31 October 2008

Idiot of the Week: Selmer Bringsjord

Our winner is a cognitive scientist who teaches at Rensselaer Polytechinic Institute. Most recently publicized for a project to create a form of "virtual evil" on the internet, Bringsjord has submitted a op-ed column to the Troy Record called, "Letter from a happy Socialist." He pretends to be "Yuri," writing to an unnamed "Comrade" to celebrate the imminent triumph of Socialism in the United States.

No, Bringsjord isn't a Republican hack. He boasts of being "a proud non-member of both the Democratic and Republican parties," and in the article "Yuri" brags that "We have influenced the Republication [sic?] party as well: McCain too is in our camp, albeit unwittingly."

"Yuri" claims that "our soulmates in the Democratic party" got the ball rolling "about a decade back" by "socially engineering the housing market in the U.S. to make it possible for those without sufficient capital to nonetheless own their houses." Because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac dictated that "mortgages were granted to millions of Americans who couldn't qualify by the traditional 80/20 loan/down payment split," Yuri asserts, "we now stand on the brink of capitalism's death, and no one even seems to suspect our involvement."

Well, of course no one suspects your involvement, Yuri. You're a fictional character. And if your creator, Prof. Bringsjord, is trying to say that Commies are behind the mortgage crisis, then ... that's why he's the Idiot of the Week.

Further proof: Yuri states that "Obama is firmly in our fold. He has been able to come out of the closet and state, publicly and categorically, that he simply wants to take money from the wealthy, and give it to those smart enough to aspire to make a living without working. Is this not ... close to some kind of miracle?"

Perhaps I mistake Bringsjord's intent, and Yuri is meant to be an anarchist, since I never heard of any socialist or communist who thought highly of people who "aspire to make a living without working." But I haven't mistaken his intent at all, since Yuri next spills the beans on "socialism's silent marriage with the Democratic party."

But what about the "Republication party?" Yuri embraces McCain because the Arizonan has "explicitly called for a program devoted to 'recalibrating' the mortgages of all those unable to sustain their monthly payments. In short, he wants to pay off the debt held by such folks, and the beauty of this plan is that the dutiful capitalist who all along made his house payments and paid his taxes, well, McCain will take his money and give it to those who are currently unable to pay. This is textbook socialism, of course."

It may be "textbook socialism" if Gov. Palin is writing it, but socialism, the last time I looked, had something to do with workers controlling the means of production. What that has to do with taxes and mortgages, Yuri does not explain because his creator cannot.

Finally, another round of Ayersophobia. Yuri is "rather happy" that "some of the more violent in our fold will gain considerable credibility if Obama is elected." Yuri seems to believe that "no one here seems to know of Obama's glowing praise, in 1997, for Ayers' book on parenting," despite the fact that I, for one, have mentioned the fact. Bringsjord also seems to believe that endorsing a book on parenting is to endorse the Weather Underground and its terrorist tactics. That alone should earn the writer the Idiot honor, but I hope that I've already made a rather overwhelming case. Bringsjord should stick to his experiments in evil and keep out of political arguments until he has something to report.

30 October 2008

The Republican Crack-Up, Continued: Triumph of the Will?

George Will may have another column in him before Election Day, so he may yet bother to make a case against Senator Obama, but in his latest effort the conservative writer plays gravedigger for the Republican party and seems glad to do so. Will has long been a scathing critic of Senator McCain, despising him for advocating campaign-finance reform. If anything, his regard for the Arizonan has sunk since McCain won the nomination, and he has never held Governor Palin in anything close to high regard. In return, he was implicitly included among the cocktail-sipping "Georgetown" pundits sneered at by McCain.

"Did McCain, who seems to think that Palin's never having attended a 'Georgetown cocktail party' is sufficient qualification for the vice presidency, lift an eyebrow when she said that vice-presidents 'are in charge of the United States Senate'?" Will sneers back. This leads to a swipe at Vice-President Cheney, "the foremost practitioner of [the Bush] administration's constitutional carelessness in aggrandizing executive power," for self-servingly spreading confusion about the office. These possibly last days of the "movement" look increasingly like time to settle scores.

It's sort of sad that Will has to return to an issue where McCain has actually taken the more just position, but it's also grimly amusing to see Will take another kick at the would-be reformer when he seems to be down. He notes McCain's complaints against Obama's stupendous fundraising success, specifically the Arizonan's remark that "We're now going to see huge amounts of money coming into political campaigns, and we know history tells us that always leads to scandal." For Will, a famous baseball fan, this is a slow pitch right across the plate:

The inevitable scandal, which supposedly justifies pre-emptive government restrictions on Americans' freedom to fund the dissemination of political ideas they favor, presumably is that Obama will be pressured to give favors to his September givers. The contributions by the new givers that month averaged $86.

Put that way, McCain's longstanding fears about money and influence do seem ridiculous, especially since the mean contribution is probably a good deal lower than $86. But Will continues to miss or chooses to ignore the main point, which isn't McCain's argument against the potentially corrupting influence of large donations, but the fact that fundraising on the Obama scale prices independent candidates even further out of the election "market" and further consolidates the reign of the American Bipolarchy. But since Will endorses the Buckley v. Valeo principle that money equals speech, he would just assume that a poor campaign is already a failed one because it's failed to draw money. He rejects the idea that a contest of ideas requires equal time -- or else he assumes that there are only ever two sides to any political question.

As far as Will is concerned, there can't be too much money in politics. He closes his column by pointing out that Americans have spent less money contributing to politicians than they have on potato chips, as if that statistic is another damning argument against campaign-finance reform. While I can't help but enjoy Will's contempt for Palin, it's almost unfair that, for all that McCain has prostituted himself in this campaign, it's this issue that earns him Will's spit on what may prove to be his political grave.

Baldwin vs. Barr vs. Nader

I know I've been slow catching up to the Baldwin vs. Nader debate, but now here comes another one. It's scheduled for this afternoon in Cleveland, and Nader's presence aside, the most interesting part of this will be the showdown between the two anti-war conservatives. Surprisingly, it's McKinney who seems to keep avoiding these events. Is that so she can cry "discrimination" afterwards, or is it Senator Obama whom she really wants to confront? I'll make a point of at least linking to any video or transcript of both debates for the benefit of independents who remain undecided but want to stay independent.

29 October 2008

Tonko vs. Buhrmaster: the 21st Congressional District (N.Y.)

A frequent correspondent has occasionally chided me for neglecting local politics in my blog. My usual answer is that this isn't a local-politics blog. I like to imagine that people from all over the country might randomly discover it, and what would they make of news on the city or county level? It would be relevant, however, to discuss the juncture of local and national politics in a Congressional election.

I live in the 21st Congressional District of New York State. This is a blue district in a blue state. Only two men have represented it over the past fifty years, Samuel Stratton from 1959-88 and Michael McNulty from 1989 to this year. McNulty is retiring at the end of his term after a career most notable for a minor scandal in which he temporarily wielded the gavel from the Speaker's chair last year and used it to announce a vote result contrary to the actual tally.

Paul Tonko won a five-person primary to become the Democratic nominee and the favorite to succeed McNulty. Tonko is considered an expert on energy issues and was president of the New York State Energy & Research Authority before running for Congress. He has been a county supervisor and a state assemblyman during his political career.

Tonko was an early advocate of single-payer health insurance and "believes health care is a right, not a privilege." He boasts of a strong gay-rights, anti-discrimination record. He claims to have "saved hundreds of jobs" by persuading the Beech Nut company to retain facilities in our area. He has a position paper advocating a "comprehensive energy policy" emphasizing innovation and efficiency. He wants to expand the Housing Energy Assistance Program to help people with their heating bills this winter, and makes the usual calls for "green jobs." He intends to improve efficiency standards across the board, expand the availability of public transportation, and get tough with Big Oil.

The Democrat doesn't have much to say about Iraq except to say he'll "work to bring the troops home ... as soon as possible" and give them top-flight health care. "I believe that a continued American presence in Iraq is not in the best interest of the Iraqi or the American people," Tonko emphasizes.

On immigration, Tonko demands increased resources for Border Patrols, but is most concerned with the needs of local agriculture. "I believe that we must widen the legal avenue for our
farmers to be able to attract seasonal workers," he writes in a one-page position paper, "People come to this country illegally because there is a real demand for their labor. I believe that we need to create avisa program that matches the demand for labor with the supply of highly
motivated workers who want to work hard to support their families."

The Republican nominee is Jim Buhrmaster, who won a two-person primary. He's the heir and president of Buhrmaster Energy Group, a family-owned business dating back to 1913. Buhrmaster claims that this gives him "first-hand experience dealing with the challenges that small businesses face." While Tonko emphasizes political experience, Buhrmaster brandishes his resume of civic and business group memberships.

As you might expect, Buhrmaster contrasts the businessman's expertise with the "career politician's" alienation from economic realities. "Jim will bring a small businessman’s perspective to Congress, and use his private-sector experience to create jobs, find long-term solutions to healthcare and Social Security, and fight for permanent tax relief," his website claims. He "wants to modernize and streamline government programs to make them more efficient," resulting in tax savings.

