Saturday, May 31, 2008

And To Think I Have Her Button

I think I'm making up for the fact that I had really slow internet service yesterday thanks to bad weather. I've actually managed to fo other stuff besides sit at the computer all day. It's amazing. But true.

I'll give you the link. I'll let you read Geraldine Ferraro in her own words. Then, I'll let you gaze in awe at the stupid that needs no words.

If True, It's Baaaaad News For Republicans

While the evidence is as plain as the nose on the face of Jimmy Durante or the Adam's apple on Ann Coulter, Republicans wish to deny the fact that their entire party is crashing and burning. Yet, over here at Crooks and Liars, wherein we see a DNC add running in competitive House races, there is a report that Obama is currently out-pulling McCain in . . . Wyoming.

All I can say is - Wow.

Father Pfleger (UPDATE)

It seems that the Obama haters, whether of the right-wing variety or the Hillary-Clinton-supporting variety, have a new target - a sermon preached at Trinity United Church of Christ by one Father Michael Pfleger. First, after searching, the best I could do to give one a taste of the sermon is this not-quite-four minute snippet from YouTube.

I was led to this particular snippet via Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite's column in the On Faith forum at the Washington Post online. Thistlethwaite, a United Church of Christ pastor and President of Chicago Theological Seminary (as well as a past faculty member in New Testament studies at my own seminary alma mater, Wesley Theological Seminary). Thistlethwaite writes concerning Father Pfleger:

I preached the first service at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago last Sunday. Rev. Michael Pfleger preached later that day.

I preached a sermon about how a sacred conversation on race has to have Christ at the center.

Father Pfleger, as America now knows, preached a very different message on race, one I greatly resent.

We in the United Church of Christ are trying to have what we call “A Sacred Conversation on Race” and I did not find Pfleger’s sermon to represent what we in the UCC are trying to do in having a sacred conversation.

Instead, Pfleger’s sermon was a bullying rant that was disrespectful of the members of Trinity United Church of Christ, disrespectful of Senator Hillary Clinton and really also disrespectful of Senator Obama and his consistent message of finding common ground.


As a woman, I was offended by Pfleger’s mocking of Senator Clinton for showing emotion. Women in leadership get this double-whammy all the time; you have to be strong and not show emotion to be seen as a leader and when you don’t show emotion people say you are cold and unfeeling. I had hoped that stereotype of women had died in the 1970’s, but apparently not for Pfleger.


In the sermon I preached last Sunday, I used Paul’s teaching from 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul instructs the Corinthian church that they are one body in Christ and have to overcome their divisions to “put on the mind of Christ.”

That is what the Bible teaches us about a sacred conversation on race, on gender, on any differences. When we are in Christ we have to love our differences and come together as one body. Father Pfleger’s sermon was pulpit bullying of the church and bullying of good people who are trying to run decent campaigns for President. It was anything but sacred and it was certainly not biblical.

What I am about to say will probably go over like a fart in church (analogy apt, I suppose), but I didn't find anything Father Pfegler said either controversial, or even offensive. Indeed, I find it odd that Thistlethwaite would complain about Father Pfegler's characterization of Sen. Clinton, considering the fact that it was used as an illustration of white privilege in a sermon on white privilege. The issue at hand is a "sacred conversation" on race, with the rules apparently being that we should only have this "conversation" if we are nice to one another. The context of Father Pfleger's remarks make it clear that our history of "conversations" on race are a bit unbalanced as far as niceness goes. Was it appropriate for the occasion to preach as Father Pfleger did? One can argue (as Thistlethwaite does) that may have been he case. There is a distinction between being inappropriate for a particular occasion, and un-Christian, lacking a spirit of, as she says, the unity-in-diversity expressed by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. Since whites in America have historically not exactly embraced blacks in a spirit of that unity, inside the church or out, it seems to me that to turn around and criticize Father Pfleger for not following the rules of the game as set forth by others is a bit disingenuous.

Thistlethwaite's other criticism - Pfleger's remarks are, as the kids today say, "old school" - I find just plain silly. While it is true that African-Americans have come a great distance in the generation and a half since the opening of the Civil Rights era, the underlying institutionalized racism of our society is very much alive and well. Unless we face the reality that African-Americans face hurdles not faced even by other minority ethnic groups (with the possible exception of sexual minorities, who can still be fired from their jobs and are denied equal protection via the refusal to sanction same-sex marriages), no conversation on race will be honest. Until we accept that race is an incendiary topic, inflaming passions and arousing anger, no conversation, sacred or otherwise, will be either honest or fruitful.

UPDATE: Only after writing and publishing this post did I go to Street Prophets, run by a UCC pastor, and find out that Father Pfleger has apologized for his sermon.
"I regret the words I chose on Sunday. These words are inconsistent with Senator Obama’s life and message, and I am deeply sorry if they offended Senator Clinton or anyone else who saw them," Pfleger said.

Pastor Dan echoes my own thoughts, however, on this whole staged kerfuffle when he writes immediately following Pfleger's "apology":
I think there is a whole lot of truth in what Wright and Pfleger have had to say, but this becomes raw meat for the neo-cons. I am sure all of the typical suspects, Limbaugh, Coulter, Ingram, Malkim etc. will have a field day. It is a real shame they don't listen to all of the clips of right wing preachers--there are a lot more out there than just Haggee and Parsley. I can distinctly remember listening to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell speaking about how we deserved 9/11 as well--of course, they blamed it on Feminists, gays, abortionists, liberals and so on. Their hatred is palpable--but no one makes a fuss about them. Why is hate from their side acceptable? Are Wright and Pfleger being hateful?

