Donald Trump is a Filthy Animal Who Must Be Impeached

It is now impossible to ignore the facts. We live with a corrupt and incompetent and highly dangerous monster who is causing great and unfathomable harm to this country, a dark Lovecraftian creature who has not made this country “great again,” but who has, in fact, made us the laughing stock of the world. This is a rapacious tyrant who openly ridicules the weak and the infirm, sustaining a callous and anti-intellectual streak that not even Richard Hofstadter could have foreseen originating within the Executive Branch. Only 39% of Americans approve of keeping this traitorous train wreck of a leader in office, and one ponders exactly what sterling qualities this minority sees within such a walking piece of offal. Is there some virtue in believing in a bedraggled oaf who cannot sustain a single thought for longer than twenty seconds? Or who cannot read any vital memo longer than a page? Or who openly invites white supremacists and hatemongers into his Cabinet?

But for most Americans, Donald Trump remains the rightly despised cancer, a disgusting fecal morsel that you can never seem to flush down the toilet, a tenth-rate Napoleon who openly resists any reasonable probing into his wanton business dealings and his possible collusion with Russia. He is an illiterate and indolent tax dodger incapable of exercising his mind or his body, yet he amazingly wants you to osculate his liver-spotted and hateful backside. He is surely one of the most oversensitive and graceless world leaders in human history. And now with his repulsively misogynist tweets to Mika Brzezinski, it is safe to say that Donald Trump is an unhinged megalomaniac incapable of practicing the basic duties of dignity that the office requires and who must now be taken out by impeachment. If our two houses lack the courage or the effrontery to do this, then we must lead a campaign to replace any Senator or Representative standing in the way of preserving American’s future in next year’s midterm elections.

This disheveled animal has proven himself unfit to be called President of the United States, much less President of the Alfalfa Club or the self-appointed bipolar king of a psychiatric ward, with his lack of discretion with state secrets, his disastrous meetings with other world leaders, and his openly racist travel ban on innocent Americans. This repulsive beast is not a man, but a mentally unbalanced rapist whose true hues blind the public whenever he is even vaguely challenged. He is a savage and abhorrent mongrel who has caused reading the headlines to become an act of embracing shellshock and chronic fatigue. He is a bully whose pathetic cries for attention, which range from the fake Time Magazine covers that have adorned his clubs and his chronic insistence for sycophantic obeisance, must now be pissed on, ridiculed, openly mocked, and resisted with every principled fiber that this country still has left. The inevitable demise of this feral manboy, who sustains a remarkable vulgarity at seventy-one years that outshines even someone suffering with Tourette’s syndrome, will surely be cause to pop open the champagne. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to attend Trump’s ineluctable funeral just to kick Trump’s mangy and bloated corpse further into the dirt to ensure that the evil bastard is indeed dead and that he will not harm the country for another second.

So what do we do to stop him? It begins with the amoral Jack Dorsey, the Twitter CEO who is surely one of the most spineless profiteers in recent American history and the man who created this mess by failing to curtail this despicable demagogue’s rise through trolling and harassment during last year’s election, displaying some stones for once in his sad, passive, hell-ravaging life. Dorsey must perform his patriotic duty by suspending Our Fearless Leader’s account for regularly violating Twitter’s policy against harassment and abuse. Dorsey banned the hateful Milo Yiannopoulos and has suspended many alt-right accounts. Since presidential precedent has been so thoroughly eroded, this is a reasonable measure.

It continues with Republicans uniting with Democrats to reject this faux statesman’s stature, as Senators Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse did this morning, by demanding the largest binpartisan investigation imaginable, one that rivals Watergate and Iran-Contra in scope, given the many unanswered questions and Trump’s increasingly secretive affairs. If Republicans can vehemently demonstrate with their actions that they understand Trump is an aberration and potentially a bigger fraud than Rutherford Hayes was in the disputed 1876 election or even the hanging chads when Bush represented the comparatively saner interloper, then we might see some small restoration of representative democracy. All one needs to do is to regularly call their offices and remind these legislators that they will inevitably have to run for re-election, and to not stop doing this. This must be accompanied by active and regular protest.

But most importantly, America must stop calling Donald Trump its President of the United States until he has earned the right to that title. Thus far, Trump’s greatest achievement has involved uniting an increasing majority of Americans against him. He has accomplished nothing especially remarkable in policy or achievement, save the hard-won confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court Justice, our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord, and a series of internal firings that has rivaled Nixon in speed and scope. He has intimidated FBI directors, besmirched London’s first Muslim mayor, shared classified information where he should not have, demonstrated an inability to perform basic arithmetic in his proposed budget, and used Twitter to destroy our alliances. This is a man who neither comprehends nor cares for the way politics operates. Trump has had six months to establish a doctrine, but it essentially involves throwing a random dart into the Seven Circles of Hell and seeing what lands.

When a pestilent rodent invades your property, you don’t let it scuttle around for eternity. The time has come to call the exterminator on Donald Trump. This man is incompetent. He must not be respected. He must be resisted. He must be acknowledged as poisonous vermin eating the walls of this democratic republic. He must be impeached by any means necessary.

Trump Will Never Be a Normal President

Last night’s State of the Union speech was a masterstroke of psychological warfare against the American public. Donald Trump lightened his bellicosity after forty days of unbridled and imperious madness, speaking in a notably softer tone remarked upon by nearly every media outlet. Even when he had little to do with their laudable triumphs, Trump pointed to the frail and the weak, including Megan Crowley, who was diagnosed with Pompe disease at the age of fifteen months, and used this as a way to assail the Food and Drug Administration for its “slow and burdensome approval process.” (Never mind that the FDA approved Lumizyme in 2014 for Pompe patients.)

Instead of taking responsibility for his brash and reckless handling of the botched Navy SEAL mission in Yemen, which resulted in the needless death of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, Trump manipulated the hoi polloi by having Owens’s widow stand up and weep before the crowd, exonerating himself by claiming that a raid currently being investigated by the Pentagon for malfeasance, had been a success because a general had declared it so. A cult leader typically earns trust from his followers by modulating his fiery bluster so that any subsequent quiet words appear sane by comparison. He offers testimonials rather than facts, phony comforts instead of genuinely inclusive commitment he can back up. Trump’s address before the joint session was the subtle and deadly act of a dangerous and incorrigible demagogue, a gesture that proved so emotionally potent that progressive commentator Van Jones committed an unfathomable act of spineless treachery on live television, stating, “That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period.”

That Jones bought so easily into the cheap lie of national unity with such an astonishing declaration of hyperbole says much about where we now are as a nation and why partisan hacks need to tell the truth right now or lose their jobs. The manic energy of Trump’s near bipolar tweets, his Islamophobia and his callous war on non-criminial immigrants, his crazed inventions about “illegal voters” and terrorist plots in Sweden, and his colossal diplomatic missteps, to say nothing of his criminal appointments and his Cabinet’s likely collusion with Russia, is enough for any sane human being to curl under the blanket for the next four years or, heaven forfend, the next eight. It has created a landscape of fatigue where normalcy is an elixir, an ideal whereby opposing parties can again, theoretically at least, reach across the aisle and broker compromises. It accounts for former President George W. Bush, hardly a paragon of liberalism, being lionized for his anti-Trump remarks in a television interview. And it also accounts for why the Democratic Party, which has become a gutless and ineffective husk that no longer represents its progressive origins, opted for softball chair Tom Perez instead of the restorative brimstone that might have been consummated under Keith Ellison.

Trump is not, and never will be, a normal President. And as such, it is our duty to continue resisting this poisonous cancer in all forms, even when the regular acts of protest exhaust us. A putative leader who speaks in dulcet tones, wherever he may come from, must ultimately be judged by his policies, his ideas, and the full range of facts, not how he appears on camera. Previous Presidents have lied to us, but Trump’s fuzzy relationship with the truth is an unprecedented pox upon the marketplace of ideas. Trump’s failure to countenance objective facts or other perspectives is, if anything, an approach which creates national division rather than unity. As Hannah Arendt once observed:

Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character. It is therefore hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize, and it enjoys a rather precarious status in the eyes of governments that rest on consent and abhor coercion. Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them — all exchanges of opinion based on correct information — will contribute nothing to their establishment. Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies. The trouble is that factual truth, like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life. The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering: they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking. Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them….The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion.

Trump has demonstrated, more than any other President, that he does not possess this “enlarged mentality” of considering all standpoints. He bans media outlets that he does not agree with. He refuses to face the White House Correspondents at their yearly dinner. He fires acting Attorney General Sally Yates for acting upon the law. This is tyrannical fascism rather than the promise of a democratic republic. It is contrary to every known act of politics. Those who normalize this or who remain silent or who soft-peddle their stances and inquiries in this highly volatile time are a direct threat to the future of the United States. We must always remember that Trump is not normal and we must regularly protest him until we have some government that is close to normal.

The American Political Tradition (Modern Library Nonfiction #93)

(This is the eighth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Contours of American History.)

mlnf93Before he became famous for delineating “the paranoid style in American politics” and honing every principled bone against the feverish anti-intellectualism one now sees embodied in everything from long-standing philistine Dan Kois decrying “eating his cultural vegetables” to lunatic presidential candidate Ted Cruz declaring gluten-free meals as a politically correct “social experiment,” historian Richard Hofstadter spent four years on a fiercely independent book that would go on to sell close to a million copies. The American Political Tradition was a Plutarchian overview of illustrious American figures ranging from vivacious abolitionist Wendell Phillips to Woodrow Wilson as closeted conservative. It was aimed at winning over a high-minded American public. Like William Appleman Williams, Hofstadter was very much following in Charles Beard’s footsteps, although this historian hoped to march to his own interpretive drum. Reacting to the toxic McCarthyism at the time, Hofstadter’s cautious defense of old school American liberalism, with the reluctant bulwark hoisted as he poked holes into the foibles of celebrated icons, saddled him with the label of “consensus historian.” With each subsequent volume (most notably The Age of Reform), Hofstadter drifted further away from anything close to a scorching critique of our Founders as hardliners enforcing their economic interests to a more vociferous denouncement of agrarian Populists and numbnuts standing in the way of erudite democratic promise. Yet even as he turned more conservative in later years, Hofstadter insisted that his “assertion of consensus history in 1948 had its sources in the Marxism of the 1930s.”

Such adamantine labels really aren’t fair to Hofstadter’s achievements in The American Political Tradition. The book is by no means perfect, but its Leatherman Wave-like dissection of American history unfolds with some sharp and handy blades. While Hofstadter is strangely reluctant to out Andrew Jackson as a demagogue (“He became a favorite of the people, and might easily come to believe that the people chose well.”) and far too pardonable towards John C. Calhoun, a rigid bloviator with a harsh voice who was one of slavery’s biggest cheerleaders and whose absolutist stance against tariffs under the guise of moderatism would later inspire the South to consider secession as a legitimate nuclear option1, Hofstadter at his best slices with a necessary critical force into many hallowed patriarchs. For it is the sum of their variegated and contradictory parts that has caused some to view the American trajectory in Manichean terms.

One of the book’s standout chapters is Hofstadter’s shrewd analysis of Lincoln as an exceptionally formidable man who dialed down his egalitarian ardor to zero the meter for his shrewd and very rapid political rise. In just four years, Lincoln advanced from an obscure attorney in Illinois to a prominent party leader in that same state’s House of Representatives. But Hofstadter cogently argues that Lincoln was far from the outspoken abolitionist who would later lay down some very strong words against those who would deny other people freedom. Lincoln not only kept his enemies closer than his friends, but he was exceptionally careful with his rhetoric, even though one eye-popping 1836 declaration proposed extending suffrage to women.2 Much as Franklin D. Roosevelt was very savvy about letting his political opponents make the first move before he acted, Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence’s very text as ammunition and inspiration for his justification for abolition, which come much later — Lincoln’s first public condemnation of slavery arrived when Lincoln was forty-five — than Lincoln’s many admirers are often willing to admit.

Hofstadter points out that Lincoln’s seeming contradiction between revolutionary politics and pragmatic interpretation of the law was not especially peculiar, but part of a nuts-and-bolts perpetuation of an ongoing political tradition, one that can be seen with Lincoln’s hard maneuvering with the 1851 conditional loan he issued to his stepbrother John D. Johnson. Lincoln’s famous House Divided speech was masterful rhetoric urging national reconciliation of the slavery issue, but he didn’t exactly go out of his way to out himself as an abolitionist. Hofstadter points out that in 1858, seemingly Honest Abe spoke in two entirely different manners about racial equality in Chicago and in Charleston (see the second paragraph of his first speech). Yet these observations not only illustrate Lincoln’s political genius, but invite parallels to Lyndon Johnson’s brilliant and equally contradictory engineering in passing the 1957 Civil Rights Act (perhaps best chronicled in a gripping 100 page section of Robert A. Caro’s excellent Master of the Senate). The American political tradition, which Hofstadter identifies as a continuity with capitalist democratic principles, is seen today with Hillary Clinton struggling against a young population hungry for progressive change unlikely to happen overnight, despite Bernie Sanders’s valiant plans and the immediate need to rectify corporate America’s viselike hold on the very democratic principles that have sustained this nation for more than two hundred years.

Yet this is the same tradition that has given us long years without a stabilizing central bank, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, the Credit Mobilier scandal, robber barons, and Hoover’s unshakable faith that “prosperity was just around the corner,” among many other disgraces. Hofstadter is thankfully not above condemning lasseiz-faire absolutism, such as Grover Cleveland’s unrealistic assumption that “things must work out smoothly without government action, or the whole system, coherent enough in theory, would fall from the weakness of its premises” or the free silver campaign that buttressed the bombastic William Jennings Bryan into an improbable presidential candidate. On Bryan, Hofstadter describes his intellectual acumen as “a boy who never left home” and one can see some of Bryan’s regrettable legacy in the red-faced fulminations of a certain overgrown boy who currently pledges to make America great again. A careless and clumsy figure like Bryan was the very antithesis of Lincoln. Bryan failed to see difficult political tasks through to their necessary end. He would adopt principles that he once decried. His well-meaning efforts amounted to practically nothing. Think of Bryan as Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard to Lincoln’s Joe Girard. Hofstadter suggests that “steadfast and self-confident intelligence,” perhaps more important than courage and sincerity, was the very quality that Bryan and this nation so desperately needed. Yet in writing about Teddy Roosevelt and pointing to the frequency of “manly” and “masterful” in his prose, Hofstadter imputes that these “more perfect” personal qualities for the political tradition “easily became transformed into the imperial impulse.”

This is, at times, a very grumpy book. One almost bemoans the missed opportunity to enlist the late Andy Rooney to read aloud the audio version. But it is not without its optimism. Hofstadter places most of his faith in abolitionist agitator Wendell Phillips. But even after defending Phillips from numerous historical condemnations and pointing to Phillips’s “higher level of intellectual self-awareness,” Hofstadter sees the agitator as merely “the counterweight to sloth and indifference.” But Hofstadter, at this young stage of his career, isn’t quite willing to write off agitators. He does point to why Phillips was a necessary and influential force providing equilibrium:

But when a social crisis or revolutionary period at last matures, the sharp distinctions that govern the logical and doctrinaire mind of the agitator become at one with the realities, and he appears overnight to the people as a plausible and forceful thinker. The man who has maintained that all history is the history of class struggles and has appeared so wide of the mark in times of class collaboration may become a powerful leader when society is seething with unresolved class conflict; the man who has been valiantly demanding the abolition of slavery for thirty years may become a vital figure when emancipation makes its appearance as a burning issue of practical politics. Such was the experience of Wendell Phillips: although he never held office, he became one of the most influential Americans during the few years after the fall of Fort Sumter.

thealternativefactorThe question of whether you believe Hofstadter to be a consensus historian or not may depend on how much you believe that he viewed the American political tradition much like two Lazaruses forever duking it out for existence in the old Star Trek episode “The Alternative Factor.” He certainly sees a nation of political pragmatists and obdurate agitators caught in an eternal dead lock, which is not too far from the progressive historians who styled their interpretations on class conflict. But his fine eye for ferreting out the Burkean undertow within Woodrow Wilson’s putative liberalism or exposing how Hoover’s faith in unregulated business had him quivering with disbelief after Black Thursday suggests a historian who is interested in countering ideological bromides. Perhaps if Hofstadter had stretched some of his chapters across a massive book, his reputation as a consensus historian wouldn’t have been the subject of so many heated arguments among political wonks.

