Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Attack Of The Blogs!

Most people don't know who Niall Ferguson is.  Of those who might know the name, few would care.  Now, Ferguson happens to be a historian.  He teaches at Harvard.  He wrote a two-volume history of the Rothchilds that is regarded very highly by those who read it.

In recent years, he has become something of a public intellectual.  From his seat in Cambridge (Massachusetts, not University; he was actually at Oxford before moving stateside) he has descended on occasion to opine about our politics and policy matters.  With a name like "Niall", one would expect that marvelous brogue, but of course he has the rotund accents of Oxford at his command, making him sound authoritative, in particular to Americans who seem to believe there is something about the way upper-class Britains speak that gives their words gravitas.  Combining his personal and intellectual pedigree, Tina Brown, who seems intent on doing to Newsweek what she did to The New Yorker, offered Ferguson pride of place a couple weeks back: the cover story.
It took almost no time at all for all sorts of people to point out the many ways Ferguson's article was - how do I put this delicately? - eighteen pounds of crap in a four pound bag.  Just a few of the folks who took aim at Ferguson's really bad, terrible piece were Paul Krugman, who took just one bit from Ferguson demonstrating the dishonesty with which he used a particular piece of information; Matthew O'Brien and James Fallows at The Atlantic, the former doing a full fact-check and finding an abundance of goodies, while Fallows makes clear that Ferguson's bit of partisan hackery (Ferguson was a McCain advisor in 2008) wouldn't make it through an undergraduate survey class at the University at which Ferguson teaches; and even Justin Fox at . . . The Harvard Business Review (that had to hurt).

Ferguson hit back, attacking his critics as "liberal bloggers" who have an agenda that disregards the main thrust of his piece.  He called the fact-checking and such "nit-picking", as if somehow it was irrelevant whether or not part of his argument about tossing Obama out on his can in January had any relationship with reality.

Now, if you've been perusing these pages for a while you should know I hate the word "blog" and "blogger". The word has connotations of laziness.  It has connotations of sloppiness.  It has connotations of a preference of heat over light, for style over substance, and of partisanship over impartiality.  I would readily accept that last declaration; why else would folks spend their time writing stuff even their own families won't read if they didn't think it important to make a case about something in which we believe?  Sheesh.  That isn't a bad thing.

I sympathize with Ferguson in some way.  There are, quite literally, millions of blogs and bloggers out there.  Most of them are little more than the reflections of some teenager somewhere on the deep meaning of some Anne Rice novel, or love letters to The One Who Doesn't Know I Exist.  Then, there are the political bloggers, who span the gamut both of ideology and reliability.  The two do not go together.  There are conservatives who both write well and with an attention to factual accuracy.  There are liberal bloggers who aren't sure what a sentence is, and consider facts malleable things, a worry to be set aside for small minds.

Personally, I have always worked hard to make sure my facts were accurate.  When they don't fit what I think is or (worse) should be the case, well, I acknowledge that and move on, adjusting the way I see things. Were I to write a piece about Mitt Romney that was as shoddy, non-factual, and ignored important details in the way Ferguson did for no less a platform than Newsweek I'd be embarrassed ever to write anything again.  The last thing I'd do is go after critics who point out the many ways I go my facts wrong.

Which is why I find comments by Frank Popper on a piece at a site called Urban Ethics and Theory the single best response to Ferguson's attack on "liberal bloggers", and he says in part:
Newsweek didn’t help by putting the piece on the cover with a nah-Obama caption. Fallows makes the useful point that Harvard/Ivy people have written for nonacademic audiences honestly and effectively. . . . I suspect most of these people did not blow off fact-checking the way Newsweek and Ferguson did.
It's really that simple.  The original article is not factually accurate, and almost comically so.  As a blogger of any ideology, I wouldn't allow myself to hit that "Publish" button on something so poorly written without, at the very least, making sure I read through the sources I was quoting and presenting what they say honestly and completely.  To raise the specter of "liberal bloggers" without acknowledging said bloggers have a whole bunch of points not on the tops of their heads is a sure way to stir up sympathy among one's ideological soulmates.  It does little, however, to legitimate one's attempts to be a public intellectual. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Not The Debate Romney Wants