The last question, it seems to me, is the most pertinent. Is it hateful to point out that whites in America enjoy certain privileges that blacks do not? Is it hateful to point out the real justice might mean more than amending a few laws? Is it hateful to point out that all of us have benefited from institutionalized white supremacy, and might just react even without thinking in a way that shows our stubborn refusal to surrender our own sense of entitlement based solely upon the color of our skin?

I realize I am most likely a minority of one (well, two really, since Pastor Dan seems to be saying things similar to my own thoughts), but I just am not all that shocked or hurt by Father Pfleger's sermon. I am far more incensed by the contrived "controversy" and the trap sprung by those who would try to get Sen. Obama in trouble via a guilt by association.

Saturday Rock Show

Yesterday, I treated myself and bought Porcupine Tree's Fear of a Blank Planet CD. I first "discovered" this wonderful little British band two years ago when I purchased Deadwing and Metanoia. Now, I say "wonderful" with certain qualifications. They can be an acquired taste, an odd mixture of Radiohead and heavy metal prog. They aren't wonderful in the same way R.E.M. is "wonderful", i.e., a straight-ahead rock and roll band. Also, their songs tend to be, how can I put this, a bit on the dark side. Indeed, I might be correct in saying that they are the equivalent, in their joylessness, of the early-1990's American Seattle-scene bands, especially Pearl Jam. This is the title track (although edited; the video is just over four minutes; the song on the CD is seven and a half), with lyrics below, so you can judge for yourself:

Sunlight coming through the haze
No gaps in the blinds
To let it inside
The bed is unmade,
Some music still plays

TV, yeah it's always on
The flicker on the screen
A movie actress screams
I'm basking the shit flowing out of it

I'm stoned in the mall again
Terminally bored
Shuffling round the stores
And shoplifting is getting so last year's thing

X-Box is a god to me
A finger on the switch
My mother is a bitch
My father gave up ever trying to talk to me

Don't try engaging me
The vaguest of shrugs
The prescription drugs
You'll never find a person inside

My face is mogadon
Curiosity has given up on me
I'm tuning out desires
The pills are on the rise

How can I be sure I'm here?
The pills that I've been taking confuse me
I need to know that someone sees that
There's nothing left, I simply am not here
[ Find more Lyrics at ]

I'm through with pornography
The acting is lame
The action is tame
Explicitly dull
Arousal annulled

Your mouth should be boarded up
Talking all day with nothing to say
Your shallow proclamations
All misinformation

My friend says he wants to die
He's in a band, they sound like Pearl Jam
Their clothes are all black
The music is crap

In school I don't concentrate
And sex is kinda fun, but just another one
Of all the empty ways of using up the day

How can I be sure I'm here?
The pills that I've been taking confuse me
I need to know that someone sees that
There's nothing left, I simply am not here

Bipolar disorder
Can't deal with this boredom
Bipolar disorder
Can't deal with this boredom

You don't try to be liked
You don't mind
You feel no sun
You steal a gun
To kill time

You're somewhere
You're nowhere
You don't care
You catch the breeze
You still the leaves
So now where?

Lack Of Understanding

When I first entered this wonderful blogging world, two years ago now (!!), one of the most fun things I discovered was discussing the alleged conflict between science and religion with people. I call it alleged because, for the most part, real scientists really don't care all that much about religion, and most religious folks accept the fact that science is a wonderful tool that achieves marvelous results. It is the extremes, those at the certain ends of the spectrum of human action who push the notion that there is some kind of fight to the death between science and religion. Gasoline has been poured on this particular fire in the past couple years with popular works penned by British geneticist Richard Dawkins, American hack-cum-neurology grad student Sam Harris, and gin-soaked British journalist Christopher Hitchens (the last of whom, despite his apostasy of becoming a right-wing mouthpiece, still holds a special place in my heart because he is a writer of distinct quality).

Over time, however, I have come to realize that these kinds of discussions follow a well-worn path. One side makes an assertion, which is addressed directly by the other side, and the race begins, in which each side attempts to show the other is made up of immoral threats to the well-being of all humanity, irrational curmudgeons refusing to face up to reality, and anti-intellectual cranks. Both sides talk past one another, usually with the presumption that the opposition simply isn't intellectually capable of understanding the vastness of the subject at hand. What is left is a series of type-written shouting matches that can be boiled down to, "So's your mother!"

A good example of this kind of thing, at least to an extent, is this thread from ER, which began last Friday and is still active (like a terrier with a rag, some people just don't stop). I say "to an extent" because, revealingly or not, the individuals who claim for themselves the intellectual high-road, accusing the other side of being an obscurantist threat to western civilization are revealingly ignorant on all sorts of matters, religious, philosophical, and (as Alan notes in comments) scientific. As usually happens when it is pointed out that someone is expressing an opinion based upon incorrect facts (e.g., that science refutes the existence of the Christian God, thus invalidating all religious belief), the one so accused falls back upon the time-worn retort that he or she is being misinterpreted, the statement was never made, etc., etc. To my mind, these things are just tiresome.

Now, I am not trying to pretend that I am above it all. I contributed a few comments (which were never addressed; I think, in general, people like to have arguments with only one person at a time, and I came late and relatively rarely to this particular party), and exercised my right to show that I've read a few books on matters relating to the subject at hand. I think that is a fault of mine, a trap in to which I fall a bit too often; I have this odd desire to show people how wonderfully clever I am. Obviously, I think I come off sounding a bit, how can I put this, full of myself (or of something). I am embarrassed by this kind of thing, because I do not believe (despite appearances) that this means I have some inside track on the way the world really is.