Fortunately, the next Modern Library essay in this series will investigate how one man fluctuated his politics to serve his own ends and reshaped a major metropolis through the iron will of his personality. That very long and very great book may be the key that turns the consensus lock. It will certainly tell us a lot more about political power.

Next Up: Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker!

The Contours of American History (Modern Library Nonfiction #94)

(This is the seventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Promise of American Life.)

mlnf94

History is never the thrilling Zapcat powerboat ride it can and should be when we remain committed to oaring through the same exhausted legends about American exceptionalism and bogus democratic promise. Much as we may find new insights into human existence by tilting our canoes to the ripples contained within a storyteller’s cadences, so too may we discover more complete ways of contending with our historical contradictions through the viewpoint of a responsible revisionist armed with the facts and rejecting the hard establishment line.

The revisionist historian, that charming and sometimes infuriating rabble-rouser never to be confused with some creepy Holocaust denier flailing in a sea of empty Cheetos bags and crackpot pamphlets, often gets needlessly maligned in America. Before Annette Gordon-Reed offered conclusive evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings (upheld by a 1998 DNA test), Fawn Brodie was attacked by vanilla-minded legacy holders two decades before for pushing beyond James Callender’s tawdry trolling, daring to suggest that there was good reason to believe that our much heralded champion of the rights of man had skeletons in his closet that were vital to understanding his philosophy. Brodie’s book, despite its psychobiographical failings, led to a reckoning with our myths and assumptions about the Sage of Monticello, one that continues to this very day with college students demanding the removal of Jefferson statues on campuses.

Provided that their efforts do not involve going out of their way to Bowlderize troubling if incontrovertible parts of the story and the results are as expansive and as rigorous as their more timorous mainstream counterparts, revisionists are often vital reconcilers of the public record. It is the facile propagandist who ignores Rosa Parks’s radicalism to paint a roseate image of a meek and tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus (“small,” “delicate,” and “little,” as belittled by Bill Clinton in 2005) or who upholds the lie that Abner Doubleday created baseball.

In recent decades, many young students have ardently clutched their copies of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States with the taut adamantine grip of a Fallout 4 junkie reluctant to capitulate her controller. Zinn’s thoughtful volume has been vehemently denounced by some establishment historians who have questioned the perceived polemical emphasis of class conflict at the expense of other issues. But before Zinn, there was William Appleman Williams, a brash energetic troublemaker who was arguably a more rigorous scholar than Zinn and who was among the best and the boldest of the firebrand 20th century historians who emerged from a Charles Beard afterglow with ass to kick once the bubble gum supply ran out.

William Appleman Williams unpacked the economic motivations of American expansion and foreign policy in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and broadened this scholarship further with The Contours of American History, a punchy volume examining how imperialism and liberalism became a sordid double stitch intertwined in the American quilt well before the Sons of Liberty spilled massive chests of desperately offloaded tea into Boston Habor. Yet Williams’s often nimble analysis, riddled as it sometimes is with conceptual overreach, robustly articulates the ever-changing and contradictory American Weltanschauung that has motivated nearly every governmental decision since. He documents a worldview that started off with the relatively benign goal of creating and sustaining an economic nation that provided for everyone, but devolved under the autocratic yoke of Jacksonian democracy and Gilded Age greed to the corporate capitalist nightmare we are all trying to awake from today. And because Williams’s challenge to the so-called “American experiment” was so unprecedented in the mid-20th century, this historian was tarnished, besmirched, and condemned by other putative progressives who might have enlarged their rigid notions of national identity if they had been more willing to dive into the subtle words and actions directing the unshakable financial impetus.

Williams was harassed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, that despicably despotic body that ruined the lives of so many, with a demand to produce the unfinished Contours manuscript. The HUAC would order Williams to testify in Washington and then cancel the appearance by telegram once he’d hopped on a train to the Beltway. Even after he testified for ten minutes and the HUAC abandoned its witch hunt, the IRS harassed him in various forms for nearly twenty years. Williams was hounded by the neoliberalism critic Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., who dutifully condemned Williams as “pro-communist” to the American Historical Association’s president. Even as late as 2009, an academic called Williams an “idiot” before a Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations panel, decrying Williams’s approach to history as a crude retooling of Charles Beard’s infamous assault upon our Founding Fathers’s pecuniary predispositions.1

But Williams was far from a typical progressive. He was a registered Republican when he first came to Wisconsin. He voted for Nixon as the lesser evil in 1960. And even in Contours, he defended Herbert Hoover’s hands-off Depression era policies, seeing this as a necessary tactic to forestall property holders from creating a business-friendly fascism that could have had a more diabolical effect on our clime than the many Hoovervilles that had mushroomed across the nation. Williams argued that Hoover’s perceived failure to do anything represented a more active resistance against special interests than the Progressive Movement was willing to acknowledge or act upon at the time. And that’s the way this jazz-loving Midwestern historian rolled. As Williams was to write in a 1973 essay, the revisionist’s duty was to “see basic facts in a different way and as interconnected in new relationships. He is a sister and a brother to those who use old steel to make a zipper, as contrasted with those who add new elements to make a better steel.”

In my previous Modern Library essay, I castigated Herbert Croly for the historical developments that he could not see ahead of him, for erring too much in his perfervid belief in a central government and for diminishing the justifiable grievances of protesters. William Appleman Williams may very well represent the opposite problem: a historian who could see the implications of any action all too well, one who was willing to articulate any interpretation of the facts even if it meant being alienated by the jingoistic minds who needed to reconsider the other fateful historical trajectories upholding the status quo.

Williams’s highly specific examples very much allow him to sell us on his interpretation. In Tragedy, for example, Williams’s deductive prowess is in high gear when he examines how Woodrow Wilson’s March 1913 decision to refuse a government loan to China, one long coveted by American industrialists at the time (and later attempted privately), actually fell within the framework of the Open Door Policy. Many historians have interpreted Wilson’s pushback as a betrayal of American expansionism at the time, but Williams points to the lack of private capital available to fulfill the job as well as the possibility that any governmental loan, even one secured with the help of other financiers, may have been perceived as a very clear threat to neighboring Japan. The Open Door Policy, for all of its flaws and its needless sullying of China, was intended to provide a peacefully imperialist framework for a burgeoning American empire: a GATT or IMF before its time, though regrettably without much in the way of homegrown protest. (Rebellion would come later in Beijing with the May Fourth movement.) The ostensible goal was to strengthen China with fresh influxes of low-risk private capital so that it could withstand troublesome neighbors looking for a fight, even as the new obligations to American entrepreneurs forged hot rivulets of cash rolling back to the imperialist homeland. Wilson’s decision was, as discerned by Williams, a canny chesslike stratagem to avoid war and conflict, one that would keep China a servant to America’s riches. From the vantage point of the 21st century, this useful historical interpretation reveals Wilson to be a pioneer in the kind of venal and now all too commonplace globalization that morally bankrupt neoliberals like Thomas Friedman have no problem opening their old steel zippers for. Their free trade fantasies possess all the out-of-sight, out-of-mind justification of a revenge porn junkie ignoring another person’s real world humiliation for fleeting sociopathic pleasure.

It was with Contours that Williams blew the lid off the great American lie, exposing the American liberal’s failure to confront his own implication in much of the lasseiz nous faire madness. Williams traced the origins of our mercantilist approach to Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury. In the 17th century, Shaftesbury was a political figure who opposed harsh penalties and absolutist government. He stood up for the nonconformists and called for regular parliaments, and would go on to found and lead the early Whig party in the wake of the British Exclusion Crisis. While traveling to Oxford to remove an abscess from his liver, he hit it off with a young doctor by the name of John Locke. (There weren’t as many cafes back then as there are today. In the 1600s, you had to take whatever mingling opportunities you could get.) Locke, of course, would later have many ideas about the social contract, a scheme about inalienable natural rights that would eventually find its way into a number one ditty penned by Jefferson that would become known as the Declaration of Independence.

But there was a twist to this tale. As Williams points out, Locke’s ideas were a corruption of Shaftesbury’s more inclusive and democratic efforts. Where Shaftesbury was willing to rebel against the King to ensure that courts and alternative political parties were in place to prevent the government from becoming an absolute tyranny, even going to the trouble of building a coalition that extended across all classes to fight for these safeguards when not putting together the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, it was Locke who limited Shaftesbury’s remarkably liberal contributions by undercutting individual rights. Locke believed that those who owned property were perfectly justified in protesting their government, for they were the ones who had entered into a social contract. But the rabble who didn’t own property could more or less buzz off.2 As Williams put it, “[I]ndividualism was a right and a liberty reserved to those who accepted a status quo defined by a certain set of natural truths agreed upon a majority. Within such a framework, and it is a far narrower set of limits than it appears at first glance, the natural laws of property and labor were deemed sufficient to guide men’s pursuit of happiness.”

Yet those who subscribed to these early mercantilist standards believed that this classically liberal idea of “corporate structure” involved a basic responsibility to provide for everyone. And the way of sustaining such a benevolent national juggernaut was through the establishment of an empire: a Pax Americana predicated upon the promise of a democracy promulgated by patriarchs who not so quietly believed that the people were incapable of it.3 Williams observes how the Quakers in Philadelphia, who opposed expansion and much of the onslaughts against Native Americans, were very much committed to noblesse oblige, setting up hospitals, education, and philanthropic endeavors to take care of everyone. But this generous spirit was no match for the free trade nabobs or the hard-hearted Calvinists who increasingly shifted such solicitude to the propertied class (one can easily imagine Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glenn Ross “Always be closing” speech spouted by a Calvinist), leading the great theologian Jonathan Edwards to offer righteous pushback against “fraud and trickishness in trade.”

Against this backdrop, post-Revolutionary expansion and the Monroe Doctrine allowed mercantilism to transmute into an idea that was more about the grab than the munificent results, with visions of empire dancing in many heads. By the time Frederick Jackson Turner tendered his Frontier Thesis in 1893, mercantilism was no longer about providing for the commonweal, but about any “self-made man” looking out after his interests. Williams points to Chief Justice John Marshall’s efforts to enforce safeguards, such as his Gibbons vs. Ogden decision regulating interstate commerce, against the monopolies that would come to dominate America near the turn of the century. Marshall’s immediate successor, Chief Justice Taney, expanded the flexibility of the Constitution’s Contract Clause with his 1837 Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge decision, permitting states to alter any contract as it saw fit. While Taney’s decision seemed to strike the death knell against monopolies, it was no match against the consolidated trusts that were to come with the railroads and the robber barons. Rather curiously, for all of his sharp observations about free trade and expansionist dangers during this time, Williams devotes little more than a paragraph to the 1836 closing of the Second Bank of the United States:

[Nicholas Biddle] did a better job than the directors of the Bank of England. Under his leadership the bank not only established a national system of credit balancing which assisted the west as much as the east, and probably more, but sought with considerable success to save smaller banks from their own inexperience and greed. It was ultimately his undoing, for what the militant advocates of lasseiz nous faire came to demand was help without responsibilities. In their minds, at any rate, that was the working definition of democratic freedom.

Talk about sweeping one of the greatest financial calamities in American history under the rug! I don’t want to get too much into Andrew Jackson, who I believe to be nothing less than an abhorrent, reckless, and self-destructive maniac who claimed “liberalism” using the iron fist of tyranny, in this installment. I shall preserve my apparently unquenchable ire for Old Hickory when I tackle Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson in a few years (Modern Library Nonfiction #36). But Jackson’s imperious and irresponsible battle with Biddle, complete with his Specie Circular, undoubtedly led to the Panic of 1837, in which interest rates spiked, the rich got richer, a fixable financial mess spiraled out of control and became needlessly dangerous, and buyers could not come up with the hard cash to invest in land. Considering Williams’s defense of Hoover in both Contours and Tragedy, it is extremely curious that he would shy away from analyzing why some form of central bank might be necessary to mitigate against volatility, even though he adopted some fascinating counterpoints to the “too big to fail” theory decades before Bernanke and Krugman.

This oversight points to the biggest issue I have with Williams. His solution to the great imperialist predicament was democratic socialism, which he called “the only real frontier available to Americans in the second half of the 20th century.” While this is a clever way of inverting Turner’s thesis, to uphold this, Williams cites a few examples such as the courage of Wendell Phillips, a few throwaway references to social property, and a late 19th century return with Edward Bellamy and Henry Demarest Lloyd to the Quaker-like notion of “a commonwealth in which men were brothers first and economic men second.” But while Williams is often a master of synthesis, he falls somewhat short in delineating how his many historical examples can aid us to correct our ongoing ills. If the American Weltanschauung is so steeped in our culture, how then can democratic socialism uproot it? This vital question remains at the root of any progressive-minded conversation. But now that we have a presidential race in which socialism is no longer a dirty word and the two leading Democratic candidates bicker over who is the greater progressive, perhaps the answer might arrive as naturally as Williams anticipated.

Next Up: Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition!

The Promise of American Life (Modern Library Nonfiction #95)

(This is the sixth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: In Cold Blood.)

mlnf95Before The New Republic devolved under Chris Hughes into a half-worthy husk of knee-jerk platitudes just a few histrionic clickbait headlines shy of wily Slate reductionism, it was a formidable liberal magazine for many decades, courageous enough to take real stands while sustaining vital dialogue about how and when government should intercede in important affairs. The source of this philosophical thrust, as duly documented by Franklin Foer, was the greatly diffident son of a prominent newspaperman, an unlikely progenitor who entered and exited Harvard many times without ever finishing, someone who suffered from severe depression and who, for a time, didn’t know what to do with his life other than play bridge and tennis and write about obscure architecture. But Croly found it in him to spill his views about democracy’s potential, what he called the “New Nationalism,” into a 1909 book called The Promise of American Life, which served as something of a manifesto for the early 20th century Progressives and became a cult hit among political wonks at the time. It partially inspired Theodore Roosevelt, who was proudly name-checked by Croly as “a Hamiltonian with a difference,” to initiate his ill-fated 1912 Bull Moose campaign as an outsider presidential candidate. (Historians have argued over the palpable influence of Croly’s book on Roosevelt, but it’s possible that, had not Croly confirmed what Roosevelt had already been thinking about, Roosevelt may not have entered the 1912 race as ardently as he did. With a more united Republican coalition against Wilson, America may very well have carried on with a second Taft term, with an altogether different involvement in World War I. Taft’s notable rulings as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which included extending executive power and broadening the scope of police evidence, may not been carried out in the 1920s. A book is often more of a Molotov shattering upon history’s turf than we are willing to accept.)

Croly’s book touched a nerve among a small passionate group. One couple ended up reading Croly’s book aloud to each other during their honeymoon (leaving this 21st century reader, comparing Croly’s thick “irremediable”-heavy prose style against now all too common sybaritic options, to imagine other important activities that this nubile pair may have missed out on). The newly married couple was Willard Straight and Dorothy Whitney. They had money. They invited Croly to lunch. The New Republic was formed.

