Saturday, August 15, 2009

"The orchestration of incivility" Or Grass-Roots Spontaneity?

When surveying the current ruckus over the pending health care reform legislation, one has to wonder how best to understand it. An attempt to understand is necessary if a proper response is to be constructed. While it might be fun to imagine, as D. Aristophanes does, a kind of "USA!USA!"-style fist pumping by liberals, I don't see that happening. My own perspective tracks more toward wondering how to deconstruct the web of connections among various anti-reform groups, industry-backed lobbyists getting the word out to generate unruly mobs, and the very real fear and rage that is always at the heart of part of the American right whenever social change is proposed.

While it is pretty clear that there is enough evidence that, at least initially, the gathered mobs shouting down Cogresspeople, carrying signs, and whatnot were created not so spontaneously by anti-health-care-reform groups based in Washington, the entire movement seems to be spinning a bit out of control. With the specter of an individual bringing a loaded firearm to a town hall hosted by the President, we are entering a new and dangerous phase. Yet, there is still the question of how best to go about addressing the whole chicken-egg question, as well as describing the political and cultural gulf that exists between the vast majority of Americans who harbor no ideological preconceptions other than a desire to get the facts and figure the issue out on the merits, and the fringe groups, left and right, that seem to be the focus of so much media and internet attention.

Bob Somerby, for one, insists that liberals should not be engaged in insulting our fellow citizens by talking of "paranoia". We should be focusing, rather, on what Rick Perlstein calls those who orchestrate incivility. While I wish I could endorse Somerby's fair-mindedness, Perlstein's catalog of the long history of the right's venomous rage and fear directed at everything from expanded mental health support to Richard Nixon's paranoia shows that there is, indeed, a "tree of crazy" (Persltein's phrase) that is a part of the American flora. Somerby's attempt to make liberals aware that it might be more fruitful to address the issue of who is leading the current assault, rather than focus on this or that individual who becomes a mini-celebrity by getting interviewed on cable news smacks a wee bit of a kind of liberal patronizing - "Oh, look at the poor misguided person who doesn't get that he/she is being lied to; lets look over here at who has lied to them, rather than at the really crazy they represent, shall we?" - that is as infuriating a part of our national character as the right-wing crazy currently on display.

Make no mistake; the phenomenon Perlstein outlines is real and long-standing. Ignoring it out of some kind of phony high-mindedness will gain no political advantage and only deepen the social and cultural bitterness that is expressed by the howls of rage at various venues around the country this month. Persltein is also correct that the cable news outlets share some of the blame (he also mentions Michael Savage, but I think many of talk radio and cable news chatterers also deserve to mention as enablers of this very dangerous moment). Were our national journalists a bit less pusillanimous, the kind of garbage being spread via Sarah Palin's Facebook page and viral emails might be dismissed as so much crap worthy of flushing down our collective memory hole.

This is not the first time, as Perlstein also notes, that the Republican Party has danced with the devil in the American soul in an attempt at political advantage. Robert Taft thought Joe McCarthy a disgrace, yet he indulged the drunken boob's megalomania because he saw a way to tear down the Democrats and gain electoral advantage for the Republicans. Richard Nixon, also, indulged McCarthy, and engaged in similar, though less crass, behavior, although there is ample evidence he believed none of it. Rather than face the false choice presented by one right-wing spokesman quoted by Perlstein - "Either this is a genuine grass-roots response, or there's some secret evil conspirator living in a mountain somewhere orchestrating all this that I've never met." - it is necessary to make clear that no such false dichotomy exists. The underground sea of rage has always been there in the United States, it is sad to say; it has been tapped on occasion by elites seeking this or that advantage, only to come close to being a bloody nightmare (or an actual bloody nightmare, as the body count during the Civil Rights era demonstrates).