At the same time, I am exercised by the ignorance on display by people who go out of their way to claim that people who claim some form of religious faith are dangerous, reactionary forces, bent on destroying everything from Enlightenment rationalism to the Constitution of the United States. While I do not have any insight on the "Truth" of "Reality", I believe that I at least understand that "science" and "religion" are a bit larger, more complex phenomena than the caricatures presented by those who want to destroy the latter in the name of the former.

This is the crux of the problem, at least for me. I have no problem with people who insist that there is no God. I do not have a problem with people who advocate for a reduced role for religion in our public life (in a free country, I see no reason in the world why this position should be attacked as inherently out-of-bounds). My only problem lies with those who, in making one or another argument allegedly bolstering their own position, reveal their utter lack of understanding, not just of Christianity, but "religion" as a human phenomenon and science as a practical tool for understanding the world. I also find it amusing that the bigotry on display, revealed through the loaded vocabulary of moral approbation heaped upon the heads of religious folks, passes not only unremarked but is denied strongly when pointed out.

I know these kinds of things will go on, whether I approve of them or not. I know that people like Steve Zara and Lee will hold their views despite all sorts of arguments and evidence that their views are (to be polite) misguided. Yet, I cannot help but feel that real science, real social cohesion and beneficence, is not helped by people who claim some kind of intellectual and moral superiority, yet refuse to acknowledge that they are, ahem, wrong sometimes.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Our Local Congressional Race

A resident of Illinois' 16th Congressional district, this year pits long-time non-entity Don Manzullo against Democratic challenger Robert Abboud.
A scientist and energy policy expert, Bob received a Bachelor’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering from Purdue University and was accepted into the US Navy Submarine Nuclear Weapons program.

Prior to his commission in the Navy, Bob chose to serve his country at Argonne National Laboratory in order to support alternative energy/advanced nuclear reactor development. Bob went on to receive his Masters of Science Degree in Nuclear Engineering from Northwestern University.

For 20 years, Bob worked for ComEd as a Senior Nuclear Engineer, leaving to run RGA Labs, Inc., his own consulting, research-and-development, design and engineering firm. In his capacity as a scientist and engineer, Bob has spent his entire career developing alternative energy, modernizing our military, creating good jobs and improving our environment.

As we move forward to a new Democratic era, I think it is a no-brainer for voters in IL-16 to elect Bob Abboud their next Representative. Not only will he be a fresh face in a Congress desperate for new blood and ideas, he will be in the governing majority, far more able to give us support.

An easy example. Last fall, the city of Rockford experienced some serious flash flooding. Manzullo attempted to get FEMA funds for the city. Not only did he fail, but he failed spectacularly. Had we an effective Congressional representative, the city might just have had the assistance needed to help itself recover from a combination of poor city planning, bad engineering, and lousy weather.

I support Bob Abboud, and I want anyone who reads this blog in IL-16 to click the link, maybe send a penny or two his way, and get the word out. I might add that an email campaign the the DNC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee might also be warranted. We have an opportunity to start this new era with new blood, new ideas, new leadership. More and better Democrats, even here in a district that includes Ronald Reagan's hometown.

Family Stories

Every family tells stories. Every family embellishes those stories. My grandfather, a railroad man, was missing the first digit on one of his fingers. I was quite small (he died before I turned seven), but I asked him about it, and I remember a lavish tale of coupling railroad cars. In fact, he lost it on his farm, doing something not very bright; while feeding corn in to a silo, the machinery that strips the corn from the husk jammed, and without turning it off, he reached in to clear it. It started up, taking the end of one of his digits with it. Had my uncle not told me the real story about fifteen years ago, I might have gone to my deathbed thinking my grandfather had lost his finger in a hard-working, all-the-livelong-day moment on the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

On my mother's side, the story of one set of great-grandparents was that they were a former priest and nun from Germany, who fell in love and fled to Cincinnati. Later, the former nun went to confession, only to have the entire family ex-communicated for multiple generations (so much for my desire to convert). Finding safe landing in the Evangelical Church, one of their sons (Reiner, I forget his first name, but I found it in a list of bishops in a book on the history of that now defunct denomination) went on to become a bishop in that forerunner denomination to the United Methodist Church. Were they a priest and nun? Who knows. I know they came through Ellis Island, because my mother's youngest brother gave enough money to have a brick laid in the Johnston family name (I saw the certificate on the wall of his house at his funeral) at the memorial.

Barack Obama fudged a family story, that one could argue was qualitatively different. He said that his uncle was part of the army regiment the liberated Auschwitz. In fact, his uncle was a member of the 89th Infantry Division, which liberated Buchenwald concentration camp (a different entity entirely from the death factory in Poland, liberated by the Red Army months earlier). Not content to correct a factual inaccuracy that may or may not have been a simple misstatement, the right is going totus porcus in its declaration that Obama is continuing in the fine tradition of Hillary Clinton, making up stories to make himself look good. Bob Somerby gives Charles Krauthammer's huffing over-reaction and one can only wonder at the reaction compared to the alleged offense.

The cult of the offhand comment has become ridiculous in its almost daily expression.

Funny In A Sad Way (UPDATE)

The first political memoir I ever read, way back in the dim, dark days of 1984, was Jody Powell's The Other Side Of The Story. Powell was Jimmy Carter's press secretary, as well as one of the architects (along with Hamilton Jordan) of his amazing come-from-nowhere primary victory. I well remember the chapter in which Powell discusses the botched hostage rescue attempt, and his frustration that he was, in contemporary parlance, "out of the loop", only getting word on the details of the event a few minutes before having to face reporters. He argues that, had he been "in the know", he might have been more effective in dealing with overlapping questions coming from a press corps eager to find out why Carter had killed all those Marines.