Buhrmaster knows he's in a blue district, so he stresses that "Both parties in Washington are responsible for the problems we face today because both parties have been unwilling to do what is right for the taxpayer." But in some ways his is a typical Republican campaign. His commercials caricature his main opponent as "Taxin' Tonko." He shares the persistent Republican belief that reducing taxes will restore the American economy. But he doesn't go overboard on other issues.

He summarizes foreign policy thusly: "We all have the same goal: bringing our troops home. But Jim doesn’t ever want them to have to go back. We need to continue to support the brave men and women of the military, and provide them every tool they need to get the job done right the first time, and the only time."

A third candidate on the ballot is Phil Steck. He received the Independence Party endorsement before the Democratic primary, which he lost to Tonko. He remains the official Independence candidate, but has chosen not to campaign.

Tonko has raised more money than Buhrmaster so far, according to the Open Secrets website. Contributions from political action committees form a larger share of Tonko's warchest than Buhrmaster, while the businessman has put more of his own money ($195,000) into the effort than Tonko ($3,000). The Democrat's largest contributors include labor unions, the American Dental Association, and Ostroff-Hiffa & Associates ("a New York based government relations and communications firm that assists companies, corporations, trade associations and individuals in their dealings with New York State government" --i.e. a lobbying firm). The latter is Tonko's top contributor at $5,600, while the Price Chopper grocery chain and Hannay Reels Inc. (a hose and cable reel manufacturer based in the town of Westerlo) have each given more than $9,000 to Buhrmaster.

It hasn't been an enthralling campaign. Neither Tonko nor Buhrmaster is a star in the making. I suppose I'll vote for Tonko only because I despise Buhrmaster's taxophobia and the notion that governments should be run like businesses, but I'll do so with no great enthusiasm. Watch their commercials and see if you'd have any.

Here's Tonko.

And here's Buhrmaster.

Rashid Khalidi, Barack Obama and McCarthyism for the 21st Century

Once upon a time, Ireland was a colony of the British Empire. A lot of Irish people lived in the United States. They did not like Great Britain. They happened to be a potent political force. Politicians competed to curry favor with the Irish and spoke out forcefully against British rule. They were not accused of supporting violence or revolutionary conspiracies -- except by the British.

Cuba is currently ruled by a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. Many Cubans fled the island to live in American exile. They don't like the Communist regime. They happen to be a potent political force in the state of Florida. Politicians compete to curry favor with the Cubans, and speak out forcefully in favor of "liberating" Cuba. They are not accused of inciting war against a sovereign nation -- except by the Cuban government.

Israel currently occupies land that was intended by the United Nations to form a Palestinian nation. Many Palestinians have fled into exile in the United States as well as throughout the Middle East. They don't like Israel, and just like the Irish, and just like the Cubans, they've sometimes taken violent action against their enemies. Yet all the Democratic candidate for President has to do is sit in the same room as a Palestinian-American Ivy League professor, who happens to be a native of this country, and he is once again accused by the likes of Comrade Palin, the governor of Alaska, of palling around with terrorists.

It seems that Palestinians are unique among the peoples of the earth in having no right to resist an occupation that they consider unjust -- though there are signs that the South Ossetians and Abkhazians would be assigned to this category by American politicians. All the conspiracies of Irishmen and Cubans are patriotic, brave and freedom-loving, while all Palestinian efforts are wicked. No American, apparently, may side with the Palestinians against Israel without risking the charge that he endorses religious fanaticism and an amorphous terrorism that may as well be directed against his own country as far as some people are concerned. Not even Senator Obama concedes a Palestinian right of resistance, yet because he put friendship above politics and attended an event in Rashid Khalidi's honor, the McCain-Palin dead-enders, the anti-Arab bigots and the bigots in general have launched a new round of McCarthyite guilt-by-association tactics on both Obama and Khalidi. Judge Khalidi for yourself, then judge this latest pathetic outburst from the neocons.

Imagine if I dared say that anyone who has ever expressed support for Zionism, including Obama and McCain is a pal of terrorists; that they must have retroactively endorsed and applauded the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946; that they must be friends of the late Meir Kahane and his acolyte, the mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein. Reader: if you support Zionism, then don't you endorse all these things? No? Then play by the same rules when the subject is Palestine, or shut the hell up. It won't be until Americans decide that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on morality that this problem will have a chance of being settled. So if you're an American, and you don't think Palestinians have any moral standing or any legitimate claims in this dispute, you're part of the problem. Learn some history and grow up already. I'd say the same to McCain and Palin, but it's probably too late for them.

28 October 2008

Hey, Jay.

"Hey, jay....Hey, jay...."

That was Mr. Peepers passing through my office, but I couldn't let that pass.

"What are you saying?" I had to ask.

"Hey, jay....Hey, jay," he clarified.

"What are you saying?" I repeated.

"You're going to have to learn to say that when Obama gets elected."

Here I must note that, despite his earlier preference for Senator Clinton, Mr. Peepers will vote for Obama like the robotic Democrat he is.

But at the time I had to ask again, "What are you saying?"

"That's what they say in the churches, the blacks. Haven't you ever seen it? The minister talks, and the people in the congregation say Hey, jay...Hey, jay." He waved his arms like a born-again for emphasis.

"What in the hell are you saying?"

"Hey, jay....hey, jay...."

The Presidential Candidates: Jerry White

Reminding myself that this is still a multi-person, multi-party race, I return once more to the roster of independent candidates. This one will probably finish the series.

Jerry White is the candidate of the Socialist Equality Party. Formed just this year, in August, the party identifies with the "Fourth International," a movement guided by the thought of Leon Trotsky that dates back to 1938. Trotskyists are distinguished from other Leninists by their belief in a "permanent revolution," which some see surviving in a heavily bastardized form in the "freedom agenda" of American neoconservatives, some of whom have been former Trotskyists. Opposed to Stalin's emphasis on "socialism in one country" and the resulting focus on building up a military superpower, Trotskyists in the Fourth International believe their work won't be done until the entire world goes socialist. Inevitably, the SEP takes a global view of things. At the same time, it retains the Marxist idealization of the working class as "the leading and decisive international revolutionary social force in modern capitalist society." The American experience over the last century or so hasn't disillusioned them.

The SEP theory of history is equally suspect. "The blood-drenched history of the twentieth century – with its two world wars, innumerable "local" conflicts, the nightmare of Nazism and other forms of military-police dictatorship, eruptions of genocide and communal pogroms – is an unanswerable indictment of the capitalist system," according to the party's statement of principles, "The number of victims claimed by capitalist-inspired violence runs into the hundreds of millions." Capitalism has a lot to answer for, but to make it a monocausal explanation for all the last century's non-Leninist madness is too dogmatic to pass muster.

On the other hand, here they have a point: "The claim that the capitalist market is the infallible allocator of resources and the supremely wise arbiter of social needs stands utterly discredited amidst the endless series of speculative scandals and multi-billion dollar bankruptcies that have rocked the world economic system during the past decade. The boundary lines between "legitimate" financial transactions and criminal fraud have narrowed to the point of being almost invisible. The separation of the process of personal wealth accumulation from the production and creation of real value is an expression of the general putrefaction of the capitalist system."

So what is the SEP going to do about it? Here's a hint:

The establishment of workers' power requires far more than the election of socialist candidates to the existing institutions of the bourgeois state. New forms and structures of genuine participatory democracy – arising in the course of revolutionary mass struggles and representative of the working class majority of the population – must be developed as the foundations of a workers' government; that is, a government of the workers, for the workers, and by the workers. The policy of such a government, as it introduces those measures essential for the socialist transformation of economic life, would be to encourage and actively promote a vast expansion of democratic working class participation in, and control over, decision-making processes. It would favor the abolition of existing institutions that either curtail democratic processes or serve as centers of conspiracy against the people (such as the imperial Presidency, standing army, and national-security apparatus).

Whether the SEP recognizes the necessity of a formal constitutional convention, or whether they think they can get away with superimposing these prospective revolutionary organizations over the existing government structure, is unclear. For the time being, however, the party follows Trotsky's advice in advancing "transitional demands" that are meant to bridge the day-to-day concerns of workers and the long-term socialist agenda. These range from "full employment" and the cancellation of foreclosures on mortgages to the abolition, on the far side of the bridge, of the standing army and its replacement by "popular militias controlled by the working class and with elected officers."

There's a lot more, including a lot of predictable Marxist infighting and polemic, at the Statement of Principles page of the SEP website. But where does Jerry White fit in all this? White is a former UPS worker and present-day labor organizer. The nature of his activity is vague. His brief campaign biography refers to a recent "intervention" in a strike at the American Axle company. This appears to consist of White giving a campaign speech to the strikers and allowing them to express their opinions of the World Socialist Web Site. The Statement of Principles serves as White's platform. It's what you'd expect: anti-war, anti-Bailout, etc. White sums it up himself in this video.

Let this be a lesson to everyone. On a night when Senator McCain told Sean Hannity that he'd leave it to "the theoreticians" to determine whether Senator Obama was a socialist or not, take a moment to check out what a real socialist looks like and what a real socialist thinks of Obama.

White is on the campaign trail this week and putting out occasional YouTube videos like the one above. He might make more of a revolutionary if he'd work on building those alternative democratic power structures before he claims the White House. If he could show the country a successful example of how he expects things to work, it would help his cause a great deal. But it never hurts to have Marxists in the campaign. However badly their predictions or actual policies tend to fail, their analysis of existing conditions is often sound, and should be heard more often.