The best argument for replacing Barack Obama in the White House is the economic argument.  Specifically, unemployment.  That the President just hasn't done all he could to boost employment, leaving the rate stagnant at historically high levels for several years, is clear enough.  While Mitt Romney may not be the best qualified to offer a viable alternative - while governor, Massachusetts ranked 47th out of the 50 states in job creation, according to - that discussion is far preferable to the one brewing in the wake of Rep. Todd Akin's remarks about rape, fertility, and abortion.  Romney knows it, he and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, have been trying to distance themselves from Akin, or convince him to drop out of the Missouri Senate race; according to reports, the Romney campaign even requested no questions be asked by a local television news station during an on-air interview (none were planned, according to the local news outlet).

The reason is simple enough: 1992.

In 1992, even as Ross Perot (remember him?) shot way ahead both of President Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, focusing in speech after speech on the need to control spending, the Republicans decided to give prime speaking time to Pat Buchanan, because he had run a tough primary fight against Pres. Bush.  In that speech, Buchanan declared the reality of the culture wars.  Pretty much everyone who either watched it or was present and not a Buchanan supporter was aghast; it has been noted as among the reasons Bush, who a year and a half before enjoyed approval ratings in the 90's, won only 38% of the popular vote.

Democrat Bill Clinton, however, did something smart.  Revealed later in a movie about his successful campaign called The War Room, campaign staff hung signs that read, "It's the economy, stupid."  While tossing bones to various Democratic and Independent constituencies, his campaign focused on the stagnant economy, and the need to reduce the rate of growth of federal spending while stimulating the economy.  In the three way Presidential race, Clinton won.

That is the campaign Romney wants to run.  That is the message Romney wants to get out.  That is the issue, Romney knows in his heart, upon which Pres. Obama is most vulnerable.  Thus, having down-ticket Republicans carry on about rape and abortion and denying African-Americans the vote because they might vote for Democrats, are all distractions.  The focus for Romney needs to be on the economy.  Otherwise, he knows, he'll lose.

Romney has a further problem on this score, however.  While it may well be he would prefer to limit the Presidential contest to economic policy, neither he nor his running mate can escape the reality that the Republicans have tacked further and further to the right on social issues (much as that might be difficult to imagine for many who have following politics for as long as I have), producing what Russ Walker, a Tea Party member as well as Republican platform committee member, has called "the most conservative platform in modern history."   While the rundown offered by includes economic policy, there are a variety of social and "cultural" issues that are prominent, from abortion through same-sex marriage to immigration policy.  While platforms tend to be little more than statements of principles, there is little doubt that, should Romney/Ryan win this election, and the Republicans control both Houses of Congress, this very radical set of policy proposals will, at the very least, be every bit as important as questions around employment.

There is a further problem that Romney just cannot address.  While he may devoutly wish to limit the Presidential campaign to the economy, down-ticket Republicans will not be shy in addressing other issues, including abortion.  In the wake of Todd Akin's recent comments, a brighter light is shining on this entire set of ideas, i.e., that somehow women have some magic power that distinguishes rape from sex, preventing conception if it detects the former. What that light reveals isn't pretty.  Writing in today's Washington Post, conservative columnist Michael Gerson says:
Being an opponent of sex education in the schools does not require a politician to have a poor grasp of human biology. And this is especially counterproductive in a pro-life politician, because advancing knowledge of biology has generally favored the pro-life cause by revealing the humanity of a developing child. 
The first sentence is absurd; opposing sex education creates ignorance of human biology, as study after study after study has demonstrated.  Furthermore, the kind of ignorance on display isn't a bug of this particular subset of anti-choice nonsense, but a feature.  An interview with two historical theologians available on-line at demonstrates that this kind of thinking is deeply rooted in mainstream Christian theology going back to St. Augustine.