Since then, political memoirs have become a favorite of Washington insiders. A version of Hollywood kiss-and-tell, they are usually score-setting accounts of the backbiting machinations of the powerful and not-as-great-as-you-think. Former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan has done what many before him have done, and in the process ginned up the right-wing smear machine to the point of screeching overload. Not having read McClellan's book, and not planning to, I can watch the contretemps with a bit of detachment, chuckling at the way the right is managing to make McClellan and his book far more important than might otherwise have been. This post at Think Progress has a good run-down on the latest attempts to kick Scott McClellan under the bus and hold him there is it runs back and forth over his already bruised body. The problem with this attempt to smear McClellan by smearing his publisher is kind of silly, should one stop and think (something either those chattering do not do, or they hope those listening do not do). Obviously, McClellan is trying to sell books. Duh. Obviously, the publisher of the book, via the editor in charge of the project worked with McClellan to get information that would spice up the tale, and therefore drive sales. Obviously, the publisher in question is willing to publish and market books by all sorts of persons, left and right, to make money from them.

Arguing this way is so silly. Since there is no way to deny that McClellan is speaking publicly available facts - despite selling crap on a daily basis while still in his old job - the only way to smear the guy is to shout, "Oh, my God! He's trying to make money! So is his publisher!" I, for one, am not impressed with McClellan's mea culpa for being a mouthpiece for the hoodlums and fools in charge. It is a bit late in the game for him to come forward and say, "So sorry." At the same time, it is nice that the right has a chance to kick around someone other than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. As they attempt to eat one of their own, or disappear him from the pages of recent events, or dismiss him as a disgruntled, attention-seeking crank, we can sit back and remember that, in the end, all that matters is that everyone hates George Bush, and we are in the last throes of this long national nightmare.

UPDATE: I have been remiss in my commentary by ignoring, or forgetting, the simple fact that part of the hubbub around McClellan's little tome has been created by a hyper-defensive Washington press corps that McClellan spanked for not doing their job (although, had they done their job, McClellan, either in real time or in retrospect would be equally scathing, one supposes). Tristero and dday at Hullabaloo, and Glenn Greenwald in two consecutive posts give some details. One of those reporters speaking out, Jessica Yellin, has already started to backtrack, knowing (as dday notes clearly) that she is now marked like Ashleigh Banfield and Phil Donahue. These kinds of things are normal, and Yellin, by going public without naming names, has put herself in an awkward position indeed, putting the onus right back upon her own shoulders to provide specifics of her claims that she received both editorial and corporate pressure to alter stories to fit "the patriotic fever" (I was inoculated as a child, so I didn't catch that particular bug). Yet, even should she not do so (and her current "clarification" shows she won't), her refusal should be evidence enough; why would anyone want to go public with the kind of information that would make one unemployable, a professional leper. Naming names is nothing less than a death sentence, as anyone in the mob or government could tell you.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Taming The Hermeneutic Of The Shrew

As I remarked last week, and found myself somewhat alone in so doing, the onslaught against Sen. Hillary Clinton for her remarks about Sen. Robert Kennedy's murder after a hotly contested June primary in California, continues apace. Bob Somerby covers the latest nonsense in today's edition of The Daily Howler and, in so doing, asks the question at the heart not just of this fake tempest, but of our entire political culture:
As a society, are we able to interpret meaning in a standard manner at all? Or is everything just a novel now?

The other day, I was visited by Oliver Willis, who insisted without evidence, that Clinton's continued presence in the Democratic primary campaign was a matter of ego, and that by so continuing, the inevitable result would be a McCain victory. This is not just an inability to interpret correctly. It is, as Somerby says, just a novel. Everyone knows that Sen. Clinton is an egotistical harpy, concerned only with her own image and the pursuit of power at all costs. Since everyone knows this, interpreting every word, act, gesture, laugh, and hand clap becomes an exercise in the hermeneutics of the shrew. I may not be an insider or player like Willis; I may not link to celebrity T & A, driving up my hit count. I'm just a z-level blogger with a small but dedicated readership. Yet, I was able, without too much trouble, to figure out what she meant, because I did not assume that Mrs. Clinton wants Sen. Obama killed.

Somerby uses a Harold Meyerson column in The Washington Post to further illustrate how this hermeneutic of the calculating shrew works. First, from the word processor of Meyerson to our bleeding eyes:
Had Florida and Michigan conducted their primaries the way the other 48 states conducted their own primaries and caucuses—that is, in accord with the very clear calendar laid down by the DNC well before the primaries began—then Clinton's marchers would be utterly justified in their claims. But when the two states flouted those rules by moving their primaries outside the prescribed time frame, the DNC, which gave neither state a waiver to do so, decreed that their primaries would not count and enjoined all presidential candidates from campaigning in those states. Obama and John Edwards complied with the DNC's dictates by removing their names from the Michigan ballot. Clinton did not.

Seating Michigan in full would mean the party validates the kind of one-candidate election (well, 1.03, to give Dennis Kucinich, Chris Dodd and Mike Gravel, who also remained on the ballot, their due) that is more common in autocracies than democracies. It would mean rewarding the one serious candidate who didn't remove her name from the ballot when all her rivals, in deference to the national party rules, did just that.