Assassination Plot "Not Fully Formed"

Here's the inevitable follow-up to the sensational first report of a terror plot. Now the authorities tell us that the two skinhead morons lacked the minds or means to carry out their white-tuxedo, 88-decapitation, Obama-assassination scheme. The latest report clarifies one detail of the story: the girlfriend's mom apparently ratted out the boys.

I suppose there was enough evidence in this case, particularly the investment in robbery gear, to prove these clowns were threats to somebody, but it was presented to us at a level of alarm that doesn't seem to be justified by the urgency of the threat. But it's been educational for me. Now I know the hidden meanings of the numbers 14 and 88, and I have a renewed sense of how ridiculous white supremacists are. The sad thing is that these guys rearing their heads, as Gov. Palin might put it, probably represent the tip of an iceberg of racist fear and anger at the prospect of an Obama presidency. These would-be killers catch our attention, but the hostility under the surface may be the bigger threat later on.

Idiots of the Week? Jack Cashill and Bruce Heiden

Our two nominees are, respectively, an accomplished writer and editor and a respected Classics professor. They appear to be the main sources for the reactionary rumor of the week: that Barack Obama's autobiography Dreams From My Father was either ghostwritten or substantially edited into shape by none other than the greatest criminal mind of our age, Bill Ayers. Their efforts have brought forth something I would never have imagined until it stood in front of me: a postmodern McCarthyism that employs obscure textual analysis and sweepingly circumstantial evidence to the traditional end of guilt-by-association.

Our researchers have latched onto an introductory passage in which Obama admitted that his project morphed from some dry policy tome into an autobiography. They're fascinated by the fact that Obama assumes the passive voice when describing the emergence of the memoir, as if his failure to state explicitly "I wrote it" is an implicit confession that he didn't. Cashill relies on the well-known fact that Obama, Ayers and who knows how many other people (hundreds?) shared the same Chicago milieu, and cites evidence that Ayers sometimes polished or edited writings by friends. He also plays with a textual-analysis program that supposedly demonstrates suspicious similarities in style between Obama's memoir and Ayers' own. Heiden plays the textual detective with such enthusiasm that I wonder whether he's even serious, or just satirizing the postmodern critical style.

Their motives are so self-evidently partisan and their evidence so desperately presented that I doubt whether either man can qualify for the Idiot honor. I don't deny that the Ayers theory is a stunningly stupid notion, but there seems to be more calculated malice than mere stupidity behind it. Perhaps I should hold the award in reserve for the people who decide to believe the story. It's still early in the week, however, and I suspect that there's a lot of stupidity to come.

27 October 2008

Cliff the Plumber and Others

Senator McCain has affected distress that Democrats and liberals have questioned the opinions and credentials of "Joe the Plumber," and it does seem like going out of one's way to refute the man's views, but since he's confessed that he put his questions to Senator Obama in the spirit of a provocateur, I guess he should be considered fair game. Two letter writers to the Albany Times Union definitely think so.

"Let me tell you about 'Cliff the plumber,'" writes Cliff Dunworth of Poestenkill, "I've been a union plumber for more than 40 years, and have been a licensed contractor for a number of those years. I always thought I made a decent living, but, never, even in my most lucrative times, did I ever make anywhere near $250,000 a year.
"Senator McCain, if you are attempting to identify yourself or your party with the average wage earner, you are missing the point by many thousands of dollars."

There's an implicit reproach of Joe here, as if the plumber is aspiring above his station and is thus unworthy of McCain's attention. But Dunworth may have missed McCain's point. John McCain is a Republican. That means he identifies with entrepreneurs, not wage earners. As a supply-side ideologue, he believes that government must cater to the entrepreneurs if wage earners are even to earn a wage. His message to wage earners is that they should show gratitude and not "envy" toward ambitious fellows like Joe.

Cliff the Plumber's attitude toward Joe is mild compared with that of Bill Baker of Averill Park.

"We all know someone like Joe the Plumber," he writes, "He's the unlicensed guy who wants you to pay in cash so he doesn't have to claim the income on his taxes, doesn't vote but 'loves the USA,' and wraps himself in the flag.
"Why should Joe have to get a plumbers' license," Baker asks sarcastically, "Government intrusion, right? Wrong. It's the law. You gotta pay taxes and get the license required by law. The United States is a nation of laws. By thumbing your nose and paying your taxes, and not getting the proper license to do plumbing work as required by law, Joe seems to be the very person I find most reprehensible. Those who wrap themselves in our great flag with no idea of what it stands for."

I wasn't aware that Joe had griped about the license requirement, but I suspect that he'd think of Bill Baker as a docile slave for his willingness to be taxed. But citizenship is always about sacrificing personal interests to a public good. It seems well short of asking people to die, and it's therefore much more reasonable, to ask them to contribute to the general welfare, which may not be exactly what the Founders meant by the term, but is always for the people to determine today. If that is "socialism," then those who denounce it are simply "anti-social" and should be recognized as such.

The Republican Crack-Up

By the day it grows harder to maintain the scrupulous belief that Senator McCain can still win the election. I am no more persuaded by polls than I was before, but it's hard to ignore each new sign that the McCain campaign is in a state of collapse. Today, the news was that McCain staffers, albeit anonymously, were denouncing Governor Palin as a "diva" who had "gone rogue" in refusing to follow the talking points foisted on her by the McCain people and continuing to discuss the question of her expenses in clothing and hair styling. Yesterday, pundit David Frum warned that McCain and Palin could drag the entire Republican party down in flames with them. He quotes a Congressman to the effect that no Republican seat in the country is safe now. Frum is a conservative, but he believes that McCain made a fatal mistake in nominating a running mate who energizes the rabid base while alienating moderates and independents.

Maggie Gallagher, by contrast, still thinks that Palin is probably the best thing that's happened to the McCain campaign. She lists Frum as one of several conservative writers who have condemned Palin, but adds that their criticisms have left her cold. She admires the Alaskan and thinks that Palin should be counted as an overachiever because of how far she's gotten while having those five kids. Since Gallagher often writes as if having kids is a woman's highest possible calling, I wonder whether the political achievements really even count much in her estimate. In any event, she "gently suggest[s]" that "the public intellectuals' discontent with Gov. Palin has less to do with who she is than with the contemporary crisis in conservatism brought about by allegiance to George Bush"

That's a cryptic statement, and it isn't clarified by Gallagher's closer: "It is time - more than past - for a deep rethinking of the conservative movement in America. But attacks by conservative pundits on Sarah Palin represent more of a symptom than a step forward."

Maybe conservatives themselves understand a subtext here. I don't know Gallagher to have been a great critic of Bush, but she seems to think he has something to do with the troubles in the conservative movement. Perhaps she worries that the pundits and "public intellectuals" are taking their frustrations with Bush out on Palin because she shares some superficial similarities -- e.g., inarticulacy, religious credulity, plain dullness? If so, how does Palin differ from Bush, and does she differ enough to justify fantasies of a presidential run in 2012, even if McCain wins? And should she become the standard bearer of a post-McCain GOP, especially with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee lurking on the sidelines, ready to crow, "I told you so" as soon as McCain goes down?

The confusion that seems to reign in Republican circles may be a sign that there can be no step forward. The 2008 election may mark the end of the "conservative movement" that began with the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, and with it the end of the "movement conservatives," a breed of political animal that over time, some writers claim, lost touch with the philosophical essence of conservatism. "Movement conservatism" (a term I borrow from The American Conservative magazine) is ideological when philosophical conservatism abhors ideology. It is insistently optimistic in the Ronald Reagan mode when conservatism normally tends toward skepticism (at least toward human ventures) to the point of pessimism. There will always be conservatives whenever innovation is subject to debate, but unless McCain pulls a Harry Truman, conservatism may need to find new forms of expression apart from the old movement. Even if McCain wins, the prospect of unorthodox "maverick" government may still force decisive choices upon conservatives, if it doesn't discredit "conservatism" as a political label for generations to come.

Voting With Guns, Part Two: Conspiracy or Thoughtcrime?

Objectivity requires us to take the alleged skinhead conspiracy (of two or three) to assassinate Senator Obama, perpetrate a massacre in a black school, and decapitate an obscurely significant number of victims about as seriously as most of the reputed terrorist plots that the government has boasted of smashing in the last seven years.

We have two knuckleheads, one still a teenager, who brainstormed this spectacular conspiracy over the course of a month's acquaintance facilitated by the internet. The authorities claim there was an intention to rob a gun store to boost their arsenal prior to the assumed suicide run, though it is unclear whether they also meant to hit a tuxedo shop to acquire the white-tie outfits they supposedly wanted to wear to the fatal affair. They seem to have been arrested mainly for writing racist graffiti on their car. They may have been ratted out by a girlfriend who drove a car for them while they cased potential robbery locations. The Smoking Gun website has posted the actual criminal complaint for our perusal. There's some evidence that they should be taken seriously as potential burglars, but beyond that we're in the realm of thoughtcrime. Their thoughts are indisputably repulsive, but let's ask again whether bloodthirsty thoughts automatically render people an imminent threat to the people they hate. Is it really a crime to wish public figures dead? To fantasize about killing them? I can understand why authorities don't want to take chances given the unprecedented circumstances that will follow should Obama win the election, but each of these assassination or terror plots should be scrutinized with great care so we can satisfy ourselves that essentially harmless people haven't been jailed to polish some bureaucrat's record. For now, though, let's hope these idiots get scared straight by their experience.