So we are contending with a book that not only created an enduring magazine and possibly altered the course of American history, but one that had a profound impact on the right elite at the right time. So it was a tremendous surprise to discover a book that greatly infuriated me during the two times I read it, at one time causing me to hurl it with high indignant velocity against a wall, for reasons that have more to do with this gushing early 20th century idealist failing to foresee the rise of Nazism, the despicable marriage of racism and police brutality, growing income inequality, corporate oligarchy, draconian Common Core educational standards, and dangerous demagogues like George Wallace and Donald Trump.

But it is also important to remember that Croly wrote this book before radio, television, the Internet, women’s suffrage, two world wars, the Great Depression, smartphones, outrage culture, and 9/11. And it is never a good idea to read an older book, especially one of a political nature, without considering the time that it was written. I did my best to curb my instincts to loathe Croly for what he could not anticipate, for his larger questions of how power aligns itself with the democratic will of the people are still very much worth considering. Croly is quite right to identify the strange Frankenstein monster of Alexander Hamilton’s pragmatic central government and Thomas Jefferson’s rights of man — the uniquely American philosophical conflict that has been the basis of nearly every national conflict and problem that has followed — as a “double perversion” of our nation’s potential, even if Croly seems unwilling to consider that some “perversions” are necessary for an evolving democratic republic and he is often too trusting of executive authority and the general public’s obeisance to it. That these inquiries still remain irreconcilable (and are perverted blunter still by crass politicians who bellow about how to “make America great again” as they eject those who challenge them from the room) some 107 years after the book’s publication speaks to both the necessity and the difficulty of the question.

I’ve juxtaposed Croly’s meek-looking law clerk mien against George Bellows’s famous boxing painting (unveiled two years before Croly’s book) because there really is no better way to visualize the American individual’s relationship to its lumbering, venal, and often futile government. Croly’s solution is to call for all Americans to be actively engaged in a collaborative and faithful relationship with the nation: “to accept a conception of democracy which provides for the substantial integrity of his country, not only as a nation with an exclusively democratic mission, but as a democracy with an essentially national career.” On its face, this seems like a reasonable proposition. We all wish to belong in a democracy, to maintain fidelity to our country, and to believe that the Lockean social contract in which the state provides for the commonweal is a workable and reasonable quid pro quo. But it is also the kind of orgiastic meat and potatoes mantra that led both Kennedy and Reagan to evoke mythical American exceptionalism with the infamous “shining city upon a hill” metaphor. Dulcet words may make us feel better about ourselves and our nation, but we have seen again and again how government inaction on guns and a minimum wage that does not reflect contemporary living standards demands a Black Lives Matter movement and a “fight for $15.” And when one begins to unpack just what Croly wants us to give up for this roseate and wholly unrealistic Faustian bargain, we begin to see someone who may be more of a thoughtful and naive grandstander than a vital conceptual pragmatist.

Croly is right to demand that America operate with a larger administrative organ in place, some highly efficient Hamiltonian body that mitigates against “the evil effects of a loose union.” He smartly points out that such evils as slavery resulted from the American contradictions originating in the strange alliance between our poetic Jeffersonian call for Constitutional democracy and individualistic will and the many strains of populism and nationalism that followed. In his insistence on “the transformation of Hamiltonianism into a thoroughly democratic political principle,” Croly is suspicious of reformers, many of which he singles out in a manner strikingly similar to Norman Mailer’s “Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room.” He calls William Jennings Bryan an “ill conceived” reformer, claims the now nearly forgotten William Travers Jerome to be “lulled into repose” by traditional Jeffersonian democracy (never mind Jerome’s successful crusades against Tammany Hall corruption, regrettably overshadowed by his prosecution of Harry K. Thaw during the Stanford White murder trial), interestingly pegs William Randolph Hearst as someone motivated by endless “proclaimation[s] of a rigorous interpretation of the principle of equal rights,” and holds up Teddy Roosevelt as “more novel and more radical” in his calls for a Square Deal than “he himself has probably proclaimed.”

But Croly’s position on reform is quite problematic, deeply unsettling, and often contradictory. He believes that citizens “should be permitted every opportunity to protest in the most vigorous and persistent manner,” yet he states that such protests “must conform to certain conditions” enforced by the state. While we are certainly far removed from the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building that galvanized the labor movement, as we saw with the appalling free speech cages during the 2004 Republican Convention, muzzling protesters not only attenuated their message but allowed the NYPD to set up traps for the activists, which ensured their arrest and detention — a prototype for the exorbitant enforcement used to diminish and belittle the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years later. Croly believes that the job of sustaining democratic promise should, oddly enough, be left to legislators and executives granted all the power required and sees state and municipal governments as largely unsuccessful:

The interest of individual liberty in relation to the organization of democracy demands simply that the individual officeholder should possess an amount of power and independence adequate to the efficient performance of his work. The work of a justice of the Supreme Court demands a power that is absolute for its own special work, and it demands technically complete independence. An executive should, as a rule, serve for a longer term, and hold a position of greater independence than a legislator, because his work of enforcing the laws and attending to the business details of government demands continuity, complete responsibility within its own sphere, and the necessity occasionally of braving adverse currents of public opinion. The term of service and the technical independence of a legislator might well be more restricted than that of an executive; but even a legislator should be granted as much power and independence as he may need for the official performance of his public duty. The American democracy has shown its enmity to individual political liberty, not because it has required its political favorites constantly to seek reëlection, but because it has since 1800 tended to refuse to its favorites during their official term as much power and independence as is needed for administrative, legislative, and judicial efficiency. It has been jealous of the power it delegated, and has tried to take away with one hand what it gave with the other.

There is no room for “Act locally, think globally” in Croly’s vision. This is especially ungenerous given the many successful progressive movements that flourished decades after Croly’s death, such as the civil rights movement beginning with local sit-ins and developing into a more cogent and less ragged strain of the destructive Jacksonian populism that Croly rightly calls out, especially in relation to the cavalier obliteration of the Second Bank of the United States and the Nullification Crisis of 1832, which required Henry Clay to clean up Jackson’s despotic absolutism with a compromise. On the Nullification point, Croly identifies Daniel Webster, a man who became treacherously committed to holding the Union together, as “the most eloquent and effective expositor of American nationalism,” who “taught American public opinion to consider the Union as the core and crown of the American political system,” even as he offers a beautifully stinging barb on Webster’s abolitionist betrayal with the 1850 speech endorsing the Fugitive Slave Act: “He was as much terrorized by the possible consequences of any candid and courageous dealing with the question as were the prosperous business men of the North; and his luminous intelligence shed no light upon a question, which evaded his Constitutional theories, terrified his will, and clouded the radiance of his patriotic visions.”

But Croly also promulgates a number of loopy schemes, including making representative legislatures at any level beholden to an executive who is armed with a near tyrannical ability to scuttle laws, even as he claims that voters removing representatives through referendum “will obtain and keep a much more complete and direct control over the making of their laws than that which they have exerted hitherto; and the possible desirability of the direct exercise of this function cannot be disputed by any loyal democrat.” Well, this loyal democrat, immediately summoning Lord Acton’s famous quote, calls bullshit on giving any two-bit boss that kind of absolute power. Because Croly’s baffling notion of “democracy” conjures up the terrifying image of a sea of hands raised in a Bellamy salute. On one hand, Croly believes that a democracy must secure and exercise individual rights, even as he rightly recognizes that, when people exercise these rights, they cultivate the “tendency to divide the community into divergent classes.” On the other hand, he believes that individuals should be kept on a restrictive leash:

[T]hey should not, so far as possible, be allowed to outlast their own utility. They must continue to be earned. It is power and opportunity enjoyed without being earned which help to damage the individual — both the individuals who benefit and the individuals who consent — and which tend to loosen the ultimate social bond. A democracy, no less than a monarchy or an aristocracy, must recognize political, economic, and social discriminations, but it must also manage to withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance. The essential wholeness of the community depends absolutely on the ceaseless creation of a political, economic, and social aristocracy and their equally incessant replacement.

There’s certainly something to be said about how many Americans fail to appreciate the rights that they have. Reminding all citizens of their duties to flex their individual rights may be a very sound idea. (Perhaps one solution to American indifference and political disillusion is the implementation of a compulsory voting policy with penalties, similar to what goes on in Australia.) But with such a middling door prize like this handed out at the democratic dance party, why on earth would any individual want to subscribe to the American promise? Aristocrats, by their very nature, wish to hold onto their power and privilege and not let go. Croly’s pact is thus equally unappealing for the struggling individual living paycheck to paycheck, the career politician, or the business tycoon.

Moreover, in addition to opposing the Sherman Antitrust Act, Croly nearly succumbs to total Taylorism in his dismissal of labor unions: “They seek by the passage of eight-hour and prevailing rate-of-wages laws to give an official sanction to the claims of the unions, and they do so without making any attempt to promote the parallel public interest in an increasing efficiency of labor. But these eight-hour and other similar laws are frequently being declared unconstitutional by the state courts, and for the supposed benefit of individual liberty.” Granted, Croly’s words came ten years before the passage of the Adamson Act, the first federal law enforcing a mandatory eight-hour day. But Croly’s failure to see the social benefits of well-rested workers better positioned to exercise their individual liberty for a democratic promise is one of his more outrageous and myopic pronouncements, even as he also avers how the conditions that create unrestricted economic opportunities also spawn individual bondage. But if Croly wants Americans to “[keep] his flag flying at any personal cost or sacrifice,” then he really needs to have more sympathy for the travails of the working stiff.

Despite all my complaints, I still believe some 21st century thinker should pick up from Croly’s many points and make an equally ambitious attempt to harmonize Hamilton and Jefferson with more recent developments. American politics has transformed into a cartoonish nightmare from which we cannot seem to escape, one that causes tax absolutist lunatics like Grover Norquist to appear remotely sane. That we are seeing a strange replay of the 1912 election with the 2016 presidential race, with Trump stepping in as an unlikely Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders possibly filling in for Eugene Debs, and that so many Americans covet an “outsider” candidate who will fix a government that they perceive as a broken system speaks to a great need for some ambitious mind to reassess our history and the manner in which we belong to our nation, while also observing the many ways in which Americans come together well outside of the political bear trap. For the American individual is no longer boxing George Bellows-style with her government. She is now engaged in a vicious MMA match unfurling inside a steel cage. Whether this ugly pugilism can be tempered with peace and tolerance is anyone’s guess, but, if we really believe in democracy, the least we can do is try to find some workaround in which people feel once again that they’re part of the process.

Next Up: William Appleman Williams’s The Contours of American History!

On the Rise of Trump, the Failure to Reach the American People, and the Importance of “Great”

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.

makeamericagreatagainWhen 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.

Islamophobia, Extremism, and the War on Terror: Arun Kundnani (The Bat Segundo Show #540)

Arun Kundnani is most recently the author of The Muslims Are Coming.

Author: Arun Kundnani

Play

Subjects Discussed: How Islamophobia came to be, how the Obama Administration has continued an Islamophobic policy, the good Muslim and bad Muslim framework, Bernard Lewis’s “The Roots of Muslim Rage” as one of the key foundational Islamophobic texts, bogus terrorist studies that reinforce counterterrorism studies within the national security apparatus, flawed FBI radicalization models, how philosophical academics are making ideology virulent, Faisal Shahzad’s attempts to bomb Times Square, the Boston Marathon bombing, the NYPD’s “Radicalization in the West” study used to justify its Muslim surveillance efforts, Minority Report, zero tolerance, whether society or specific individuals should be blamed for Islamophobia, societal culpability in policy changes, changing the conversation about terrorism, the need to get out of 9/11’s shadows to address present realities, why Muslims who make any political statement are categorized as terrorists, fear in the Muslim community, Edward Snowden, how surveillance affects specific communities, the death of Fred Phelps, whether some over-the-top extremism is necessary to galvanize a civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” when notable figures for justice embrace extremist labels, the queer movement, Malcolm X, the sudden transformation of Muslims into the “enemy” after 9/11, class distinctions and Islamophobia, the Prevent program adopted in the UK, New Labour’s culpability in misidentifying Muslims as “radical,” the Salafi movement, failed efforts to promote a counterextremism narrative, Homeland‘s Nick Brody and the inability of contemporary narratives to allow for a Muslim character to have a political voice that isn’t extremist, the vicious campaign to paint All-American Muslim as propaganda and the conservative effort to shut the show down, the Somali population in the Twin Cities, the al-Shabaab ring in Minneapolis, Congressman Peter King’s Islamophobic statements about mosques, when attempts to preserve constitutional rights are reframed as “noncooperation,” Operation Rhino, St. Paul’s AIMCOP program funded by a $670,000 DHS grant, law enforcement tenor dictated by power and money, the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, hyperbolic clampdowns on Islamic communities after an attempted plot is thwarted, financial incentives by local police departments to continue flawed counterterrorism strategies to receive federal grant money, fusion centers, why so much of surveillance and prosecution rationale is rooted in Muslim stereotypes, what can be done with the wasted resources, the Muslim Brotherhood’s fluctuating status as movement and terrorist organization by U.S. authorities, Mohamed Morsi, whether or not Western nations can view organizations in subtle terms, comparisons between the Cold War and ongoing American foreign policy ideas about Islam, the Egyptian revolution, the sharia conspiracy theory adopted by neoconservative Islamophobes that Islamic terrorism is the beginning of a hidden jihad, why Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Frank Gaffney are able to infiltrate the mainstream, conspiracy theories and racist discourse, the English Defence League, Islamophobia promulgated by David Cameron, the lack of self-awareness among far-right groups, how Islamophobic groups have adopted the media strategies of the Left, neo-Nazis who rebrand themselves, positive developments, New York Muslims protesting NYPD surveillance programs, and how the generation of young Muslims can change present intolerance.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So let’s go ahead and start off with why Islamophobia exists. The first and most obvious question is why any political strand of Islam, any vocal element that objects to an attack has come to be associated with terrorism. So I have to ask. Why has this continued twelve and a half years after September 11th? Why are all Muslims roped up into this misleading category?

Kundnani: One of the interesting things I think is that we had that early period in the War on Terror under the Bush years where we had this quite intense narrative of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. And Obama came in, trying to have a different kind of analysis. And actually what’s interesting is that the kind of popular Islamophobia in the media, the amount of racist violence against Muslims in the United States, it all went up under Obama. So in my analysis, what’s going on here is, as well as the kind of neoconservative narrative of a clash of civilizations, we also need to think about the liberal Islamophobia that’s been much more powerful under the Obama administration over the last few years.

Correspondent: What do you think the ultimate appeal of the Obama trigger effect here is for Islamophobia? Why have liberals fanned the flames here, do you think? Is it just a misunderstanding of policy? I can get into this further later on in this, but I wanted to get a general idea here.

Kundnani: I think, at root, what’s going on here is a kind of flawed analysis of what the causes of terrorism are. There’s a liberal analysis that says, basically, that some kind of religious extremism causes terrorism. And therefore you need to intervene in Muslim populations to make sure that people have the right interpretation of Islam. That’s actually the kind of basic analysis that we’ve had in this kind of later period of the War on Terror. Which means that you’re associating some interpretation of Islam with terrorism, right? And then from that flows all kinds of other things. So, for example, then you get the idea of the good Muslim and the bad Muslim, right? Because the bad Muslim is the one who interprets the religion in the wrong ways. So you want to put Muslims under surveillance to check that they have the right interpretation of their religion, etcetera, right? So I think a lot of what we’ve seen under Obama flows from that fundamental analysis, which actually doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Correspondent: If it’s so flawed and it does not stand up to scrutiny, why then does it continue to perpetuate?