The second sentence Gerson wrote about is factually false.  It may well be the case that our technology has created a situation in which fetuses delivered earlier and earlier in the gestational cycle can survive.  It may well be the case that sentiment accords a higher value to a sonogram photo and fetal monitoring results among many people.  This does not mean, however, that the fetus has somehow magically become a human being in the process.  Writing at At Und Fur Sich, Adam Kostko calls fetal personhood a "fantasy".
Given the unique situation of the fetus, the only coherent outcome of granting the fetus personhood is to deny the pregnant woman personhood. The fact that misogyny often accompanies pro-life positions is not an unfortunate accident — it isnecessarily entailed by the pro-life position. The pro-life position takes an autonomous adult human being and makes her into the unconditional servant of another (ostensible) human being. Hence the fact that the pro-life movement is populated either by misogynists or sentimental people who avoid thinking their position through to the end (as when protestors at abortion clinics can hold up signs declaring “abortion is murder” and yet resist the idea that the woman seeking an abortion should be treated as a murderer).
Of all the issues before us this election year, abortion would seem to rank far down the list.  A powerful vocal minority, however, continues to insist, as a friend of mine recently said to me in a discussion on this very topic, that we tolerate mass infanticide merely by supporting abortion rights in this country.  The automatic conflation of the fetus with an infant in this case demonstrates a refusal to recognize the reality of the fetus as a fetus, granting it without either evidence or argument a status it does not and cannot have.

That there are many Republican politicians who agree with Akin, not just on abortion but on the whole phony biology of rape and fertility, is being hushed up in the attempt to silence Akin and get the national conversation back on the economy.  The problem, of course, is the Republican Party cannot escape the reality that they are committed to the very positions Akin has made public; while the United States may elect Mitt Romney as their next President due to the foundering economy, what that may entail is creating statutory or even Constitutional provisions on a host of social issues that are not only contrary to science and public ethics, but outside the needs or even attitudes of a majority of the American people.

Which is why Mitt Romney doesn't want to have this debate.  Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want Todd Akin and his words to disappear, even though they agree with him (including the phony-baloney pseudo-science). They understand what many Republican politicians have understood for a very long time.  Even though they agree with the belief that supporting abortion rights is tantamount to supporting infanticide, they don't want to talk about that because they know they will lose.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Take It To The People

British Labor MP Clement Attlee  once walked in to the men's room in the Houses of Parliament while Winston Churchill was using it. Churchill moved as far from Attlee as possible.  Attlee said, "Nervous, Winston?"  Churchill replied, "Of course!  Every time you see something large you wish to nationalize it!"

In 2005-2006, then DNC chair Howard Dean proposed a remarkable plan for the mid-term election: nationalize them.  Calling it "The 50 State Plan", Dean proposed, first getting word out all the way down to the precinct level that as many elections as possible were going to be contested, with that contestation coordinated from the top.  Then, he and other committee members went on a recruiting drive, pitching his idea that the Bush Administration, having gone way too far in Iraq, abandoned Afghanistan, and created an unstable fiscal and economic homefront, provided opportunities for Democratic candidates around the country.

A lot of people thought Dean was nuts.  Not a few folks in the Democratic Party tried to get him either to shut up or step aside.  Dean ignored them and worked and worked and worked and in 2006 the Democratic Party took back the House of Representatives (with some help both from former Rep. Mark Foley [R-Pederasty], and the revelations that House Speaker Dennis Hastert knew Foley like little boys and ignored it] and the United States Senate, winning in places like Virginia and Montana that the Democratic Party just shouldn't have won.

Everyone was grateful for Dean's vision, his energy, his tenacity, and (obviously) his vindication.

This year, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is Party chair.  This year, as we read and watch Republican officials around the country demonstrate the fundamental unfitness of many in the Republican Party to hold any office of public trust - just yesterday, a judge in Texas warned that if Obama is re-elected he's going to surrender the US to the UN; a candidate for sheriff in New Hampshire assured voters he would use deadly force (if it came to it) to prevent elective abortions - the Democratic Party is . . . doing nothing.  The argument should be very similar to one I made the other day: It may well be the case that particular Republicans either in office or seeking office are intelligent, thoughtful, non-loons.  All the same, if we ignore the rampant social pathology within the Republican Party, as demonstrated pretty much every day in news reports and headlines across the country, then we are making a huge mistake.  We need to make clear that folks like Akin and Ryan and Steve King and Judge Head and Ohio's Secretary of State John Husted are not aberrations from some moderate core, the barely tolerated semi-stepchildren who are welcomed within the otherwise sober and staid halls of the Republican Party.  These folks are the beating heart of the Republican Party.  The things they say, the policies they propose, the beliefs the insist are the core of their political life are in step with the rest of the Republican Party.