Voting With Guns

The Washington Post reports that business is booming at gun shops despite the economic slump. The paper notes that this is actually typical behavior in tough times as the "haves" fear for their safety in anticipation of larger numbers of have-nots. At the same time, a surge in sales reflects a widespread suspicion that, despite his endorsement of the recent Supreme Court decision recognizing an individual right to bear arms, that Senator Obama will take steps to restrict access to firearms. It's just what certain people expect from Democrats, especially since some of those people probably assume that Democrats will lie on this particular subject. But the rush for guns also seems to reflect a growing expectation that Obama will win the election. Some of the people buying guns told the reporter that they were going to vote for the Democrat because other issues had higher priority in influencing their political choice. So the purchase of a gun is not necessarily a vote for Senator McCain, but on the logic of money=speech, it's clearly a vote of some kind. Think of it as an equivalent of voting for Obama while putting in a Republican Congress. Since that's not actually likely to happen this year, if we can believe the polls, stockpiling guns and ammo may be another way of hedging one's bets or, in some extreme mindsets, building up a check on government. Don't be surprised to hear more about militia movements than you have over the past eight years if Obama gets in.

Here's a historical note from the highly-publicized Nixonland, Rick Perlstein's chronicle of the collapse of the liberal consensus from the humiliation of Barry Goldwater in 1964 to the landslide re-election of Richard Nixon in 1972. In the riot year of 1967, Perlstein writes, "The NRA, once a hobby club for sportsmen, was becoming a new kind of organization altogether. Its magazine, American Rifleman, had a new column, 'The Armed Citizen,' which ran glowing accounts of vigilantes. Connecticut senator Thomas Dodd, a conservative, had a bill pending to limit the sale of firearms through the mail. It had once seemed uncontroversial. Now white and black would-be vigilantes agreed that the Dodd bill was a prelude to the confiscation of all firearms. Guns & Ammo called the bill's supporters 'criminal coddling do-gooders, borderline psychotics, as well as Communists and leftists who want to lead us into the one-world welfare state.' One of those supporters was Massachusetts' junior senator, Edward Moore Kennedy -- whom American Rifleman said was following the 'Communist line' for trying to outlaw the method by which his brother's assassin had obtained the murder weapon." (p.198-9)

Perlstein has interesting things to say about Nixon and his supporters and why Americans began to reject liberalism after its 1964 triumph. I'll address some of these points in a future article.

24 October 2008

Vietnam Syndrome: Swiftboating McCain?

A few weeks ago, The Nation published a bombshell article by Sydney Schanberg on John McCain's purported role in an ongoing coverup of American POWs left behind at the end of the Vietnam war. It addressed issues raised on this blog in the past, though Schanberg believes that McCain's intent was less to hide any embarrassing information about himself than to avoid embarrassing both the Vietnamese government and his own. Nevertheless the overlap of Schanberg's hypothesis with the more provocative notions of angry veterans and POW-MIA advocates seemed to cross a line of propriety with many Nation readers.

This week's letter column gives pride of place to H. Bruce Franklin, a historian who wrote a debunking expose of POW-MIA conspiracy theories. As Franklin puts it, his book "exposed the true history of this fraudulent issue [with] meticulously documented facts and analysis." He is "profoundly shocked" that The Nation allowed Schanberg to air a "recycled and thoroughly discredited right-wing fantasy." This gets to what bugs liberal readers about the whole controversy. As Franklin sums up:

The POW/MIA myth is still an essential component of the culture that supports our current, and likely future, wars. If we resurrect the true history of our genocidal war against Vietnam, we would no longer see Americans as the victims of Vietnam and all the countries we have bombed and invaded since. And the Vietnam POW, personified in John McCain, might then be seen not as the main victim of that war and hence America's iconic war hero.

Schanberg is no conservative, and The Nation is even less a conservative magazine. Their naked intent was simply to stir up a whispering campaign against the Republican candidate. Franklin doesn't acknowledge this as the magazine's motive, but other readers are uncomfortable with liberals giving credence to a theory or "myth" identified with the political Right.

"I feel no less a desire than The Nation to ensure that McCain is not our next president," writes John McAuliff, "but such an article is Swiftboat revisionism with the endorsement of the country's leading progressive publication." David Hunt was "horrified" by the story, again because he identifies POW-MIA concerns as a fantasy "concocted by the Nixon administration to justify its stonewalling during the Paris peace negotiations" and because the whole idea reflects poorly on the Vietnamese.

The magazine gives Schanberg the last word. He and Franklin have clearly been feuding for a while before this outbreak, since his tone toward the historian is bitter. "He says, ridiculously, that he alone owns the franchise on the POW story and therefore will not deign to address any of the detailed evidence in my 8,000-investigative article." Even though Franklin claims that all of Schanberg's claims were refuted long ago, the journalist says "It is clear he cannot refute [them]."

In a strange, unintentional echo of Governor Palin, Schanberg thanks Christopher May, the one letter writer who praised his work, for "reading my piece with no ideological filter." He then asks McAuliff and Hunt to "remove any filters for an hour and read the full version of my article [which is what I've linked to], which is more detailed and has additional documentary evidence." While the critics might argue that the only filter they employ is critical thinking itself, Schanberg is probably right in his implication that liberals want to avoid the issue because they believe it can only benefit conservative nationalists.

Without a copy of Franklin's book within reach (it's called M.I.A., Or, Mythmaking in America), it's impossible to compare the two versions of events. But I'm inclined to accept Schanberg's argument that "my article is not about who was right or wrong about the Vietnam War. It is about the missing men and the suppression of their files and John McCain's central role in burying those files." The timing of his article clearly isn't meant to benefit any conservatives, but it is also obviously true that there's more to its appearance than Schanberg's concern with our boys left behind.

For some people, the notion of MIAs left behind still conjures up memories of Rambo and other bad movies of the 1980s, but by now we're probably past the point where anybody wants to start another war in Vietnam. The Communists there have gone the way of China and happily trade with us. Objectively speaking, McCain's efforts to normalize relations between the U.S. and Vietnam were probably a good thing. Unfortunately, it seems characteristic of the man that he comes to hate those who get in the way of his goals. That probably explains his hostility toward the MIA advocates, at least in part, and that hostility has been repaid with conspiratorial suspicions about his ulterior motives. As a result, there most likely won't be a final reckoning on the subject until McCain is dead, or until it becomes purely a historical question rather than a political one.

23 October 2008

The Independent Debate

The "Free and Equal" debate finally took place tonight. I'm not up to sitting through it online at this hour, but I'll note that only Chuck Baldwin and Ralph Nader showed up for it. Cynthia McKinney complained about scheduling conflicts while Bob Barr preferred to speak at Georgia Tech. His presence wasn't really expected, since he supposedly wants to debate Nader only. A two-person format is probably better anyway, and with Baldwin (a far-right antiwar candidate for those who haven't been following along) and Nader we should have dramatic diversity of views -- except on the Bailout, which both opposed. I'll have caught up with the debate by the end of the week; perhaps it will prove worthy of comment. But don't wait for me; you'll find the whole thing here.

Mr. Right's Referendum

"The only chance John McCain has to win," Mr. Right announced in response to some mumbled question from Mr. Peepers, "is if the election turns into a referendum on Barack Obama. If it does, there's no way Obama will win."

"But why can't the election be a referendum on McCain," I asked.

His answer was that, in a way, McCain has already been rejected, or found wanting. "He wouldn't even be the Republican nominee if there hadn't been open voting in so many primaries," he said. This is a point he's made before. The newer point seemed to be that people needed to decide whether to hold their noses and vote for McCain. Mr. Right was convinced that proper exposure of Obama would persuade enough people to do as he will.

"Actually," I pressed him, "given that there are at least half a dozen candidates on the ballot, why should the election be a referendum on any one candidate?"

"Because at some point you have to face reality," he answered. "None of those third parties are going to be credible until they start winning local elections."

"Yeah, but even at the local level you're still going to face that same self-fulfilling logic that they can't win. Of course they can't win until somebody votes for them!"

Mr. Right has done little but gripe about McCain since the Arizonan pulled ahead in the Republican primaries. You'd think he'd rather vote for someone who comes closer to his own views, though nobody really fits the bill. He's spoken sympathetically about Bob Barr a few times, but is implacably fatalistic about Barr's prospects. While noting that Barr polls as high as 5 or 6 percent in some states, and is hurting McCain in those places, he also understands that Barr has no money to get on national TV. In any event, Mr. Right is no Libertarian. He may agree with them on economics, but he's too conservative on social issues and still too much in favor of the war to really go that way. The Republican party, McCain aside, is really the best fit for him, especially since he's bought into the Bipolarchic logic that requires him to vote Republican in order to avert the worst outcome, in his mind: Obama's election.

Like McCain himself, Mr. Right thinks we haven't learned everything about Obama's relationship with Bill Ayers, the erstwhile Weatherman. Not that he thinks further investigation is necessary; it's really enough for him that Obama sat on boards with Ayers -- enough to disqualify Obama.

