Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Other Reason

In the history of the United States, only three Presidents have ever been elected to the office of President of the United States directly out of the US Senate.

Of those, only Barack Obama failed to complete his first term (ironically, the other two, Warren Harding and John Kennedy, were elected as their first term in the Senate was ending.)

As I was writing my most recent post about the frustrations and difficulties either Elizabeth Warren or Rand Paul would face in getting elected (and I mentioned the difficulties Barack Obama had in governing), this post sort of popped up and started coalescing.

It's easy to blame racism for the reaction Republicans have had to Barack Obama. It is undeniable that the Republican and conservative base is racist and they pressure their leaders to conform to their thinking. It is also undeniable that the Congress is, taken as the whole, a white legislation. In particular, the Republican contingent, which if memory serves has precisely three black members.

I mean, it's hard to understand a people if you never ever meet one, except in an elevator or deli. Obama has a lot working against him on the skin color front, to be sure.

But there's another aspect to the abject hatred he engenders, a layer on top of the racism that might even justify the racism in the mind of the racists: a simple truth.

Barack Obama hadn't earned his place in line.

As with so much about this remarkable and historic figure, it's hard to make comparisons. Both Harding and Kennedy failed to finish out their terms, as both died in office.

Harding, however, was under investigation in the Teapot Dome scandal and a raft of other shady dealings and people. Ironically, Harding was accused of being secretly black. These should give a sense of the level of hatred he engendered in the opposition.

Kennedy, too, had a very virulent strain of haters across the country, in large part because he was the first Catholic elected to the Presidency, echoing Obama's dilemma fifty years down the road. Indeed, in the city where he was assassinated, Kennedy was vilified and excoriated in manners that, too, would echo in Barack Obama's administrations.

But let's focus on the microcosm that is the Senate. It's a very traditional chamber, an old boy network that relishes in the fact it is the place where hot-headed measures and rants go to die (lately....? Ted Cruz puts paid to that notion). And there is a very definite pecking order. New Senators are expected to sit in the back, keep quiet and listen.

That both Cruz and Tom Cotton of Arkansas are now perceived amongst their peers as idiots speaks volumes about this system. That Rand Paul is making as many waves as he is says a lot about his chances to gain the support of his Senate peers beyond the obligatory speechifying.

In short, the Senate will not be put in a corner. And I'm sure they've had quite enough of being seen as a step on a career climber's ladder. Should the next President come out of the Senate after less than one term, there will be hell to pay.

Too, spending time in the chamber and paying your dues allows you to create a network that you can work with (altho nowadays...?). On the other hand, it creates a paper trail of legislation that you;ve voted on, along with every amendment. Thus is why you see these bizarre ads about "voting for/against abortion" when no bill about abortion was ever put in the hopper. It's usually tacked on as an amendment to another bill that either gets voted up or down.

Obama suffered a lot for this, I think, because you'll note that some of the opposition to him in the first term came from his own party (Max Baucus leaps to mind). That a Democrat would publicly flout his opposition to Obama's signal accomplishment speaks volumes to the resentment folks felt.

It will take a long time for the Senate to overcome this bias, if it ever does. Obama's skin color merely allows Senators to ignore their more insidious bias.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Reality in Politics

I love me some Paultards.

Some of what I'm going to say applies to another candidate's supporters, but I want to draw a very careful distinction between the believers in Rand Paul and the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party and liberals outside the party.

Rand Paul is cuckoo. Rand Paul will never be President, even if he somehow manages to survive the primaries. His dad, Ron, made a great if futile run and so paved some paths for Rand, but Ron didn't have the same personal baggage that Rand has. Ron had some racist and crackpot newsletters, but they were published twenty years earlier, to be sure.

Rand? Well... let's just say "Google 'Rand Paul Aqua Buddha'" and go from there. Or "disabilities". Or the "Civil Rights Act". Or "Israel". Or...