Kundnani: Well, one of the reasons is because from the liberal point of view, it seems like a better way of doing things than the kind of neoconservative clash of civilizations model, right? It has certain practical benefits from the point of view of managing this issue, right? This kind of fraught issue with all this fear ground up in the popular mind. So it enables you to say, “Well, you know, we’re partnering with Muslim communities to tackle extremism” and so forth. That sounds quite nice. That sounds quite effective. Even though the basic assumptions behind it don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Correspondent: You identify two strains of thinking about Islamic extremism in your book. The culturalists, who believe that Muslim communities are incapable of adapting to modern life because their Islamic culture essentially is extreme and is therefore incompatible, which leads to extremism. Then you have the reformists, who look not to Islamic teachings but ideologues who reinterpret Islam for violent and nefarious purposes. How could one article — Bernard Lewis’s “The Roots of Muslim Rage” in 1990 — be so prominently responsible for the development of these two ideas? Why do they continue to endure? Why do they continue to be so compelling? I mean, it seems to me that there are so many arguments against them. Yet these two ideological strains continue.

Kundnani: Right. Intellectually, the argument has been discredited time and time again. And so the reason that these ideas continue to circulate has nothing to do with their intellectual merit. But it’s more about the political convenience of those ideas. So we find it much easier to think about why people want to direct violence against our society. We find it much easier to answer that question by saying it’s their culture rather than, at least in part, our politics. And so I think because it’s uncomfortable for us to think about what the alternative to these narratives would be — the alternative to these narratives which involve us thinking about our foreign policy and the political effects of that in creating contexts within which terrorism becomes more likely — it’s much easier, rather than having that difficult conversation, it’s much easier to say it’s their culture, right? Or it’s not their culture, but it’s a minority who have adopted this ideology of extremism and that’s what causing it.

Correspondent: But we’ve had twenty years of this strain in both British and American society. Surely that’s enough time for people to perhaps call it into question or to actually think about it more sophisticatedly. And I’m wondering why — I keep going to the question “Why?” But I am trying to get something a little more specific over why this is still of appeal.

Kundnani: Some of the answers to that are about the ways in which it’s been institutionalized in various settings, right? So for example, since 9/11, we’ve had terrorism studies departments created with government funding in the United States and in Britain. And those terrorism studies departments have a set of incentives in terms of the funding and so forth to produce certain kinds of knowledge that serve the interests of the national security apparatus. So they will tend to avoid asking deeper questions about what lies behind violence, what is the politics of that, and instead try and deliver policy solutions that have embedded within them all kinds of assumptions about what they call radicalization. So that kind of institutionalizes these ways of thinking in a whole set of academic departments. Then you have these ways of thinking being institutionalized in the national security agencies. The FBI, for example, has a radicalization model. It’s an analysis of how someone goes from being an ordinary person to becoming a terrorist. Embedded within that is these same ideas of some kind of religious ideology driving it. The New York Police Department does the same thing. So all these ways of thinking are not just kind of free-floating in some kind of intellectual depaint. They are embedded in policy and practice in institutions.

Correspondent: Would you say that academics have essentially been influencing this interpretation for the last twenty years? I mean, there was a strain of articles recently about academics complaining about how they don’t actually get through to the masses. But this would seem to suggest that they are in a very nefarious way.

Kundnani: Absolutely. If you’re an academic and you want to be influential in government policy, be an academic in terrorism studies. Because that’s where you’re in and out of government departments. But what you have to give up is actually quite a large degree of scholarly independence. Because you’re effectively serving the intellectual needs of the government rather than any kind of idea of an objective independent study of what causes terrorism. That doesn’t really happen. So I think academics have been influential. Both the terrorism studies academics and the other ones — like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington — some of those folks who are more on the philosophical level and geopolitical level who are thinking about these issues.

Correspondent: So if you get a philosophical academic, it could essentially activate a strain of virulent ideology.

Kundnani: Absolutely. Ultimately, all our kind of different forms of racism and so forth have some kind of intellectual history. They go back to people who innovate, who come up with new ways of being racist in an intellectual setting. And then that filters down to the streets over time. That’s how racism originates.

Correspondent: Sure. So you point to a time in the United States when this nation was considered more tolerant and inclusive towards Muslims. Immune from Muslim radicalization because of the apparent belief that a free market society was better at absorbing Muslims. That changed in 2009. There were a number of violent incidents that were believed to be associated with Islam, including Faisal Shahzad’s failed efforts to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. You point to a 2010 Bipartisan Policy Center report which concluded that the American melting pot had not provided protection against Muslim radicalization. Why were the government, the pundits, and the policy people so willing to change their tune in so short a time? Because that seems to me also a big part of this problem as well.

Kundnani: Right. So something interesting happens in the first few years of the Obama Administration, where you find that you do have one or two attempted terrorist plots that were serious plots, like the attempted car bombing in Times Square by Faisal Shahzad and one or two others. You also have a set of developments that happen in the FBI, where they’re starting to change how they do counterterrorism and becoming much more pro-active in sting operations, in bringing charges to some of the material support for terrorism, which involves criminalizing people’s ideological expressive activities rather than actual terrorist plots. So those kinds of things from the FBI drive up the numbers in terms of the kind of annual statistics on a number of attempted terrorist acts.

Correspondent: Drive up the numbers exactly how?

Kundnani: Well, because one of the things that we’ve seen is the FBI doing something when they have someone who seems to have what they would call an extremist ideology. Put informants in that person’s life and use these tactics of trying to pressurizing that person into being involved in an imaginary plot that would probably not have been something that they would have been predisposed to were it not for the FBI coming in and creating that environment around that person’s life. And this is something that the RAND Corporation has a very good phrase to describe. They call it “lubricating that person’s decision making” through government intervention. So I think the FBI started to put a lot more resources in doing those kinds of operations. Then the numbers come up. So it looks like we’ve got this objective increase in attempted terrorist plots, but actually it’s at least to a large degree the result of a change in FBI strategy around that time.

Correspondent: So you’re saying that the FBI essentially was cooking the books to get higher crime statistics. Is that what you’re basically saying?

Kundnani: Well, in effect, that’s what happened. I’m not sure that it’s some kind of conspiracy by senior leaders in the FBI to…

Correspondent: It’s a policy change.

Kundnani: It’s a policy change. And obviously you can see an incentive structure there where the FBI, as a result of doing that, seems like it’s a very efficient counterterrorism organization. Because it’s got all these terrorist plots happening in the United States and every single one of them is getting a conviction and that looks good on the annual report to Congress. What you won’t know unless you look in more detail is the fact that most of those plots are ones that the FBI itself has invented.

Correspondent: I’d like to get into the fine details of the radicalization model that the FBI was using in just a bit, but I want to actually ask did they essentially have this policy change before they had the radicalization model? What does your research suggest here?

Kudnani: The radicalization model goes back to the early years after 9/11. The policy shift, I mean, we don’t know what caused it. It may be that there had been a number of changes in legislation that came through in that period and it may be that new options were created for that. It may be that if you look at the data for terrorism convictions around that time, sort of 2008 and 2009, a big chunk of the people who were getting prosecuted is Somali Americans, who are traveling to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab, which is designated a terrorist organization shortly before that moment. And so therefore, traveling over there becomes a felonious act. So that also becomes another of these kind of scare scenarios around that time, that maybe we’re going to have a huge problem of American Somalis going off to fight for al-Shabaab and coming back and committing acts of violence here, which actually never happened.

Correspondent: I will get into the Somali situation in just a sec, but I want to actually unpack the radicalization model a bit. You cite this 2006 memo from the Counterterrorism Division which suggests anger, watching inflammatory speeches online, an individual identifying with an extremist cause, Internet interaction with extremist elements, and acceptance of radical ideology, and eventually terrorism. What is the academic basis for this model? You also mention this 2007 NYPD study called “Radicalization in the West” that adopted a simplified version of models that were adopted by Quentin Wiktorowicz and Marc Sageman. What has made these specific ideas stick? Why hasn’t law enforcement passed a wider research net before adopting these models? Why are these radicalization models in place? They seem to me to be more like a sudoku puzzle.

Kudnani: Right. I mean, these radicalization models have come from — you mentioned the two key people here, Marc Sageman and Quentin Wiktorowicz, both of whom have a history within the intelligence world as well as in the academic world. They kind of cross those divisions. I think the reason those models have been used to the exclusion of any other kind of analysis and the reason that they’ve stuck is because they do something very important for the FBI and the NYPD — at least at first glance, which is they give them a tool for prediction.

Correspondent: Precog. Minority Report.

Kundnani: Right. This is Minority Report. It’s a way of saying, “We have a way of knowing who’s going to be a terrorist tomorrow. Even though they’re not a terrorist today.” And so having that claim to predictive power is what lies beneath the appeal of these studies.

Correspondent: And the problem with this is that they wake up from the amniotic fluid and instead of crying “Murder!” they say “Muslims!” So that’s problematic.

Kundnani: And they don’t stand up in terms of having that predictive capability. And that’s kind of obvious when you think it through. It would be ridiculous to think that someone growing a beard, which is one of the indicators, is a predictor of someone on the way to becoming a terrorist. Or someone wearing traditional Islamic clothing or joining a pro-Muslim social group. These are the various things that these studies talk about. So they don’t have this predictive power. But because they’re perceived as doing so, they become very important in these institutional settings and enforcement agencies.

Correspondent: Perceived by who?

Kundnani: By law enforcement agencies and by policy makers in DC. So the FBI has been instructed by the federal government since very soon after 9/11 to adopt what is called a preemptive approach to counterterrorism, right? Which means don’t wait until someone’s committing a crime. Go back to some point before that person’s committed a crime and arrest them there or intervene in their lives there. So from the point of view of the FBI, there’s a dilemma there. How on earth do you criminalize someone who hasn’t committed a crime yet but you think may do in the future? You have to have some kind of analytic way of predicting behavior. And so that’s the dilemma for them.

Correspondent: But if it’s a corrupted analytical model, surely there’s someone inside the FBI or even the NYPD who is basically saying, “You know, this doesn’t really cut mustard. We’re actually only doing this to get our numbers up.” Were you able to uncover…

Kundnani: I spent a bit of time interviewing a number of different FBI agents who work in counterterrorism and I put that question to them as well. And their answer was, “Well, if you think this radicalization model doesn’t work,” which they were open to that possibility that it doesn’t stand up in terms of its academic merits, “then give us another model that will do the same job.”

Correspondent: So they just need some kind of model.

Kundnani: Yeah. Because they’ve been told you need to predict. You can’t just go on what someone’s done. You need to go on what they’re about to do. That’s how counterterrorism works in the United States post-9/11. So for them, it’s not an option to say, “Okay, let’s just focus on who is actively involved in preparing a terrorist plot, who’s inciting terrorism, and who’s financing terrorism.” That would be my argument. What we should be doing here is focusing on that. And that gives us enough to be getting onward and has the advantage that we don’t widen our search to this kind of vague notion of ideology, which gets messy and uses up our hard-earned resources on things that we shouldn’t be worried about. Now that is not an option for the FBI. Because that’s what we as a society have told them that we don’t want. We don’t want them to wait. We want them to be preemptive.

Correspondent: We as a society? I mean, that seems really amorphous. Isn’t there some specific person who we can identify and say, “That is the person who caused this requirement, that the FBI…”

Kundnani: I don’t think so.

Correspondent: Really?

Kundnani: I think if you look at — for example, early on in the Obama Administration, there was the so-called underwear bomber. And if you talk to people in the Obama Administration, they will talk about that being a very scary moment for them because they felt for a moment, in the aftermath of that attempted attack, they lost the narrative. They were very much on the defensive. And for a moment, they thought, “We’re going to have this thing hanging over us that we weren’t tough enough on terrorism and we almost let this guy through.” And then they basically made the decision thereafter that we can’t allow that to happen again. Because if that hangs over us, we lose the political capital to do all the other things we want to do. So even if you convince people in the Obama Administration to do things a different way, they would say, “Our hands are tied by what society expects of us.” The fear in society around these things. The fact that we have now created a society in which it’s not enough to say we will minimize the risk of terrorism.

Correspondent: You have the zero tolerance thing.

Kundnani: Right. What society expects is absolutely no terrorist attacks of any kind at all and do everything possible with unlimited resources to deal with this problem. Even though we’ve had the Boston Marathon last year, dozens of people in jail, and three people killed. But we have 15,000 murders every year in the United States. So in terms of an objective assessment of the amount of harm that counterterrorism does to U.S. society, it would not be our top priority. But it has become our top priority. Half of the FBI’s budget is dedicated to counterterrorism.

Correspondent: But I don’t know if that’s really — that’s an answer that just doesn’t sit well with me. The idea that society is the one to blame when you’re using a flawed radicalization model to enforce counterterrorism, which actually isn’t true based off of some of the findings in your book, and you’re reinforcing stereotypes and you’re also disseminating further fear into the American clime, it seems to me that you’re the one responsible for generating the way that people react, that is this very society that people point to…

Kundnani: Sure. Sure.

Correspondent: I mean, I’m asking for some….there needs to be some person. Some kind of element here.

Kundnani: I think there’s all kinds of different agencies and individuals that are culpable here. No doubt. From the top down. From Obama, the leadership at the FBI, the whole national security apparatus. All of these different agencies and individuals are bound up in a set of practices that are causing great harm to our fellow citizens in the United States. But I would also say it’s a little bit too easy just to stop there. I would say we have all kind of got sucked into this culture of counterterrorism. The word “radicalization” is not just a word that you see in academic studies and police reports. It’s the word that is now in our everyday language, in how we talk about terrorism. We didn’t need the word “radicalization” fifteen years ago to talk about terrorism. But now it’s the normal way that we do it. So, for me, it’s a little bit too neat to pin the blame on government agencies. We need to acknowledge that there’s a cultural change we need in society more widely.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, danke, DesignedImpression, Blueeskies, and drkcarnivalninja.)

The Bat Segundo Show #540: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the War on Terror: Arun Kundnani (Download MP3)

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Melbourne (Modern Library Nonfiction #100)

(This is the first entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list.)

mlnf100History has produced such a rich pile of devious political figures who spend every spare minute scheming and plotting their rise that today’s aspiring aristocrats, who can be found working every connection to get their kids into bright educational citadels and reliable sinecures, cannot come close to such cutthroat monomania. Yet there are also those who blunder into top office like bumpkins crashing high-class weddings through the simple repetitive act of placing one foot in front the other. William Lamb, aka Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for eight years (1834, 1835-1841) and the subject of Lord David Cecil’s generous biography, was one such man.

Melbourne was a ponderous speaker, a bookish man who reportedly dozed off in the middle of a conversation, a leader largely blind to the way people beneath his station lived, and a cautionary tale for any soul who avoids conflict. “He pondered, he compared, he memorized,” writes Cecil of Melbourne in middle age, just before his improbable political career begins, “the Elizabethan drama, for instance, he knew so well that he could repeat by heart whole scenes not only of Shakespeare but of Massinger; the margins of his books were black with the markings of his flowing, illegible hand.” Melbourne was so mind-bogglingly passive in his actions that he not only refused to intervene in his wife’s adulterous affairs, but he believed that each infidelity would pass with the fleeting speed of a common cold.