Now, the soothing salve of Somerby:
Sorry, but even Meyerson surely knows that there was no “DNC dictate”—no “national party rule”—requiring Obama, Edwards, Biden and Richardson to remove their names from the Michigan ballot. Duh! They did so voluntarily, at the last minute (as was their right); that’s why Clinton, Dodd, Kucinich and Gravel were free to leave their names there. The candidates’ decisions were voluntary; indeed, all the requests were made on October 9, the day of the ballot deadline, to considerable uproar in Michigan. (The DNC had condemned the state’s primary at least four weeks earlier.) Indeed, in the October 10 Detroit News, party honcho Debbie Dingell said that Obama’s campaign “had assured her last week that he would remain on the ballot.” We have no idea if that’s accurate, but no challenge to her statement was ever published—and it only made sense because there was no requirement that names be removed from the ballot. All the uproar, surprise and confusion occurred because there were no “rules” or “dictates” requiring names to be removed.

Request to Meyerson: What was the “dictate” to which you refer? Any chance you could quote it for us?

This is how not just political reporting should operate. This is how interpretation should run. Rather than continue to assume bad faith, especially when there is no evidence of bad faith, why not report facts? I realize it is more fun to construct a novel, the plot and characters of which everyone knows. Thus, the hermeneutic of the shrew.

Political reporting that relies not just on bad faith and factual inaccuracies, but assumptions of motive and character without any reference to anything other than what everyone seems to know to be the case needs to be called out for what it is - nonsense. Pure and simple. It doesn't matter who is the target of the nonsense, because, in the end, we all suffer from a press corps gone mad with the hermeneutics of the shrew.

Republican's Identity Problem And Parke Godwin's Little Forgotten Book

Over at Hullabaloo, digby has a nice little piece on the coded identity politics of the Republican Party, courtesy of Mark Schmitt and The American Prospect. This is one of the serendipitous moments in life, or perhaps synchronistic moments (although, not being a Jungian, I'm not really sure I believe that kind of stuff). In any event, I am currently reading, for the umpteenth time, Parke Godwin's Waiting For The Galactic Bus, a science fiction tale in which hides a wonderful parable. In this slim book, Godwin manages to skewer religious dogmatism, American politics and culture, our strange and horrible attraction/repulsion in regards to all things sexual, and even manages to make John Wilkes Booth and Judas Iscariot heroes of a sort.

Godwin's little book, now twenty years old, is the tale of two brothers, marooned on Pleistocene Earth. They give the hominids they encounter an evolutionary boot in the butt, and the results they try to manage over the ensuing five million years, with only marginal success. A pivot point arrives in the form of a young couple, Charity Stovall and Roy Stride, unemployed, angry, envious of all those who have while they do not, using the symbols of fundamentalist Christianity and racist identity politics as a vehicle for channeling their frustrations. Roy, not very bright, is quite up front about his plans. Charity, far more intelligent but blinkered by a culture and society that does not see any value in a woman on the socio-economic margins, is no less hide-bound, but willing to entertain alternatives, if presented a certain way.

The brothers, faced with the horrid possibilities of a child emanating from this couple - intelligent but bitter, "weaned on hate" as Godwin writes - decide to stack the deck, and do A Divine Comedy with some twists and turns through a German Expressionist Hell, the high-rise district for the damned, and the bureaucratic headquarters for Below Stairs which has an attached bar and brothel, as well as staged murderous raids on supposed Jewish and black neighborhoods for those who perished without grace. Charity sees it all and realizes that awaking from her nightmare is the only sane choice in an indifferent universe. Roy cannot face the reality that the universe will not endorse his petty visions of slaughter (even as it will not necessarily condemn his murderous impulses; it is exactly here that we realize that our moral code is a creation of our mind, not something embedded in the fabric of the Universe). He accepts death and damnation with the proviso that he never remember that he is the equivalent of a squished turd on the shoe of reality. Charity chooses real life, with all its struggles (and with her other friend, Woody Barnes), over the now-dead dreams of salvation and justice endorsed from on high.

This little snippet hardly does the book justice. It is filled with wonderful little tid-bits, laugh-out-loud chapter titles, scenes of both comedy and horror, and the reminder that, while death isn't so bad, life is far preferable. It is synchronous because Godwin is quite clear that the kind of identity politics described by Schmitt and taken up by digby is at the heart of much of our current political malaise. This is not to disparage the frustrations of the marginal classes, or to deny the reality in which those frustrations are rooted. It is, rather, to point out that much of the anger and bitterness we see on the right manifests itself (the Rev. Hagee is a great example) in lofty dreams of Armageddon not so much out of a careful exegesis of the Bible, but a more complex hermeneutic rooted in the social psychology of the marginalized. In a society that only seems to ratify those ideas that are broadcast abroad, via television, radio, and the internet (the the ubiquity of blogs!), the marginalization of those left behind by our society is compounded by the refusal to take their anger seriously.

This is the Republican base. I am not making fun, being condescending or otherwise dismissing the bitterness on display. I am saying that, with so much intellectual and political energy spent dismissing the frustrations and limitations of men and women who live on the fringes of American society (remember the line about "dragging a twenty dollar bill through a trailer park"? real nice), we have a horrid witches brew simmering that needs to be addressed. The biggest lie is not that racist identity politics, carefully coded and sold with a grammar of symbols and discreet hinting, is a solution to our problems. The far bigger lie is that meaning and affirmation lie at the heart of the structure of the world, and that this affirmation will be forthcoming through a bloody and vengeful purge of those who deny it. It isn't about religion, or science, or rationality, or race identity, or heritage, or who is and is not a real American. It's about confronting head on the truth that we create our own meaning, and it is always a struggle to get from where we are to where we want to be.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Perlstein On Condescension

This post by Nixonland author Rick Perlstein, in which he takes on George Will's ill-informed criticism of the aforementioned book, is a wonderful encapsulation of an important point, one I have made on many occasions over the life of this little blog. It is a multi-point thesis, but can be summed up in a simple sentence - It isn't the 1960's anymore! While Perlstein's work on Nixon and Goldwater is important for the light it sheds on the rise of the Republican governing majority of the past 40 years, I have recommended, on several occasions, some other works as well. Godfrey Hodgson's Turning the World Right-Side Up and Gary Dorrien's The New-Conservative Mind, in particular, are excellent guides to the rise of the right in this country, and the rise of neo-conservatism and the neo-conservatives. Both write with respect, albeit critical respect. Dorrien in particular is quite clear that, while he has fundamental disagreements with the neo-conservatives (a point he expands in his follow-up, Imperial Designs), he nevertheless has serious respect for the intellectual muscle neo-conservatives have wielded.