He doesn't stand a chance. Even his political organizers have pretty much given up on him and we're a year out from the first primaries.

Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, would make a fine President, and apart from that annoying "Cherokee" thing, really has no bizarre past that she'll have to spend hours explaining away. If she was to jump in the ring against Hillary (assuming she's running), I would be hard pressed to choose between the two. Both would make great Presidents. Only one would make a great candidate in an era where issues don't matter anymore, tho.

Some of her supporters, whom I'll call Warrenterrorists just to distinguish them from sober, thoughtful folks, are supporting her out of spite for Hillary. Those people are the equivalents of Paultards, I think. My comments apply to them as well.

It's wonderful to live in a world where you can hang your hopes and aspirations on other people. Rand Paul (and with the codicils mentioned above, Elizabeth Warren) represents a fantasy figure, a chimera.

Rand Paul is Tinkerbell and boys and girls, if we all just clap our hands together, clap them real hard and real loud, Paul (Warren) can win! We like him! We really want him!

We can try, but it's not going to happen, less so for Warren than for Paul. But I get the metaphor: they represent some form of purity and morality -- or at least concise thinking that can be easily digested in a bite or two -- that people gravitate to in a nation bereft of truth and lacking a common point that we can all agree upon. We don't have a focus anymore.

Truth is, we've lacked one for many decades now, ever since the Soviets folded up. The American people weren't prepared for what came next, altho we should have been, the signs were there. The war on Americans, by Americans. The class war.

We're finally just waking up now, and if Paultards and Warrenterrorists want to, they can take comfort in the fact they are on the vanguard of that awakening and awareness. Small beer, I know, but I've been there on the edge of political change and it's exciting while you're there but even more exciting to see it take root.

The truth is, I really want a Lamborghini but I'm not willing to mortgage my income until 2119 to buy one so it's a fantasy. Yes, it's a great car to drive, and I could thumb my nose at so many criticisms and concerns because, Lamborghini.

So I buy a Toyota, and bite my tongue about it not being a Lamborghini and yes my Toyota, which I will call "Hillary," has her own issues that anyone else can pick on -- it contributes to pollution, the Clintons Toyota Motor Corporation has safety and quality issues and make massive amounts of money in this corporatist world --  but at the end of the day, it was the car I could afford that was the best compromise I could find.

At the end of the day, we all have to make them. Right now, Warren is my Lamborghini. But she's not going to win the 2016 election, at least not from this far out (things change, so I keep an open mind). I would love it if she did, but she won't. And I won't mortgage my daughter's future to the Republicans to tear the party apart in a losing cause.

This won't satisfy many die-hard Warren supporters, so I'm merely going to say that the frothy support of Warren now reminds me a lot -- A LOT -- of the same starry-eyed support a young man from Chicago had at about the same point in the election cycle of 2008.

How'd that work out for ya?

I seem to recall hearing an awful lot of supporters of President Barack Obama howl in desperation about his weakness and inability to get the campaign agenda put in place (by the way, in two years, he completed more of his checklist than Reagan did in eight), about how even with a (two month long) Congressional majority in both houses he couldn't pass a major policy (um, no, he did) and how now all he does is play golf and issue executive orders that conservatives tear apart.

Let me ask you: do you think any of that would change under Rand Paul? Elizabeth Warren? Paul might get a boost from Congress, but Paul is going to lose the Senate before he's inaugurated. Warren might get a boost from that same Senate (she's played the politics of the Hill rather nicely, it seems) but....well, let's just say that "Warren is the new black" is the mantra for 2017 should she win.

And yes when Hillary wins, none of that changes, and Republicans will make it tougher for her but heres the thing: she's been there, done that, seen it for twenty five years now. And she gives back with a tuned and measured response that not only deflates the criticism, but points out its flaws and foibles to the point of embarrassing folks.