It’s easy to ridicule Melbourne and the people of that time (as the bitterly judgmental Carrie A.A. Frye and Philip Ziegler, another Melbourne biographer, have). Melbourne was cuckolded by Lord Byron. When Byron would no longer plant his flagpole in Lady Caroline Lamb, Melbourne’s wife gradually traded down in her boys on the side until she tapped Edward Bulwer-Lytton (best known today for inspiring a writing contest for wretched writing). Caroline would go on to write Glenarvon, an awful roman à clef which exposed the Byron episode and left the Lambs open to disgrace and derision. When his wife died, the lonely Melbourne sought solace with another Caroline (the remarkable Caroline Norton, a tireless crusader who would go on to campaign successfully for legislative acts rectifying the second-class status of women), there was an attempt at blackmail. When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, Melbourne became her unlikely tutor and constant companion, wasting a good chunk of his late years because the young Queen required constant attention (much of it documented in Victoria’s journals, which are now digitized and accessible through arrangement with your library; Cecil is good enough to quote from many of these entries).

When I learned from Paul Douglass’s Lady Caroline Lamb just how abhorrently Melbourne had treated the largely forgotten badass Isaac Nathan, I began to grow less tolerant of Melbourne’s nonplussed nature. Nathan — a Jewish composer who wrote the groundbreaking Hebrew Melodies and suffered from the Jewish exclusion laws which denied him the ability to vote, run for office, or pursue justice in the courts against the scabrous opportunists who stole his lyrics, often without credit or compensation — befriended Caroline and set many of her words to music. Despite Nathan defending Caroline when she was disgraced (to the lively extent of fighting duels and even publishing a defense of her character in Fugitive Pieces after her death), Melbourne refused to pay Nathan for services rendered to the Whigs when Nathan really needed the cash, leaving Nathan humiliated and bankrupt and forced to flee to Australia, where he was to write Don John of Austria (the first opera composed and performed in Australia), became the first to research indigenous music and the first settler in this new and exciting country to be killed by a tram. (Don’t worry. Nathan died at 74. It was an accident.)

Melbourne’s clueless cruelty also emerged as organized labor became a more vocal part of British life. In March 1834, a group of laborers in Dorset started a trade-union and it was discovered that these men had administered secret oaths as part of the membership. Several of these men were arrested and sentenced to seven years of penal transportation. At the time, Melbourne was Home Secretary. Instead of overturning this remarkably harsh punishment, Melbourne asked the local magistrates about the temperament of these men. He was informed by these tendentious adjudicators that they were scoundrels. Melbourne, strictly on this point of secret oaths, confirmed this inhumane sentence. And during the next month, a group of thirty thousand marched to Whitehall to demand redress. He refused to see these leaders. And this austere decision set back the trade-union movement for years. As Cecil writes:

“So far from being criminals and revolutionaries, they were sober, respectable men enough, driven into lawless courses largely by ignorance and hunger and by the struggle to hang up their families on wages lately reduced to seven shillings a week. Melbourne was not to blame for not realizing their true characters. He was not there, and he had to trust to the reports of his subordinates.”

Melbourne also did not intervene when the revolting laborers of 1830 (during the Swing Riots) were sent to the gallows. Even Cecil is forced to accept the “painful and disturbing” prospect of an ostensibly kind-hearted man who wished to uphold the death sentence even when prisoners were not intended to be executed. Yet as callous as these consequences were, contributing to great unrest in the immediate years that followed, one has to remember that these terrible measures emerged in response to fears over recent turmoil in France and while parliamentary reform was being hashed out at a frustratingly glacial pace. There was a palpable anxiety that events across the English Channel would be reenacted at home.

How did such a man ascend to Prime Minister? Largely because there was nobody else. In 1834, King William IV needed someone who could keep variegated political factions together and, although the King didn’t care much for Melbourne, he liked him better than the other candidates. After all, this wasn’t exactly a position that you could leave open because you didn’t care for the present spate of résumés. Melbourne almost didn’t take the job. (Indeed, near the end of his stint as Prime Minister, he drifted forward with listlessness and exhaustion. Obligation seemed to be the only quality that kept him going.) An opportunistic little creep named Tom Young, who ensconced himself into Melbourne’s administrative circle through skillful cunning, was the one who played to Melbourne’s vanity and love for the classics, securing Melbourne’s commitment with the following words: “Why, damn it all, such a position was never held by any Greek or Roman: and if it only last three months, it will be worth while to have been Prime Minister of England.”

Melbourne was a weird Prime Minister. His strategy involved ridding himself of loud and querulous colleagues and keeping the new Government as calm as possible, even as he remained obdurate in his decision making. This approach did not sit well with some of the more boisterous statesmen. In a moment that could almost be pulled out of a David Lynch movie, Cecil describes Lord Henry Brougham visiting Melbourne’s house just after learning that he would not have a place in the new government. “Do you think I am mad?” shouts Brougham over and over again, his tone and gestures rising with violence as he repeats this question, almost anticipating the charismatic psychosis of Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth. Yet the highly avoidant Melbourne could not fend off the King, assorted radicals, and any number of people who beseeched him for attention. “Damn it!” he cried to himself. “Why can’t they be quiet?” (In 1836, the aforementioned Norton blackmail episode went down, with Melbourne emerging largely unscathed even while living at Downing Street.)

I can’t entirely pardon Melbourne for some of his asshattery, but Cecil’s careful touch allowed me to understand and even empathize with some of Melbourne’s flaws, for he was also quite idiosyncratic. He stuffed his coats with endless notes. He would emit several strange sounds before beginning to talk. He would shout at random servants and ask them what time it was rather than consult a watch. These quirks allowed him to be liked by the right people, or, perhaps more accurately, tolerated because his actions were so endearingly inexplicable. Perhaps they felt sorry for him because of the Glenarvon episode, although Cecil doesn’t really address how that scandal besmirched his later life, long after Caroline was gone.

What I can say is that Cecil does such a classy job conveying the shenanigans of these often loutish patricians — the rampant adultery, the tolerated insane behavior, the strange manner that all this infiltrated British poetry and politics — that I was placed in the unusual position of fighting strong desires to throw my mind into the mire of the French Revolution, parliamentary protocol, and numerous other subjects. In the last two years, we have seen wild ideological sentiment (exacerbated by Twitter) and staunch stylistic preference (e.g., any polemical book on the lyrical essay) erode the possibilities of understanding human nuance. Melbourne reminds us that the more receptive we are to factual details that trouble or intrigue us, the more willing we are to commiserate with a person’s embarrassing qualities. Perhaps this was one reason why Melbourne was one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite books.

Cecil found both a subject and a tone that recalls John P. Marquand’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1937 novel, The Late George Apley, published just two years before Cecil’s first half of Melbourne. He tells us baldly at the end that Melbourne’s death caused no great stir during the nineteenth century’s rampantly changing atmosphere. It is a crushing realization. Like Apley, Melbourne outlived his time and took in his personal and professional regrets with a resigned agreeableness. Melbourne’s life is often a sad portrait, yet we are somehow won over by him. Cecil’s book is a welcome reminder that if we’re going to judge someone, maybe we should buffet the impulse to castigate them with a smidgen of kindness, reserving our wrath for the real monsters. Without that vital flexibility that allows us to evolve, there may come a point when we outlive our time too. Sooner than Melbourne.

Next Up: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions!

Gabriel Roth (The Bat Segundo Show #508)

Gabriel Roth is most recently the author of The Unknowns.

Play

Author: Gabriel Roth

Subjects Discussed: Leaving San Francisco for Brooklyn, observing the two dot com booms, how moving away from a city often makes you more aware of its dynamics, the benefits of isolation, National Novel Writing Month, descriptive restaurant cues, the delicate balance between invention and specific representation of a place, writing a character who is “a life support system for feelings of anxiety,” not fronting before other programmers, attempted parallels between programming code and writing prose, anxiety as literary ambiguity, My Little Pony used in flashback, brony culture, how the origins of geekdom become twisted over the course of dissemination, Maya Marcom as a loaded name, vacillating between a Bildungsroman and a social novel in the act of writing, capturing the spirit of being alive during a particular time and place, tips learned from being in an MFA program, the one-time advantages of in-state universities, reading books without understanding the mechanics behind the writing, the amount of work that a writer must do to create a vivid sensory world, systems-thinking reporting vs. the descriptive needs of fiction, the abstract nature of news writing, Bay Guardian philosophy, Bruce B. Brugmann’s “Write while you’re drunk, revise when you’re hungover” catchphrase, alt-weekly professionalism, exploring material that you are already steeped in, writing what you know vs. writing what you don’t know, what your subconscious knows, automatic writing, the revising process, ingesting drugs as a character trait, accounting for the sudden expository twist near the end of The Unknowns, repressed memory, the problems that occur after you’ve fallen in love with someone, maintaining a good-natured feel in a novel after a sexual abuse revelation, humor applied to a broader emotional spectrum, “lad lit,” Benjamin Kunkel, Nick Hornby, the glut of novels about twentysomething white males, whether style is enough to escape white male fiction trappings, judging a book by its flap copy, taking on other voices, The Orphan Master’s Son, why Roth zeroed in on Denver privilege, coming from an educated family, the help that comes from background, Eric’s lack of ideological background, selling personal data to evil corporations, characters who espouse pro-corporate values, the diminishing of principle in San Francisco, the difficulties of combining politics and fiction, the homogeneity of America’s two political cultures, the Iraq War, when people always agree, whether the idea of the overstuffed Great American Novel still applies in 2013, The Adventures of Augie March, Infinite Jest, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, critics obliged to fight over Kushner, minituarist vs. maximist fiction, and how to get a TV-obsessed culture hooked on fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off with you leaving San Francisco in 2006. I left in 2007. We both ended up in Brooklyn. And this is one of those interviews. Why didn’t we actually know each other during that decade that we were there? I’m wondering how aware you were that the City was falling apart, was being taken by the Google People, by the private buses. What caused you to flee to Brooklyn? And was this novel in some way a way of reckoning with that?

Roth: Well, I left mostly for personal reasons. I was living with a woman who is now my wife and who was starting a graduate program at Columbia.

Correspondent: Yes.

Roth: And so that was the immediate impetus for me to leave, although I had been in San Francisco for ten years. And as you probably know, ten years is a long time to spend in San Francisco.

Correspondent: I was there for thirteen.

Roth: Yeah. You start to feel that time passing under your feet a little bit. It was not yet clear in 2006 — or at least it wasn’t yet clear to me — what was going to happen with the second Internet boom and what was going to happen with the City as a result of that. I had been there since 1996. And so I had seen the first Internet boom which had sort of effloresced in the late part of the millennium and then died out very quickly in the first years of the oughts. And so I probably would have thought that any new economic activity was going to follow a similar boom and bust pattern. And now it’s not clear that that’s actually what’s going to happen. Or if there is a bust, then the City will have been pretty permanently changed and marked by the boom, it seems like.

Correspondent: Well, it is interesting. Because with the present boom underway, I remember the first one and that seemed brutal at the time. And I was very fortunate to have an apartment in which the rent had not gone up, as were many of my friends. And we somehow managed to secure apartments. Now I’m hearing reports from friends who are basically cleaving to their apartments, hoping that their building won’t be taken over and so forth. And I guess my tangent here was, if you weren’t entirely aware, does moving away from San Francisco and writing a novel actually allow you to think “Wow! All this was going on and, as shred as I was, I really wasn’t paying attention”?

Roth: Yeah. There is a certain amount of that obviously. I began the novel and I had gotten a good two thirds of the way into a draft by the time I left San Francisco. So a lot of the scenarios and the physical environment that I was describing was what was immediately around me as I was doing that first stage of writing. And then moving away — and I think this is probably true in general for writers — the act of writing is often, I think, an act of recapturing and of preserving your memories. Sort of freezing them in sentences. And I think it worked that way for me partly about the City of San Francisco and the environment around the first dot com boom, but then also about a time in my life. And of course, it’s very difficult to separate the place that you were in your early twenties from the experience of being in your early twenties.

Correspondent: Well, how so? Can you elaborate on that? It almost seems like you’re kind of mining through your own data and trying to separate it into emotion and tangible information.

Roth: Yeah. That’s absolutely right. I mean, the book is in part about San Francisco and about people working in technology and about collecting data. But then it’s also about a young man who’s preoccupied with looking for love and finding someone to be intimate with and close to. And it’s not an autobiographical book and the characters aren’t the same person as me. But that experience of being in my early twenties and really wanting to figure out how to love somebody and be loved by somebody — I was preoccupied with that for a long time. And those experiences, along with the experiences of the social world of San Francisco, are what went into the book and what got filtered through the fiction writing process and into the novel. And so there’s no way that I can say, “Oh yes. This is just a sort of satirical or an observational portrait of a little microcosm of the world.” Because it’s all wrapped up with my own subjective experience.

Correspondent: So you had two thirds of a draft before you moved here to Brooklyn. What did moving to Brooklyn produce in terms of clarity for both Eric [protagonist of The Unknowns] and for the view of San Francisco that you had?

Roth: Well, let’s see. Around the time that I moved out here, you know, I finished the MFA program at San Francisco State. I had a bunch of chapters. I was trying to figure out — I knew where the book was going to go, but I was trying to stick the landing, which is not straightforward and I think is not usually straightforward when writing a novel. And then we moved out here. And we were in our early thirties — mid-thirties even — and it was no longer a time when I would have moved to Brooklyn and gone out drinking every night or made a whole bunch of new friends. Or I wasn’t going to go out on dates. Because I was living with my girlfriend. And so moving to New York, which for many people is like stepping onto the big stage — for me, that was the time where I was a bit more isolated and I was going to work every day and getting my pages done and then coming home and eating dinner with my wife. And I think that was important in terms of finishing the thing.

Correspondent: So the isolation allowed you to finish the book.

Roth: Yeah.

Correspondent: It allowed you to come to terms with and put aside this particular part of yourself in your twenties.

Roth: Yeah. I think that’s right. It was putting a clean break on what I had been doing and what I was going to be starting to do from now on.

Correspondent: Did you have any other novels before this? I was curious.

Roth: Not that you would actually call a novel. I had like a pile of pages that I had written during National Novel Writing Month in 2003. Or something like that. That added to nothing but a pile of pages.

Correspondent: I think I remember reading one of your Bay Guardian columns. I think you wrote about it in the Bay Guardian, writing for the National Novel Writing Month.

Roth: I probably did.

Correspondent: Yeah, I remember that. I was a loyal Bay Guardian reader when I lived there. So that was you. You describe “a medium-expensive neo-Cuban restaurant with the kind of deserts that have names evocative of Catholicism” near Lazarus, your invented Valencia Street bar, which clearly evokes Cha Cha Cha. You have the photographs of tailfinned cars, which are sort of like Mel’s Drive-In, but not quite. Fiction — this is not reality. Imagination should be encouraged. But this does lead me to ask you about creating a believable San Francisco for this book. Obviously, you have to rely on things that actually exist. But are there any dangers in being too specific when you’re creating a sense of place like this? I mean, it seems that you want to alert people like me who have in fact passed and entered into Cha Cha Cha that this is indeed the San Francisco of that era. But I was curious about that fine line between telegraphing exactly what it is and just making shit up.

Roth: Yeah. I mean, I think the main issue you’re talking about is with the restaurants. Frankly, there’s a lot of restaurants. And most of the restaurants, as you point out, if you were going out to eat in the Mission in the early part of the 21st century, you’ve probably eaten in some of those restaurants. I didn’t worry about that. And I guess I think that’s fine. And if you’re reading it and you’re in the small subset of people who are going to recognize those restaurants, then hopefully that’s a sort of pleasant moment of recognition for you. Maybe it’s distracting, in which case my bad. But most people are not going to fall in that category. And I think without some amount of specificity, whether its based on real life’s specificity or completely fantastic specificity, without that, then it just becomes a generic restaurant. And the whole thing sort of looks flat. Putting in detail — in this case, often detail borrowed from actual restaurants where I ate most of my meals during the ten years I lived in San Francisco — putting in that detail hopefully gives the feeling of something that takes place in a real world that’s fully stocked with all the stuff of the real world.

