Ted Cruz: Pimpin’ is…actually pretty easy

ted_cruz6-500x333

There’s simply too much riding on the 2016 Presidential election to be intimidated by its vast field of candidates. So in the spirit of true post-partisanship, the Weeklings has decided to help America vote right. Over the course of this 8-part series kicking off with the Iowa Caucuses and running through the New Hampshire Primary, we break down our favorite Republican contenders, and tell you exactly who’s worth pulling the lever for.

YOU KNOW WHAT prevents decisive action and dooms presidencies?

Self doubt.

Reagan had it (but he had his wife—and she had her astrologer). Bush 41 had it; you could read his lips. Clinton…what was driving that unrestrained libido other than self-loathing and the Big Dawg’s Daddy Issues? George W. Bush? Even The Bard and Oedipus, locked in Hunter S. Thompson’s belfry, couldn’t concoct that kind of pathology. Obama? What the liberal media calls thoughtful and cautious the rest of us recognize as petrified and paralyzed.

Who then, amongst us, doesn’t suffer from a shred of uncertainty, doesn’t question for one second who he is, what he wants, and how much he deserves?

Ted Cruz.

The nerve of us, really.

Here’s a man willing not only to sell out his colleagues, friends and family, but preempted the ordeal of forming principles so he could save time betraying them. And we can’t at least ensure he’s our next president?

Did it ever occur to any of the naysayers that alienating every single person you’ve ever met is exhausting, often thankless work, and something that requires the type of ambition and effort that would likely reduce a lesser specimen to a used-up husk, a conscience-ridden shell of a swindler, on both knees in a (Southern Baptist) confessional?

Bear with me.

Americans obsess over which candidate we’d most enjoy sharing a domestic beer with, and this becomes the implicit or, in the case of Gore vs. Bush, explicit issue driving public perception of a candidate’s so-called electability.

How about, at long last, flipping the script and going with a guy we despise from the get-go?

Seriously.

No honeymoon period, no disillusionment, no bad blood halfway through the first term (or, if he or she is a Democrat, half a week after their inauguration).

We agonize, needlessly, over the types of trivial imperatives that inform high school elections. It’s time we acted like adults and select someone who would do anything to do the job.

Think how liberating it would be. For us. For him.

Imagine, instead of starry-eyed chants and extravagant optimism, we held our collective noses, averted our eyes, and treated our commander-in-chief the way we treat our dentists, doctors, CEOs and especially our lawyers. We need them, and they need us to need them, but who ever said you had to like the asshole repairing your car or your teeth or, heaven help you, your heart.

Case in point: national security. If Ted Cruz is thoroughly reviled to the point of being scorned on public stage by his own compatriots, imagine how many fucks he won’t give about our “allies” abroad?

Obama draws crowds wherever he travels? Good for him.

Cruz will make America feared the way an abused child cowers from his alcoholic stepfather. That’s what this nation needs after coddling terrorists, fretting about due process and kidding ourselves that sanctions are more effective than carpet bombing.

Remember when Bush embarrassed everyone by claiming to look into Putin’s eyes and getting a sense of his soul? No worries with Cruz: everyone knows he doesn’t have a soul to speak of, at least the way we usually speak about souls and who has them.

Can we be certain Rubio would really stop at nothing to overturn a woman’s right to choose? Are we positive Jeb (!) will preserve our 2nd Amendment rights? Can we count on Christie to terminate, with extreme prejudice, those who’ve had enough chances already? Do we really believe Donald Trump will put God before himself? Too many Republicans are willing to pander on these issues, and then forget them once America hands them the keys to the country. Can anyone doubt that Ted Cruz doubts himself on any of these issues?

How we feel about the fervency of his faith says more about us than him. If you have doubts, consider the source: it’s God’s word, right there in the bible, in plain English.

If we want to eradicate uncertainty and avoid the nuances of not knowing who we’re really dealing with, there’s only one choice and it’s that beautiful black boot in our face. We must lick that boot and surrender ourselves to the brute, brute heart of a brute like Cruz.

 

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 2/4/16

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Being for the Benefit of Dr. Carson

carson

There’s simply too much riding on the 2016 Presidential election to be intimidated by its vast field of candidates. So in the spirit of true post-partisanship, the Weeklings has decided to help America vote right. Over the course of this 8-part series kicking off with the Iowa Caucuses and running through the New Hampshire Primary, we break down our favorite Republican contenders, and tell you exactly who’s worth pulling the lever for.

BEING PRESIDENT, THEY SAY, is not brain surgery.

Well, guess what? Ben Carson is a brain surgeon!

And let’s cogitate what it means to open up a sick person’s skull and examine their brain. Dr. Carson has in effect torn apart America’s festering head and beheld the waste and decay. This unassuming man does not especially want to be president; he’s been called into service by the great hospital administrator in the sky. He doesn’t need to be the surgeon for our country’s soul but we need him.

Recall that one of our beloved and influential presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, once proclaimed: “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. Here is a humble man of accomplishment who speaks softly and carries a sharp scalpel. That scalpel is what will save us; it’s what America needs. America has a malignant cancer that has metastasized under the godless, liberal pathologies of Obama and his minions. Dr. Carson has, in his tranquil and unorthodox fashion, identified the disease, and his presidency will be the medicine we need. The first step is identifying the problem. America is in bad enough shape that even the other potential Republican nominees can articulate it (hint: eight years of Democrat ideology and the rot that follows). That, frankly, is the easy part.

Next, we need someone who can extract the tumor: someone with the hand/eye coordination, the smarts, the savvy, the nerve to put our body politic on the table and apply the anesthesia, make the necessary cuts, stop the bleeding, and put the patient in the recovery ward for four and hopefully eight years. Dr. Carson is the only person qualified to do these things. We must not only vote for him, we should thank him. And be grateful that God, even after eight years of disobedience and despair, has once again anointed someone who can save us from ourselves; who will lead us not into liberalism, but deliver us from tax increases.

And let’s face a fact most Republicans—or at least the so-called Establishment—find unpalatable: despite the by now obligatory veneration of all-things-Reagan, and regardless of how many of these recent wannabes draw flattering comparisons (from the risible Romney to the flat-out offensive—or at least farcical—Scott Walker) is there a single one of them who is more analogous to the Gipper than Carson? Let’s go to the tale of the videotape. Soft-spoken with that creepily avuncular vibe? Demonstrably disinterested in the intricacies of world affairs?  Devout with the dead-eyed certainty of saints and opportunists? Given to embellishing tales of his own upbringing and fond of relaying events that most definitely didn’t happen? Astute enough to parlay a previous specialty (acting, operating) to bolster ostensible “outsider” bona fides, or to preempt accusations of being an “insider” in ways tailored  to a certain, not particularly discerning demographic? Checks, please.

So, what does he do?

For starters, Dr. Carson will put the free back in free market, where it belongs. After decades of false starts and phony promises, Carson will make the tax code transparent and fair: a flat tax that extends to everyone. No more soaking the rich, no more opportunities for certain folks to get away without paying their share. Everyone pays, everyone profits. Finally, you won’t need a degree in economics, or a friend at the IRS to understand why we’re taxed, where the money goes, and who gets it. Everyone wins.

Next, as a man who has already saved lives with his extraordinary skills, he will put the bully back in the pulpit and outlaw all abortions. No more murder on our hands. More unwanted lives allowed to reach the destinies God intended, which also means more able bodies to pay taxes and more soldiers to keep us safe. Strength, in every sense, through numbers, is what will really make American great again.

Finally, he will pull the ultimate rope-a-dope on the rest of the world and just ignore everyone. We’ve tried everything else: unwise wars, failed negotiations, half-assed engagement. Expensive, embarrassing, futile. You don’t show the world you’re number one by acting like number two. (We’ve had enough of that the past eight years, right?) President Carson, surrounded by a cabal of bad actors from previous administrations? No thanks. President Carson, spending hours in briefing rooms and weeks abroad meeting with bullies and despots? No way. President Carson, kowtowing to commies and climate change freaks and people who can’t bother to learn our language? Not happening.

It’s actually not that complicated when you think about it. President Carson, in short and in sum, is the antidote for a country that thinks too much and believes too little.

bencarson11This piece originally ran at The Weeklings on 2/2/16.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part One, The GOP (Revisited)

** FILE** Actor Ronald Reagan loads his gun in the 1953 western film "Law and Order", in which Reagan plays a retired U.S. marshall who can't hang up his holster. It is reported that Reagan died on Saturday, June 5, 2004 at 93. (AP Photo)

LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad, at least for the middle class kids. During the extreme periods of Boom and Busted, Pro and Convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feels the pain; they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles playing out cause and effect: the haves doing things the have-nots don’t have the voice or power to protest. The have-lesses can afford to ignore the news or else lay back like so many frogs, believing the boiling pan is actually a Jacuzzi.

Question: How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter almost each admonition of the (white, muscle-bound) Jesus and stagnate growth for every sector except, of course, the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along?