Perlstein's main point in the linked piece - that George Will seriously misunderstands him, and liberals in general, picturing them all as little Richard Hofstadter's gazing imperiously down upon their inferiors - is important. As we near the end of Republican and conservative dominance of our politics and discourse, assessing the damage and (yes, I'll admit they've had a few) successes, it is important to remember that American conservatism isn't the result of status anxiety, envy, or small-mindedness, but has deep roots in our history and politics. Yes, there are those who have exploited racism, sexism, and other social ills for their own political gain; that doesn't mean the whole movement is morally bankrupt (even if it is politically bankrupt at this point in time). The left and liberals are no less prone to succumbing to panderers and opportunists (Perlstein mentions Abbie Hoffman, who was less a serious figure of the "Left" than a media-whore who at least got his come-uppance at Woodstock courtesy of Pete Townsend of The Who).

Perlstein's piece is important, and should be kept in mind every time we wish to fall in to the trap of treating conservatives as boobs, cranks, intellectual lightweights, or some cancerous aberration on our collective polity.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Music Monday (It's Back, Too)

I believe some folks will think I've lost my mind. Others will think I've seen the light. In any event, one thing I have discovered over the past few months is that I like Buck Owens' Bakersfield sound.

Here's Buck with Dwight Yoakam, doing one of his signature songs, "The Streets of Bakersfield":

"I've Got A Tiger By The Tail":

Oliver Willis Embarrasses Me As An Obama Supporter

Perhaps this horse has been beaten to death, perhaps not. This kind of thing, however, really ticks me off.
Please, just fade away. You lost. You got close, but you lost. All you are doing now is embarrassing yourself and hurting the party and the country in the process.

Who is embarrassed by more democracy, by continuing to ask voters to decide who should represent them and their interests? Who is Oliver Willis to demand anything of anybody? Who am I? Good God, people, the Democratic primary has been nothing but a boon - two historic candidates, great voter turnout, new voter registrations, an expansion of the party's message. The nonsense the Republicans and the media toss out there has not only not stuck (and, yes, they keep trying to make it stick but it hasn't), but Obama's and Clinton's numbers remain high, with both of them beating McCain across any number of current polls. McCain's campaign is in disarray, to the chagrin of Republicans, while both Obama and Clinton run well-financed, professional machines.

Willis further makes a fool of himself by running a clip of former Pres. Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky. Besides being gratuitous, I wonder at the relevance of such a clip. For me, it is a reminder not of Clinton's foibles, but of the many-years-long campaign to find anything to bring down a popular incumbent President. The entire Monica Lewinsky business - painful for her to remember, to be sure - was the concoction of Republicans looking for anything "bad" to take Clinton out. Did he "lie" to the American people when he said he did not have sex with "that woman"? Yes, he did. The only ones hurt by that lie were his wife and daughter, though. Most Americans knew it, felt bad for his family, and wanted the whole thing to go away. Not because talking about blow-jobs made them nervous, but because they knew that people do these kinds of things, and that for the most part they aren't anyone's business.

Yet, here we have an alleged liberal carrying water for Republican hacks, reminding whoever needs to be reminded that Bill Clinton has some personal foibles, baggage that his wife will surely drag along should she attain the White House. My question is simple - who cares? I honestly wish all those concern trolls on all sides would shut up and let the process move on. Let Clinton take it all the way to the convention if she wants; it's politics, and as Alan says, this isn't dog-catcher we're talking about here, but the Office of President of the United States. As far as I'm concerned, it's all good. More democracy, especially in the Democratic Party.

In Memory

Not long after landing in France in 1918, my grandmother's brother, Cpl. Everett Shores, was killed in action during what came to be called The Second Battle of the Marne. This was part of the three-phased offensive strategy of German Imperial Chief of Staff Eric Ludendorff, who was using the million men released from fighting the Russians to blow through the western lines. The first phase saw the greatest artillery barrage in history (until the North Korean opening barrages 32 years later) completely destroy the British lines across a miles-wide swath. The second saw the Germans pushing against a combined French-American presence at the hinge of their combined forces. The third was an attempt to blow through this hinge. During this time, a replay of the opening month of the war, when the Germans seemed destined to capture Paris and the French army was taken to the front in a fleet of taxi cabs, even as the British pounced on their right flank, slowing their progress to a crawl, one company of American doughboys was hit by German artillery. Company "M" was pretty much obliterated, and one of their young NCOs was killed by a concussion blast from a massive German shell.

My great-uncle's death was the first of two major blows to my grandmother's family. In the first place, his mother spent the rest of her life blaming herself, because she encouraged her only son to enlist. Ten years later, my grandmother's oldest son, her brother's namesake, Everett Safford, would die after lingering in a hospital bed from injuries sustained during a traffic accident. The names of both Everett's (the younger had the nickname "Ikey", my father's family being great at giving family pet names) were not to be mentioned. Their existence disappeared from family lore, except for a brief mention that they had died. Who they were, what they did - all that was off limits. I was in my mid-20's before my father gave me some details of the traffic accident; it was only this past March that I heard more details.