Correspondent: But it is your world. It is Eric’s world. And I guess my question is not so much, “Ah! I’m going to go through The Unknowns and cut and paste all those phrases and put them on Yelp.” That’s not what I’m talking about.

Roth: (laughs)

Correspondent: What I am talking about is the idea that this is fiction. It does require invention. It is not going to be a pure 100% depiction of San Francisco. So where do you deviate between that specificity and just inventing something that doesn’t exist but is real enough for the reader to believe, whether the reader be from San Francisco or the reader be from somewhere else?

Roth: Yeah. I mean, really, it depends on the needs of the particular paragraph. You know what I mean? And what comes to my mind as I’m writing it. If, let’s say again, there’s a restaurant where I’m sending the two characters and I need to envision it, you know how sometimes in your dreams or your fantasies, sometimes there will be a place that doesn’t really exist. And sometimes all of the events will transpire in a place that does exist, but those things never happen there. Or it’s a place that does exist, only now they’re serving vegetarian food instead of Mexican food. And writing a novel seems to me exactly the same process. That you borrow these elements from the real world, but unless you’re writing a novel that’s just a direct transposition of real life — which this certainly isn’t — the filtering process is going to transform it to whatever degree is necessary.

Correspondent: So Eric describes himself to Maya as “a life support system for feelings of anxiety. The anxiety is the organism and I am the habitat.” Yet he tells his story in this book much like a programmer, almost as if he’s writing clean lines of code. The habitat of this book may indeed describe anxieties, but it seems like it’s reliant more upon nouns and adjectives rather than verbs. And I was curious about this. Did you impose any kind of stylistic ordinance upon your character to push his anxieties beneath the text? I mean, verbs are certainly the way that we absolutely spill out our emotion. And yet he seems to not use them as such. I’m wondering if this was something you were conscious of or whether it was designed or emerged through revision or what not.

Roth: That’s interesting. I certainly don’t, when I’m writing, think in terms of parts of speech like that. I’m not a sufficiently programmatic writer to be able to do that. I don’t think it would help me. I’m sure there’s some people for whom that would be a useful way to think about things. I do think — and the sentence that you quote is a good example of this — you know, he’s out on a date with this girl and she says to him — he says something that seems uptight or anxious and she says, “Do you consider yourself an anxious person?” And he says, “I consider myself a life support system for anxieties. The anxiety is the organism and I’m the habitat.” And on one hand, to some extent, that’s an accurate description. But on the other hand, hopefully on a date, that’s the clever thing to say. That’s sort of witty and self-deprecating, but also a self-revealing thing to say to a girl who you’re trying to make fall in love with you. And rather than imposing a restriction on Eric’s speech, I think of that character as being both messed up in all of these ways and having these real psychological difficulties, making life really difficult for him, and at the same time being to some useful degree self-aware about that and able to talk about and, as in that example, able to present it and able to sublimate it into a self-presentation that hopefully is a little charming and a little attractive and that Maya at least responds to. And hopefully, to some extent, the reader will respond to it in that way as well. He is an anxious person and he is a self-conscious person and yet his self-awareness about those things enables him to defuse their effects a little bit.

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, chefboydee, and hamood.)

The Bat Segundo Show #508: Gabriel Roth (Download MP3)

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Unemployment (Follow Your Ears #7)

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The national unemployment rate continues to hover just under 8%. It’s been like this for about a year. That’s higher than the 1991 recession. And the unemployment numbers are starting to match the recession of the early 1980s, just before unemployment hit over 10% in 1982. This program looks into whether or not the jobs are really coming back. Are we avoiding a serious problem that we don’t have the courage to stare in the face? To what degree are we repeating history? We meet a man who motivates the unemployed in library basements, get experts to respond to Chairman Bernanke’s recent claims that unemployment will fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015, discuss the finer points of Beveridge curves with economics professor William Dickens, chat about how the last four decades of labor developments have contributed to the unemployment crisis with Down the Up Escalator author Barbara Garson, discover a company that protected the unemployed against discrimination with the National Employment Law Project’s Mitchell Hirsch, and learn about discrimination and how local labor policy reveals national labor policy with Dr. Michelle Holder of the Community Service Society of New York.


7a

I Really Want This Job

Barry Cohen is a well-dressed man with impressive cheekbones and an indefatigable smile. He reminds me of some 20th century titan who wants you to sign on the dotted line for a set of steak knives. On hot summer nights, he can be found in the basements of public libraries addressing the unemployed on how to find and get the jobs they really want. We talk with Barry and the people who look for confidence and guidance in his words. It turns out that Barry is working from an unexpected vicarious place. (Beginning to 9:40)


7b

Curves and Predictions

Last Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told reporters that we were at the beginning of the end. He predicted that unemployment would fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015. But William Dickens, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Social Policy at Northeastern University, feels that Bernanke is being overly optimistic. He also demystifies Beveridge curves for us and elucidates a policy paper he co-authored with Rand Ghayad that caused at least journalist to freak out in the final moments of 2012. (9:40 to 18:37)


7c

Down the Up Escalator

Barbara Garson, author of Down the Up Escalator, offers a more sociological view of the unemployment problem. She tells us that it’s not so much the recession that reveals the causes of unemployment, but the American worker’s dwindling prospects over the past four decades. We discuss the Pink Slip Club, the “new normal” of unemployment, and consider how the unemployed can contribute to society as they pine for nonexistent jobs. (18:37 to 29:10)


7d

Discrimination

It’s difficult to feel inspired and real when the deck is stacked against you. One little discussed truth about being unemployed is the rampant discrimination against job seekers who are not presently employed. The situation is so bad that New York City was forced to pass Introduction 814, a groundbreaking piece of local legislation that made it illegal under the human rights law for an employer to base a hiring decision on an applicant’s unemployment. We speak with Mitchell Hirsch, the Web and Campaign Associate at the National Employment Law Project, to get a handle on just how bad discrimination against the unemployed remains. It turns out that Introduction 814 doesn’t go far enough. We also meet Dr. Michelle Holder, Senior Labor Market Analyst at the Community Service Society of New York, to determine why New York is a good microcosm for American unemployment. The conversation reveals how local policy reflects national policy and gets into problems with the Georgia Works program and “business-friendly” politicians. (29:10 to end)


Loops for this program were provided by BlackNebula, danke, djmfl, drmistersir, EOS, JorgeDanielRamirez, kristijann, KRP92, MaMaGBeats, Megapaul, morpheusd, and ShortBusMusic. Follow Your Ears Theme (licensed) by Mark Allaway.

Follow Your Ears #7: Unemployment (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Robert A. Caro

Robert A. Caro appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #455. He is most recently the author of The Passage of Power.

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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.

Caro: Yeah.

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.

Correspondent: Sure.

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.

Correspondent: Sure.

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.

The Bat Segundo Show #455: Robert A. Caro (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Hari Kunzru, Part One

Hari Kunzru recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #440. He is most recently the author of Gods Without Men. This is the first of a two part conversation. The second part can be listened to on The Bat Segundo Show #441.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling with issues of conversational faith.

Author: Hari Kunzru

Subjects Discussed: Variants of faith in the author/reader covenant, Kunzru’s background, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, absence and unknowability, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Celestine Prophecy, liberals who distrust science, how the media portrays women, when New Yorkers are confused with Englishmen, owning a motel in a desert town, attempting to escape the narrow possibilities of life, the appeal of cults, the desire for community, coercive situations in group living, Dawn’s tendency to accuse men of molesting a child, pedophilia, when people are faced with the offensive and the unspeakable, public discussions of children, organizing a book around echoes rather than plot, absent children and spirituality, simulacra within Gods Without Men, STRATFOR, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, housing compartmentalized illusions within the giant illusion of a novel, the gaps within storytelling, breaking the contract between author and reader, refusing to tie up all ends, growing up in a period of postmodernism, being in a period of overlays, Augmented Reality, war simulations, being trapped in the imagination of the United States, the financial model as mystical tool, complex systems that are only understood through models, high-speed trading engines, machines that disguise their positions in the marketplace, the 2010 Flash Crash, comparisons between a day trader and a novelist, the predatory nature of collecting stories from other people, Theron Wayne Johnson, hearing a grisly story from a man in a bar, the ethics of making a story sufficiently transformative from its original source, conducting research for My Revolutions, people who use violence in support of their politics, the moral difficulties of formal interviews used for fiction, recent anti-gentrification movements in London, John Barker and The Angry Brigade, Bill Ayers, the Barker/Ayers ICA discussion, the inevitability of copying and pasting in 21st century art, using living people for fiction, impinging on public personae, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Adam Johnson, fictional projections of Nixon, James Frey and Oprah, the authenticity of memoir, the entanglement of novels and nonfiction, living in a Googleable age, the novel as a link dump, Kunzru’s Twitter presence, and hyperlink fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off on a question of faith — predictably enough. A writer has a lot of faith when he is putting together a novel. A reader places her hard-earned shekels over the counter and has faith in the writer to tell a story. The characters in this novel, Gods Without Men — they are both faithful and faithless to ideologies, to their families, to their relationships. So faith is a very loaded concept. And I’m curious why any novelist would tackle something that is so tricky, so duplicitous, so hypocritical, so difficult to pin down. I mean, how do you deal with this? Because even though this novel does not always answer all questions, you are dealing with something that you have to fit into narrative. So maybe we can start here.

Kunzru: Yeah. I suppose my own relationship to faith is a complex one. I’ve got an Indian father from a Hindu background. Many people on both sides of my family are actively practicing religious. My mother’s background is Protestant English. My parents decided quite sensibly to bring me up without any religious — not to bring me up with either of those two traditions. So I was left to find my own way. And I’ve always had for many reasons a kind of inclination to see things one way and then see things another way. But over the years, I’ve developed a sense that I don’t believe in god. I’m an atheist. However, I don’t think that position — the idea that you don’t believe in some kind of personalized creator to whom you owe an ethical duty not to sleep with the wrong people. That doesn’t take any of the big questions off the table about human agency, about ethics, about meaning and value. And I’ve always been very fascinated by people of faith. Because in some ways, I find them very scary. People with a very strong faith have stopped asking questions at a certain point. There’s a certain point where they have made this leap. This extraordinary leap into the world of faith. And it’s something I felt that I understood poorly as well. The only book that’s ever really made me really kind of feel what it must be like to have a powerful religious faith is Fear and Trembling, the Kierkegaard book where he talks about the extraordinary moment where Abraham has sacrificed Isaac and he’s prepared to do this because his faith in God’s word is true. And that kind of encapsulates it. It’s a terrifying act. It’s a horrific act. And it, in a way, echoes with all these incredibly violent things that have happened in the name of religion. But at the same time, there’s a kind of horror to it. There’s a sublimity to it. There’s an absolute abandonment of the human.

And this novel is a way, is my attempt to talk about our relationship with the unknowable and with the unknown. And it’s about all sorts of people who have many different ways of conceptualizing this and many different sorts of solutions that they’ve come up with. But the essential question is the question of absence and unknowability. At a certain point, human comprehension ends. And whether you believe that everything is essentially knowable — like Jaz, the husband in this. The husband and the wife who are at the center of the book. Jaz is a rational man. He is trained as a scientist. His sense of the world is if you think hard enough and you have the right concept and you test and you hypothesize, then the world will open up its secrets. And his wife goes absolutely in the other way. She withdraws into a kind of mysticism. And other characters in the novel range from various people who have profound faith — like a Franciscan friar and a lapsed Mormon coalminer to people who have a much more complicated relationship with it and a skeptical relationship with it.

Correspondent: But I would argue that this concern for faith — both sides of the fence — almost mimicks Fitzgerald’s idea of the first-class intellectual being able to hold two opposing ideas in his mind. I mean, with Jaz and Lisa, it’s very interesting, those sections in particular. Because the prose itself is both general but specific enough for us to get an idea. It’s almost as if the prose needs to mimic their especial judgment towards the world, towards each other, and the like. And I’m curious how you developed this at the prose level. Because that was one of the things that really impressed me about your book. What struggles were there to get that balance? I’m just curious.

Kunzru: You mean, in terms of the voice for the different characters?

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly. Especially for Jaz and Lisa.

Kunzru: You know, it’s one of these things that emerges through the doing. I don’t think it was a very programmatic thing. I mean, those characters emerged as quite defined opposites to each other in their reaction to what happens to their missing child. I mean, I’m interested in the business of faith in the financial markets, faith in credit and the extraordinary kind of high wire act that is the global financial system, which depends on everybody believing that this money exists. And yet placing a kind of Mr. Science in this world of high finance was an interesting one. Out of those decisions, his way of talking and his way of understanding the world emerged quite naturally. Once you know that somebody has a higher degree in physics, you know that they’re unlikely to be basic in their worldview on The Celestine Prophecy. And Lisa’s character comes out of something I’ve observed from a lot of liberals with humanities backgrounds. Here, in London, everywhere. That actually, people aren’t very scientifically educated very often and actually have a kind of gut hostility to the procedures of science. Because they feel that it’s kind of closing down the space of wonder in the world. And that leads quite a lot of people — I’m always quite surprised by people who are very skeptical and argumentative will often have this blind spot where it comes to — especially things to do with health, in particular. Like people get into homeopathy and various other things that I would personally consider quackery. Because partly they wish to believe certain things about the world that have to do with wonder and ineffability and unknowability and often beauty and a kind of non-utiliatarian way of seeing the world. It’s all kind of very valid reasons to want to protect a sacred space from an intrusion by the methodology of science. But it can lead people into some very strange, anti-rational positions. And often those two ways of being can be very buried in people. Because we don’t tend to have these conversations. It’s off the list of what’s polite in a party chat.

Correspondent: Well, be as impolite as you like here. (laughs)

Kunzru: (laughs) Well, we can talk about it. But having a couple who basically have a great deal in common, who love each other — they genuinely love each other, these two. The kind of gradual exposure of the real contours of their ways of dealing with the unknown is what causes this terrible tension in their relationship. And that seemed to me to speak to quite an interesting fault line that runs across a lot of contemporary culture.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if Lisa, at least in relation to the question of faith, was almost sort of a spillover character for what you could not do with Dawn, who I’m also really curious about. I mean, it’s interesting that the women tend to gravitate towards issues of blind faith, often destructive faith. I mean, with Lisa, it’s interesting too because you have all these media incursions into her life. So it’s almost like some part of the world wishes to punish her for her beliefs.

Kunzru: I’m very interested in the way that media presents women. Especially mothers. The censoriousness that attaches itself to women’s choices around motherhood and around the work. I mean, in this novel, their child disappears. They become the object of this media witch hunt. And everybody zeroes in on “Is this a bad mother?” — especially “Is this a cold mother?” She fails to emote in a way that the media folk think is appropriate. And hence she’s immediately suspect. Because it’s a novel and you can get inside somebody’s inner life, we know very well that she’s absolutely destroyed by this and she’s an emotional person. She’s not some kind of psychopath who fails to have correct emotion or a response. However, the appearance sort of drifts further and further from reality. Of course, they’re also New Yorkers lost out West. Everyone hates New Yorkers in the rest of the country, as far as I can see. I now get outed as a New Yorker by other Americans in other parts. The English accent gets bracketed into some sort of New Yorker thing. So I get the prejudice as well. (laughs)

Correspondent: Those wild and crazy liberals with their British accents.

Kunzru: Yeah. Exactly.

Correspondent: You’re drinking a cappuccino right now! So there you go.

Kunzru: Drinking a cappuccino with a British accents. That’s exactly what everyone thinks happens in Chelsea.

Correspondent: You are America’s nightmare! (laughs)

Kunzru: I am. Rick Santorum, right now, is burning an effigy of me in a basement somewhere in Idaho.