Answer: The power of magical thinking. It’s the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and it’s amazing how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, regulation is anathema, raising the minimum wage kills job creation, et cetera.

Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient board members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters.

Which brings us to the looming midterm elections. If Obama has been sufficiently underwhelming to induce depression, at least he staved off a Depression. If we have nothing else going for us, no one wants to return to the bad old days when W. took us on a (dry) drunk drive into the ditch, right? The silver lining of falling so far is the full and final repudiation of a greed-first ethos so aggressively sold for thirty-plus years. Isn’t it? Oh…

Instead of putting his boot on the squirming corpse of Reagan’s revolution, Obama postulated that we should heal. Instead of accountability for the Masters of the Universe who insisted the ensuing debacle was not possible even as they gorged at the trough, Obama appointed some of them in charge of the clean-up. Instead of a reckoning—and the welcome spectacle of some well-warranted tar and feathering on Wall Street—we suffered the indignity of a gigantic reset button, paid for by the taxpayers whose 401(k)’s got fucked. The super-connected swindlers whose idea of trickle-down economics is pissing on the collective heads of the middle and lower classes bounced right back into the saddle. Check them out: their fattened wallets broke their falls.

The Democrats, who had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebrand (reestablish?) themselves as the party that not only cared, but governed for the 98%, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as only Dems can do. More egregiously by far, the GOP, who have dedicated six years to temper tantrums and intransigence, stand poised to retake the Senate and retain the House.

How did this happen? How is it possible? The power of political narrative.

 

ii. The Power of Political Narrative

Understanding, and exploiting, the power of Narrative is the impetus that unites such unlikely—and antithetical—endeavors as Art, Business and Politics. The ones that can tell a story about what you need to know are important; the ones who tell you a story about what you want to hear can become immortal.

Our country was founded on the Narrative of The Future (City upon a Hill, anyone?): always looking toward what we could be, collectively, if we appealed to the better angels of our Nature, our Natural State being invariably democratic, tolerant of disparate faiths—including those without faith—and apparently unperturbed by the genocides inflicted upon our Native and African American brethren. Some eggs, after all, had to be broken in the service of this great experimental omelette called America.

Eventually, it required a Civil War to determine if we would keep looking forward or be cleaved forever into (at least) two countries, one peering over its shoulder, pining to preserve a way of life that never existed in the first place, at least for the majority of the people. (Sound familiar?)

Flash forward one hundred years to the Civil Rights Movement: a generational and geographic divide that once again found us at a crossroads of progress and reactionary segregation. History, as the cliché goes, is ghost-written by the winners. Looking at American history, for good or ill we’ve tended to define our triumphs as events that unified us, moving us along a progressive path from there to here, consistent with the founding notion—however fanciful—that we were collectively edging toward improvement and inclusion.

Two of the big “wins” of the 20th Century involved presidents named Roosevelt. First, Teddy, who took on Big Business and monopolies, instituting some overdue governmental oversight. His Square Deal regulated out-of-control American industry in the name of safety. A few decades later, his cousin Franklin ushered in The New Deal, ensuring that, for the next several decades government would, on balance, be seen as an institution that did more good than ill. Until the ‘80s, both of these developments were generally considered positive for all citizens, regardless of their political affiliation. Books like Sinclair’s The Jungle or indelible memories from the Great Depression reminded people—and their heirs—that government was the last thing standing between them and unfettered market forces. The notable exception, as ever, being the wealthiest percentile, whose disdain FDR all but celebrated (“I welcome their hatred”), a provocation Obama might wish he’d emulated in 2009.

In an exploit that still resonates for its audacity, Ronald Reagan drew a conservative line in the sand, assailing the presumption of government as an constructive agent, not by nitpicking but taking aim at its raison d’être .With a country still reeling from the apathy and cynicism of the post-Nixon nadir, he pre-empted that anger and uttered the immortal words: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And for the first time in half a century the Republicans steadily assumed control of a new narrative. It was simple as it was shameless; it was the most facile strategy fathomable, and the GOP finally had a patron saint to make it sacrosanct. Needless to say, it worked brilliantly.

 

iii. The Ill Communicator

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote, was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and never, ever question The Man—unless he happens to be a Democrat.

All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spike, it’s all good because we feel good. It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend—literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion.

Along came St. Ronnie, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies, parlaying this into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a True Believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine catastrophe and fortified the middle-class for decades.

Now it’s an open competition to see which Republican can invoke him most often and they can’t name buildings after him quickly enough. Reagan has become the conservative alternative to Che Guevara. As we’ve seen in the short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket, by those who stand to profit most from his hagiography), a very intense and deliberate effort was undertaken to beatify and whitewash a legacy that was far from undisputed in the late ‘80s.

The Reagan Revolution built its momentum on a shameful vilification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and transformed them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people—then; now—understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-smaller tax rates. Meanwhile, young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.

Despite an inconvenient eight year blip on the radar, where taxes were raised and the economy soared, the GOP, led by Dick “Deficits Don’t Matter” Cheney, had eight years to use the country as a demented sort of lab experiment. The result: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.

 

iv. The Five Commandments

After the disgust and disbelief settles, one feels obliged to give props to the Republican ratfuckers. Over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. This strategy has many moving parts, but can be boiled down to a handful of inviolable commandments, the enforcement of which ensures that no one is ever off script. And make no mistake, this script is like religion—only belief is not optional. The first and foremost commandment, propagated to the extent that it’s literally received as gospel—no matter how repeatedly disproven it is in practice—is that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. They’ve succeeded so thoroughly in this monomaniacal mission that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content excessively enough to render them neutral, if not neutered. The Op-Ed page has for more than a decade been patrolled by whacked-out hardliners who would have been laughed out of conservative circles only twenty years ago; back in the days when the GOP was devising health care reform that is now successfully considered socialism.

The third, which has been accomplished with considerable assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, is the demonization of unions. Long, sad story in one sentence or less: during the last half-century—but with a vengeance beginning in the ‘70s—unions lost influence while Democrats simultaneously abandoned them to court wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses. Why the Republicans want to eradicate the same movement that helped bring us regulation, forty hour work weeks, overtime and collective bargaining is beyond no-brainer. Why the Democrats have allowed this to happen, abetting it more often than not, is owed to an opportunistic cynicism that has gutted the sensible and effective backbone of the Progressive cause in ways both myopic and tragic.

The fourth is that public education fails us, that teachers are overpaid and underachieving, and that while no cuts to any military spending are conceivable, all manner of funds and aid to public schools are forever on the table.

The fifth, final and most cheeky involves the mantra that government does not work. It’s a neat trick in which, when Republicans take power, they spend their time ensuring this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the national debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess, and the disloyal opposition becomes a cadre of small government deficit hawks. That this same farce was pulled off so spectacularly after our recent recession says as much, if not more, about the aforementioned media and the supine Democrats as it does about the unabashed GOP.

 

v. Faith in Something Bigger than God

To see the full flowering of this psychosis, one needs look no further than the recent passing of James Brady.

Brady, for those who weren’t alive in 1981, is the unfortunate aid who had the bad luck of being mortal, and getting in the way of some bullets that could never have killed Reagan anyway. Before Brady died I might have been embarrassed to write something so churlish; a cursory glance at the comments section of any of the Brady obits confirms that there are a lot of people out there spouting shit like this, if even sardonically. Don’t kid yourself, beneath the sarcasm is a sincere reverence, the type of veneration we typically reserve for saints (and members of the Kennedy clan).

It’s a matter of Faith: Reagan wasn’t meant to be assassinated. And by Faith, of course, I don’t mean God (Reagan didn’t need God), I mean the Free Market. If the Free Market had wanted him to die, he would have died.

Speaking of faith, freedom and folly: the only force of nature more powerful than any of the fixations previously mentioned is that of the gun fanatics. Maybe, maybe—coming as it did less than half a year after John Lennon was murdered—if Hinckley’s assassination attempt had been successful, we might have had a national consensus of sorts. This, after all, was the moment, where we could—and should—have rallied around sensible gun control. It was the moment when all forces came into focus; it was, after all, their hero in the crosshairs.

Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. Brady became an advocate for a more sane approach to gun ownership, earning him the enmity of idiots who should have never ceased appreciating him. These, after all, are the same sorts who will swear up and down that Reagan did as much as anyone not named Rocky Balboa to defeat the Evil Empire.

How then, was any of this possible and how can such farce still hold sway over a sizable portion of our populace? The same technique that ensures certain stories get told and taught centuries after they are composed: the power of good narrative. That the Iran-contra affair is glossed over the way we never talk about our drunken uncle in the retirement home, or that taxes are actually lower during Obama’s tenure than Reagan’s, or that the First Couple regularly consulted an astrologist never tends to come up in not-so-casual conversation is part and parcel of the almost entirely successful enterprise to consecrate The Gipper.