Nearly a century has passed since those events (90 years, actually), and the ripples still flow out. My own feelings about the death of a man whose chin and eyes I inherited, but who does not exist as a person because the only individual who knew him died 23 years ago without ever telling anyone what kind of man he was, are slightly different. I am angry the Cpl. Shores, like tens of thousands of other young men, went to France only to end up cannon and machine gun fodder, in a useless exercise in European cultural and national suicide. This is not to argue that the war had no rationale; it is only to say that, by 1918, the war was continuing because of its own inner logic, not for any gains either side could have or actually did achieve from it. Killing as many of the "enemy" as possible became an end in and for itself, not a means towards achieving victory. Like our own war-without-end, victory is a meaningless word, best banned from discussion by rational people who see the conflict for what it is, and seek to end pointless deaths.

I have on my wall here two different pieces of paper, sent originally to my great-grandmother. One was an acknowledgment of Shores' death by the Army, signed by Gen. Pershing (it is for that signature, in ink, that I prize that particular piece). The other is a tribute from the French government, signed by Pres. Poincare (again, it is for that signature that I prize this piece; these were the days when people signed things, not machines or stamps). I think four generations of my family would have benefited from these men, and others like them, opening their eyes and realizing that ending war, even if no goal is achieved, no victory is declared, no parades or memorials are celebrated, is a goal to work toward in and for itself.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Waking Up From History, Part I

What follows is a rough draft of the first part of an longer essay I am writing, which in turn is part of an attempted series of essays (my goal is three) on coming of age and living the past quarter century under the rule of the Republicans. Again, this is a first draft, very rough, and I welcome all sorts of constructive criticism.

In November, 1989, I was in the midst of a personal crisis, the details of which are unimportant and far too private to relate. Suffice it to say that I was on the verge of what was euphemistically called “a nervous breakdown”, and leave it at that, shall we? Even in the midst of my own neurotic problems, however, like much the rest of the world, I took a breather one evening, sitting in a living room in Richford, NY, and watched Tom Brokaw standing in front of jubilant crowds celebrating the end of the physical division of the city of Berlin. It was a sight that was, up until that moment, quite literally outside the scope of my own imagination. Up until the day before, anyone doing what members of that crowd were doing - standing on the wall, climbing over it from one side of the city to the other, walking past the East German border guards without giving a single piece of identification - would have been shot. The next day brought even more unimagined triumphs as citizens, both east and west, took any tool at hand large enough to effect damage and whole pieces of the Berlin Wall tumbled down.

The highlight of a year historian John Lukacs called an anna mirabilis, the collapse of East German communism, followed swiftly by its demise in Czechoslovakia and Romania under less pleasant circumstances, as well as the voluntary abdication of Bulgaria’s communists, left much of the rest of the world both confounded by the changes wrought in a few short months and marveling at the possibilities now open not just to the newly freed subjects of Central Europe, but to much of the western world. The demise of the Soviet Union two years later was, in many ways, anti-climactic, almost pre-determined even as the tensions during those few days of the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev seemed unbearable.

I well remember New Year’s Eve, 1990. I had just finished my first semester at Wesley Theological Seminary, was still trying to figure out why I had gone there and what I would do once my sojourn there was over, and was generally quite happy to be living in our nation’s capital. Back home at my parents’ house in Waverly, NY, I sat and watched Leonard Bernstein conduct a huge combined choir and orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, fulfilling a promise he had made to do so once Germany was reunited. I still marvel at the fact that Bernstein managed to do so without the benefit of a score. Like a much shorter, much less celebrated song would declare in a few months’ time, we were watching the world wake up from history, with real revolutions happening all around us, offering us possibilities we couldn’t even have dreamed before.

That day not only marked the end of a decade, the celebration of the reunification of a great nation, and the realization (at least for me) that the events of the previous couple years were indeed real. It also marked the end of a strange sojourn in our collective life. The 1980's had begun in a haze of confusion, fear, and increasing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan exploited the fears of an American public hit by rampant Soviet adventurism (from Angola to Afghanistan) as well as domestic disquiet (the specter we are seeing once again called “stagflation”, high interest rates combined with higher than normal rates of inflation) and defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Reagan won barely fifty percent of the popular vote, yet he managed to win enough states to have his victory declared not just a near landslide, but revolutionary as well.

The next few years were a strange time. A recession that was in fact the deepest economic down-turn since the 1930's, with double-digit unemployment, the deindustrialization of much of the American industrial heartland stretching across the Great Lakes and in to the northeast, and a fundamental shift in American tax policy from progressive to regressive taxation combined with exploding military budgets to create budgetary shortfalls unheard of in American history outside a time of declared war all seemed surreal. We were indeed living in the midst of history, yet we did not recognize it for what it was. It was traumatic in a way that only real historical events are. The pace of social change in the United States had ever seemed so fast, so ineluctable. The few things we thought we could hold on to no longer seemed stable.

Yet Reagan and the Republican Party promised an anchor for troubled times. Using a rhetoric both familiar yet unprecedented in its starkness, we were offered the possibility of national greatness once again. We were offered the consolations of a set of religious beliefs at once comforting and aggressive in their declaration of who was in and who was out. We were given the opportunity to face the challenge of seemingly reinvigorated Soviet Union, perhaps not on European soil, but closer to him in the unknown backyard of Central America. We had allies in this fight as well; Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti, Pres. Suharto in Indonesia, Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire were all defenders of freedom, even though their own governing records were a bit lax in this category, and each existed as a wholly owned subsidiary either of the United States or one industrial conglomerate or another.