The Bat Segundo Show #440: Hari Kunzru, Part One (Download MP3)

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Andrew Breitbart, Pillar of Hate and Distortion, Dead at 43

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.

The Bat Segundo Show: Arthur Goldwag

Arthur Goldwag appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #435. He is most recently the author of The New Hate.

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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.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

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.

Correspondent: No.

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.

The Bat Segundo Show #435: Arthur Goldwag (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Deborah Scroggins

Deborah Scroggins appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #431. She is most recently the author of Wanted Women: Faith, Lies & The War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui. My response to Dwight Garner’s New York Times review, which contains more links and information, is also helpful background reading for this interview.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Oscillating between two polar points.

Author: Deborah Scroggins

Subjects Discussed: Salman Rushdie and the Jaipur Literature Festival debacle, India’s political sensitivity, Islamic pluralism, Theo van Gogh’s assassination, why so many intellectual figures supported Ayaan Hirsi Ali (even after revelations of falsehood), Affia Siddiqui’s fundamentalism while a student at MIT and Brandeis, Hirsi Ali’s desire to abolish Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, Muslim schools in the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali’s belief that all Islam is dangerous, Siddiqui’s close ties to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Siddiqui’s 86 year prison sentence and murky details in the early stages of her capture, the Justice Department not trying Siddiqui on terrorism, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, how Siddiqui’s treatment has impacted U.S.-Pakistani relations, the Hague spending $3 million a year to protect Hirsi Ali in the United States, the Foundation for the Freedom of Expression, the degree of danger against Hirsi Ali in the U.S., Siddiqui’s lawyers backing off from initial charges that Siddiqui was being tortured in Bagram, Abu Lababa’s claims that Pakistan was going to come under attack from the United States, why Pakistan only selectively observed certain facts relating to Aafia Siddiqui, unchecked claims of Siddiqui has cancer and got pregnant in prison, advantages in not talking with Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali for a dual biography, Scroggins’s efforts to stay objective, Daniel Pearl’s murder, Bernard Henri-Lévy’s claims that there are ties between the ISI and the Deobandi jihadists, speaking with Khalid Khawaja, efforts to steer Scroggins away from Siddiqui, trying to find the truth given so many inconsistent stories and motivations, Yvonne Ridley‘s press conference offering further claims concerning Siddiqui, why Scroggins unthinkingly forwarded a Pakistani journalist’s email to Siddiqui’s lawyers, how lack of journalistic care puts people in danger, Hirsi Ali’s positive qualities, finding the balance between defending extreme free speech and knowing the implications, considerations of nonviolent Islam, connections between Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali, and how extremism feeds upon itself.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’d like to calibrate this conversation with recent events in India. There was, of course, the whole Salman Rushdie affair at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He gets a report indicating that there are going to be hit men from the Mumbai underworld who are going to assassinate him. So he decides not to go. Then he pulls out. And then Hari Kunzru with various other authors actually read from The Satanic Verses, which is banned in India. Then they have to leave. And then it’s discovered that Rushdie has, in fact, been relying on fabricated police reports, which makes everything extremely interesting. And then, most recently this morning, the latest escapade reaches almost a reductio ad absurdum level in the sense that Jay Leno tells a joke and this is considered a grave offense and they want the government to step in. So all this is happening — as I’m thinking and considering your book, which deals with two key polar figures — Aafia Siddiqui and Ayaan Hirsi Ali — and I’m curious about this. It seems to me that we have an environment in which extremes beget extremes beget extremes. And I’m wondering how understanding figures like Hirsi Ali and Siddiqui leads us to contemplating more Islamic pluralism. Moderation. Or is such a thing possible? Maybe we can start off from there.

Scroggins: Well, absolutely. That could be the whole point of my book. That extremes beget extremes. And there’s no doubt that both of these women — Aayan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui — owe their fame to their enemies. Because if Ayaan Hirsi Ali had never been threatened, she would never have been asked to stand for Parliament in the Netherlands. And then if her film collaborator, Theo van Gogh, hadn’t been murdered on the streets of Amsterdam, she wouldn’t have become internationally famous. Aafai Siddiqui, on the other hand, became famous because she was hunted by the CIA and because the CIA and the Pakistani government were actually kidnapping people and holding them in secret prisons, it came to be believed that they were lying when they said that they didn’t know where Aafia Siddiqui was. And no one would believe them, even though in this case they probably were telling the truth.

Correspondent: But how, using the lives of these two women, does a legitimate concern for radical Islam’s suppression of women transform into extremism? I mean, is it the inevitability of the present climate? Whether it be in India or the Netherlands or elsewhere?

Scroggins: Well, I don’t think it has to. I think there are thousands and thousands of women, Muslim women, working to improve women’s rights in the Muslim world who don’t necessarily see a conflict between Islam and democracy and human rights. There’s fascinating things happening as we’ve seen with the Arab Spring. So it doesn’t have to be that way. But in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s case, she has taken the position that Islam is to blame for the oppression of women in the Muslim world.

Correspondent: All of it.

Scroggins: Yeah. So that’s her stance. And it’s been an enormously popular one in the West.

Correspondent: Why do you think it’s so popular in the West? And why do you think Ayaan Hirsi Ali has managed to attract so many notable intellectual figures? As you point out in the book, Rushdie and Sam Harris author this LA Times editorial. You’ve got, of course, Christopher Hitchens supporting her — three days later, revelations occur — in Slate Magazine. You have Anne Applebaum. And they’re still supporting her — even as it’s discovered that she has lied about her asylum application. Even as she is demanding a 50 million Euro security detail from the EC. Unsuccessfully. I’m curious how a person like this also becomes one of the 100 Most Influential People named by Time Magazine. Is it pure charisma? What is the intellectual value of a figure like Hirsi Ali?

Scroggings: Well, the idea that Islam is responsible for the oppression of women is a very old idea in the West. It goes back hundreds of years. So it’s got a lot of roots here. So when somebody says that, it basically coincides with what people believe. So that’s one reason. I think with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, what really has made her so popular is her incredibly personal story. It’s very inspiring how she tells it. Her coming to the West. Becoming converted to Western ideas. Shaking off Islam. And then being threatened with death for speaking out against it. A lot of people feel very sympathetic to her and feel inspired by her because of that. So I think that’s really why she’s gained such an influential backing. And as to why she got named the 100 Most Influential People, that came right after the murder of Theo van Gogh. And I think it was sort of a sympathy vote on Time Magazine’s part. Because prior to all this, she was a very new junior legislator in the Dutch Parliament. Not somebody who would normally be considered one of the most influential people in the world.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that a good story would be all it would take to ingratiate yourself into the intellectual world. And as we’ve seen with the Rushdie thing, he also fell for a good story as well. I mean, why do you think that narrative seems to trump the investigation? Is it difficult, as you learned over the course of writing this book, to pluck away at the pores, so to speak?

Scroggins: Yes, it is. Because a lot of her story is true. And it is inspiring to people. So that’s a big part of it. Some of the things that have come out — for example, the stories that she told to the asylum authorities. You ask why haven’t her backers backed away from her on account of that. Well, I think it’s because a lot of them feel like they might have done the same thing under the same circumstances. There’s still a lot of sympathy for her, despite the fact. And she has admitted to these lies.

Correspondent: So she’s offered enough remorse in the viewpoint of many of these figures who are supporting her.

Scroggins: Yeah. I don’t know if she’s remorseful. Because she admits that if she hadn’t done it, she would never have become the person that she is today. And it’s hard to see how she would. She would have remained in Kenya.

Correspondent: Well, let’s try to swap between Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali, comparable to your book. When Aafia Siddiqui was getting her doctorate in neuroscience at Brandeis, she actually told her professors that the Koran prefigured scientific knowledge and that the scientist’s job was to discover how the laws of the Koran worked. I’m curious. How was she able to get away with this approach at MIT and Brandeis? I mean, she was able to go ahead and cleave to these religious views and still actually get her education. Can we chalk this up to a profound misunderstanding of Islam at our highest institutions? What of this?

Scroggins: Well, when she started saying these things at Brandeis, her professors were completely shocked. They told me that they had never had a fundamentalist of any description in the program, the neuroscience program at Brandeis. And they actually went back to MIT and they tried to find out. Had she had these views when she had been an undergraduate at MIT? And as far as they could find out, she hadn’t said anything in the science classes at MIT that led anyone to believe that she was a fundamentalist. So that’s one of the mysteries. Whether she sort of changed her views and became more outspoken or whether just nobody paid any attention at MIT. But at any event, by the time that she came to Brandeis, she was done speaking out about this. She was such a brilliant student. She could do all the work, the scientific work, and still make straight As. And her professors still told her, “You’ve just got to keep religion out of it.”

Correspondent: And that was enough.

Scroggins: Yeah.

The Bat Segundo Show #431: Deborah Scroggins (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #428. He is most recently the author of Pity the Billionaire.

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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.

Frank: What?

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: 5%?

Correspondent: 5%.

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…

Frank: (laughs)

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.

The Bat Segundo Show #428: Thomas Frank (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: William Kennedy

William Kennedy appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #427. He is most recently the author of Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.

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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.

Correspondent: (laughs)

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.

The Bat Segundo Show #427: William Kennedy (Download MP3)

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(Image: Judy C. Sanders)

Jon Stewart and the New Political Privilege

“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.

The Most Clueless Political Candidate of the Century

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.)

The Bat Segundo Show: Reed Cowan

Reed Cowan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #341. Mr. Cowan is most recently the director of 8: The Mormon Proposition, which opens in numerous theaters on June 18, 2010.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Conducting investigations on Dick Van Pattern’s possible Mormon connections.

Guest: Reed Cowan

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to also ask about the box of secret documents. You don’t actually cite a source. And there’s no indication in the film that you made efforts to corroborate this with the LDS. Or to even contact the names that were possibly on the emails or the memos. I mean, I’m a viewer — let’s say — who is on the fence. I see this. There’s no provenance. Did you make any steps to confirm the provenance? And why isn’t this in the film? I mean, is there some sort of website component here that one can use to find authenticity?

Cowan: I’ve actually met the person with the documents out of the Church offices. Out of the archives. So there was some corroboration that went on there. And also, what a lot of people don’t know is that, during the federal case that’s going on right now, those documents were provided to the case as well. Which led to subpoenas of other documents from the Mormon Church. In those subpoenas, we were able to see that the documents the Church had to hand over correlated with the ones we have. So it’s a matter of court record, from my understanding with the people inside the trial, that they match.

Correspondent: Which court record is this? Which case?

Cowan: In the federal trial that’s going on right now. Perry vs. Schwarzenegger.

Correspondent: Okay. Got it. And speaking of which, I actually wanted to ask you why you didn’t cover Strauss vs. Horton — the three cases that were consolidated into the California Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8. It would seem to me that that’s just as much a part of the story as the Mormon mobilization. And also the efforts to try and take Proposition 8 off the ballot that were again rebuffed by the California Supreme Court.

Cowan: Well, the thesis of our film is “8: The Mormon Proposition.” And so really the onus is on us to prove their strategy, right? And to prove to the audience how it came together, how the strategy was formed. And so we feel like we did that. And anything else is outside of that focus. And, you know, there’s so much here. I mean, you’re right. There is so much here that if the citizenry really wanted to see what’s going on, I mean, you could produce ten, fifteen hours of programming. Just in the federal trial alone. I mean, the fact that they are not allowing the testimony to be televised, to me, is sickening. And could be hours and hours and hours of documentary material that we could obviously add to the film.

Correspondent: Hours and hours of dramatization as well.

Cowan: Sure. Sure. But I don’t know an audience that wants to sit through ten hours of documentary. And so look for the books, I guess. Look for other documentaries. And I hope there are more made.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if you believe that any Mormon can believe in same sex marriage.

Cowan: I do. I know that some of my high profile Mormon friends believe that I have the same rights as they do. And I have the right to claim those rights. It would be surprising, I think, to a lot of Mormons to know that one of the most popular governors in the state of Utah, Jon Huntsman, and his wife Mary Kaye are dear friends of mine. Jon has now been appointed the Ambassador to China by President Obama. And they are very close friends of mine. And Jon Huntsman has gone so far in that state — now a lot of people wouldn’t like that he didn’t come out and advocate for marriage, but he advocated in that state for civil unions. And that was a huge step. And Mary Kaye said to me, “You realize why we took this stand and took the heat. It was because of you and your partner. It was because of our relationship and friendship with you.” So can Mormons get it? Absolutely. Absolutely.

Correspondent: Then I’m wondering why you didn’t profile, for example, Laura Compton, who started that site MormonsforMarriage.com. I mean, that seems to me a decided apostasy in relation to this particular issue. That not all Mormons are some sort of Borg-like collective.

Cowan: Yeah. You know, there were a few who did dare speak out. There were many who were punished in certain ways for speaking out. And that created a culture where they didn’t dare. So people like Laura are heroes. But again, the thesis was to prove “Look, this was their proposition.” It wasn’t the Catholic proposition. The Mormons were the man behind the curtain. And so again, I welcome any documentary who can profile her or the other few, the minority of Mormons who stood up for marriage equality. And continue to do so. And who are now crossing the aisle and seeing where the inequity happened.

Correspondent: Surely deflecting criticisms from the Mormon Church by having someone like Laura Compton in your documentary would have allowed, I suppose, for those sitting on the fence to consider the issue perhaps a little bit more.

Cowan: Maybe she would have provided a light that people could follow. But again that’s not what the film was about. The film was to show the inequity. Because that was the great wrong that happened. And, you know, in an hour and twenty minutes, that’s the time we had. The time we had to try to prove that case.

The Bat Segundo Show #341: Reed Cowan (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Thirlwell

Adam Thirlwell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #332. Mr. Thirlwell is most recently the author of The Escape.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if a piña colada might serve as literary escape.

Author: Adam Thirlwell

Subjects Discussed: The narrator device in Politics and The Escape, not understanding an early attempt to write a Henry James novel, the S&M of a writer being both eager to please and eager to annoy, Lautréamont and the bifurcation of voice, self-indulgence, the ethical concerns of Politics and The Escape, total selfishness and hurting others in the pursuit of pleasure, Western society and the hedonistic ideal, Goldwagen and Yiddish opera, character names lifted from cultural references, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, defending immaturity from the prism of not being able to tell the difference between the past and the future, Velimir Khlebnikov’s imagery transformed into narrative structure, “plucking” and collage, defining magic in The Delighted States, anticipating what people on television are going to say, the uncommon joys of predictability in pop culture, trying to write a novel that felt like a coda, Gertrude Stein’s idea of methods of the 20th century being used to advance the 19th, attempting to pinpoint the artistic methods of the 21st century, Geoff Dyer, Reality Hunger and appropriation, singularity, Barbara Wright and translation, the difficulties of finding “Beckettian style” in untranslated Beckett, the problems with the chronology of a style, being obsessed with the present moment, the Tea Party, great artists and plagiarism, creative theft, reading a phrase containing “blowjob” before an audience of 500 people, the unanticipated boundaries between private amusement and the public dissemination of literature, degrees of literary intimacy, the 1925 crash as “the Universal Crash,” elegant style and originality, style and unseen neurotic drama, short sentences and rhythm, the evils of passive construction, originality as fluke, unplanned sex scenes, Edmund White, Bohemian as a way of being the “absolute insider,” pithy maxims, blasphemy and belief, the classical equaling the decadent, Lives of the Caesars, Caligula, salacious gossip, and reader motivation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Thirlwell: I think there are similarities between Politics and The Escape in their ethical concerns. In both cases, weirdly, but through different routes. They’re about saying, “Well, what if you were to be totally selfish? Why is it so wrong to not follow your appetites or hurt people? Is it genuinely bad to hurt someone in the pursuit of your own pleasure?” And whereas in Politics, it’s because there are these cute kids who are incapable of hurting someone else, and thus create a nightmare scenario for themselves, which they think iis a kind of utopia, here you get the kind of old guy who is an entirely selfish person. Or seems so. And so I suppose it’s true that I definitely thought that one of the problems for the reader was going to be that what I wanted to do was present this character who would at first seem mildly repellent. This voyeur in a wardrobe staring at two strangers having sex. But by the end of the novel, if it worked, you were going to actually feel both that he did have a coherent moral structure and also is rather likable. And I suppose, yeah, the game of Politics was that they were like words. So all of the exhibitionists who are going to like these people was because there was a sense that this was . Politics was set in a likable world. It was set in a Coetzee, hipsterish world. Whereas this is much more slightly. There are things about Haffner that, I suppose, I myself don’t like. And I wanted to create a character where I wasn’t as sold on the character myself. Though I wanted to create a little machine where you would have to actually change your moral values, or examine your own moral values as a reader.