The moral, as it applies to our contemporary political scene, is straightforward as it is distressing: risible dialogue delivered by a screen-tested salesman will always win more votes than substance offered up, however earnestly, by a substitute teacher. This helps explain the (mostly) refreshing phenomenon of Bill Clinton and underscores the inestimable potential squandered by Barack Obama: when the Democrats have a personality commensurate with their common-sense policies, they have half a chance.

There have, of course, been elections won and lost by both parties, PR initiatives shifting momentum (and money, always money) from the haves to the have-mores and there is little new under the sun. But if we look back at the last three decades, the Biggest Victory—transcending all the skirmishes fought during the last several presidential terms—and the enduring legacy of the Reagan Revolution, is the impervious story it continues to tell, and sell. It informs our craven political discourse; it intimidates an increasingly incurious media and bulldozes an ever credulous Republican base.

Data, facts and near-depressions be damned, we have seen one side nominate a succession of buffoons who should only have inspired bad fiction instead of engineering ever-more-implausible reality. Against all probability, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

Against all tolerability, the rest of us might remain stuck to it.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part One, The GOP

RONALD REAGAN

i. Magical Thinking and the Memory Hole

LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad, at least for the middle class kids. During the extreme periods of Boom and Busted, Pro and Convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feels the pain; they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles playing out cause and effect: the haves doing things the have-nots don’t have the voice or power to protest. The have-lesses can afford to ignore the news or else lay back like so many frogs, believing the boiling pan is actually a Jacuzzi.

Question: How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter almost each admonition of the (white, muscle-bound) Jesus and stagnate growth for every sector except, of course, the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along?

Answer: The power of magical thinking. It’s the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and it’s amazing how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, regulation is anathema, raising the minimum wage kills job creation, et cetera.

Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient board members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters.

Which brings us to the looming midterm elections. If Obama has been sufficiently underwhelming to induce depression, at least he staved off a Depression. If we have nothing else going for us, no one wants to return to the bad old days when W. took us on a (dry) drunk drive into the ditch, right? The silver lining of falling so far is the full and final repudiation of a greed-first ethos so aggressively sold for thirty-plus years. Isn’t it? Oh…

Instead of putting his boot on the squirming corpse of Reagan’s revolution, Obama postulated that we should heal. Instead of accountability for the Masters of the Universe who insisted the ensuing debacle was not possible even as they gorged at the trough, Obama appointed some of them in charge of the clean-up. Instead of a reckoning—and the welcome spectacle of some well-warranted tar and feathering on Wall Street—we suffered the indignity of a gigantic reset button, paid for by the taxpayers whose 401(k)’s got fucked.  The super-connected swindlers whose idea of trickle-down economics is pissing on the collective heads of the middle and lower classes bounced right back into the saddle. Check them out: their fattened wallets broke their falls.

The Democrats, who had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebrand (reestablish?) themselves as the party that not only cared, but governed for the 98%, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as only Dems can do. More egregiously by far, the GOP, who have dedicated six years to temper tantrums and intransigence, stand poised to retake the Senate and retain the House.

How did this happen? How is it possible? The power of political narrative.

 

ii. The Power of Political Narrative

Understanding, and exploiting, the power of Narrative is the impetus that unites such unlikely—and antithetical—endeavors as Art, Business and Politics. The ones that can tell a story about what you need to know are important; the ones who tell you a story about what you want to hear can become immortal.

Our country was founded on the Narrative of The Future (City upon a Hill, anyone?): always looking toward what we could be, collectively, if we appealed to the better angels of our Nature, our Natural State being invariably democratic, tolerant of disparate faiths—including those without faith—and apparently unperturbed by the genocides inflicted upon our Native and African American brethren. Some eggs, after all, had to be broken in the service of this great experimental omelette called America.

Eventually, it required a Civil War to determine if we would keep looking forward or be cleaved forever into (at least) two countries, one peering over its shoulder, pining to preserve a way of life that never existed in the first place, at least for the majority of the people. (Sound familiar?)

Flash forward one hundred years to the Civil Rights Movement: a generational and geographic divide that once again found us at a crossroads of progress and reactionary segregation. History, as the cliché goes, is ghost-written by the winners. Looking at American history, for good or ill we’ve tended to define our triumphs as events that unified us, moving us along a progressive path from there to here, consistent with the founding notion—however fanciful—that we were collectively edging toward improvement and inclusion.

Two of the big “wins” of the 20th Century involved presidents named Roosevelt. First, Teddy, who took on Big Business and monopolies, instituting some overdue governmental oversight. His Square Deal regulated out-of-control American industry in the name of safety. A few decades later, his cousin Franklin ushered in The New Deal, ensuring that, for the next several decades government would, on balance, be seen as an institution that did more good than ill. Until the ‘80s, both of these developments were generally considered positive for all citizens, regardless of their political affiliation. Books like Sinclair’s The Jungle or indelible memories from the Great Depression reminded people—and their heirs—that government was the last thing standing between them and unfettered market forces. The notable exception, as ever, being the wealthiest percentile, whose disdain FDR all but celebrated (“I welcome their hatred”), a provocation Obama might wish he’d emulated in 2009.

In an exploit that still resonates for its audacity, Ronald Reagan drew a conservative line in the sand, assailing the presumption of government as an constructive agent, not by nitpicking but taking aim at its raison d’être .With a country still reeling from the apathy and cynicism of the post-Nixon nadir, he pre-empted that anger and uttered the immortal words: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And for the first time in half a century the Republicans steadily assumed control of a new narrative. It was simple as it was shameless; it was the most facile strategy fathomable, and the GOP finally had a patron saint to make it sacrosanct. Needless to say, it worked brilliantly.

 

iii. The Ill Communicator

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote, was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and never, ever question The Man—unless he happens to be a Democrat.

All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spike, it’s all good because we feel good. It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend—literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion.

Along came St. Ronnie, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies, parlaying this into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a True Believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine catastrophe and fortified the middle-class for decades.

Now it’s an open competition to see which Republican can invoke him most often and they can’t name buildings after him quickly enough. Reagan has become the conservative alternative to Che Guevara.  As we’ve seen in the short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket, by those who stand to profit most from his hagiography), a very intense and deliberate effort was undertaken to beatify and whitewash a legacy that was far from undisputed in the late ‘80s.

The Reagan Revolution built its momentum on a shameful vilification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and transformed them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people—then; now—understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-smaller tax rates. Meanwhile, young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.

Despite an inconvenient eight year blip on the radar, where taxes were raised and the economy soared, the GOP, led by Dick “Deficits Don’t Matter” Cheney, had eight years to use the country as a demented sort of lab experiment. The result: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.

 

 iv. The Five Commandments

After the disgust and disbelief settles, one feels obliged to give props to the Republican ratfuckers. Over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. This strategy has many moving parts, but can be boiled down to a handful of inviolable commandments, the enforcement of which ensures that no one is ever off script. And make no mistake, this script is like religion—only belief is not optional. The first and foremost commandment, propagated to the extent that it’s literally received as gospel—no matter how repeatedly disproven it is in practice—is that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. They’ve succeeded so thoroughly in this monomaniacal mission that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content excessively enough to render them neutral, if not neutered. The Op-Ed page has for more than a decade been patrolled by whacked-out hardliners who would have been laughed out of conservative circles only twenty years ago; back in the days when the GOP was devising health care reform that is now successfully considered socialism.

The third, which has been accomplished with considerable assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, is the demonization of unions. Long, sad story in one sentence or less: during the last half-century—but with a vengeance beginning in the ‘70s—unions lost influence while Democrats simultaneously abandoned them to court wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses. Why the Republicans want to eradicate the same movement that helped bring us regulation, forty hour work weeks, overtime and collective bargaining is beyond no-brainer. Why the Democrats have allowed this to happen, abetting it more often than not, is owed to an opportunistic cynicism that has gutted the sensible and effective backbone of the Progressive cause in ways both myopic and tragic.

The fourth is that public education fails us, that teachers are overpaid and underachieving, and that while no cuts to any military spending are conceivable, all manner of funds and aid to public schools are forever on the table.

The fifth, final and most cheeky involves the mantra that government does not work. It’s a neat trick in which, when Republicans take power, they spend their time ensuring this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the national debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess, and the disloyal opposition becomes a cadre of small government deficit hawks. That this same farce was pulled off so spectacularly after our recent recession says as much, if not more, about the aforementioned media and the supine Democrats as it does about the unabashed GOP.

 

v. Faith in Something Bigger than God

To see the full flowering of this psychosis, one needs look no further than the recent passing of James Brady.

Brady, for those who weren’t alive in 1981, is the unfortunate aid who had the bad luck of being mortal, and getting in the way of some bullets that could never have killed Reagan anyway. Before Brady died I might have been embarrassed to write something so churlish; a cursory glance at the comments section of any of the Brady obits confirms that there are a lot of people out there spouting shit like this, if even sardonically. Don’t kid yourself, beneath the sarcasm is a sincere reverence, the type of veneration we typically reserve for saints (and members of the Kennedy clan).