For example, it might be nice, from a liberal point of view, to point out to the father who insists his handicapped child would be denied care under the reform package currently under consideration that, in fact, the opposite is true, such reassurances would fall on deaf ears. It is sad to say that such persons are immune not so much to rational discourse as to what they perceive as elitist disdain gussied up as rational discourse. The woman who believes that health care reform will, at some point, through some bizarre mechanism, lead to rationing of toilet paper, is not helped by any kind of rational exploration of her views on MSNBC. She becomes a spectacle, a part of the freak show.

So, we need to acknowledge that there is, indeed, this festering boil of hate and fear in our national psyche; there is also the elite opportunists who attempt to harness it for no other purpose than foiling an attempt at social change. The specific connections among various industry-backed and -created groups, members of Congress opposed to health care reform, and folks around the country who live this fear in their daily lives needs to be pointed out clearly, not so much to untangle it, or to dispute it, or to "debunk" it. Rather, once we recognize the complexity of this contemporary manifestation of our national psychosis, it might go a long way toward putting it to one side. In that way, we might actually achieve real health care reform, and decades from now we can look back and wonder at our own foolishness.

Saturday Rock Show

With the 40th Anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Festival upon us, I have been thinking about whether or not the event was really all that important. Some of the music was really good. Most was middling. Some was kind of bad. In his biography of the Grateful Dead, Dennis McNally recounts how the band, the first to play after the rain, had serious problems with electrical grounding; Bob Weir came away with a blister on his lip from an ungrounded microphone shocking him every time he stepped up to sing. Janis Joplin was on a serious downward spiral. Jimi Hendrix was in the midst of a transition away from the guitar god and more toward a more traditional approach to the blues (he would attempt to change that later in the year by forming Band of Gypsys).

Moreover, as a social and cultural statement it was far more limited than even contemporaneous accounts might make one think. It was as much a catalyst for frustration among outsiders as it was a glorious expression of the counter-culture's arrival. The gate crashing, the logistical nightmare that necessitated bringing in helicopters to ferry performers and food and support personnel in and out, the danger the rain posed in the form of a threat of massive electrocution (they had buried the cables to the delay towers only to have them exposed by tens of thousands of feet churning up the mud; had any of those cables become exposed to the water, consider for a moment what that might have meant), and the promoters forays in to la-la land courtesy of hallucinogens at crucial moments made for serious problems that avoided catastrophe only through sheer luck and the willingness of investors to take a bath.

Yet, all was not horrible. One act that managed to show why they were the first to break out of the local scene in San Francisco was the Jefferson Airplane. While there was an element of self-indulgence in the band's style - they very often played circling around, looking at one another, with members' back's to the audience - they also had an interesting mix of electric folk and blues and vocal harmony that few bands have matched. This is one of their signature acid-rock anthems, "Won't You Try":

I will admit, by the way, that I still find Grace Slick's outfit extremely hot.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What's Happening On The Oceans?

When the Mediterranean Sea was, by turns, a Roman lake, then 2000 years later a British lake, pirates didn't exist. While Britain's attention was distracted by an incessant war with France, pirates holed up in North Africa wreaked havoc on shipping, inducing the neo-natal United States to fight an undeclared war with pirates and French-supported privateers operating out of what is now Algeria and Libya. From the mid-19th to the late-20th centuries, between the British and the Americans, piracy was a relatively rare phenomenon.

As the role of the navy as an expression of national power declined, however, we have seen a rise in piracy, especially in areas that are difficult to patrol, or near failed or near-failing states. Thus, the western Indian Ocean approaches to the Gulf Oil states have become good hunting for Somali-based pirates. The convoluted waterways in the many archipelagos between southeast Asia and Australia are also a haven for pirates looking for cargo ships running the straits around Singapore.

This story, which I first heard yesterday, has far more questions than answers to it - the whole boarding near Sweden is so bizarre - and finding the ship off the coast of Cape Verde only deepens the mystery. Was it rivalry between Russian mob bosses? Was the ship carrying hidden contraband (narcotics is mentioned, but since there is no evidence for anything of the sort, while certainly a possibilty, is just speculation)?