"So are you going to boycott the whole city of Chicago?" I asked him, "I hear that Mayor Daley has said favorable things about Ayers."

"No, I wont," he replied, "Nor do I want to see the university blown up for hiring his terrorist wife [Bernadine Dohrn]. But people should not be willing to associate with an unrepentant terrorist like Ayers under any circumstance, no matter how casual. I can't support someone who won't dissociate himself from such a person. That's just the way I think."

As usual with Mr. Right, the subject turned to double standards. "Admit it," he challenged me, "You know that if John McCain or Sarah Palin associated in any way with someone who was involved in bombing abortion clinics, that we wouldn't hear the end of it in the media, and they wouldn't have a chance of winning. Why isn't there the same outrage over Ayers?"

"Maybe most people don't consider him a present danger," I suggested, "The last time I looked, the Weather Underground wasn't still plotting to bomb places."

"Well, it may not bother you, but it bothers me," he concluded.

I'll spare you his related comments on Obama's Marxism, except to note that he has corrected himself somewhat on that subject. I once heard him declare that Karl Marx was Obama's hero. I challenged him to cite Obama's own words on that point or never say it again. Now he is content to say that "all" of Obama's heroes are Marxists, which is equally ludicrous but neither so insulting to my intellect nor so outrageous even for him that I care to bother calling him out on it. Sometimes it's best to let the stupid be, especially when you know they're not persuading anybody.

I suppose it's also worth noting that Governor Palin gave an interview this week in which she showed herself reluctant to label abortion clinic bombers as terrorists. To be fair, she did say that clinic bombing would be "unacceptable ... on our watch," but one wonders about her reticence. Had I known about this before I talked to Mr. Right, I would have asked his opinion. Since he's rabidly anti-abortion, I'm not sure if I could predict his response.

22 October 2008

Palin for Theocrat?

Governor Palin has given an interview to Dr. James Dobson, the pontiff of the Focus On the Family organization, in which she solicits prayers in favor of her election and seems to suggest that God gave her a Down syndrome baby for some higher purpose. You can read more here, including some ripe samples of the Alaskan's peculiar manner of speaking. Here's one to whet your appetite: Dobson has asked whether Palin considers Senator McCain a true believer in the pro-life platform.

I am such a strong believer that McCain believes in those strong planks and we do have good conversations about some of the details too of the different planks and what they represent. I'm very heartened that John McCain ... he doesn't want a Vice President who will check the opinions ... of me at the door and we talk about some of these and they're very important. It's most important though, as you're suggesting, that Americans know that John McCain is solidly there on those solid planks in our platform that build the right agenda for America.

Little of this will surprise anyone by now, but it should still make people indignant. It ought to be publicized and packaged with her persistent and apparently willful overestimate of the powers of the Vice President to scare the bejeezus out of people, just in time for Halloween. I hear that costume stores can't keep the wigs and glasses in stock that make for fake Palins next week. Seeing them all on the streets, at parties or in nightclubs, could well cause a stampede to the polls in November. That would be a grass-roots fear campaign that could not be better timed.

21 October 2008

The American Bipolarchy Fundraising Machine

Read this submission from the New York Times and weep. Apparently all of Senator McCain's endeavors to reduce the influence of money in elections have failed, and he's benefiting. Senator Obama is benefiting, too, but McCain's hypocrisy is disgusting. He continues to denounce Obama for failing to live up to some vague promise to subsist on public financing, so one would think that McCain himself is laboring in virtuous poverty. Not so: he's raking in money from joint campaign committees, to which individuals can write checks that exceed the limit on contributions to individuals. Among those taking advantage of the rule are the banks and hedge funds and other heroes of the present crisis, who've been throwing money at both major candidates.

A New York Times analysis of donors who wrote checks of $25,000 or more to the candidates’ main joint fund-raising committees found, for example, the biggest portion of money for both candidates came from the securities and investments industry, including executives at various firms embroiled in the recent financial crisis like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG.

Obama is getting more money, but McCain is getting the biggest checks. The Democrat somehow has an upper limit of approximately $33,000 for contributors to joint-campaign funds, but McCain supporters have given their man as much as $70,000 at a time. While some industries or sectors give money indiscriminately -- they probably see it as charitable work -- "Compared with Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain drew a slightly larger percentage of his big-donor money from the financial industry, about a fifth of his total. ... With his emphasis on offshore drilling, Mr. McCain has also enjoyed heavy support from generous benefactors in the oil and gas industry, a group Mr. Obama drew relatively little from."

Some distinctions are predictable: "Mr. Obama also drew a significant amount from big givers in the entertainment industry, who contributed relatively little to Mr. McCain. In contrast, donations from the private equity and hedge fund industries accounted for a significantly greater amount of the giving from Mr. McCain’s largest donors, compared with Mr. Obama’s."

We now hear McCain's friends complaining that Obama is trying to buy the election with such vast sums as the $150 million he collected last month. This is a typical McCain tactic. When someone else does the same thing he's doing, there's an "appearance of corruption," -- especially when they're doing it better. But McCain's own integrity is never to be questioned. It's alright for him to do pretty much anything, for no better reason than that he's John McCain. Sometimes hypocrisy can be nothing more than the belief that you are the only ethical person on the planet.

But it can't be denied that Obama is driving up the price of elections. Once money was equated with political speech, elections turned into auctions. Votes themselves weren't up for sale, but the instrumentalities of elections, especially TV airtime, certainly were. Independents are priced out of the market, so that none of the candidates who opposed the Bailout, as far as I could tell, could get on national TV to tell voters about it. The fundraising advantages that the two main parties enjoy are as important to maintaining the Bipolarchy as the brand-name loyalty of most Americans. The only way to level the playing field is to eliminate money as a decisive force in politics by eliminating its necessity as much as possible. Until that happens, there won't be any real debates in this country, and American elections will continue to be Orwellian spectacles of permanent conflict as an instrument of permanent control.

Kimbo Slice Needs Work

The last time the subject of Kimbo Slice and the dubious decision to promote him as the future of mixed martial arts came up, Hobbyfan (one of my faithful correspondents) predicted that EliteXC, Slice's patron, would go out of business before long. The news has proven Hobby a prophet, and it looks as if it was Slice's defeat on national TV, combined with the victor's comments about how he was encouraged to fight a certain way, that doomed the business. Kimbo is a bubble that has burst, but no one's bailing out EliteXC.

This leaves poor Slice out of a job. As it happens, a position has just opened up. It may be insensitive of me to make this suggestion so soon after Rudy Ray Moore's demise, but it seems to me that Kimbo Slice has exactly the fighting prowess necessary to play the New Dolemite. He'll just need to work on his mic skills -- a lot.

20 October 2008

Dolemite Is Dead

Or is he? The mortal shell called Rudy Ray Moore passed away on 19 October after 81 years on earth. But this remains:

What if he is dead? It only means that Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law, has gone to claim what's rightfully his. He's the godfather of the eternal, infernal disco, now, and we who remain are only living off his leftovers. His like may not be seen again.

Homophobes are Stupid; or, A Suggested Constitutional Amendment

1. Homophobes Are Stupid

Some reactionary pundits seem to be more passionate about the menace of homosexual rights than they are about the presidential election. Cal Thomas showed his colors last week, and this week it's Maggie Gallagher's turn. She's a homophobe of long standing, though she writes that "I know many, many gay people" who share her views on the marriage question. She usually disguises her prejudice behind surveys or statistics that she interprets to suggest that anything different from "one man, one woman" is bad for the children. She shows some truer colors this time, arguing in favor of a California proposition against gay marriage. Her argument this week is that a majority of people has a right to stigmatize a minority and deny it the rights the majority enjoys.

"Marriage is a publicly affirmed status -- a shared social ideal -- not just a private act," Gallagher writes. In other words, the people -- practically speaking, the majority, -- gets to say what marriage is. I would have expected her to say marriage was a sacrament defined by divine revelation, but the preferred homophobic tactic these days is to accuse gay rights advocates of hostility toward democracy. So she goes on: "When the government says gay unions are the ideal -- exactly the same as husband and wife -- a whole lot of people who disagree are going to find life gets a whole lot harder, especially when it comes to raising our children."

Take my word for it: Gallagher never gets around to explaining how life will get "a whole lot harder" for heterosexuals, either in the realm of child-rearing or anywhere else. Perhaps they'll suffer some mental stress from being unable to forbid what their religion deems sinful, but I can't imagine how upholding gay marriage rights will handicap anyone else. The one consequence she specifically predicts, should the proposition fail, is that "public schools will teach about gay marriage." As she puts it more strongly, "If Prop 8 loses, expect a lot more public schools to join Mayor [Gavin] Newsom's crusade to promote gay marriage, 'whether you like it or not.'" So I guess it's an unfair burden on some people to have their children learn that there's nothing wrong with homosexuals, or that they have a right to marry. Sometimes tolerance is intolerable for some folks.

As ever, the knot at the heart of the debate is the definition of marriage. Homophobes can't separate the concept of marriage as a religious sacrament or ritual from the legal standing of marriage for the purpose of sharing property, benefits, etc. For couples of any kind, the legal fact of marriage or separate-but-equivalent "civil unions" is a prerequisite for property sharing and other arrangements, while the ritual is purely voluntary. Thinking about this, I've come around to the view that a constitutional amendment is needed to define marriage once and for all.

2. A Suggested Constitutional Amendment

"Marriage being a legal contract between consenting adult parties conferring shared rights and privileges upon the parties and compelling public recognition of a life partnership independent of any religious ceremony, neither Congress nor the several States shall make laws rendering the state or status of marriage conditional upon ceremonies or tests founded upon religious doctrines; but the states may recognize persons united in religious ceremonies as legally married, and shall make no law compelling religious officers to perform superfluous ceremonies contrary to individual conscience or religious obligation."

This is a first draft, so forgive my attempt at "constitution-ese." I'm trying to accomplish several things here. First, I want to separate the institution of marriage from any sacrament or ritual in the eyes of the law. Second, the amendment should block any lawmaking body from enacting a "one-man-one-woman" law. Third, I want to make religious ceremonies sufficient but not necessary. Homosexual couples should not have to go through a religious ceremony to be recognized as married, nor should couples who have church weddings have to go through any more bureaucracy than they do now to earn legal recognition. Finally, it addresses what I take to be the great fear of religious folk by assuring them that no one who feels strongly on the subject will ever be forced to perform a gay marriage ceremony. So now that you know what I mean the amendment to say, I leave it to anyone who wants to phrase it more effectively or clearly.

19 October 2008

Debate Update

The final presidential debate has been postponed from tonight until Thursday night, according to this release from the organization issuing the invitations. I hope that's because some candidates said they'd be better able to make the event if it was held later. The last time I looked, six contenders were invited, but it looked like only three might actually show. Those three shouldn't be penalized if the other three ignore an opportunity to get on television, live or not. I'd like to think that the news networks have a patriotic obligation to cover this debate, but that probably doesn't go with most people's notion of a free press, which in practice seems to mean the freedom to ignore news that someone doesn't like. As far as I know, C-SPAN still intends to record the event, but I don't know when it might be broadcast. As soon as somebody posts something that can be embedded, I'll share it with you here.

Oliver Stone's "W."

The public doesn't like movies that touch on politics or the war on terror. This was proven again by the poor box-office performance of Oliver Stone's new movie, a biopic about President Bush that had an advance reputation as a hatchet job. Having seen the film this weekend (in a relatively crowded art-house theater), I think that the advertising isn't doing justice to W. On the other hand, the actual film is bound to be a tough sell.

W. strikes me as two films with nearly contradictory agendas that have been cut together rather awkwardly, so that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The first film is the one that gets advertised. It deals with the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, punctuated with many of the President's famous malapropism. This part of the film is clearly intended for laughs. Details like playing the old "Robin Hood" TV show theme as the Bush cabinet wanders around the President's ranch are clearly meant to mock the leaders. These scenes detail W's effort to present a case for invasion. Bush wants to invade because he has a grudge against Saddam and, as it develops, he blames his father's failure to depose the dictator for his defeat in the 1992 election. But you can't tell that to the United Nations, so we get a narrative of the buildup of the "yellowcake" story, along with a chilling presentation by Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney of the "real" motive for the invasion: to occupy Iraq permanently in order to control its oil. All of this will be very familiar material for most people, and that familiarity may have kept people away from the theater.

Intercut with these "road to war" scenes is a more conventional biopic detailing W's rise from drunken frat-boy to presidential candidate. This part of the film is more like Stone's Nixon biopic in that it strives for a semi-sympathetic understanding of someone with dreadful political views. This part cleverly wins sympathy toward the young W. by portraying him as smarter, in one respect, than we might expect. Hazed by his Yale frat, W. and his fellow pledges must recite as many names of actual frat members as they can remember while sitting in ice water up to their skivvies and getting doused with alcohol from all directions. A fellow pledge can only haltingly recall a handful of names, but W. wins over the crowd with a letter-perfect litany of the brothers and their nicknames. But he is basically a hellraiser, and we soon see him in jail for disruptive behavior following a football game. This introduces the main element of the biopic, W's resentful relationship toward his cold father, who clearly favors younger brother Jeb and considers W. to be a shiftless loser. W. rebels against the pressure by bouncing from job to job, uncertain to a very late point of what he really wants to do in life. In the 70s he runs for Congress and is beaten soundly by a populist Democrat who tars W. as an elitist. This provokes W. to vow not to be "out-Texased" ever again, but it sets his career back and him back to drinking until he has a near-death religious experience while jogging off a hangover in 1986. His religious experience is refined during his time in a church-based sobriety program. But his most potent impulse is a desire to top his father and brother. He urges Dad to use the "Willie Horton" ads and accept more help from church leaders during the 1988 campaign, but the old man stays aloof. He's humiliated for his dad when Clinton beats him in 1992, but the experience also confirms his sense that his father is weak. He defies Dad by running for governor of Texas in the same year Jeb first runs for governor of Florida, and bristles when Dad is more disappointed by Jeb losing (he won on his second try) than pleased by W. winning. The father-son conflict dominates these episodes, and W. keeps your sympathy because you never quite understand if Dad favors Jeb because W. has been a loser or if some deeper family issue (Mom also favors Jeb) drove W. in that direction originally. In any event, winning power and doing something Dad couldn't (deposing Saddam) represent W's redemption, whatever the consequences for the country. That thesis is supposed to hold the two halves of the film together. Even at the end, we're supposed to retain some sympathy for him when he shows outrage and feelings of betrayal when the U.S. fails to find WMD in Iraq, as if he'd been played by Rumsfeld and Cheney (who promptly throws Rumsfeld under the bus) instead of playing along.

I don't mean to hint that an Oliver Stone movie approves of W's conduct, but he and his screenwriter make a sincere attempt to present the president as a human being instead of the cartoon cretin or monster many people might have expected. Playing the part, Josh Brolin advances his standing among our leading newer actors. In the past year and a half I've seen him as the scuzzy doctor in Planet Terror, the stubborn hunter-turned-prey in No Country For Old Men, and here vanishing into the part so completely that I hardly recognized him. His imitation of Bush isn't perfect -- some of his features don't really match -- but the voice is close enough and the performance is a thorough self-transformation that makes up for the physical imperfections. The cast is almost uniformly good, with special honors due to Dreyfuss as Cheney and James Cromwell as a better elder Bush than I suspected. He doesn't come close to the real man's voice, but the resemblance is closer than I originally believed and his sense of the character helps suspend your disbelief.

In a season when Beverly Hills Chihuahua dominates the box office, W. was probably doomed. It's been noted already that moviegoers are uninterested in anything to do with the war. The most recent reminder before this was just last week, when Body of Lies flopped despite its DiCaprio-Crowe teamup. This indifference (or outright hostility) to war and terror themes seems odd when Fahrenheit 911, a political documentary, was a genuine blockbuster just four years ago. The polls will tell you that the public hasn't become more reactionary, so something else must be going on -- most likely simple news fatigue. This is a year for escapism at the movies, even if some of the most popular escapist fare has terroristic subtexts. I know I feel terror at the thought of ever sitting through Beverly Hills Chihuahua, but that aside, if you're looking for an escape from escapism. W. is an interesting way to spend a couple of hours. Honesty, however, requires me to note that there is nothing so epically scaled about this production that you'd miss it by waiting for the DVD.

Ring of Hell

The world of professional wrestling is one of the most disturbing subcultures in the country. A fan culture has emerged around it, just as others have around other once-disposable forms of pop culture. Wrestling may be unique, however, in developing a fan culture that enabled self-destructive impulses among the performers. That fan culture is only a tangential presence in Matthew Randazzo V's Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit & the Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry, but the book, a biography of the wrestler who killed his family and himself last year, shows that the same mentality driving the fan culture has been driving wrestlers themselves into early graves.

Unlike most wrestling books, a genre of publishing dominated by wrestlers and fans, Ring of Hell has no sympathy for the wrestling business. It characterizes the typical wrestling audience, at least in the old days, as consisting of "hormonal teenage girls and mentally challenged children." Most importantly, Randazzo has no respect for the superior "workers" of hardcore performers who've won the loyalty of the lifelong fans -- the "smarts" who know that wrestling is fake, but focus on the performance skills of certain workers. As far as the author is concerned, people who risk their health doing pro wrestling are fools or madmen. While noting that, in some ways, Chris Benoit was a better person than many wrestlers, less obsessed with locker-room politics and more committed to maintaining a work ethic, Randazzo concludes early on that Benoit's youthful desire to emulate the Dynamite Kid, an undersized, high-flying wrestler who was a major scumbag in real life, showed that something was wrong with him.

Benoit, himself undersized, could not hope to win fans with a mighty physique, nor had he the charisma or wit to get himself over, as wrestlers say, with his gift of gab. To follow in Dynamite Kid's footsteps, he had to be a high-flyer, willing to do reckless stunts that couldn't help but damage his body. Worse, one of his favorite stunts, launching himself from the top rope to headbutt a prone opponent on the mat, couldn't help but damage his brain. But his strategy worked: he became a star, first with the "smart" fans who began trading videos of his matches from Japan and Mexico, then with more mainstream American fans. He eventually was made WWE Heavyweight Champion, but was already in physical decline by that point. He built himself up with steroids and sustained himself with painkillers, undeterred by seeing several close friends and colleagues destroy themselves the exact same way. Arguably, he could only have become a star in the modern era of wrestling.

Ever since wrestling became fake, the key to success was determining what kind of person fans wanted to see win or lose. Often it was a simple matter of identifying heroes and villains. In some cases, ethnic loyalties and prejudices determined who got ahead. The idea was to create an illusion of combat and an illusion of justice. Villains cheated and eventually got their comeuppance. That satisfied most "marks," -- the carny term wrestlers use for the fans they're trying to fool -- but a minority developed a sort of connoisseurs' appreciation for the wrestlers who best sustained the illusion of combat; those who were the most athletic or best at "selling" their opponents' moves to make them look powerful. Athleticism, selling and a gift of gab made the superior worker; "Nature Boy" Ric Flair, who could be seen on WWE until very recently, was the exemplar of this kind. In the 1980s, workers like Flair were eclipsed by Hulk Hogan, whom Vince McMahon made a cultural phenomenon. Hogan and McMahon envisioned wrestlers as cartoon characters with giant merchandising potential. Accordingly they aimed their product toward a younger audience, alienating older fans who saw their favorite entertainment being dumbed down. Wrestling had become so unreal that they couldn't have stood it anymore unless they could latch on to something in it that could be shown to be indisputably real. Their desire for reality in wrestling, to justify their persistent fandom, created an opening for self-destructive workers like Chris Benoit. In fact, it was a mandate for self-destruction that Benoit and too many others faithfully obeyed. In some cases, it may have been a way of maintaining one's self-respect in a "fake" sport. In others, possibly like Benoit's, something more pathological may lay at the core.

Wrestlers were a self-destructive breed before, but that just reflected the sleaziness of the carny lifestyle. There's a difference between trashy characters drinking or even drugging themselves to early deaths and the modern wrestlers who killed themselves twice over, pumping themselves full of steroids and painkillers in order to perform ritualistic self-abuse for audiences of thousands of people. The nearest comparison might be with the most extreme punk rockers of the 1970s and 1980s, who had a similar impulse to mortify and destroy themselves, and in some cases took others with them. I doubt, however, whether any punk had as many people egging them on to tempt death at every performance as Benoit and other hardcore wrestlers did.

The rise of hardcore or extreme wrestling coincided with the birth of "mixed martial arts" as a new spectator sport. Both phenomena were driven by a desire for an intensity of spectacle that existing combat sports or "sports entertainment" couldn't or wouldn't provide. What, exactly, are people looking for? MMA provides the reality, but doesn't necessarily satisfy the craving that exists for decisive physical combat; many fans want punches, kicks, elbows, rather than grappling. Hardcore wrestling lacks one kind of reality, since matches are still scripted, but at least promises the more important kind. I don't know whether "bloodlust" is a fair label for this craving, since you don't necessarily bleed from a diving headbutt, but there is a hunger for physical ordeals that also finds "fake" expression in the "torture-porn" genre of horror films like Hostel and the Saw series. The funny thing is that I can at least try to explain what happened in wrestling as a sort of perverse dialectic, but I'm not sure where the rest of the culture gets it from.

In any event, if anyone's looking for a single expose of the wrestling business, Ring of Hell may be the one. Randazzo goes into brutal detail on the sadistic training regimen, the vicious hazing of a hierarchical locker-room culture, the hilariously mean-spirited "ribbing" that passes for practical jokes, the alpha-male competition for precedence and the promoters' favor, and the sheer (and sometimes literal) gangsterism of the business. At the same time, if it didn't have such a horrific climax, the story of Benoit's relationship with Nancy Sullivan, which began as a fake affair dictated by Sullivan's own husband, only to escalate into reality as the drug-addled paranoid husband began to believe his own storyline, could be the stuff of a hilarious movie. My one reservation about the book is that not everything Randazzo writes is necessarily believable. While stressing how often and how automatically wrestlers lie about things, he depends very much on interviews with wrestlers, some of whom may have exaggerated their tales of locker-room madness for reasons known only to themselves. With that caveat in mind, I still recommend Ring of Hell as a riveting revelation of the festering underbelly of global popular culture.

16 October 2008

Idiot of the Week Contender: Stephen Baldwin

Who could beat Sarah Palin in an idiot contest? How about a Baldwin brother. That brood has a built-in advantage, and Stephen steps up to the plate this week with an extraordinary piece of idiocy. It pales in comparison to the time brother Alec called on a mob to sack the home of Henry Hyde, but we don't judge idiocy by sheer bloodthirstiness. We judge it by the pure stupidity of challenging Senator Obama to a fight, calling him a "cultural terrorist," and being so scared of his ascent that he threatens to emigrate if Obama's elected. Meanwhile, Palin's stupidity of a few days ago may only show that she's hard of hearing. After all, she claims she's never heard anyone threatening Obama's life at her rallies. She could play up this hard-of-hearing angle to win some sympathy. The next time she hears people yelling at her and isn't sure what they're saying, she could say, "Louder!" Then maybe her audience will think she's heckling them. But until Palin's exact idiot status is resolved, I'm leaning toward Baldwin this week.

Joe vs. Obama

ABC reports that "Joe the Plumber" has clarified his financial and his philosophical positions on Senator Obama's tax policy. It turns out that he's not about to make $250,000 anytime soon, and would more likely be entitled to a tax cut at his current income level under the Obama plan. But he just doesn't like the idea that, as he puts it, the more successful he gets, the more he'd have to pay in taxes. It doesn't seem fair to him. Would he prefer the opposite? Yeah, that'd teach those lazy loafers to get off their asses; pay more taxes the less you make! Actually, based on his meeting with Obama it looks like Joe would prefer a flat tax. I'd like to see us try to win World War II with a flat tax -- I'm sure there's a libertarian or a supply-sider out there who thinks we could have -- but our plumber seems to have a hard time looking beyond his own interests. Anything else, after all, would be "socialistic," and the poor man might not rise to the level he'd be entitled to in the state of nature. But we're not in the state of nature, are we? So why do Joe and so many other people act as if they are?

15 October 2008

Prelude: Meet "Joe the Plumber"

The unseen subject of the third McCain-Obama debate was a man who had a question for Senator Obama during a recent stop on the campaign trail. This remarkable encounter was recorded by ABC and posted on You Tube. It actually amazes me that Obama would devote five whole minutes out of what must be a punishing schedule to try to explain himself to this man -- and I don't mean that to belittle the plumber. I think Obama was trying to talk straight to him, but could have been straighter if he dared mention that, as a man of potentially greater wealth, Joe might have acquire greater responsibility to the society that benefited him. Joe himself seems to buy into the argument that taxes "punish success" or otherwise undermine the American Dream, but he also looks somewhat astonished, maybe even impressed, that Obama is making a special effort to explain his tax policy without pandering or apologizing. Granted, the cameras are rolling, but aren't they always when Obama appears? Whatever the plumber took away from the encounter, Obama is more impressive here than he has been in the debates with Senator McCain.

McCain-Obama III

Since the candidates again mostly said the same things tonight that they've been saying all along, I found myself focusing on exterior details. The most obvious one was Senator McCain's hyperactive face. If Al Gore was condemned for sighing or otherwise looking contemptuous or condescending toward George W. Bush, then McCain practically disqualified himself from the election with his goggle-eyed mugging and goofball facial expressions. He made a clown of himself, as if he didn't take Senator Obama seriously. He clearly didn't bother listening to what Obama said. The Bill Ayers question came up, and McCain said we need to find out everything about Obama's connection to the erstwhile Weatherman. Obama answered, scoring points by noting the Republicans who sat on the Annenberg Challenge board along with him and Ayers. McCain's idea of a rejoinder was to basically repeat what he had already said as if Obama had said nothing.

Increasingly, McCain reminded me of his running mate. Like Gov. Palin, he lapsed into talking points at odd moments at the risk of appearing oblivious to what was actually being asked. He grew more tongue tied and embarrassed himself by calling his opponent "Senator Government." Most post-game observers think McCain's big moment was when he told Obama, "I'm not President Bush," but I think Obama countered this well by explaining his "mistake" with reference to McCain's fidelity to Bushite economic policies. Meanwhile, liberal commentators are saying McCain jumped the shark when he appeared to dismiss life-of-the-mother concerns when discussing abortion law. I guess abortion isn't a hot-button issue for me, because it didn't register with me the same way.

The most interesting thing about the third debate is the nearly complete role reversal from a few weeks ago, when I often found myself criticizing Obama for whining rather than fighting back. Tonight, McCain spent a good part of the debate whining about those mean ads Obama was running about him. My criticism is the same for one man as for the other: it looks weak. By the way, Obama was lying when he said that all McCain's ads are negative. With my own eyes I've seen ads that emphasized only McCain's positive traits and ideas. Granted, these were early in the general campaign, but they count. I don't mean to single out Obama's lie, since both men did a lot of dissimulating, but when McCain could have cited specific ads to prove Obama wrong, he preferred to whine or, worse, to defend the mobs at his rallies. I know he was trying to say that the people allegedly yelling threats against Obama were only bad apples, but that's not what people are going to take from it.

I guess I'm obliged to address the phenomenon of "Joe the Plumber." Joe's a real person who confronted Obama to complain that the Democrat's tax plan would make it impossible for him to expand his business and hire more people. McCain has adopted Joe and uses him as a shield for Exxon and other poor potential victims of Obamite taxation. McCain milked the poor plumber for all he was worth, but my friendly advice to the Republican is this: if you want to make Americans empathize with some tax-imperiled working stiff, the way to do it wouldn't be to translate him into a cartoon character called "Joe the Plumber" but to remember his last name, you idiot!

Reading or listening to the partisan pundits is pointless. Liberals will say Obama won and conservatives will favor McCain simply because each man said the ideologically correct things. We need to know what independents think, and since there are no independent pundits to my knowledge, their comments only obfuscate the issue. Don't expect objectivity here, either, since any utterance of supply-side dogma was going to hurt McCain with me. I can only remind you that I am no partisan, and that Obama hasn't really impressed me as a savior in any of these debates, while insisting that McCain continues to look like someone coming apart at the seams, who doesn't know how to act as his ambitions hit the wall.

With his constant unsubstantiated refrain of "I know how to" do this and that, win wars (when?) or balance budgets or anything else, McCain reminds me of Thomas Nast's cartoons of Horace Greeley during the 1872 presidential campaign. It's actually a disturbing reminder. Greeley had a reputation as a know-it-all, so Nast drew increasingly brutal caricatures of him always carrying a book titled "What I Know About" some absurd topic or other. Greeley lost the election in a landslide, and within a month he was dead.

Not the Last Debate

Don't let the Bipolarchy fool you. Tonight's encounter between Senator McCain and Senator Obama is not the last presidential campaign debate for 2008. It may not even be the final debate appearance of either man if they have the guts to accept the invitation to Sunday's debate on C-SPAN, where they would have to stand alongside Chuck Baldwin, Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader, at least. Here's more information.

The Times article is inaccurate in describing the six people invited to the Sunday debate as "all six" candidates, but they are the only six who are on ballots in enough states to win the electoral vote. All things and all candidates being equal, Bob Barr's attitude is peculiar but consistent with his campaign so far. Unwilling to stand alongside Baldwin, McKinney and Nader at the Ron Paul press conference last month, the Libertarian nominee currently refuses to participate in the Sunday debate, preferring (he claims) a mano-a-mano with Nader. Barr clearly fancies himself on a higher plane than Baldwin and McKinney and on a level with Nader in national celebrity and poll numbers. But he shouldn't be so haughty. Baldwin at least has more standing and seniority within his party than Barr has, and McKinney is his outright peer as a former member of Congress. But Barr betrays a Bipolarchic mentality, attempting to establish himself and Nader as an exclusive second tier of candidates and pretty much recreating the "left-right" dichotomy on that tier, as Baldwin and McKinney probably could on a third tier. For all I know, Barr may envision a Tripolarchy, with the Libertarians joining the Democrats and Republicans, but that will never happen as long as the GOP can define itself as libertarian relative to the Dems and vice versa, depending on the issues under debate. Very few people, it seems, take a "libertarian" view on all issues. That fact assures the Libertarian Party of fringe status unless the Bipolarchy itself collapses. Odious as Baldwin's Constitution Party may be on many issues, and unrealistic as McKinney's Greens can be, I can see both eventually surpassing the Libertarians because neither is as completely ideological as Barr's party.

I don't expect miracles from the Sunday debate. I've come around to the view that debates involving more than two people are little better than game shows in which contestants compete to coin the best sound bites. A better option for future consideration would be a round-robin format pitting two candidates at a time against each other. In such an arrangement, McCain, for instance, might face Obama one week, Barr the next, Nader after that, and so on. This would knock candidates out of their comfort zones, since they would have to match wits (this is presuming a lot in some cases) against rivals to their left and their right. A round-robin debate series would be more of a test than if "all six" 2008 contenders appeared together, since the limited time available in the latter scenario would allow each to get away with stating their own views without really addressing challenges from multiple directions. Neither McCain nor Obama, nor Barr (apparently) would be comfortable with such a format because they have so much invested in the forced dichotomies of Bipolarchy discourse. Obama doesn't want to deal with someone to his left like McKinney or Nader any more than McCain cares to confront someone to his right like Baldwin. Worse, should voters grow accustomed to the idea that there are more than two sides to some questions, the either-or logic that upholds the American Bipolarchy might start to come apart. That would be reason to pressure the cable news networks to join C-SPAN in carrying the Sunday debate live, whoever shows up. As news providers, they owe it to the public.

14 October 2008

"We the People" and the Right to Bigotry

A few weeks ago, I extended a grudging compliment to Cal Thomas, the conservative columnist, for his skeptical comments on the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" movement. Thomas suggested that the right of pastors to make political speeches from their pulpits wasn't worth fighting for, since their job was to save souls, not influence elections. He's a disillusioned advocate of the Moral Majority, but since he hasn't given up his columnist job, he's free to opine on political and moral issues, and to confuse the two.

Thomas's latest column is a warning against Senator Obama's election, which he claims will result in the enactment of a gay-rights agenda. He was provoked by the Connecticut Supreme Court's recent ruling legalizing same-sex marriages in that state. As Thomas puts it, the ruling "deprived Connecticut citizens of the right to limit marriage and thus, societal approval, to the legal and covenantal relationship between a man and a woman."

"Covenantal" is a loaded term, implicitly insisting that marriage is fundamentally religious in nature, essentially a sacrament belonging to the sacred traditions. That obviously isn't the case in the United States, however, where marriages are matters of law, not ritual. It ought to be self-evident that no religious conception should influence the state's idea of what marriage is.

Thomas would have you believe that this isn't about religion, but the rights of conscience and the concept of majority rule. He quotes the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, who says that the struggle over gay marriage is "about our right to govern ourselves."

"He is correct, of course," Thomas contends, "but such notions are beginning to fade as more of us either don't care, or are willing to trade a ruling class -- in this case the courts -- for individual freedom and the right to shape societal norms and mores from the bottom up, not the top down."

That's right: according to Cal Thomas, it's an exercise of individual freedom to subjugate and stigmatize a minority group in order to "shape societal norms," and for the majority to impose its will and its prejudices on the minority is freedom "from the bottom up, not the top down."

Thomas tries to be clever. In a bit of sophistry, he notes the gay-rights argument that laws against gay marriage are equivalent to laws against interracial marriage. He also notes the Connecticut court's majority opinion, which says, "Our understanding of marriage must yield to a more contemporary appreciation of the rights entitled to constitutional protection." If rights are subject to revision based on "a more contemporary appreciation" of things or a new "understanding," Thomas teases, should we consent to a reduction of black civil rights if the majority understanding "were to devolve to a pre-civil-rights-era acceptance of black inferiority"? If our notion of rights depends on circumstances or "understanding," he means, why can't rights by reduced as well as enhanced? He wants you to concede that minority rights should not be subject to "contemporary whim," but he takes that position because for him, both rights and "right" are eternal and unchanging. What was right 2,000 years ago will be right 2,000 years from now. But if he thinks gay marriage and interracial marriage are a bad analogy, he only makes things worse. He concedes that Americans previously limited blacks' civil rights based on their "acceptance of black inferiority." He presumably approves of the enhanced civil rights blacks enjoy today, but didn't these result from "a more contemporary appreciation" of black capabilities and the humanity they shared with whites? Yet wouldn't an old-school racist dispute that new appreciation and dismiss it as a "contemporary whim?" On this point Thomas would probably appeal to natural right and say that earlier Americans were wrong about blacks. The civil rights movement, in that case, was no "contemporary whim," but a discovery of fundamental moral truth. So why are gay rights different?

We know what Thomas thinks, since he writes it right here: "The aim of the gay rights lobby is to destroy all remnants of biblical values and societal norms." That's a broad claim. Not only do they want to marry one another, it seems, but they also want to reduce society to anarchy and restore the worship of Baal. It will be news to most if not all gay activists, I suspect, to learn that this is their agenda. But at least Thomas has put his cards on the table. Gay rights are different, and dangerous to Thomas, because they defy the will of God as he understands it. His piety has damned his own cause because he admits that his objection to gay rights is religious in nature. The government has no business enacting any religion's scruples into law, especially if they serve to infringe other people's self-evident rights in a supposedly civilized society. If Thomas and his ilk have no better argument against gay marriage than that it offends God, they may as well stand down.

As it happens, he has another argument, although it's probably not unrelated. Gay marriage, he insists, offends the majority of the American people. He urges people to vote against Obama because "this election is, among other things, about the future of the majority and whether we want this country to be shaped by the courts or by 'we the people.'" Somehow popular sovereignty is threatened if a majority of people cannot enact their bigotry into law. But again, Thomas implicitly condemned past enactments of bigotry into law when they limited the rights of blacks. Why was majority rule in favor of bigotry unacceptable then, but acceptable now? If the issue is "bigger than gay marriage" and is really "about our right to govern ourselves," Thomas has no way to answer this question except to retreat back to the shadow of religion. If we can sum up his argument, it appears that natural rights trump majority rule, except when religion trumps natural rights -- or else religion rather than reason determines what rights really are. Either way, in opposing gay marriage and other gay rights, however he may want to hide it, Cal Thomas is arguing in favor of theocracy, not democracy. Don't let him tell you otherwise.