vote. Also, invite them to your election parties, and offer an option to celebrate their birthdays on a different day.
Here’s where I start to get slightly partisan. I do worry tremendously about the stunning and uncritical pass that the Man With Hope (as opposed to the Man from Hope; let us not forget that hope has been in political vogue now for nearly two decades) is getting from his supporters. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, David Sedaris wrote about the undecided voter, with a hypothetical flight attendant asking, “Can I interest you in the chicken? Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?” This is, I think, regrettable reductionism. So let’s take it further, because suggesting that the American political system is broken has become strangely unfashionable.
Is not just about any politician a platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it? Has there ever been a politician in the past sixty years that’s been anywhere nearly as good as Sam Rayburn? (Rayburn, among other things, set up the SEC, the FCC, and traveled only on his own dime. He didn’t take money. He didn’t cater to special interests. He told everybody that he was not for sale. Perhaps he was the last politician who could get away with this.)
I point this out not to flaunt cynicism, but to point out that Beltway politics is an environment in which the participants are spending much of their time bending over and confusing an act of submission with compromise. I point this out because it is the successful politician’s job to look as good as he can before the cameras.
Why then would anyone want to vote given these realities? Well, because, change happens gradually over time. And if change is slow on the national level, then it is certainly swift on the state and local levels. I may be a realist, but I’m also an optimist. Nevertheless, it remains your responsibility not only to consider the candidate who best serves your position, but to likewise question the candidate you’re voting for. If you are voting for your candidate out of blind faith, almost exclusively out of “hope” or “country first,” then take the time to really think about why you’re really voting for an advertising slogan. Take the time to understand just what your candidate will do well, and what your candidate will not do well. The point here is not to find an ideal candidate, but to find the right candidate for the position. The best-suited candidate for the job. Warts and all. The guy who will fill the slot in best.
If, after months of all this, you still haven’t figured it out, then what you need to do is go to your most intelligent friend and ask her how to vote. You really need to do this, particularly if you live in Ohio or one of the swing states. Let your friend make all the decisions, vote for all the local measures, and, above all, select the presidential candidate. Then you’re off the hook. And you can still enjoy all the ice cream.
The important thing to consider here is that everyone can vote, but not everyone can vote with a clear head. It’s important that you don’t blow this. It’s important to think everything out in the time you have available. It’s important to make calls or look things up if you don’t quite understand something. It’s important not to let anyone get in the way of a decision you’ve made by thinking everything out. And it’s damn important to be flexible enough to change your mind at the last minute. That’s what a good thinker does. And you’re a good thinker. So go to the polls tomorrow and think! Then you can tell everyone you’ve really voted, and you can enjoy your ice cream without ideological consequence.
Markos Moulitsas appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #236. He is most recently the author of Taking on the System.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Refusing to cut and run from Kenny Loggins and company.
Author: Markos Moulitsas
Subjects Discussed: Speculation on the effectiveness of protests, influencing the gatekeepers, Amy Goodman and other journalists arrested in St. Paul, small-time bloggers, Cindy Sheehan, “Free Mumia” promoters and promoting a message of unity, isolating activist sectors, Peter Dauo’s triangle of influence, Vietnam, whether or not Daily Kos has become a gatekeeper, getting media attention, Sheehan’s run as an independent candidate against Nancy Pelosi, Kucinich and the impeachment option, Ned Lamont vs. Sheehan, political narrative, the aborted Democratic presidential debate on FOX News vs. Obama’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, Sarah Palin, getting through to the other side, Moulitsas’s conclusions about FOX News viewers*, spreading misinformation and conjecture vs. open source journalism, why Moulitsas hasn’t employed a fact checker for Daily Kos, whether Moulitsas considers himself a journalist, and doing anything to win for politics.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wanted to actually ask you about your site. I mean, the Daily Kos was responsible for spreading the rumor that Sarah Palin’s son, Trig, was her daughter’s son. Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post actually asked you about this. And you said to him, “Our people are doing the vetting. Even if some of it is hitting dead ends, other ones are striking direct hits. My role is to sit back and let the citizen journalists do their job, and I amplify the stuff that shakes out.”
But I’m wondering, if this is misinformation or conjecture, what is this doing to increase the level of political discourse? Or to even help the credibility of Daily Kos? I mean, aren’t you essentially doing the exact same thing as the people who looked to Al Gore and said, “Oh, he invented the Internet.” Even though, as you pointed out in your book, well, it was intended as a joke. It was completely misconstrued. I mean, what of this? I know you have an engineer who you’ve hired. Why not hire a fact checker? Why not try to get it right? Why not actually go ahead and push the levels of reason higher than the mainstream newspapers who sometimes get things wrong?