More to the point, what is happening that we are seeing a resurgence of piracy? In 1982, negotiations on the Law of the Sea Treaty - which the US has yet to ratify, although we operate under its provisions - established a new framework, far different from ones developed under the "freedom of the seas" concept developed in the 17th and 18th centuries (see here for details). While I am a firm supporter of US ratification, I have to wonder if putting in place a new international legal regime without any enforcement mechanism, and absent the world's largest naval power, was wise? With the US Navy currently overstretched and no other naval power even approaching our capacity, at what point do we have to work together, again, to rid the world of pirates?

A Humorous Take On Race & The Healthcare Debate

From The Daily Show's black correspondent, Larry Wilmore.

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Silence Is Not An Option

Michael Gerson's column today is an object lesson in being ridiculous. On the one hand, the whole, "I'm not the Nazi! You're the Nazi!" crap is truly stripping the word of any meaning whatsoever. Whether it's left or right, the end result is a schoolyard shouting-and-pushing match that leaves most of us bewildered.

On the other hand, leading his column with an anecdote from 1968 leaves me befuddled. While I am sure there are many readers of the Post who know who Gore Vidal was, most Americans probably don't. Furthermore, they couldn't give a fart in a hurricane for something that happened 40 years ago. I suppose this is Gerson's attempt to show that "both sides do it, so there, nyah", which kind of puts him in the same boat as the "I know you are, but what am I?" crowd. The entire thing, while attempting to bring a kind of gravitas and seriousness to the issue, ends up just being a mish-mash, because Gerson misses a point it is important to remember.

As horrific as the Nazi era was - and, while we're at it, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge, and any number of places under dictatorial tyranny - they were not some kind of superlative, transcendent evil. They were, rather, as Richard Rubenstein reminds us, instances when humanity stretched beyond any limit of what it is conceivable to do to other human beings. Evil the things done in the name of these regimes most certainly were. But as historical events, they are also fully human events, capable not only of study and understanding, but pondering as we consider the possibilities that lie just over the horizon.

While it might be helpful to consider the social and political and cultural climate in Wiemar-era Germany that led to the rise of the Nazis (as well as the centuries-long history of German anti-Semitism and Pan-Germanism that fed this political disease), that there are elements of our current right that are acting as thuggish as some of the Brownshirts did in the final death throes of Weimar does not mean we are on the brink of the emergence of a former corporal to lead us to our destruction. While hardly a fan of elements of the right that seem to dance with the devil of armed resistance, I do not believe we have an SA waiting to arise to stamp out the socialists and academics and burn down synagogues. The American right is dangerous, to be sure, and the blood on its hands is all too real. But is it an American phenomenon, not a German one.

Richard Rubenstein wrote a little-noticed essay, The Cunning of History, at the height of the Nixon agonistes. The title alone declared his intent, and the theme of the essay, which is that, given the proper set of circumstances, the Nazis proved that anything is indeed possible, including the mass destruction of human life in the name of this or that political ideology. It does not trivialize evil to note that Rubenstein saw in the right, thirty five years ago, strings and themes that could weave themselves together in to a deadly pattern for our nation. It does not trivialize evil to recall that the history of dehumanization is not limited to Nazi Germany. We in the west have put very little value on human life in general, quite often slaughtering one another in great numbers over the slightest provocation. That the Nazis, or the American right, are simply instances of a larger human phenomenon needs to be remembered as a non-trivial fact.

Silence in the face of the Nazis, or any expression of massive evil, is not an option.

More Perspective

Courtesy of Eugene Robinson:
I know that I'm not alone in wishing that Obama were moving more quickly to erase the stain that the Bush-Cheney excesses left on our national honor. I wish Guantanamo were already closed -- but Obama did set a date certain for shutting the place down and pledges to follow through. I'm troubled that he hasn't flatly rejected the concept of indefinite detention -- but he at least recognizes that some kind of due process needs to be involved.

I'm most troubled by Obama's resistance to a full-bore investigation of the Bush-Cheney transgressions. I can only hope that the president sees the error of his ways -- or at least that the probe of CIA interrogation abuses that Attorney General Eric Holder might launch is allowed to follow the evidentiary trail to whatever crimes it may reveal.

But that was then, and this is now, you say. Bush and Cheney are history. They were going to leave office in January anyway, no matter who replaced them.

That's true. But witness Sarah Palin's weird near-daily eruptions -- about imaginary death panels and the like -- and reflect on what the summer would have been like if she were serving as vice president of the United States.

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling much better about everything.

It'll take years to clean up the mess those children left behind.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Getting Angry At The Wrong People

About a month a go I wrote this.
The first piece of major policy was the crafting and passing of an economic stimulus package to help revive our floundering economy. With even a few months hindsight, the management of that bill by the President should be seen as one of the keys to understanding his view of the Presidency. For decades, the President has been seen not only as the Chief Executive, carrying out the laws passed by the people's and state's representatives in Congress, but as a crafter of legislation. As a student and teacher of Constitutional Law, one of Barack Obama's first goals was a restoration of the balance between the Executive and Legislative Branches of the federal government. To that end, rather than create some kind of New Deal style alphabet soup of new federal programs and agencies to dole out money directly, the President insisted the legislation use existing legal and regulatory structures for granting federal construction contracts to the states. In other words, while the Republicans were quite correct that the stimulus bill was nothing more and nothing less than the largest pork-barrel spending bill in the country's history, it was done with one-and-a-half eye's on a respect for the inherent Constitutional limitations on federal power.

As the months have passed, even as the President has made good on many of his campaign promises (his record of follow-through is unprecedented, really; he does as he said he would when he campaigned, a tribute to his personal and public integrity, as well as his belief in the necessity of restoring faith in elected officials), the President has been so restrained in his dealings with Congress that many of his liberal supporters have become frustrated with his relative reticence on many matters. Health care reform and the cap-and-trade bill would fare much better if only he would speak out in favor of them; not only his poll numbers, but the poll numbers of measures he favors jump every time he speaks. Yet, precisely because he respects the different roles of the executive and legislative branches, he maintains a certain silence as legislation is moving through Congress, seeing them as the chief arbiters of legislation.

Just a few days ago, I wrote this:
All the whining, all the cries of betrayal and failure by the left demonstrate a simple refusal to accept the democratic process in its gritty reality. We are barely six months out from the Bush Presidency, and we keep hearing there's not a dime's worth of difference between Obama and Bush. Obama is arguing against DADT; he's using Bush-era legal arguments for indefinite detention and maintaining a certain level of government secrecy. Now, on what should be the signature legislative accomplishment of his first year in office, he seems to be punting from his own end zone.

Today, Matt Yglesias writes this:
I know a lot of people on the left who seem to have voted for Barack Obama because they liked his progressive agenda, then gotten excited when Obama won the election because they liked his progressive agenda, then Obama proposed progressive measures to the congress and they were excited, then it turned out that key congressional players like Collin Peterson and Rick Boucher and Max Baucus were less left-wing than Obama so actually legislative outcomes would be considerably less left-wing than Obama’s campaign proposal. It’s all well and good to be disappointed with this situation but it doesn’t make a ton of sense to me to do what a lot of people seem to be doing and becoming disappointed with Obama.

I recall back during the primary campaign that there was a kind of misguided sentiment out there that the key factor influencing whether or not we could get comprehensive health reform or good energy legislation in 2009 was whether you believed Obama’s story about “bringing people together” or John Edwards’ story about “fighting” or Hillary Clinton’s story about gritty experience and determination. The fact of the matter, though, is that legislating is about who controls the veto points.

His commenters are as purblind as some of the folks posting at DailyKos. They just don't seem to get, for a variety of reasons, Matt's main point - Obama really is limited in what he can do. How many left-wingers now whining about Obama's silence, recalcitrance, and being in the pocket of various corporate interests predicted even two weeks ago the introduction of the two-word phrase "death panel" in to the health care debate? How many predicted that there would be an organized effort at right-wing hooliganism that is as successful as has been going on over the past couple weeks? Does the reality that Obama has indeed spoken out loudly and often, and received marginal press attention for it? How many could have predicted or did predict that there would be members of Congress who would buy in to the whole "birther" crap, or even the "death panel" garbage?

It is one thing to deal substantively behind the scenes to get people to support this or that piece of legislation. The public disinformation campaign, supported by the insurance industry but aided and abetted by anti-reform folks on talk radio, is quite literally outside the ability of anyone to predict and control. Since the entire set of lies put out there fit in to conspiracy theories, and any refutation of a conspiracy theory by the target of that theory only reinforces the beliefs of those who hold them, what could Obama, or any other Democrat, do or say to stop it?

We need to change the direction of our frustration to those responsible. While many social and political circumstances have, indeed, changed, there are enough vestiges of the pre-Obama, pre-Democratic majority in place to fight rearguard actions against serious progressive reform. The status quo may indeed be awful, but there are powerful interests who are still vested in it, and will fight to keep it, even if it destroys everyone and everything else.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I Get Email

To: (email redacted)

Dear Geoffrey,

Your name has been submitted as a candidate to chair the Boone County, Illinois Death Panel once health care reform passes. In order to facilitate the decision-making process, we offer this opportunity for all candidates to select a list of persons slated to appear before your death panel. While the final decision would be left to the actual members of the death panel, we assume your decisions will be based on good national Islamic socialist principles from the Holy Q'uran on who is to live and who is to die. We encourage you to receive ideas from your neighbors and friends, in order that as many people as possible may receive their just reward from their government.

Barack Hussein Obama

PS: If you are white, you received this email in error, and your name has already been added to our death panel list. We regret any error.

The first person to take this seriously gets dope-slapped.

Bringing A Gun To A Knife Fight

Most folks paying attention are aware an individual brought a legally permissible concealed handgun to a town hall hosted by President Obama yesterday.

This is the best evidence yet of the difference between the right and mainstream America. They are quite willing to risk the lives of others (and, without knowing it, themselves) in pursuit of some fanciful principle. Had this doofus done something untoward, Secret Service would have unloaded on him, and the right would have had a martyr on their hands.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

These People Are Nuts

Watching this I just have to wonder - how does the argument move from the question of health care reform to rationing toilet paper?

The FNS comment that this was "informed" . . . "One day God is going to stand before you . . ." Apparently this person, of whatever faith tradition, has no idea that God might just be hovering around right now.

In any event, I actually feel kind of sorry for Sen. Specter. Holding a town hall meeting in an insane asylum might have gone better, if for no other reason than the patients might have been medicated.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Bob Cesca notes a sad fact. Left-wing ideologues are no more lovers of democracy than are right-wing ideologues. When no one wants to give them their shiny toys, to bow before their superior knowledge and wisdom, and acquiesce to the unassailable facts that lie behind their urge to remake the world, they turn on those among their number who are weak-willed, unworthy, fellow-travelers of the right, pack up their things and go home.

In other words, if they can't get what they want, the way they want it, right now, goddammit, then it's the fault of the rest of the world. Certainly not theirs. How often have we heard, "No bill would be better than a bad bill"? This obvious bit of nonsense, however, gets repeated over and over again until, like Sarah Palin's death panels, it becomes truth.