It’s a matter of Faith: Reagan wasn’t meant to be assassinated. And by Faith, of course, I don’t mean God (Reagan didn’t need God), I mean the Free Market. If the Free Market had wanted him to die, he would have died.

Speaking of faith, freedom and folly: the only force of nature more powerful than any of the fixations previously mentioned is that of the gun fanatics. Maybe, maybe—coming as it did less than half a year after John Lennon was murdered—if Hinckley’s assassination attempt had been successful, we might have had a national consensus of sorts. This, after all, was the moment, where we could—and should—have rallied around sensible gun control. It was the moment when all forces came into focus; it was, after all, their hero in the crosshairs.

Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. Brady became an advocate for a more sane approach to gun ownership, earning him the enmity of idiots who should have never ceased appreciating him. These, after all, are the same sorts who will swear up and down that Reagan did as much as anyone not named Rocky Balboa to defeat the Evil Empire.

How then, was any of this possible and how can such farce still hold sway over a sizable portion of our populace? The same technique that ensures certain stories get told and taught centuries after they are composed: the power of good narrative. That the Iran-contra affair is glossed over the way we never talk about our drunken uncle in the retirement home, or that taxes are actually lower during Obama’s tenure than Reagan’s, or that the First Couple regularly consulted an astrologist never tends to come up in not-so-casual conversation is part and parcel of the almost entirely successful enterprise to consecrate The Gipper.

The moral, as it applies to our contemporary political scene, is straightforward as it is distressing: risible dialogue delivered by a screen-tested salesman will always win more votes than substance offered up, however earnestly, by a substitute teacher. This helps explain the (mostly) refreshing phenomenon of Bill Clinton and underscores the inestimable potential squandered by Barack Obama: when the Democrats have a personality commensurate with their common-sense policies, they have half a chance.

There have, of course, been elections won and lost by both parties, PR initiatives shifting momentum (and money, always money) from the haves to the have-mores and there is little new under the sun. But if we look back at the last three decades, the Biggest Victory—transcending all the skirmishes fought during the last several presidential terms—and the enduring legacy of the Reagan Revolution, is the impervious story it continues to tell, and sell. It informs our craven political discourse; it intimidates an increasingly incurious media and bulldozes an ever credulous Republican base.

Data, facts and near-depressions be damned, we have seen one side nominate a succession of buffoons who should only have inspired bad fiction instead of engineering ever-more-implausible reality. Against all probability, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

Against all tolerability, the rest of us might remain stuck to it.

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Some Day A Real Rain Will Come: What Travis Bickle Can –And Cannot– Tell Us About Tucson (Revisited)

Voices In Our Heads

You talking to me?

It is the pivotal scene in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and it remains one of the seminal moments in movie history. Not so much because of its improvisational nature, or the uncanny way Robert De Niro (playing the alienated and ultimately violent Travis Bickle) disappears into this character, managing to seem invisible and menacing all at once. Most important, this short scene echoes a question that all of us, to a certain extent, ask the world every day.

“Are you talking to me?” we ask, and the tone may be inquisitive, rhetorical or defiant. It may be those and many other things. Mostly, as we interact in a mechanized, sped-up and increasingly unreal reality, we want to make sure people know we are there. We use our voices, our eyes, our frowns or smiles, our horns, our phones, our e-mail, our clothes and a thousand unspoken thoughts to affirm that our presence does not go entirely unnoticed.

In a way, it was easier a few decades ago, around the time Taxi Driver (1976) was released. There was no Internet, no texting, no cell phones, no cable TV, no electronic anything. If you needed to reach out and touch someone, you had to do just that. It’s possible that with the proliferation of devices and toys, in our information-overload moment (which, as it relates to art, content and information, is definitely not a negative thing), we are lonelier than ever before. This ground has been well-covered and there are compelling arguments on either side. On one hand, it can be conjectured that by remaining indoors, behind a glowing screen, we’ve effectively cut ourselves off from old-fashioned interaction and our communication—however ceaseless—lacks intimacy and engagement. On the other hand, people who in another era (including this one) may be best described as socially awkward (due to a variety of societal and self-imposed factors) have myriad opportunities to connect that simply did not exist even ten-to-fifteen years ago.

And the above observations almost entirely relate to action as opposed to reaction. It’s difficult to accurately gauge precisely how a constant bombardment of content, opinions and steadily louder voices is affecting our perception. Not too long ago it was a common joke to talk about (either in celebratory or castigating tones) how we had one hundred channels to choose from via cable TV. Now we have hundreds of channels, as well as streaming video, social media, blogs, and a dedicated website for every news channel, program and talking head in the world. And all of these voices are trying to tell, or sell, us something. Always urgently, never off message, constantly competing with all the other noise to get inside our heads and influence our opinions in one way or another.

 

Who Owns The American Dream?

You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna’ die in a hell like the rest of them.

It was horrifying enough when we had Travis Bickle types who, for their various reasons, sought violent ends to make some type of statement or try and quell that voice screeching non-stop in their ears, like a demented wasps’ nest. Taxi Driver, though wrongly or at least simplistically described by too many as the story of a psychopath, is very much a cautionary tale about what can happen when an alienated citizen has no one to talk to. The fact that it’s set in one of the busiest cities in the world is less ironic than tragic: anyone who has spent time in a bustling urban environment can confirm that it’s sometimes—if not often—the case that one can feel most alone when surrounded by millions of people who don’t know or care about them.

Loneliness, alienation and even violence are sufficiently commonplace as to be unremarkable facets of American existence: watch the news or consider your own life story. This certainly holds true in any society, particularly our plugged in but often disconnected post-millennial era. It seems safe to suggest these conditions are most rampant and profound in the United States. There are countless reasons and/or symptoms, and they are rooted more in myth than reality. For instance, while America does not have the rigid and stratified class systems that still plague Europe, we do have a collective addiction to the white-washed fantasy also known as the American Dream.

Lest that sound like a facile dismissal of a very complicated and, in many ways useful illusion, there are undeniably certain aspects of the American Dream parable that are provable and worthwhile. The ceaseless influx of grateful immigrants is sufficient testament to the inherent promise of an ostensibly free society. The same promise luring men and women to illegally enter our country is the same impulse that served as a siren song for Irish, Italian and other immigration movements through the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, this speaks to the dream of America itself more than what we call the American Dream. Being able to do something is altogether different from being able to do anything. Most of these immigrants (then, now) are obliged to work excruciating hours doing horrific work at woeful wages, and the only thing making it tolerable is that it is (usually) better than the alternative.

The proposition that any of us, regardless of who we are and whatever our initial station in life can, with the correct combination of industry, initiative and luck, ascend to a status of wealth festers as one of the more powerful, if poisonous fictions our country has produced. More, it is not merely promulgated but actively inculcated: history books and sentimental movies tend to tout the exceedingly rare rags-to-riches allegory while ignoring, denying or conveniently dismissing the typical reality, which is that the working poor are likely to remain exactly where they are. In fact, as we’ve seen in the last few decades, this is more—not less—the case in a political and cultural system that has steadily ensured that those who have more will get more, usually directly at the expense of those who have little.

This dichotomy between what we see on screens or inside magazines is not new, but commercials, ads and websites telling us how can be or who we should be are incalculably more prevalent and powerful in today’s world. Thus, the same types of alienating forces that the lonely, angry and outcast citizens have historically been subject to are alarmingly more intense in a 24/7 info-tainment unreality. Which brings us to the Republicans in general and the Tea Party in particular. The GOP has auto-piloted the Horatio Alger story to the extent that counties receiving the most federal aid will lash out most indignantly (if ignorantly) about the perils of “big government”. Indeed, generation after generation illustrates that those who benefit most from higher taxes (and who have the least likelihood of ascending to the upper tax brackets) are consistently fanatical about keeping taxes low for those who earn the most. There are an unfortunate number of tragedies we commit as Americans, but this is one of the more profound examples.

Someday A Real Rain Will Come…

Loneliness has followed me my whole life…there’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

One of the more devastatingly poignant (or poignantly devastating) scenes in Taxi Driver occurs when Travis sits, silently in his apartment, watching the attractive and fashionable folks dancing on TV. Alone in his sweltering studio walk-up, the look on his face—at once longing, frustrated and confused—reveals the hastening recognition that he will never attain the easy, if superficial, security he sees on the screen. With subtlety and lack of sentimentality (the script is actually somewhat slight, which only underscores the astonishing work De Niro turns in), we see that Bickle is the ultimate loner, an underground entity who is as much insect as human, scurrying in and out of his pointless and preordained routine.