Which is why they need to be prevented from ever taking an oath of office for anything.

Even now, I believe it isn't too late for Ms. Wasserman- Schultz to devise a strategy to make clear this year's election isn't about issues; it isn't about who wins and loses; shoot, as much as many would wish it were so, it isn't even about Pres. Obama.  No, this year's election, like few in recent memory, centers around one, single question: Are the American people going to elect a group of people to office whose policies have been tried and failed; who do not see women, minorities, and the poor as full moral agents or citizens with any rights worthy of public respect; who deny reality on a daily basis?  While the Democratic Party has many flaws, and while the incumbent is not the one I'd pick as my preferred President, it is clear enough that the Democratic Party is far and away more sane and sound than the Republican Party.

It isn't too late, Ms. Wasserman-Schultz.  A few bucks to create two or three TV spots, a few million more to get them out to TV stations.  Make the case.  Take it to the people.  Be Clement Attlee and nationalize this huge, monstrous reality that the Republican Party just isn't fit to govern.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Constant Vigilance

When asked his opinion of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill said, "He is a modest man, with much to be modest about."  I feel much the same way about Thomas Jefferson, except Jefferson was not modest.  All the same, he did say one thing to which attention needs to be paid: "Constant vigilance is the price of freedom."  Now, unlike my gun-toting Second Amendment fans, this doesn't mean to be ready lest the UN, under the guise of Agenda 21, come and take our guns from our cold dead fingers.  It means simply this: We need to pay attention to public affairs.  It is sometimes boring, usually venal and small minded, sprinkled with a heavy dose of hilarity precisely because it tends to be so petty.  All the same, it is necessary.

I am an unabashed fan of democracy.  Our particular form, especially.  All the same, far too many of my fellow citizens snooze for three and three-quarters years, waking briefly as the Presidential election season comes around, and wonder for whom they should cast their vote.  Their somnambulism usually brings with it amnesia.  Thus it is that, yet again, Americans are carping about the negative campaign ads "both sides" are running.  The commentariat, usually disdainful of public opinion, loves it when nuggets like this are found amid the detritus of polling, insisting this demonstrates the fundamental fairness of the American people and the base meanness to which our public discourse has sunk.

Here's the thing, folks.

All those ads people are complaining about?  Well, one side uses blatant falsehoods over and over and over and over again in those ads.  They get called on the falsehoods, yet continue to use them.  When I was growing up, when folks deliberately stated something they knew was factually false, it was called "lying".  When people repeatedly lied - that is, repeatedly said things factually inaccurate - they were known as "liars".

With me so far?

Another side is doing two thing: Pointing out said repeated falsehoods.  They are also making it clear that, were the side repeating the falsehoods honest, the American people wouldn't support them, by which I mean vote for them.

For the first time in many years, a Democratic candidate for President is making the very public case that the Republican ticket is not misrepresenting, distorting, being technically accurate while intellectually dishonest, or whatever euphemism currently passes muster.  No.  We have a Democratic candidate who is making it clear over and over again that the Republican candidate's claims about the Democratic candidate are so full of crap, the joints of both the candidates on the Republican candidate squish when they move.

This isn't "negative campaigning".  It is campaigning.  That a Democratic candidate is doing so, with gusto, is something no one has seen in a very long time.  Thus, it is by definition "negative".  Thirty two years ago, when Jimmy Carter made it clear that Ronald Reagan's claims about the budget, about the state of the military under Carter, and about the nature and course of the stagflation through which the US was living were false, the press pretty much ganged up on Carter, scolding him for being mean.  After the first televised Presidential debate, Carter sat back and waited for the press to point out how far from reality many of Reagan's factual claims were.  He is still waiting.

Since then, we've had several gentlemen run for President on the Democratic ticket - Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry - who thought that, when faced with nastiness, and false nastiness at that, they could at least rely on the press corps to make clear just how false that nastiness was.  In Barack Obama, we have a Democratic candidate who understands there just isn't a bottom to the Republican crazy barrel.  Rather than wait for someone to make the point that the Republicans are lying nutjobs, he is doing so.

And many think that's just mean.

It isn't mean.  It's politics.  And politics, as dirty and nasty as it can be, is a necessary part of human life.  Making the case that one's opponent is dishonest isn't always noble or uplifting.  It is, however, necessary.

It would be less necessary if more of my fellow citizens paid closer attention in the time between Presidential elections.  Even a half-hour a day, perusing whatever news site you prefer.  I'm not concerned with ideology.  I am concerned with vigilance.  "Constant" doesn't mean devoting one's life to the political arena.  It does, however, mean a daily minimum requirement, kind of like vegetables.

Were it the case that more were vigilant, there would be far less carping about "negative campaigning" and far more celebration that the Democrats, at least during this campaign season, have discovered a spinal cord.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Out On The Porch

My dear, departed friend Steve Creech used to say, "Down here in the South, we don't hide our crazy relatives.  We put 'em out on the porch to entertain the neighbors."  I got thinking about that yesterday as the florid psychotic heart of the GOP displayed itself over the weekend.

I want to be clear about some things.  First, there are millions of Americans who support the Republican Party for all sorts of reasons.  The party's insistence on fiscal probity; it's claim to support not just socio-economic but socio-moral policies that they believe will make the United States a better country; the party's long-held belief that our common life is enhanced by supporting both small businesses and corporate entities in their business pursuits, encouraging both thrift and investment in order to bring about a general prosperity (these are deeply held American beliefs; de Tocqueville mentioned them as deeply held back in the 1830's); many support particular candidates out of personal knowledge of who that person is.  There are Republican elected officials nationwide who are thoughtful, conscientious, dutiful, hardworking, and dedicated.  There are millions of Republican voters who are so for good reasons, and are themselves intelligent, thoughtful, dedicated persons.

The heart of the public face of the Republican Party, however, is none of these things.  The "base" - and to some extent the principle money folks who support the party - are, in fact, dedicated to a series of policy positions and a vision of the United States that is not only detrimental to the economic health and well-being of the majority of Americans; their views on various matters of social policy are rooted in some of our worst traits: bigotry toward minorities; the dehumanization of women; a view of social stability rooted in the maintenance of the dying WASP status quo.  Even while a voter, or perhaps millions, would not support policies to implement this vision, they will vote "R" on their ballots in the fall for all the great and good reasons outlined above.  What they will receive, however, are elected officials dedicated to implementing a series of policies that are directly contrary to the interests of the voters' intentions (think the election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, elected to do one thing, but immediately setting out to do another).

When I started doing this whole internet political writing thing, many could pretend that views such as those espoused by Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri were limited to a tiny fringe of the Republican Party.  Indeed, one would never find an elected official of such prominence saying the kinds of things Akin did; instead, it would be a blogger somewhere.  Many liberal bloggers would go after a person who wrote such a thing, insisting this was what Republicans believe, and be chastised because, hey, it's just a blogger, right?

The past couple years have seen far too many high-profile incidents of Republicans expressing their views forthrightly, however, to dismiss as some holdover from the fringes of the right.  The attacks on Sandra Fluke, initiated by Rush Limbaugh but supported by many prominent Republicans, exposed the reality that the right isn't so much opposed to abortion, or even contraception; these are means toward the end of denying women fundamental human agency.  Not believing women have the right to choose how to live their own lives, including how they choose to express their sexuality, they instead go after abortion and contraception, slut-shaming any woman who might dare speak out loud enough for many to hear.

With the elevation of Paul Ryan to the VP spot on the Republican ticket, Medicare became an issue in the Presidential campaign.  Ryan's disingenuousness both about the particular policy he recommended in 2010, as well as his more philosophical position regarding this and other government funded programs is now an important matter.  Over the weekend, Ryan was in Florida, insisting that the plan put forward by Gov. Romney would not endanger benefits for those already in the Medicare system; it would, rather, address systemic issues further down the road.  Except, of course, just today, Romney surrogates have come forward and admitted that current beneficiaries would see cuts, as well.