In our system, everyone gets a say. It's fine with me that the pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies get to pay for advertising against a bill they perceive is not in their interests. It's also fine that folks point out the undue influence their money has on legislators. It's fine that folks wary of such a drastic change in a major area of our economy speak out their concerns; it's also fine that folks who support that change attempt to reassure these same wary ones the changes will accrue to all. That's the way the system operates.

It's also fine with me that the bill not be "perfect". While there are elements I wish were in the bill, including the ability to negotiate prescription drug prices, and a simple, single-payer approach that, while perhaps not mandatory, certainly practically replaced the network of private insurers. To make the perfect the enemy of the good, or even fair, or perhaps difficult to swallow but better than nothing, is a first, a failure in understanding. The Democrats should have begun this process asking for far more than they wanted, knowing full well the Republicans would neither agree to any of it, and would most certainly distort whatever was in there. Then, they could "compromise" away all the things they didn't want, leaving certain essentials. That's the way you negotiate, especially from a position of strength.

All the whining, all the cries of betrayal and failure by the left demonstrate a simple refusal to accept the democratic process in its gritty reality. We are barely six months out from the Bush Presidency, and we keep hearing there's not a dime's worth of difference between Obama and Bush. Obama is arguing against DADT; he's using Bush-era legal arguments for indefinite detention and maintaining a certain level of government secrecy. Now, on what should be the signature legislative accomplishment of his first year in office, he seems to be punting from his own end zone.*

All this talk about betrayal, and no difference belies how awful the Bush years were. Not just for liberals and Democrats, because we not only had no voice in our own governance, but because the policies pursued were so detrimental to out country. All it would have taken, from the beginning, would have been a concerted effort to get the word out that reforming health care is a benefit for every single American. Everyone. It helps us all. Not just fiscally as a nation. Not just financially as families. It helps us down the road. It gives us all peace of mind - we no longer have to worry that some dire illness or traumatic accident is going to destroy our families and our lives, emotionally and financially.

At the end of the day, the anti-democratic streak in our ideological wings, as demonstrated by the left-wing shrieks of failure and betrayal, gives the lie to liberal tolerance. There are some left-wing types out there who refuse to accept that some of our fellow Americans have the same rights as we do. They refuse to accept that they might not have all the answers. They refuse to believe that, having demonstrated their vast technical expertise and knowledge of the facts, that the rest of us would just concede to their greatness. In a democracy, even those who are ignorant have the right to their ignorance, and to voice that ignorance. People have the right to be afraid of change, and to voice that fear. They even have the right to be indignant when some folks on the left refuse to answer their questions without a smirk and a whispered aside about how silly and stupid they are.

That the left didn't do a better job promoting this bill is its own fault. That they didn't have a plan in place to market it to the American people is also its own fault. That the bill is now being overwhelmed on all sides by fear and lies and failure and the acceptance of a defeat that hasn't even occurred (that's another thing; there hasn't been a big debate or vote on any of the bills, except one or two in committee that have passed, and many on the left are harping on failure; they are not only cowardly but doomsayers as well) shows the basic weakness inherent in any undemocratic ideology. If any provision of the bill is watered down or removed, then the whole bill is worthless and needs to be discarded. We liberals, the White House, Democrats in Congress - we are all to blame in part for the current mess of the debate. The elements on the left that want to take their toys and go home because no one wants to play by their rules should be treated no differently that the same behavior from the right. It is undemocratic and, in the end, unAmerican.

*: It should be noted that it is impossible, quite literally, to prepare for a campaign built on deceit, precisely because the possibilities for distortion are almost without number. That so many of the anti-health care reform mobs don't even seem to understand that Medicare is a government insurance program or that the VA is a remarkably efficient, well-run government health care service, and should have been touted from the beginning as examples to be duplicated shows an opportunity lost by supporters of reform. Yet, how would it have been possible to predict beforehand that a former governor of a state would create buzz by insisting the bill includes euthanasia as part of the provisions? We have yet to have a serious, rational discussion on the ways private insurance companies ration care, deny care that leads to death, and have bloated bureaucracies that are inefficient, expensive, and time-wasting. While I still believe the town-hall mobs are going to backfire on Republicans, the Democrats need to address not only the current batch on misinformation out there, but let supporters know that it is impossible to guard against any bit of crap opponents want to fling at it.