Add to this the fact that he is a veteran, perhaps the most overlooked, yet prescient touch of the film (flash forward thirty-plus years to see how we treat our soldiers when they return from the wars we ask them to fight; little coincidence that it’s the same party that salutes the flag most tearfully who are quickest to slash and burn the programs designed to provide physical—and especially mental—assistance). The result of these circumstances and lack of choices provide us, circa 1976, with a character sketch of someone who, if one thing leads to the next, might opt for a more sociopathic solution to his problems. Importantly, Bickle is not revealed as a man destined to snap; while he is far from blameless for his predicament, he is very much a casualty of the world (the real one and the manufactured one) that he can’t master but must exist in. Therefore when he decides “my whole life is pointed in one direction…there never has been any choice for me”, it is both a confession and a one-man verdict, his indictment against this world.

There is some irony, looking back on the candidate he turns his grim attention toward: Palantine, running under the campaign slogan “We Are The People”, seems to espouse a very optimistic (if clichéd) message. (Further irony in that this notion of a collective synergy only amplifies Bickle’s isolation.) Imagine all of these elements contributing to Bickle’s disintegration placed in the context of our contemporary culture, with venom being spewed 24/7 by charlatans and circus clowns like Beck, O’Riley and Palin. Imagine Travis Bickle watching Fox News each day. If you can, you may begin to see why the concern and loathing of the Tea Party movement had much more to do with what happened this week in Arizona and little to do with comically misspelled signs and morons telling the government to stay out of their Medicare.

Travis gets his guns after a frightening encounter in his cab (and having heard about the violence fellow drivers have suffered). Only after he feels himself finally out of options does he contemplate using his gun on an innocent person (and later, people). Even in 1976, this was sufficiently compelling commentary on the ease with which Americans get access to guns. Today, appallingly, gun laws are looser than ever (and—shocker!—one political party defends this madness with the same tenacity they bring to cutting taxes and eliminating federal aid programs) and instead of a lone madman with one round, we have the sickening spectacle of semi-automatic weapons. Flash forward to Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson.

It slowly comes into focus: it is easier, now, for more people (except perhaps the politicians and mainstream media, the two most culpable parties) to understand the calculus that made this weekend’s tragedy predictable and, perhaps, inevitable. There are and—as ass-covering TV talking heads remind us—always will be lunatics in our midst who will kill and maim others and there is little we can do (other than disarm them). That said, it is way too easy to suggest this was an ambivalent act with random victims: in the same state the cretinous Sarah Palin put gun-sights on in a map of “targets”. It’s not necessary to pile on Palin, no matter how much blood she has on her carefully manicured hands; it is every bit the supine and opportunistic media’s fault, since they have breathlessly provided this imbecile with a public platform every step of the way. Special disgust, certainly, must be reserved for the reprehensible propaganda machine at Fox News: that so many Americans receive their “information” (and/or marching orders) from these scavengers debases us all.

And so, while the GOP gleefully fed the ill-conceived ire of the Tea Party faithful, they continued to double down on the very things that have caused so many of these folks to feel genuine hardship. It would almost be comical, except for the immorality and the guns. If someone in a red (or blue) state wants to endorse candidates who blithely promise to increase the collective misery, one can only laugh—unless one can’t help but cry. But when we see these candidates urging “Second Amendment remedies”, we need not wring our hands and ask how we all share the blame. No, the bulk of the blame can easily be laid at the spit-shined shoes of the pied pipers leading these rats to the water’s edge. That, an older and/or more cynical observer might suggest, has always been the case. Except now these rats are packing heat and they don’t mind taking out as many of us as they can, smiling as they do it.

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That Dog Will Hunt: Bill Clinton’s Big Gift

The Big Dawg was unleashed, and boy was Bubba barking last night.

Employing his best Arkansas drawl, he connected in ways that no president –of either party– has been able to do in several decades (if ever).

How many times did he say “Listen” or “Wait a minute”, “This is important” or simply “Now…”?

Can you imagine any other politician, on either side of the aisle, being able to pull that off? One who would even try?

I can’t.

What was the moment when he won the evening? (Well, the correct answer is: the second he opened his mouth.)

When he pointed out that Obama appointed Hillary, that was a classic Clintonian moment; it was the way he said it: Heck, he even appointed Hillary!

That is “triangulation” on an entirely different level: that of the elder statesmen, the wizened veteran, the wily rascal, still lavishing every second on the biggest of stages.

One of my (female) friends texted me halfway through the speech and wrote “He could get some from any woman in that room right now. Well, except Hillary.”

In truth, the entire speech was, to invoke a very tired but totally necessary cliché, a tour de force. There is only one person on the planet who could have pulled that off, and his initials are WJC.

For me, the seminal moment occurred when he paused –after succinctly laying out what the Republicans want (and have promised to do): even lower taxes for the wealthiest 1%, increased defense spending (in excess of what the Pentagon has asked for!), and significant cuts in the programs that help the middle class and poor kids– and smirked: “As another president said: There they go again.”

That is how you insert the shiv with a smile on your face.

On purely aesthetic levels, this was truly like an extend jazz improvisation: only someone with the requisite skills, knowledge and discipline can operate without a net, in real time, and make the magic happen as they go along.

You like apples? How about THESE apples.

An already beefy speech almost doubled in word count via off-the-cuff observations and friendly-sounding fire dropping out of the September sky like a rain of apocalyptic frogs. Too long? The only people wishing it would end were the people on the receiving end of those barbs and jibes (or aw shucks and jives). There were myriad reasons Clinton drove the Republicans bat-shit insane all through the ’90s and some of them were on ample display last night: the type of instant connection with a crowd that a spoon-fed charlatan like Mitt Romney could not buy with his considerable millions, the love of debate backed by stats and history (two things the contemporary GOP is increasingly allergic to, and for good reason) and an almost inimitable ability to praise his past foes all in the service of making a point about the contemporary villains. At the risk of redundancy, I’m compelled to pull another cliché out of the campfire: people who study speeches, politics and the social art of making friends and influencing people will be devouring and digesting this masterstroke for the foreseeable future.

If the Republican Convention was a tribute to the goose that laid the golden egg, by the time Clinton completed his night’s work –an instant classic by virtually any criteria– the Big Dawg had turned into the Cheshire Cat, standing above the carcass he carved up, picking his sparkling teeth with those dirty bones.

And speaking of that other convention, let’s pause for a moment and consider that the man who last led that party –the same man whose bellicose imcompetence turned Clinton’s surplus into the disaster of debt Obama inherited– was neither invited nor mentioned. What a devastating indictment; a testament to the reality that dare not speak it’s name, literally.

The only critique I’ve heard today is at once predictable and easily dismissed: Clinton stole the show, and possibly Obama’s thunder. Now, in fairness, Bubba raised the bar so high it does beg the almost inconceivable question: Can Obama –who has given a barnstormer or two in his time– possibly rise to the occasion this evening?

The good news for the Democrats, in terms of last night overshadowing tonight, is that in the worst case it’s still a win/win. Clinton was there to do precisely what he did (only more so, as it turned out, to Obama’s delight). There won’t be anyone who decides not to vote for Obama because Clinton outshined him. On the other hand, there very well may be more than a few folks willing to get on board (or, crucially, back on board) because Clinton achieved, in less than sixty minutes, what Obama and his team have largely been unable to accomplish, for the last 3-4 years. When the truth sets you free, it behooves a leader to have the courage of his convictions. Obama spent too much time worrying about, or else underestimating the case he could –and should– have been making, forcefully and without fear, going back to the Wall Street aftermath (THIS is what government is for; THIS is why we need regulations) and the rollout of health care reform (Folks, this idea originated from Republican think tanks; this plan is a very conservative alternative to debt and dependency). Hopefully his team was taking notes, and some invaluable if overdue lessons have been learned courtesy of the master.

After tonight, no matter how it plays out –and the smart money is on Obama bringing the noise; his legacy, after all, is at stake– the campaign will capitalize on this momentum, crafting Clinton’s treasure trove into some succinct, effective talking points. And they will flatter by imitation the example of the Big Dawg, using smiles and facts to rebuff the trash heap of half-truths, naked deceit and racist innuendo that the other side long since conceded is their only strategy.

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Right Turn, Clyde: Unwinding Clint Eastwood’s Epic Fail

So…where were you during Clint’s convention meltdown?

Am I wrong in presuming this will become one of the great unfortunate, unintentional defining moments of an American icon’s life?

First and foremost: Respect! (And happy props to Adam Ant, who had serious game in his short prime):

Let’s not get carried away: on artistic and cultural levels, Clint has so much goodwill in the bank, so many classic movies and moments, it really does seem almost unkind to scoff at him. But scoff we must; after all, he obliges us to. He was not forced to put on that farce last night, and it was his choice to undercut his credibility with a rambling, incoherent (and occasionally offensive) diatribe. Imagine how both the GOP and the media at large would react if any Hollywood legend disrespected a sitting Republican president so brazenly? I’m neither offended nor outraged: even if his delivery had been intelligible it’s just one dude’s opinion. Mostly I’m grateful that, like so many of today’s Republicans (Hello Akin! I’m looking at you, Christie!) he did much of our heavy lifting for us. How can you effectively mock someone when they do it so forcefully, themselves?

This is what I wrote, in real time, as it was going down: What’s up with Katherine Hepburn…I mean Clint Eastwood. Boy is this embarrassing on multiple levels.

Clint’s best actor for a comedic role almost blew up the Internet. The best (of the myriad) tweets I saw came courtesy of Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie), who wrote: This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama.

And that’s the thing: all punchlines aside, Eastwood’s performance art was really the apotheosis of the boogeyman the GOP have tried to create not merely during this convention, but for the past four years. Little fact-checking is necessary to counter the reality that virtually every unhinged claim these clowns make is false. Obama can be –and has been– accused of many things, but being an American-hating Socialist is not among them.

In this regard it’s delightful to see a party so accustomed to bloviating about how only they can keep America safe have to essentially swallow a super-sized cup of shut the fuck up since Obama dealt with OBL and, knock wood, there have been 0.0 terrorist attacks on American soil. (Yes, it was amusing to see Condoleeza Rice –Condoleeza Rice!!!– who had that whole 9/11 thing and Iraq adventure go down on her watch, grasp at any opportunity to impugn Obama’s national security bona fides. It was futile, and it was more than a little appalling. But what else have they got?)

Did you hear the names Bush or Cheney a single time this week? I didn’t. And there’s a good reason why: aside from the cognitive dissonance it requires to be a Republican these days, even the most blissfully belligerent denial freaks understand that 2001-2008 is verboten. Just because all Romney/Ryan are offering is an aggressive, shameless return (retreat?) to the same policies that wrecked the country, doesn’t mean they are dumb enough to actually reveal the blueprint. (It speaks volumes that Ryan boasted about wanting to have this debate about his Rand-inspired roadmap, and yet he has hastily retreated from practically every position he has espoused the last decade, whether it’s abortion or Medicare or how deficits are created in the first place). Despite the typical tough talking, these little boys still don’t have the cowardice of their convictions to turn the spotlight, even for a second, on what actually happened and who was at the wheel when it did.

Still, these cretins have a ton of money to burn, and the attack ads aren’t going to get less negative or profusive. They will continue to pollute the airwaves, and I can scarcely imagine –at least without gagging– how ubiquitous and disgusting the commercials will be toward the end of October.

Let’s hope the Dems bring their A-game to Charlotte. There is a lot of spurious and potentially damaging spin to unspool, and a clear, compelling case to lay out before the undecided voters. (Let’s not linger on the fact that there are undecided voters; that there are people for whom 2001-2008 was not sufficient evidence of what to avoid, and let’s definitely not call out the vitriol and resistance to Obama –the best conservative president of the last quarter-century– for what it is: straight-up bigotry. Period, end of story. That the hastily debunked welfare ads even had a chance at being successful illustrates how brutally backwards huge chunks of our country remain, and the strides we still need to make. A lot more needs to happen if we aspire to live up to those blithely-invoked precepts Republicans are so programmed to repeat. This nation is exceptional in so many ways, but that American Dream should be applicable to more than those happy fools born on third base.)

Let’s laugh today, Clint Eastwood gave us a gift last night. But let’s also do our parts to counter the ill communication and mendacity that currently props up the GOP platform. I’m happy to laugh today, but I’m not trying to be crying in November.

And Clint, I guess it’s safe to say that the “right turns” were easier to pull off back in the day.

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Newt, Not The Onion

Someone has needed to pull a Josey Wales on Newt Gingrich for a very long time. It turns out he can do it just fine himself, thank you very little.

I’ve already said all I cared to say about the insufferable, but always (unintentionally) amusing Newt Gingrich. I half-excitedly have kept my powder dry, in the hope that he somehow would weasel his way to the top of the unimpressive roster of Republican nitwits vying for their chance to get beaten badly by Obama in 2012.

Here is what I said last summer:

Let’s cut to the chase: I would wage considerable sums of money that there is no chance Newt could ever weasel his way into the nomination for 2012. Frankly I don’t think God loves us enough to make that remote possibility a reality. However, few things would provide me more pleasure. It might even be worth praying for.

I have to say, he remains the gift that keeps giving. There is not much I had any interest in saying, since he was doing so much of the heavy lifting this past week to immolate himself (as predicted by anyone not inexplicably in thrall to his con act; that so many in the media still give this snake oil salesman the time of day is bewildering).

But as a person who puts pen to paper on a daily basis, I am compelled to take note of the stink bomb he dropped yesterday. (His staff seems obliged to fall on the sword, but there is little doubt the Newster wrote or at least helped write this ridiculous, embarrassing dreck.)

The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding. Washington cannot tolerate threats from outsiders who might disrupt their comfortable world. The firefight started when the cowardly sensed weakness. They fired timidly at first, then the sheep not wanting to be dropped from the establishment’s cocktail party invite list unloaded their entire clip, firing without taking aim their distortions and falsehoods. Now they are left exposed by their bylines and handles. But surely they had killed him off. This is the way it always worked. A lesser person could not have survived the first few minutes of the onslaught. But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead those who won’t be intimated by the political elite and are ready to take on the challenges America faces.

That’s not The Onion, folks.

The only thing I can say to that is: Wow.

And, thanks, as always, Newt, for just being you.

Here is the original post from last July:

This just in: Newt gingrich remains the most repugnant and despicable ass-clown in America!

(Narrowly edging out the oleaginous Andrew Breitbart, who may finally have done civilization a favor by making himself impossible to take seriously in any respectable circles.)

In terms of offensiveness, illogic and opportunism, the insufferable one may have outdone himself here:

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.

And lest anyone think I’m shooting a pale, bloated and loquacious fish in a barrel, let it be known that I’m actually offering Gingrich more than a little benefit of the doubt. I am inclined to believe that he knows better and says most of the things he says (trying to be incendiary, ending up being insidious) to stir the sluggish pot of ditto-heads, “Don’t Tread On Me” types, and the no-taxes troglodytes who invariably live in counties most reliant upon the largesse of government and well-paid (and heavily taxed) liberal elite socialist sorts. Indeed, I have no choice but to conclude he knows better, because the irony (and idiocy) would be too unbearable if this bozo, who constantly invokes his authority on founding fathers (always wrongly, such as his demonstrably incorrect insistence that men like Jefferson and Washington were devout Christians and, more, designed the new country to be a “Christian nation”—which is literally the opposite of the very documents they created) actually believed the garbage he so often spews.

Check it out: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Pretty hard to misinterpret or spin, no? Not unless your audience consists of the willfully illiterate and mouth-breathing masses who turn to Fox news for a quick fix for what (Roger) ails them. Any serious thinker who hopes to be taken seriously does everything in his power to avoid leaning on the ever-reliable George Orwell, but sometimes no other analogy will do. In the intellectual wasteland that passes for the Republican party these days, down truly is up and night really is day. Only in this contemporary dystopia on the Right could anyone with the ability to reason (or read) fail to understand the difference between what the founding fathers wrote and fearful bigots fantasize about.

It became increasingly obvious (and unnerving) during the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the ’04 election that nothing would please the religious right lunatic fringe more than to essentially become honky Taliban. Of course they would be aghast at such an offensive characterization. But think about it: these are the same sociopaths who endorse an oligarchic state (a bathtub-sized government run by the untaxed and unregulated wealthy), covet the conversion of all to Christianity (not, incidentally, the type espoused by Christ but the type reformulated by white, often closeted gay men lashing out against their own uncontainable impulses), and openly proselytize the possibility of a single preferred religion. (The peripheral analogies include the behavior and attitudes toward women, the dispossessed and impoverished, the zeal for censorship, the defense of government spying and the embrace of anti-intellectualism. As Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens have pointed out without hyperbole, these are all genuine hallmarks of Fascistic ideologies.)

Bottom line: equating the tolerance of a Muslim learning center with “submission” and an indication of the “timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites” (in addition to being a profound case of transparent projection), is a craven and fallacious misnomer that needs to be forcefully called out, and rejected. Indeed, if this disgusting sentiment was translated into another language and placed in a thought bubble above any ayatollah, it would seem like the ranting of an intolerant dime-store despot. Which is exactly what it is.

It almost makes you want to sardonically cheer Newt on and see how the dots connect, down the road, with the hard lines he endorses and how their implementation would affect ordinary Americans. Why stop at establishing (or rewriting history to assert there was) an official religion, let’s begin slicing off thieves’ hands with scimitars; let’s make certain types of artistic expression illegal; let’s throw rocks at adulterers…oops! See what happens, Newt? When you crawl out from under your rock and use it as a soapbox, you are eventually and inevitably hoisted by your own petard. And Newt, as much as any self-righteous offender, is serially petarded.

Of course the other, egregious fallacy of Newt’s outburst is the notion that the world is (or ever was) split into “us and them” (certainly it is if you are indifferent to and frightened of the “Other” and seek to divide susceptible citizens for naked political gain); Americans are Americans (presumably white Christians, natch) and Muslims are Muslims (presumably dark-skinned jihadists). This willfully ignores the fact that Muslims, as well as myriad other religions, cultures and creeds, all exist peacefully and democratically in the United States of America. Your average second grader is capable of understanding this, but not your average Tea Partier—which is exactly what Gingrich, with the subtlety of a raccoon in a trashcan, is relying on. But this underscores the always-ugly underpinning of the contemporary conservative mind (which is not terribly evolved from the historical conservative mind): the facile (and fictional) formulation that our great nation—a nation comprised of and built by immigrants—has a preferred demographic. Not so ironically, the only time this explicitly was the case happened to be (mostly in the south) during the sordid spectacle of slavery. Implicitly, that bias still extends to women, as well as non-whites, but in virtually all legal and moral respects, that type of race-baiting bigotry is discredited on arrival. In today’s right-wing sprint to the bottom of the tea-pot, this is the fuel that drives the cause. But like that other cause so fondly (and wrongly) reminisced about in certain quarters, it is a lost one and tends to spoil when exposed to the direct light of reality.

Let’s cut to the chase: I would wage considerable sums of money that there is no chance Newt could ever weasel his way into the nomination for 2012. Frankly I don’t think God loves us enough to make that remote possibility a reality. However, few things would provide me more pleasure. It might even be worth praying for.

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The Power of Magical Thinking: Reflections on Reagan

Part One: Fact

The fortieth president turns 100 and a religious cult (also known as the Republican Party) can’t name buildings after him quickly enough.

Is there room for Reagan on Mt. Rushmore?

I’ll leave it to the inimitable Bill Hicks who suggested: “Let’s put him under Mt. Rushmore.”

But on the occasion of The Ill Communicator’s centennial, it is important –if not particularly instructive– to remember what actually happened, and how we got to where we are today: a political landscape where any conservative has learned to praise the holy trinity: Reagan, God and country.

It’s too easy, right?

Has it really come to this? (Has it always been thus?) All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spikes, it’s all good because we feel good? It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend –literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion. What exacerbates the inanity of this (very remunerative, just ask He Who Is Incapable of Shame, our old friend Newt Gingrich) enterprise is the fact that virtually everything today’s wide-eyed republicans want to believe about St. Ronnie doesn’t square with the, well, inconvenient truth of his actual record.

But, after considerable deliberation, oceans of black ink (er…galaxies of electronic ink) and head-scratching intense enough to furrow trenches on sentient scalps, it turns out that it really is that easy.

It is the power of magical thinking, the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and you’d be amazed how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, God is white, Jesus is a capitalist and the New Testament is a socialist primer.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote,  was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and believe a few immutable commandments: no taxes ever on anyone, the media is liberal, government is the problem (by far the most invoked and insidious lie of Reagan’s legacy), and never, ever question The Man –unless he happens to be a Democrat.

How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter every teaching of the (honky) Jesus and weaken our country except, of course, for the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along.

So…what does any of this have to do with Reagan?

To paraphrase the not-so-great Donald Rumsfeld: “You go to war with the president you have, not the president you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

So it was in 1981.

We did not go to war, of course, and that may –or may not– be the point. Is there a point (literally, figuratively) to reimagining the causes, effects, errors and triumphs of a particular presidency? It happened. I’m at peace with it (what choice do I have?), and if I refuse to call Washington National Airport by another name, so be it; in fact, Christopher Hitchens put it best when he opined that it was already named after a rather important president, thank you very much.

The good folks at ThinkProgress have done some nice work, reminding people who already know (the people who don’t know and need to read this will never go to that site, naturally) the facts vs. the fabrications. It’s a good primer in the event you find yourself discussing Reagan’s dubious legacy with a true believer. Check it out.

Then, of course, we always have the aforementioned Bill Hicks, who saw through the B.S. (even before it went into the full-power spin cycle) two decades ago:

So let’s review the facts.  Historical fact (as in: the record, on file, which is growing and decaying before our widening eyes) would make it challenging to counter the assertion that Reagan’s enduring legacy is one of exclusion and inequity. Many people would love to argue the point, and many have been. Of course, it always helps to consider who is doing the spinning. As we’ve seen in the very short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket), a very intense and targeted effort was undertaken to ensure that the beatification of Reagan became the cause nearest and dearest to those who stand to profit the most from his hagiography. Led by the insufferable conjoined twins of neo-con nationalism, Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, it became good business to do everything humanly possible in the way of rehabilitating an image that was far from lionized in the late ’80s.

Fortunately, in the week some celebrate his life, we can revisit two fantastic pieces debunking the very cynical (and appallingly successful) attempt to mythologize this very simple and radioactive political poseur. William Kleinknecht here and Will Bunch here do some heavy lifting in the service of truth. And to say the scales covering the eyes of the hoodwinked are heavy is understating the obvious, as Reagan becomes the conservative alternative to Che Guevara. To say that we are in dire need of some uncomfortable (for some) corrections for the sake of perspective, particularly as we see the soiled seeds of this Reagan Revolution bearing full fruit in our imploding economy, is scarcely stating the case strongly enough.

Part Two: Fiction (sort of)*

Like everyone else I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. During the extreme periods of boom and busted, pro and convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feel the pain, they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles, the haves and haven’ts, who taste the changes the have lesses can afford to ignore.

But now, after the 90’s—on the verge of oblivion, as always—we have anti-inflation. We’ve got more money than we know what to do with; we’ve gotten so good at counting it we need to make more just to keep up, we keep making it so that we will still have something to do. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money—someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the ass so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). In other words, working where I work, with neither the best nor the brightest bulbs in the professional firmament, I can see for myself that this has nothing to do with talent, necessarily. It’s about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough manpower so that nothing else matters. Quality? Integrity? Originality? Nice, all, but they’ve got nothing on the numbers. When you’re big enough, you don’t have to beat anyone up, your rep precedes you and quells all contenders. You don’t have to fight anymore. Safety in numbers, sure, but there’s more at stake than simply survival—people are trying to make money.

Look: I’m not unaware of the wealth our deal cutters are creating, and I’m not unappreciative when they sign my paychecks. In the 80’s, or any other time, you had the fat-walleted fuckheads trying to multiply their millions by any means necessary; they didn’t just disregard the reality of putting their foot on nameless faces to divide and conquer, they reveled in it. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business, and it wasn’t their fault they excelled at it, it isn’t their fault they were born into this. The only responsibility they had was to ensure that all this affluence they had no part in amassing stayed safely outside the reaches of normal, taxpaying proletariat.

Let’s face it: it’s not as though the five or six folks who actually flip the switches and decide who gets what (after, of course, they’ve had theirs) ever consented to this sudden, and by all accounts inexplicable, turn of events. They certainly didn’t plan it this way. And you can be certain they don’t condone it or in any way seek to keep it around if they can help it. But that’s the thing: they can’t help it. They never saw it coming. I definitely didn’t see it coming. I see it every time I look at Otis: who could possibly have predicted this? The guys that—if they were lucky—were going to be chain restaurant managers and counter-jockeys at Radio Shack suddenly had the keys to the kingdom, because they understood how the world-wide-web worked.

But I’m willing to bet some of the money I’m supposedly worth that these unsettled old sons of bitches are very interested in redirecting wealth back into the hoary hands of those used to handling it. How, they must stay awake during the day worrying, can this country continue to run right when so many regular people start getting involved? It happened before, in the 20’s, and if they had to eliminate alcohol for a few years then maybe it’s time to start confiscating computers.

Still, I can’t shake the suspicion that these visionaries are doing many of us a disservice by manufacturing this much money, for making it so easy. Everyone loves their job these days, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s all about the money. The money this and the money that. You lose money to make money, you make money to make money, you take money to make money, you make up anything—to make money. Right now, as the new century sucks in its gut for the changing of the guard, unearned money hangs heavy in the air like encouraging ozone: a soft rain’s gonna fall eventually, inevitably, and everyone will wonder why they’re soaking wet and insolvent.

*taken from a work of fiction, written before it all happened to come true in 2008.

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Some Day A Real Rain Will Come: What Travis Bickle Can –And Cannot– Tell Us About Tucson

Voices In Our Heads

You talking to me?

It is the pivotal scene in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and it remains one of the seminal moments in movie history. Not so much because of its improvisational nature, or the uncanny way Robert De Niro (playing the alienated and ultimately violent Travis Bickle) disappears into this character, managing to seem invisible and menacing all at once. Most important, this short scene echoes a question that all of us, to a certain extent, ask the world every day.

“Are you talking to me?” we ask, and the tone may be inquisitive, rhetorical or defiant. It may be those and many other things. Mostly, as we interact in a mechanized, sped-up and increasingly unreal reality, we want to make sure people know we are there. We use our voices, our eyes, our frowns or smiles, our horns, our phones, our e-mail, our clothes and a thousand unspoken thoughts to affirm that our presence does not go entirely unnoticed.

In a way, it was easier a few decades ago, around the time Taxi Driver (1976) was released. There was no Internet, no texting, no cell phones, no cable TV, no electronic anything. If you needed to reach out and touch someone, you had to do just that. It’s possible that with the proliferation of devices and toys, in our information-overload moment (which, as it relates to art, content and information, is definitely not a negative thing), we are lonelier than ever before. This ground has been well-covered and there are compelling arguments on either side. On one hand, it can be conjectured that by remaining indoors, behind a glowing screen, we’ve effectively cut ourselves off from old-fashioned interaction and our communication—however ceaseless—lacks intimacy and engagement. On the other hand, people who in another era (including this one) may be best described as socially awkward (due to a variety of societal and self-imposed factors) have myriad opportunities to connect that simply did not exist even ten-to-fifteen years ago.

And the above observations almost entirely relate to action as opposed to reaction. It’s difficult to accurately gauge precisely how a constant bombardment of content, opinions and steadily louder voices is affecting our perception. Not too long ago it was a common joke to talk about (either in celebratory or castigating tones) how we had one hundred channels to choose from via cable TV. Now we have hundreds of channels, as well as streaming video, social media, blogs, and a dedicated website for every news channel, program and talking head in the world. And all of these voices are trying to tell, or sell, us something. Always urgently, never off message, constantly competing with all the other noise to get inside our heads and influence our opinions in one way or another.

Who Owns The American Dream?

You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna’ die in a hell like the rest of them.

It was horrifying enough when we had Travis Bickle types who, for their various reasons, sought violent ends to make some type of statement or try and quell that voice screeching non-stop in their ears, like a demented wasps’ nest. Taxi Driver, though wrongly or at least simplistically described by too many as the story of a psychopath, is very much a cautionary tale about what can happen when an alienated citizen has no one to talk to. The fact that it’s set in one of the busiest cities in the world is less ironic than tragic: anyone who has spent time in a bustling urban environment can confirm that it’s sometimes—if not often—the case that one can feel most alone when surrounded by millions of people who don’t know or care about them.

Loneliness, alienation and even violence are sufficiently commonplace as to be unremarkable facets of American existence: watch the news or consider your own life story. This certainly holds true in any society, particularly our plugged in but often disconnected post-millennial era. It seems safe to suggest these conditions are most rampant and profound in the United States. There are countless reasons and/or symptoms, and they are rooted more in myth than reality. For instance, while America does not have the rigid and stratified class systems that still plague Europe, we do have a collective addiction to the white-washed fantasy also known as the American Dream.

Lest that sound like a facile dismissal of a very complicated and, in many ways useful illusion, there are undeniably certain aspects of the American Dream parable that are provable and worthwhile. The ceaseless influx of grateful immigrants is sufficient testament to the inherent promise of an ostensibly free society. The same promise luring men and women to illegally enter our country is the same impulse that served as a siren song for Irish, Italian and other immigration movements through the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, this speaks to the dream of America itself more than what we call the American Dream. Being able to do something is altogether different from being able to do anything. Most of these immigrants (then, now) are obliged to work excruciating hours doing horrific work at woeful wages, and the only thing making it tolerable is that it is (usually) better than the alternative.

The proposition that any of us, regardless of who we are and whatever our initial station in life can, with the correct combination of industry, initiative and luck, ascend to a status of wealth festers as one of the more powerful, if poisonous fictions our country has produced. More, it is not merely promulgated but actively inculcated: history books and sentimental movies tend to tout the exceedingly rare rags-to-riches allegory while ignoring, denying or conveniently dismissing the typical reality, which is that the working poor are likely to remain exactly where they are. In fact, as we’ve seen in the last few decades, this is more—not less—the case in a political and cultural system that has steadily ensured that those who have more will get more, usually directly at the expense of those who have little.

This dichotomy between what we see on screens or inside magazines is not new, but commercials, ads and websites telling us how can be or who we should be are incalculably more prevalent and powerful in today’s world. Thus, the same types of alienating forces that the lonely, angry and outcast citizens have historically been subject to are alarmingly more intense in a 24/7 info-tainment unreality. Which brings us to the Republicans in general and the Tea Party in particular. The GOP has auto-piloted the Horatio Alger story to the extent that counties receiving the most federal aid will lash out most indignantly (if ignorantly) about the perils of “big government”. Indeed, generation after generation illustrates that those who benefit most from higher taxes (and who have the least likelihood of ascending to the upper tax brackets) are consistently fanatical about keeping taxes low for those who earn the most. There are an unfortunate number of tragedies we commit as Americans, but this is one of the more profound examples.

Someday A Real Rain Will Come…

Loneliness has followed me my whole life…there’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

One of the more devastatingly poignant (or poignantly devastating) scenes in Taxi Driver occurs when Travis sits, silently in his apartment, watching the attractive and fashionable folks dancing on TV. Alone in his sweltering studio walk-up, the look on his face—at once longing, frustrated and confused—reveals the hastening recognition that he will never attain the easy, if superficial, security he sees on the screen. With subtlety and lack of sentimentality (the script is actually somewhat slight, which only underscores the astonishing work De Niro turns in), we see that Bickle is the ultimate loner, an underground entity who is as much insect as human, scurrying in and out of his pointless and preordained routine.

Add to this the fact that he is a veteran, perhaps the most overlooked, yet prescient touch of the film (flash forward thirty-plus years to see how we treat our soldiers when they return from the wars we ask them to fight; little coincidence that it’s the same party that salutes the flag most tearfully who are quickest to slash and burn the programs designed to provide physical—and especially mental—assistance). The result of these circumstances and lack of choices provide us, circa 1976, with a character sketch of someone who, if one thing leads to the next, might opt for a more sociopathic solution to his problems. Importantly, Bickle is not revealed as a man destined to snap; while he is far from blameless for his predicament, he is very much a casualty of the world (the real one and the manufactured one) that he can’t master but must exist in. Therefore when he decides “my whole life is pointed in one direction…there never has been any choice for me”, it is both a confession and a one-man verdict, his indictment against this world.

There is some irony, looking back on the candidate he turns his grim attention toward: Palantine, running under the campaign slogan “We Are The People”, seems to espouse a very optimistic (if clichéd) message. (Further irony in that this notion of a collective synergy only amplifies Bickle’s isolation.) Imagine all of these elements contributing to Bickle’s disintegration placed in the context of our contemporary culture, with venom being spewed 24/7 by charlatans and circus clowns like Beck, O’Riley and Palin. Imagine Travis Bickle watching Fox News each day. If you can, you may begin to see why the concern and loathing of the Tea Party movement had much more to do with what happened this week in Arizona and little to do with comically misspelled signs and morons telling the government to stay out of their Medicare.

Travis gets his guns after a frightening encounter in his cab (and having heard about the violence fellow drivers have suffered). Only after he feels himself finally out of options does he contemplate using his gun on an innocent person (and later, people). Even in 1976, this was sufficiently compelling commentary on the ease with which Americans get access to guns. Today, appallingly, gun laws are looser than ever (and—shocker!—one political party defends this madness with the same tenacity they bring to cutting taxes and eliminating federal aid programs) and instead of a lone madman with one round, we have the sickening spectacle of semi-automatic weapons. Flash forward to Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson.

It slowly comes into focus: it is easier, now, for more people (except perhaps the politicians and mainstream media, the two most culpable parties) to understand the calculus that made this weekend’s tragedy predictable and, perhaps, inevitable. There are and—as ass-covering TV talking heads remind us—always will be lunatics in our midst who will kill and maim others and there is little we can do (other than disarm them). That said, it is way too easy to suggest this was an ambivalent act with random victims: in the same state the cretinous Sarah Palin put gun-sights on in a map of “targets”. It’s not necessary to pile on Palin, no matter how much blood she has on her carefully manicured hands; it is every bit the supine and opportunistic media’s fault, since they have breathlessly provided this imbecile with a public platform every step of the way. Special disgust, certainly, must be reserved for the reprehensible propaganda machine at Fox News: that so many Americans receive their “information” (and/or marching orders) from these scavengers debases us all.

And so, while the GOP gleefully fed the ill-conceived ire of the Tea Party faithful, they continued to double down on the very things that have caused so many of these folks to feel genuine hardship. It would almost be comical, except for the immorality and the guns. If someone in a red (or blue) state wants to endorse candidates who blithely promise to increase the collective misery, one can only laugh—unless one can’t help but cry. But when we see these candidates urging “Second Amendment remedies”, we need not wring our hands and ask how we all share the blame. No, the bulk of the blame can easily be laid at the spit-shined shoes of the pied pipers leading these rats to the water’s edge. That, an older and/or more cynical observer might suggest, has always been the case. Except now these rats are packing heat and they don’t mind taking out as many of us as they can, smiling as they do it.

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