Finally, there is the matter of race.  Few issues get the Republican base riled up faster than the claim, made by many Democrats and liberals, that a parade of euphemisms and code words hide a deep canyon of racial hostility within their ranks.  Whether it's talk about nonexistent voter fraud or Pres. Obama loosening work requirements in the welfare reform law passed in 1996 (a claim thoroughly debunked; that Romney continues to use it demonstrates a dedication to dishonesty that may well be the only thing he cherishes), these are in fact surrogates for talking about disenfranchising or otherwise limiting the civil and political rights of African-Americans.  Precisely because what many call "the dog whistle" is so difficult to hear, there is a measure of plausible deniability about such claims.

Until the Ohio Secretary of State, the highest ranking official tasked with overseeing elections, admitted that the rigmarole around weekend voting was intended solely to prevent blacks from voting to support Democratic candidates.
I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine. Let’s be fair and reasonable.
No longer hiding within the fetid ranks of the right wing blogs and news sites, or couched in code or fancy phrases, it is now clear the Republican Party, feeling it has nothing to lose, is allowing its inner crazy uncle to sit on the porch for the whole world to see.  Florid political psychosis like this is certainly entertaining; it is also a good thing, because now voters can see what the Republican Party really wants to do, what policies it wishes to support, and why.

Remember this in the fall.  The election isn't about serious policy matters; it's about letting the crazy uncle who hears voices and wears burlap shorts to protect himself from aliens make important decisions for all of us.

Not really much of a choice after all.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

I Was Wrong

Last year, as the Occupy movement was morphing to a potentially transformative movement, a series of crackdowns across the country, all occurring within days or weeks of one another, effectively ended them.  Previous attempts to shut down Occupy, particularly at its home base in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, had failed as the protesters simply refused to bow to police pressure.  The string of police actions across the country, however, broke the back of the protests.

Many, including myself, believed that a coincidence this large could not be a coincidence.  While not believing that, as Amanda Marcotte writes in the article to which I'm about to link, Obama is a dictator, I did believe the events were strong circumstantial evidence of coordination from the federal level to end a movement that was critical of the Obama Administration from the Left.  Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request from the right-wing group Judicial Watch, however, there is abundant evidence now available to the public that the reality is just the opposite.  Aforementioned Ms. Marcotte breaks it down for us:
 Judicial Watch, a right wing organization, issued a FOIA request to the DHS to find out if the Obama White House did direct these shut-downs, which Judicial Watch appears to favor. The request centered around Portland’s protests, which are particularly interesting to the right, because there were heavy accusations of criminal misbehavior.
What they discovered with this request what that the administration wasn’t keen on shutting down Occupy. . . .
Marcotte continues with some chastening words for those, like me, who were far too quick to lay blame without any evidence.
[P]art of the problem is that a lot of people on the left have inadvertently absorbed right wing narratives that posit that federal power is somehow always more oppressive than localized power . . .
You’d think that people who know their history around, say, the civil rights movement would understand that federal power is often a check on the ability of authoritarians to gain control on a state or local level, and then rain terror on people’s heads. But as Corey notes, this narrative that federal power is automatically more suspect is hard to dislodge, no matter how often we grasp that “states rights!” has its roots in the belief that states should have the power to legalize slavery, enforce segregation, or otherwise deprive people of basic human rights. So when local cops started banging heads, it’s not surprising that eyes drifted towards the White House, because it’s a nice, simple explanation that dispenses with the need for nuance. But it’s the wrong narrative. 
In my defense, Holder's Justice Department has not been very aggressive in pursuing, say, the folks who brought about the financial crisis; they haven't really done anything about the Guantanamo Blight apart from whine about Congressional action that restricts their freedom of action; Justice seems intent on cracking down on medical marijuana growers and distributors in states where such practices are legal.  I guess what I'm saying is that Holder's and Obama's approach to law enforcement hasn't been much different from previous President's, not a hearty history.

So, I was wrong.  The facts are far different than what I thought they were.  Absolved of responsibility for these actions, I think it only fair to make clear just how wrong I and others like me were.  That the Obama Administration made clear they were seeking ways to see the protests continue is laudable; that I believed them to be acting otherwise is a sign of my own frustration with the President, as well as how inescapable some narratives are, even for those who should know better.

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