Moulitsas: So you’re talking about me becoming the ultimate gatekeeper online by stifling anything that hasn’t been vetted by the great and mighty Kos. It is open source. It is a community. People are talking. They’re having a chat. It’s like the corner of — it’s like a sports bar. People get together and they talk about things. And, yeah, some of them are — some misinformation happens. But as a whole, the community shakes things out. This guy, who wrote the one diary, which is now infamous, right?
Moulitsas: Eventually he took it down. Because enough people at Daily Kos pointed out the flaws in the argument. And so the community was self-policing and finally realized, okay, this was a dead end. Now, of course, there was a lot of irregularities about that pregnancy that still are pretty much unexplained. I don’t think they’re explained by the original theory. But there’s some weird stuff. I mean, you don’t have your water break and then you wait ten hours to go the hospital. Because you give a speech and you go on a commercial flight to Seattle, and sit around, and take a commercial flight to Anchorage, and take a one hour drive to your hometown, and then have a baby when your water breaks. Especially a special needs child. Like Trig was. But that said, it’s her choice to make those decisions. You know, I’m a progressive. I’m assuming a doctor said it was okay for her to do that. You know, it’s between her and her doctor.
I am not Sarah Palin. I’m not trying to inject my morality into the public space. But there are some weird things that led people to ask questions. I think that’s perfectly natural. And they led to the reality that Bristol was pregnant. Which normally wouldn’t be relevant. Except that her mother (1) is a fierce opponent of sex education, is all about abstinence-only, and (2) she vetoed funding for a halfway home for pregnant teenagers. Right? So it actually matters when you legislate morality how that will affect your family life. I mean, the hypocrisy and everything else that’s attached to it.
Now that said, there’s also a great deal of investigative stuff that came out of Daily Kos that is now part and parcel of the confirmed background of Sarah Palin. Like her association with the Alaska Independence Party. The separatists.
Correspondent: Sure. But I’m talking about this misinformation here. I mean…
Moulitsas: Well, it’s all…
Correspondent: People are going to catch wind of this early part and then they’re going to look to you and say, “Well, I don’t know about Daily Kos. Sometimes, they get it right. Sometimes, they get it wrong. And I have to constantly fact check on top of this.”
Moulitsas: No, no, no. Good. I want people to look at media with a skeptical eye. Are you kidding me? If people did that, would we have rushed to war in Iraq so quickly? If people didn’t just blindly trust Judith Miller in the New York Times reporting?
Correspondent: Even at the expense of your own credibility?
Moulitsas: It’s not. The question isn’t credibility. Not my own. I didn’t write the stuff. Daily Kos people. I mean, this author’s credibility might be impacted. I don’t know. I didn’t write that stuff.
Correspondent: But the fact of the matter is that “dailykos.com” is in the link.
* Note: The specific report that Moulitsas may be referring to is this 2003 PIPA study which pointed out that FOX News watchers more most misperceptions than those who watched other networks. But there is a significant difference between FOX News watchers experiencing misperceptions and Moulitsas claiming that this audience is “the most reliable Republican constituency in the Republican party.” [sic]
The Washington Post is reporting that Democracy Now! radio host Amy Goodman was arrested in St. Paul after inquiring with the police over the arrest of two Democracy Now! producers Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar. Goodman and her producers were in St. Paul to report on the Republican National Convention. Goodman was held in custody for three hours, and Goodman has claimed the Secret Service ripped off her press credentials to get on the floor of the Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, the two producers are still being held in custody. (An audio file of the arrest can be found here. In addition, The Uptake has a camera view from another angle.)
Also arrested (in a separate incident) was Associated Press photographer Matt Rourke. While the charges against Goodman, Kouddous, and Salazar are uncertain, Rourke was charged with a gross misdemeanor riot charge.
Glenn Greenwald has more, writing:
Beginning last night, St. Paul was the most militarized I have ever seen an American city be, even more so than Manhattan in the week of 9/11 — with troops of federal, state and local law enforcement agents marching around with riot gear, machine guns, and tear gas cannisters, shouting military chants and marching in military formations. Humvees and law enforcement officers with rifles were posted on various buildings and balconies. Numerous protesters and observers were tear gassed and injured.
Let us be clear on this. This goes well beyond Josh Wolf refusing to turn over evidence. Journalists who had the decency and the effrontery to ask hardball questions were prevented from conducting their work. None of these people were causing a riot. They were in St. Paul doing their jobs. They were there talking to people and reporting the news. Their collective right to be there, which was confirmed by their press credentials, is protected by the First Amendment. If the St. Paul Police Department does not come clean with details and specific allegations, then it is up to the American public to ensure that the police who arrested these journalists are levied with the appropriate penalties.
[UPDATE: Democracy Now has issued a press release indicating that Kouddous and Salazar have been released. Goodman was charged with obstruction. According to the press release, Kouddous and Salazar were charged with felony riot charges.]