Music For Your Monday

No jazz for a while. Need to fix that. Who better than Monk?

"The trauma of the 1960s still sounds"

In one of a series of reflections on the impact of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair 40 years ago (actually, the real 40th anniversary is next week, but that's OK; time and acid flashbacks probably dim memories somewhat), Rick Perlstein considers the media's influence on our perception of the event.
Page 33 of the Aug. 29 issue [of Time magazine]featured a full-color photograph from Woodstock captioned, “Boys and girls related in a nearby river”; none of the relating boys and girls wore clothes.

The accompanying essay, “The Message of History’s Biggest Happening,” noted that though Time usually recognized “battles won, treaties signed, rulers elected or deposed,” Woodstock should be counted among them “as one of the significant political and sociological events of the age” — “the moment when the special culture of U.S. youth of the ’60s openly displayed its strength, appeal and power.”


Strikingly, Time’s point of view prevailed. A Times editorial had sternly rebuked the silly notion that Woodstock represented anything positive: “What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?” Later, they came around to what had become the hegemonic view, and re-dubbed Woodstock “essentially a phenomenon of innocence.”

When I was a wee young graduate student at the Catholic University of America, back in the spring of 1995, a professor described "that rock concert a few years ago" as "nothing but an orgy", in tones that suggested such a thing might actually be worse than hanging a crucifix upside down and peeing on an image of the Virgin Mary.

At the times of Woodstock, there were three television networks, one or two leading opinion journals (Time being the oldest and most staid, a Luce publication still), and The New York Times was really the only national newspaper. Part of the reason for the huge impact of Time's editorial view on the rest of the media was due in no small measure to the smallness and (even by today's standards) insularity of the mainstream media. The event, held in Bethel in the Catskill's, was still close enough to New York City, with the promoters based in Greenwich Village, that it seemed just a hop, skip, and a jump up the road. From there, the message spread out. This was further aided by a film (edited by Martin Scorcese!) released the next year in part to help the investors get back the pile of money they lost.

While the weekend was a financial disaster, a last musical hurrah for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (the liner notes to the CD release of his complete set notes that he added a second guitarist, who was both turned down and hadn't rehearsed), and managed to succeed through not providing images of young people being too violent or otherwise unruly, for many on the right, it still encapsulates many of the social and cultural horrors that we continue to abide. The public nudity and lax sexual mores. The drug use. Really loud music promoting both. The absence of any kind of recognizable religion or organized faith system. When hundreds of thousands of young people gathered, there seemed to be nothing preventing them from dropping acid and smoking pot, fornicating, and refusing to feel bad about it.

Since, on any given Friday or Saturday night, in bars, night clubs, honky tonks, roadhouses, and even wedding receptions across this fair land, this same behavior (with, perhaps, alcohol consumption replacing acid, although pot is still pretty popular) still occurs, it seems many conservatives fear the cultural chasm opened by the counter-culture can never be filled in.

I tire of references to the 1960's, to be honest. I was not yet four at the time of Woodstock, and am now a middle-aged man. Many of the attendees at Woodstock are now collecting Social Security checks, and receive Medicare funding to treat their acid flashbacks and venereal diseases they no doubt received at that particular bacchanalia. The musicians from the era are dead, retired, or washed up. While some of the music still sounds fresh, if not exactly new, the entire event seems not just dated, aesthetically, but culturally as well. For the most part, our young people (and Lord it pains me to write it this way, because it is an admission that I am no longer of "our young people") have a whole different cultural understanding, not to mention musical and artistic aesthetic. Cultural and political conservatives, who seem constantly to recall to the 1960's (such as the denunciations of the Weather Underground during last year's election; who even remembers Bill Ayres and the Weathermen, for God's sake, let alone cares?) are far more culturally and politically dangerous than a few naked hippies cavorting in the late Max Yasgur's fields.