Correspondent: So this is your worldview. With decades of experience comes decades of a capacity to hurt other people? (laughs)

Thirlwell: (laughs) I’m only thirty-one!

Correspondent: Okay. (laughs) All right.

Thirlwell: No, I have no conclusion. I am interested in hedonism, I think, and why there seems to be two levels of it. On the one hand, it seems that our society — that English/American society, in particular; Western society — is deeply devoted to some ideals of pleasure. But I think there’s a real Puritanical core actually to a lot of the ways in which we still value the couple, the family. There is something that is very much about: that you should be altruistic and you shouldn’t hurt. And in one way, I suppose, I think that’s slightly immature as a moral system. There are going to be conflicts. And where Politics, I think I was interested in showing some kind of self-destruction in that, here you have someone who seems to be outside those moral values. So, no, it’s not like I’m saying, “Everybody should now go out and be horribly unfaithful to everybody.”

Correspondent: It was a bit of a joke, you know.

Thirlwell: But on the other hand. (laughs) It’s maybe not such a terrible thing.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask about the names. Goldfaden, of course, is the guy who came up with the first Yiddish opera.

Thirlwell: Yeah.

Correspondent: You have, of course, Haffner. Which is close to Hugh Hefner. And which is in fact mentioned in this book — that particular association. And I don’t think it’s an accident that Benji might, in fact, be construed with Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” of which this book does considerable reproduction. I’m curious why you were interested in using character names that were essentially lifted from popular and cultural references. And also this note at the end of the book, in which you say that you quote all these various people. Digging through it, it seemed to me as if you didn’t so much quote them, as take stories and shift them around. At least, it didn’t feel like this. Either you pulled one on me. I don’t think it was absolutely paraphrased or even remotely paraphrased. So I was curious about why recycling of this nature occurred, both with the names and also with the so-called quotes.

Thirlwell: Wow, that’s huge. On the names, I think names are really odd. Because there’s something, I think, almost Freudian about it. You’re not always aware about why a name feels right to you, I think. And Haffner, I actually chose — I’d always wanted to write an ambivalent character called Haffner. After a boy who bullied me at school, who’s called Haffner.

Correspondent: Named close to Haffner?

Thirlwell: No, he was actually called Haffner. It was his second name. So that was when I was nine. But I also actually rather liked it as a name. And then, it was actually only halfway through writing the book that I thought, “Oh fuck. Everyone is going to think that this is a joke on Hefner.” So that’s why I put the joke in. To defuse it.

Correspondent: Nullify it.

Thirlwell: To nullify that one. Goldfaden was deliberately the Yiddish dramatist. And Benji, it wasn’t so much from Walter Benjamin. Although I’m sure that was at the back of my mind. That wasn’t deliberate. But I’m sure it was there unconsciously. But certainly the idea of the Biblical younger son. And I think that with the names — with the very Jewish names like “Goldfaden” — that was because I was very interested in almost doing a caricature of Jewishness. Or a particular type of East European Jewishness. Of immigrant Jewishness. Because one of the things that this novel is in dialogue with, and what Haffner the character is in dialogue with, is a particular version of Jewishness. So I think the Jewish names, they were there as deliberately East European. There was an air of competition. I mean, the other source of the names that I’d completely forgotten about, but only remembered recently when I saw this film again. To Be or Not to Be. Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. And for some reason, I’d seen it early on when I was writing this book. I mean, just before I started the book. And I had a kind of cast list. Some handout that I’d got. And so a lot of the names were actually from that. Like Tummel — Frau Tummel — is taken from someone who’s like the production manager on To Be or Not to Be. But then the names come from this locus of Central Europe. And it’s true. And I suppose that leads to the quotations. Because there was a way in which I was definitely interested in doing a miniature recapitulation in this book of my entire literary past. I think, slightly to then move away from it. To finish with it. So that hopefully, what I’d then write would be freer or something completely different.

The Bat Segundo Show #332: Adam Thirlwell (Download MP3)

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The Racist Senate of the United States

Here is a listing of racist incidents involving United States Senators presently in office:

BENNETT, ROBERT F. (R — UT)

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)

BOXER, BARBARA (D — CA)

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.

Boxer: Well-

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.

Boxer: Ok.

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-

Boxer: No.

Alford: Asian? Or some other-

Boxer: Well, lemme-

Alford: I mean- what- You are being racial here.

(Transcript and YouTube clip)

BROWNBACK, SAM (R — KS)

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)

BUNNING, JIM (R — KY)

At a March 20, 2004 Republican event, Jim Bunning stated that his opponent, Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. (USA Today, Associated Press)

BYRD, ROBERT (D — WV)

“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)

COBURN, TOM (R — OK)


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)

CORKER, BOB (R — TN)

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)

GRAHAM, LINDSEY (R — SC)

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)

MCCAIN, JOHN (R — AZ)

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)

REID, HARRY (D — NV)

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)

SESSIONS, JEFF (R — AL)

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.)

SPECTER, ARLAN (D — PA)

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)

VITTER, DAVID (R — LA)


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)

Barack Obama: The West Point Operator

obamawestpoint

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.

“Now I Understand That Frustration…”

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.

The Bat Segundo Show: Robert G. Kaiser

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.

segundo264

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:

kaiserCorrespondent: 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.

BSS #264: Robert G. Kaiser (Download MP3)

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Is the African-American/Prop 8 Exit Poll Connection Viable?

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.

The Bat Segundo Show: David Rees

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.

BSS #248: David Rees (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Sen. Mike Gravel & Joe Lauria

Senator Mike Gravel and Joe Lauria appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #224. Gravel and Lauria are the co-authors of A Political Odyssey. Gravel was a candidate for the 2008 U.S. presidential race. Lauria is an investigative journalist who writes for The Sunday Times.

Condition of the Show: Delving into the complexities of the military industrial complex.

Authors: Senator Mike Gravel and Joe Lauria.

Subjects Discussed: Whether Sen. Gravel and Joe Lauria share the same brain, The National Initiative for Democracy, Article VII of the Constitution, rules that prevent people from participating in the electoral process, the military industrial complex, the Civil War and the defense budget, Eisenhower’s transportation system, Harry Truman and Communists, Iran’s missile defense, living in a culture of fear and a culture of information, X-ray machines at airports, Gravel’s involvement in the celebrity culture of politics, “Rock,” involvement with Obama Girl, whether or not Senator Obama or any of the Democratic presidential candidates have been in touch with Gravel since the debates, whether or not Gravel is done with electoral politics, leaving out details of Gravel’s life between 1981-2006 in A Political Odyssey, political visibility, balancing substance and celebrity, the semiotics and audience reaction to “Rock,” the “unnecessary” nature of war, Woodrow Wilson, war as an endless continuum, whether or not Americans deserve the government that currently represents them, Colin Powell and false threats, Daniel Ellsberg, Dick Durbin, Frank Wuterich and Murtha’s defamation suit, the Speech or Debate Clause, morality and collateral damage, Scoop Jackson, Gravel standing up against the ABM, working with hawkish Senators, and political peer pressure.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: A question to both of you. The modifier that frequently ripples, so to speak, throughout this book in relation to war is “unnecessary.” You question Woodrow Wilson’s motives for getting us into World War I, writing that America was not threatened. Yet I must bring up the bombing of the Lusitania. And I must also point out that there was the Kingsland Explosion. The Zimmerman telegram. I mean, what is a necessary war? Was America really not at threat in World War I? Is this what you’re saying?

Gravel: Of course it was not.

Lauria: Well, I’ll just say briefly that the idea of the Zimmerman telegram was absolute nonsense. Why did Wilson send ships into the areas where they could be sunk?

Gravel: Right. And there was an argument that it had munitions. I mean, Woodrow Wilson didn’t have to go into the First World War at all. In fact, had he not gone in, there’s a chance that we never would have had the Second World War. Had we let them, that was their war, bleed themselves out. Well, you realize that after the First World War, the democracies of the world were in command of the world. And who screwed up the 20th century but the democracies? Clemenceau and the British and ourselves were the ones that set up the tobacco of the 20th century. Does it get any worse than that?

Correspondent: Okay, that clarifies…

Lauria: There wouldn’t have been Versailles. There wouldn’t have been a settlement to the war.

Gravel: There wouldn’t. Because…

Lauria: You would not have had Hitler.

Gravel: No, you wouldn’t have had Hitler. Because the Germans could not have refielded their armies that had left. The French could not have refielded their armies. So there would not have been Versailles. This was like the movie, The Last Man Standing. Well, the American troops! The British were not standing. The French were not standing. The Germans were not standing. So there we were. The Americans were standing. And we were the heroes. And old Woodrow Wilson was basking in this light. Woodrow Wilson was not the great President we made him out to be. Believe me, he was not.

Correspondent: I thank you for the clarification, but back to the other question. Is war necessary in any sense? Can you cite specific conflicts? Specific battles?

Gravel: I know of no war in history that did not beget more war.

Correspondent: But that kind of dodges the question very skillfully.

Gravel: No, that doesn’t dodge the question. I know of no war that has not begotten more war.

Correspondent: Is it necessary though?

Gravel: I don’t know if it’s necessary. I don’t know if it’s necessary. You attack me. I gotta kill you. Then your brother says, “Well, you killed me.” It’s the famous American cowboy story. You know, vengeance wreaks more vengeance. What kind of question is it? Maybe the question you ought to ask is to take the question from Jesus. Turn the other cheek and maybe you won’t get the other cheek lopped off.

Download BSS #224: Sen. Mike Gravel & Joe Lauria (MP3)

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The Politics of Boasting

We don’t often look to electoral politics for sublime life lessons, yet sometimes the lessons are there. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, two popular Republican politicians, have dropped out of the 2008 presidential race. Both candidates exemplified an attitude that has been with us forever but seems to have a peculiar hold on our own time: the attitude of arrogance, or vain overconfidence. Perhaps voters wished to punish this attitude by refusing to vote for either man.

rudyfirsts.jpgRudy Giuliani’s smug self-assurance had been legendary during his long career as District Attorney and Mayor in New York City. But he revealed a more off-putting overconfidence to voters with his strange decision to not compete in the earliest GOP Primaries. He calmly assured his followers that he would sweep up victory in Florida, incorrectly guessing that no other candidate would excite voters in the prior contests. This was a bad strategy in several ways, but it may have backfired for one particular reason above all: it reminded voters of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld’s flippant assurances that they would easily sweep up victory in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2008, overconfident leadership is the polar opposite of what Americans want.

Mitt Romney’s arrogance — a relaxed square-jawed perfection excavated from an earlier age — has always been different from Giuliani’s. Unlike John McCain and Mike Huckabee, Romney rarely revealed any personal frailty or flaw, betrayed few complex emotions, and was never caught agonizing over a decision. In other eras of American politics, this politician might have been highly valued for his Teflon sheen, but again in 2008 we’ve had enough of slick impenetrability. After eight years of “stuff happens” (from Katrina to Pakistan, and stuff is still happening), American voters may need a long recovery period before we’ll vote for a politician with a self-assured, unflappable personality again.

Maybe this is why Hillary Clinton’s biggest rebound moment occurred after she teared up before a TV audience, or why the naturally intense and earnest Barack Obama is catching on with voters. But arrogance hasn’t always been a detriment for a politician. When George W. Bush first emerged as a Presidential candidate a decade ago, his cool arrogance was considered his best feature. It made him “Reaganesque.” Ronald Reagan’s easygoing charm was always rooted in a stern and unshakable confidence that people yearned to find again, and this was no small factor in the emergence of another ex-President’s wayward Texan son as a conservative politician. When the younger George W. Bush’s advisors, pollsters, and image makers assembled him in the laboratory, they marveled at the creature’s unflappable self-certainty.

bushpraise.jpgGeorge W. Bush was constantly referred to as “Reaganesque” in his earlier years, though this image seems so far away now that we easily forget it. It turned out that President George W. Bush did not have the leadership skills of President Ronald Reagan. Just the arrogance.

Of course, U.S. Presidents have been arrogant since the imperious George Washington, who demanded that his subjects kneel. There were perhaps none more blustery than the remarkable Theodore Roosevelt, whose effusive self-confidence is still fondly remembered today. Richard Nixon always presented a face of somber self-righteousness to the public, and a much deeper and insidious arrogance was revealed on the White House Tapes released during the Watergate affair. Jimmy Carter’s inability to rally his government behind his leadership appears to have been rooted in a principled rigidity. It’s probably the case that more US Presidents have been deeply arrogant than not.

It’s a more troubling fact that the United States of America is constantly described as an arrogant nation by many who criticize it, from Noam Chomsky books to Al Qaeda videos to countless casual conversations among concerned citizens. This, again, is nothing new. It was our arrogant Pacific Rim policy that frustrated Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941, for instance. So, is the United States of America actually arrogant? And what exactly does it mean to say this?

ar &#8226 ro • gance: (noun) offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.

Whether this shoe fits or not cannot be easily decided, but it does seem easy to understand how various American policies in Asia, the Middle East, Central America, South America, Africa and Europe can be seen as arrogant. Other world powers like Russia, England, China, France and Germany carry on similar legacies, and more generally it’s clear that a natural belief in the superiority of one’s nation, one’s religion, one’s ethnic group, one’s class, or one’s gender is universal in every society on Earth. It’s hard to imagine any influential nation of any size that has not acted arrogantly towards its neighbors.

Arrogance is as common as the air we breathe. You can’t walk down the street without slamming into it, usually coming at you from several directions at once.

It’s a strange fact that arrogance is not one of the seven deadly sins, while pride is. Dictionary.com defines pride as something much more positive than arrogance:

pride (noun): A sense of one’s own proper dignity or value; self-respect.

So how can pride be a sin if arrogance is not? The seven deadly sins were developed by a number of early Christian writers. One version was endorsed (and thus codified) by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. I wonder if this pope might have chosen pride over arrogance as one of the seven deadly sins because pride denotes a certain secretive self-regard, while arrogance does not. Pride is a private feeling, whereas arrogance is essentially public and relational. You can only be arrogant in relation to others, and by being arrogant you are being honest about your true feelings. Several of the deadly sins revolve around secrecy, but arrogance is an honest expression of what you believe.

In 2008, the United States of America seems to be reeling from a trauma of arrogant and incompetent leadership, and there’s no telling what ripple effects this trauma may eventually cause. But even if American voters are turning towards more down-to-earth candidates in 2008, it’s hard to imagine that human nature is being fundamentally changed. We were designed to be arrogant, and to admire arrogance in others. We can’t defeat arrogance and we can’t erase it; perhaps all we need to do is avoid being blinded by it in the future and we’ll be okay.