The contradictions and questions we faced as a nation throughout the 1980's were rarely addressed openly. When such questions did arise, when the factual and rhetorical inconsistencies became too pronounced to ignore, we were often told that these were either the distortions of a class of persons resentful of their loss of power (the Democratic Party) or fellow-travelers, out-and-out sympathizers with our ideological adversaries (the American Left). Often portrayed as a network of interlocking affinities among academia, journalists, and free-lance intellectuals, we were given the opportunity to not so much fear as pity these last remaining survivors from a by-gone era - the 1960's - when radical ideas and political action seemed on the verge of changing the American political landscape. As Stephen King has noted, however, his generation had the opportunity to change the world, and settled for QVC instead. The actual size and relative toothlessness of the American political and cultural left at any time has been small. In the 1980's, it was on life support.

Coming of age during the years of High Reaganism, studying politics and history in college at a time when there was this strange separation between real history both as it was practiced and lived, and politics as the struggle for power on the national level, was an experience I know cannot be repeated. Even a cursory glance at some of the events of the years 1983, when I entered Alfred University as a freshman political science student, and 1987 when I graduated with a piece of paper that was worth quite a bit less than the debt I had incurred earning it leaves one breathless as the strangeness of it all. Whether it was the mining of the harbors of Nicaragua, funding death squads in El Salvador, the invasion and subsequent retreat from Lebanon after a devastating terrorist attack, two attacks upon Libya including a direct assault upon its President, Moamar Qadafi, the invasion of Grenada (in which more military medals were passed out than there were actual participants), and of course the Iran-Contra affair, perhaps the most convoluted conspiracy in the history of the United States - all of these events seemed like watersheds, points of reference for future generations seeking to understand the times through which we lived.

Just Say No To Perot!

The only thing worse than listening to Michael O'Hanlon on Iraq is listening to Michael O'Hanlon on domestic politics. Seriously. In today's Washington Post, he and fellow Brookings fellow Alice Rivlin offer the sage advice that we need Ross Perot this election cycle, in order to keep the two major party candidates' feet to the fiscal fire.
In 1992, with his squeaky voice and endless charts, Perot focused attention on the rising federal deficit. His warnings helped keep the major-party candidates from talking budgetary nonsense.

It is true that Perot's insistent focus on the federal deficit changed the dynamic of the Presidential contest; it is generally considered a truism that Bill Clinton saw the rise of Perot as an indication that fiscal restraint coupled with a more limited approach to federal policy innovation as the key not just to winning the White House but keeping it. The now-famous "It's the economy, stupid" sign, plastered around the Clinton campaign in 1992 kept the focus on what the candidate considered the most important issue for voters that year.

Yet, there was more to the Perot boom than middle class concern over budgetary laxity. After eight years of Ronald Reagan and four years of George H. W. Bush, the tensions of the second Cold War, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the demise of the Soviet Union, the Persian Gulf War, and the ideological exhaustion of both major parties in the United States, the public clamored for someone who recognized not only that we were spending ourselves in to oblivion, but that the world of 1992 was fundamentally different from the world of 1988. Politicians were still talking in words and phrases left over from an era that was no longer present. While a crank in many respects, with his leading idea of treating the government as a business from a budgetary and fiscal point of view being the crankiest, Perot nonetheless had the advantage of speaking in a way that was responsive to the desire to hear something new and different and, most of all, relevant, to the American public in 1992.

Of course, the entire Perot movement was highjacked in later years by people even crankier and outside the mainstream than Perot himself. This is saying quite a bit, because in the summer of 1992, Perot dropped out of the Presidential race at the height of both his influence and popularity, claiming among other things that Pres. Bush used surrogates to disrupt his daughter's wedding. Recognizing a fellow-traveler, if not a full-fledged comrade, conspiracy buffs and other assorted fringe elements flocked to him even as regular voters saw the Democratic nominee respond enthusiastically to the demand for a different political discourse.

The fundamental difference between 1992 and 2008 is not a question of policy, either foreign or domestic. In 1992, it took an outsider to shake up both parties, forcing them to realize that the public needed to hear a particular message. The party that responded won. In 2008, the public needed to hear a particular message, and a simple one at that - listen to us, hear our fears, feel our frustration, be responsive. There has been no need for an outsider to change the dynamic of this race, because, at least on the Democratic side (but also increasingly on the Republican side as well), there is a recognition and accommodation for this demand. In many ways, the closeness of the Democratic nominating contest reflects this reality, because both Sens. Clinton and Obama have employed a rhetoric not just of hope and change, but of acknowledging the role of the public in affecting this changed discourse, and the party voters have responded enthusiastically (if sometimes a bit too enthusiastically).

The Republicans, too, are beginning to realize that the ideological exhaustion and practical paralysis of their party is turning away not just voters, but the deep pocket supporters as well, and the word "change" has crept in to Republican Party ads. The problem, obviously, is that most voters, Republican and Democratic, recognize who has been in charge for the past few years, and what "change" would entail. The Republicans also are playing an insider's game. The presumptive nominee is a long-time Washington player, a favorite of the Washington press corps, with ties not just to lobbyists and other players, but with a history of wheeling and dealing. While neither Obama nor Clinton are naifs, their relative newness to the nuts and bolts of Washington politics as well as their continued reliance that at the very least pays lip service to a larger role in the voting public in shaping the dynamics of the Presidential race bode ill for any Republican nominee.

We are in no need of Ross Perot, or any other third party this year, because the public, for the most part, feels that some (at least) of the candidates get it, it being their frustration, their anger, their sense of the disconnect between the current Administration and Congress and the real needs, and political demands of the public.

Virtual Tin Cup

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