That Perlstein's account, quoted in the title, is correct shows how stunted cultural and political conservatism has become. Their reference points for argument are so far in the past as to be irrelevant. Like the neoconservatives who pine for the Cold War, cultural conservatives long for the kind of vocal youth movement against which they can rally the silent majority. Unfortunately, the world has aged, and their touchstones are now the stuff of nostalgic reflection rather than a seedbed of revolution.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

A New Role Model

I will admit this quite freely - while the name "Bob Herbert" meant something to me, this weekend has shown me that I should have been paying more attention to him. First, his column on the health club shooting in Pennsylvania is a master work. It gets it all right and without a whole lot of fuss.

Then, courtesy of Matt Yglesias, comes a link to a nearly two-year old write up in The Washington Monthly on Herbert. What leaps out at me most from this piece is the following:
It's true that elites don't care enough about the world of the working class or the poor. It's true that human nature is inherently biased against Herbert-style entreaties. These obstacles make his job very, very hard. But they are constants. A columnist must use the only variable, his column, to surmount them. Instead, Bob Herbert disregards them. His underlying problem turns out to be simple: he doesn't write with his audience in mind.

When I asked Herbert who he envisions his readers to be, he laughed. "I don't picture readers," he said. "I picture issues and the people that I'm covering." Likewise, when I inquired in an earlier conversation which journalists he considered to be role models, he demurred. "If I can, I'd like to take a pass on that. One, I don't want to talk about current journalists. And the second part is, I didn't model myself on journalists. There were politicians that were more influential to my thinking."

While the whole piece is worth reading for discovering the best pundit you've never heard of, there is an issue that the author of this profile, T. A. Frank, highlights but doesn't discuss too deeply - the relationship between some pundits and the politicians and others they write about. Unlike William Kristol, say, or Cokie Roberts, or even Paul Krugman (who also appears on the Times op-ed page), Herbert doesn't seem to care all that much about having some kind of relationship with those in the seats of power. He doesn't seem to care all that much about what they think. The fact that the conventional wisdom, personified in the truly stupid, even inept, anti-journalism of the Kristols and Roberts', and the high-minded liberal teeth-gnashing of the Krugmans, tends to circle around the way we discuss issues (and then, usually in ways that are almost mind-numbingly idiotic), Herbert talks about issues with intelligence, an eye toward how story and statistic fit together in the complex interactions of life, and manages to be angry without sounding it.

He isn't influential even though he sits on some of the most valuable opinion real estate in the country. He lives on the Upper West Side but his heart, and very often his column, is with those who could not afford a cab ride there. His writing is plain, unadorned, without pretension or provocation. His column on the Henry Louis Gates arrest sheds a light on the incident that, had it greater circulation, would have put Professor Gates reaction to Sgt. Crowley's behavior in an even more clear light. Alas, we have to listen to Juan Williams on NPR rather than read Bob Herbert in the Times to get some kind of "mainstream African-American" take on the incident, a take which, for the most part, has no idea that over the past couple years, African-American students, staff, and faculty at Harvard have encountered indignities and even threats from police.

I guess what I like about Herbert, thanks both to the profile, and now reading his work, is his insouciance. He doesn't really give a damn what insiders think or don't think. He is writing for himself, tossing his columns out in to a world where it is sad to say Cokie Roberts and David Brooks get far more attention. One hopes the situation changes.

"This is a mess." "If it isn't, it'll do 'til one comes along."

I have seen the best film I have watched in a long time. Maybe years.

No Country for Old Men.

If you haven't seen it - do so.

It explains a whole lot.

And it made me want to hug my kids even more than usual.

Virtual Tin Cup

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