In other words, she'll silence her critics. And then get stuff done. Even the Republicans will have to work with her or be exposed as sitting in Washington for sixteen years on their hands. Weaker Boener doesn't want that to be his legacy. Neither does McConnell.

And then maybe, just maybe, we can all take a long nap. We've earned it after the 24 hour temper tantrum that is the reality of politics today.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Liberal Line Up

In case you haven't heard, MSNBC -- which has always had some pretty shaky ratings but can usually point to one or two juicy plums in their book -- has been suffering miserably since their most recent prime time shakeup:
Amid the cable news network’s declining ratings, insiders tell TheWrap changes are coming soon and “everything is on the table”
When President Obama was reelected in 2012, MSNBC was “leaning forward” and smiling wide as Obama 2.0 propelled it to record ratings and a firm grasp on the No. 2 spot in cable news.
Over two years later, the network has fallen backwards. January ratings revealed double-digit declines compared with January, 2014 in all ratings measurements. During the day, MSNBC was down 20 percent in viewers and 37 percent in the advertising-coveted 25-54 demo. In primetime, it fell 23 percent in viewers and 39 percent in demo.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Whistle In the Wind

Poor Jon Chait.

He had the audacity to question whether the right of free speech comes with a responsibility on the part of both the speaker and the listener, and got hammered for it. In other words, he took on "political correctness" and in what may be one of the grandest moments of self-reinforcing demonstration, got spanked by the very movement he sought to critique.

First, let me say this: the First Amendment is the one nearest and dearest to my heart, and in particular, the right to speak my mind freely. It's what allows me to maintain this blog, and allows you to read it. Voltaire was credited* with once saying, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This is what the First Amendment should embody. 

Second, Chait's article, the examples he raises within it, and the backlash he's received from the posting have nothing to do with free speech as you and I understand it. Our right to free speech is a contract between ourselves and our government, as it should be. In exchange for freely allowing us to speak our minds, the government is asking us to frame that speech with moderation, respect and tolerance; in other words, to self-govern. Self-government goes directly to the heart of the nation. 

Even John Stuart Mill agreed that free will is fine, in moderation. He deplored the act of imposing your will on someone else. The famous example he raised was doing harm to yourself, which is fine, so long as you harm no one around you -- including harm by omission, such as the case of not saving a drowning child, or failing to pay your taxes. (This is why -- despite the fact that #JeSuisCharlie -- I have a problem with Charlie Hebdo, but I digress.) 

Mill even goes so far as to postulate that a nation of barbarians does not deserve freedom, that despotism may be the only legitimate form of governance for a people like that. 

In short, Mill argues that every freedom comes with a responsibility: the greater the freedom, the greater the responsibility. To speech in particular, Mill points out that it needs to be unfettered, because even in the most objectionable idea lies a kernel of truth. 

It may not be the kernel of truth that the speaker intends, to be sure, but there is a truth in every viewpoint. For instance, if I say "I hate Brussels sprouts," the truth may not be that Brussels sprouts are horrible disgusting vile things that make me retch, but that I've never had them properly prepared. You can extrapolate from there the kinds of free speech that can come up and what truths they may contain.

Note then that this comes under the banner of responsibility. The individual speaking his mind needs to keep in his thoughts that he is addressing people who may not agree with him, and so needs to exercise some self-governance. For instance, instead of saying "I hate Brussels sprouts," I could say, "I dislike..." or "They leave a bad taste in my mouth." The speaker, keeping in mind he may cause damage to someone, needs to be circumspect in his words.

Here's the tricky part: in a "polite society," there is also a responsibility on the part of the listener to something objectionable, and here's where Chait is onto something. 

Since every opinion contains a kernel of truth and therefore has equal right to be spoken, every opinion has to be weighed on its merits and sifted through for the truth it contains. This implies a duty on behalf of the listener to stop, breathe, and think. To ask questions. 

If, after that, there is still a vehement disagreement, then it's a difference of opinion. This doe snot mean that one opinion is better than the other, but that truths have been revealed and it's up to us to decide the truths on their merits. 

Let's beat the dead horse of Brussels sprouts: you make the case that they are nutritious, full of fibre and vitamins, and when properly prepared, can be quite tasty (not in my book, that;s for damned sure). I make the case that all that's fine, but if I can't eat them, how will I benefit?

We may not come to an agreement, but society as a while now has a body of evidence upon which to make judgements for the greater good. Perhaps the majority will influence eating habits by encouraging the sale of Brussels sprouts, thus showing me to be the loser in the argument.

It won't change my opinion. Take it one step further: suppose now society decides that anyone who doesn't like Brussels sprouts is to be made to conform? Or, they exercise what Mill called "the tyranny of the majority"? 

Here's where Mill raises an interesting point: it's one thing for a majority to socially suppress an unpopular opinion, but it becomes a real problem when that majority resorts to the laws and government as a strong-arm tactic to suppress an unpopular opinion. 

We're seeing this more and more in America and that scares me a little. How many states have passed laws banning abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade? Or have tried to codify Creationism into the education curricula? 

It's one thing for university students to petition to ban Bill Maher or Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking on campus, it's quite another for a community to ban hoodies

Chait raises the spectre of this in his article, wight he example of Hannah Rosin:
Two and a half years ago, Hanna Rosin, a liberal journalist and longtime friend, wrote a book called The End of Men, which argued that a confluence of social and economic changes left women in a better position going forward than men, who were struggling to adapt to a new postindustrial order. Rosin, a self-identified feminist, has found herself unexpectedly assailed by feminist critics, who found her message of long-term female empowerment complacent and insufficiently concerned with the continuing reality of sexism. One Twitter hashtag, “#RIPpatriarchy,” became a label for critics to lampoon her thesis. Every new continuing demonstration of gender discrimination — a survey showing Americans still prefer male bosses; a person noticing a man on the subway occupying a seat and a half — would be tweeted out along with a mocking #RIPpatriarchy.
Her response since then has been to avoid committing a provocation, especially on Twitter. “If you tweet something straight­forwardly feminist, you immediately get a wave of love and favorites, but if you tweet something in a cranky feminist mode then the opposite happens,” she told me. “The price is too high; you feel like there might be banishment waiting for you.” Social media, where swarms of jeering critics can materialize in an instant, paradoxically creates this feeling of isolation. “You do immediately get the sense that it’s one against millions, even though it’s not.” Subjects of these massed attacks often describe an impulse to withdraw.
It is kind of brutal that a mass of dissenters descended on Rosin and effectively silenced her. Goodness knows, there have been plenty of times I've risked friendships for my feelings and opinions, no matter how carefully and sensitively I've phrased and expressed them, and I confess a certain clumsiness in both those arenas when faced with ignorance. 

And Amanda Marcotte's article (linked to above) points out that, indeed, there is a need on the left for a vigorous debate on unpopular opinions and not an immediate silencing and, more important, censoring of dissenters. 

It is easy to claim the mantle of victim when you read or hear something that offends you. I say I support Israel, but that Netanyahu is the wrong man for her leader, and suddenly I'm pro-Palestinian. Rather than judge the merits of that statement, people will read what they want to into it (that statement is an accurate reflection of my feelings, I should note), ignoring the fact that Netanyahu may have annoyed me for other reasons, like his attempt to grandstand in Congress this year or his signal disapproval of our President and his encouragement of conservatives' attempts to degrade and debase President Obama. 

All I'm saying is to keep a civil tongue and a civil ear. And to listen, really hard, for the whistle in the wind. 

* it was actually Evelyn Beatrice Hall, which is why you never see this rendered in French.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Cowardice of Extremism

The radical Islam movement shares some things in common with the radical Reactionaries in America. Among them is the promotion of fear as a way to both unify and discipline those who would nominally identify superficially with their cause.

To-wit, let me bring in Juan Cole: