Ted Cruz: Pimpin’ is…actually pretty easy

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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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The Problem with The Homeless Problem (Revisited)

HOMELESS

THERE IS A MAN who sits near the pumps at the gas station I drive by each day. The man is very obviously from somewhere else and has about him a certain look—the meek, awestruck eyes, the apprehensive gestures—that indicts him as someone who speaks little if any English. A stranger.

He remains respectfully distant from the customers—who incessantly fill their tanks, like bees returning to the nest before heeding the urgency of their instinctual obligations—but near enough to the action to remain in plain view. He sells flowers. Actually, he doesn’t seem to sell anything; he pretty much sits there, on an upturned milk crate, often from early morning until well in the evening, after the rest of the weary warriors have commuted past him, home from work and their worries of the wicked world. He silently plies his wares, content to play his part in the charade: he is not accomplishing much, he is begging, and the milk crate and collection of fading flowers at his feet communicate an inexpressible anguish. Please help me, his unscrubbed face, his unlaced sneakers, his oversized slacks, his filthy, fidgeting fingers—everything but his voice—all ask, saying what he cannot, and will not, say for himself.

***

Hey brother, can you spare a life, the woman moving past me does not say.

I’m in too much of a hurry to stop (like always, like everyone else getting on and off the subway), but there is something so familiar about her that I’m compelled, despite everything I’ve learned, to pause and look back: she is still there, off to the side, shabbily clad, immediately recognizable by her contrast to everyone around her; she wants to approach one of these businessmen, but all of them are walking too fast, too deliberately, too purposefully. Getting from Point A to Point B so we can get paid.

Automatically, the doors move aside and sweltering air earnestly greets everyone headed its way. It takes about five seconds (as always) to feel the heat and then the money dread: if it weren’t for the money, it wouldn’t take much—in a strange city, lost, alone. Broke. That’s how shit like starvation and sleeping on grates gets started. Quiet in the corners, huddled under bridges, working the frenzied crowd for a friendly face, hoping for the handout that never comes.

I don’t have any lives to spare, but I’ll dig deeper and give ‘til it hurts.

This hurts me more than it hurts you, I don’t say.

***

Who was he?

I think the same question each time I see him (once a week, sometimes more, occasionally double-shifts: the same man in the same spot, holding the same sign that tells everyone who he is, now—prompting the question: who did he used to be, at some point in the past?) at the intersection he has stood at for several months now. The cardboard sign he holds both question and answer: Homeless veteran (the explanation), can you put some pocket change in this plastic cup (the question). The sign says he is a veteran. Okay. And even if he isn’t actually a veteran, he has been homeless long enough to be a veteran; or if he is not actually homeless, he has been acting the part long enough to earn the title. Either way, it is time for a promotion.

And so, I think, this is the problem with the homeless problem: it wasn’t (some of us learn—too late) the ones who hustled or even approached you who were down and out; they were the ardent ones, half the time they weren’t even homeless; it is the ones you never see, even when they’re sprawled on the concrete right beside you, the ones who are down, the ones who are out, the ones who have nothing to ask for, nothing to say, nothing to do except wait, sit it out until time or the whiter man’s burden delivers them that eventual, inevitable verdict. It was the ones you could afford not to be afraid of, the ones who could not even hurt themselves, because they’d already dug as deep inside as their ashen fingers could reach, the ones too dead to tear out their hearts, but not dead enough to unloose their souls, the ones who learned (too late) that death was only impatient for the fools who failed to acknowledge it, it had all the time in the world for those who the world owed nothing except the decency of an overdue release.

Could that be me?

A primal foreboding, an ancient fear. Who knew how it happened, who could make sense of it? And yet. These people do not wake up one random morning, on the streets and out of their minds. Or do they? If you believed the signs the man on the corner held, the government did this to him—and could do it to anyone else: that was his message, his mission.

The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it is the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

***

A memory:

Newark Airport. That shithole. A place has to be exceptionally beautiful, appalling, or incomprehensibly pointless in order to be easily remembered years after a brief visit.

When I was a kid, (I couldn’t have been much older than ten) my father and I had a layover in Newark Airport. Even then, I was perceptive enough to understand that this was no place I ever needed to return voluntarily.

An unassuming older man (at any rate, he was noticeably older than my old man, which made him old) sat in one of those impossibly plain plastic chairs, with his pants leg rolled up. It wasn’t until we got closer that I realized two things: he was alone, and he was scratching at a series of scabs on his shin. For some reason he looked our way at the moment we passed him, and after sizing us up, he stood and amiably approached my father.

“Sir, did you need someone to help you and your son carry your bags?”

“No thanks, we’re okay,” my pops replied, looking ahead and picking up the pace.

The man was persistent. In the space of fifteen seconds—my father denied him three times—my emotions slid from the appreciation of possibly having someone carry my suitcase for me, to the vague, uneasy suspicion that my father was being somehow rude, a jerk, to the unsettling awareness of recognition. I sensed something I’d seen plenty of, but never before in any person older than myself: fear. I saw it in his eyes, and felt it in my insides.

As we walked away my old man waited until we were at a charitable distance, then looked at me meaningfully and offered the somber assertion: That’s as low as you can go. I asked him to elaborate, as was my style, and he was either unwilling or unable to add anything to his observation, as was his style. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what my father was saying, I understood him perfectly. It was because I understood him that I needed him to say more, to talk to me a little longer about it, about anything, anything to interrupt that silence and the sudden thoughts that accompanied it.

***

It’s easy to believe that people like this exist for our sakes: they are dying lessons on how not to live, warnings of what could happen if you weren’t careful and found yourself scratching at scabs in the world’s ugliest airport. Or enlist, get used up and ask not what your country can do for you, because you’ve already received the answer. We forget, or we don’t allow ourselves to entertain the idea, that these people have histories; that these shadows and signposts don’t happen to serve a purpose for anyone else; they were once actual people themselves.

I realize, now, my father was wrong about one thing. That’s not as low as you can go. You can go lower, a whole lot lower. But perhaps it’s more disturbing to see the ones that are on the way down, it’s somehow easier to accept the ones at the bottom of the ocean; it’s the ones who are sinking, who are still within reach, who are drowning noisily in front of you, who sometimes have the temerity to ask you to hold out a hand. These are the ones we can scarcely tolerate, because every so often we look at them and see ourselves.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 11/5/2014.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part Two, The Dems (Revisited)

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i. Ridic, Redux

LAST MONTH I WROTE about the Power of Political Narrative and the ways Republicans have kept it simple (stupid) and mostly stuck to an inflexible script for the last thirty years. No matter how flawed that script is, in reality, and no matter how many times reality makes a point of pointing out that virtually every talking point—taken as Gospel and enforced as Scripture—results in the opposite of what it claims (Clear Skies Act, etc.), a reckoning never occurs.

As such, we saw austerity when we desperately needed stimulus, coddling of Wall Street cretins when perp walks were well-warranted, craven acquiescence on the Guantanamo catastrophe, “Death Panels” instead of a public option, et cetera. Not that these are the results Obama (or the left) wanted or predicted, but because of—at least in part—the ability of the other side to sling the same excrement at every policy, proposal or achievement, defying a twice-elected leader to bring about change we can believe in. Or pocket change for the middle class. Or something.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last two years (doubling down what they did the previous four years) was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, smug and certain they are about to retake the Senate. By refusing to govern they are likely to be rewarded, not because anyone (even Fox viewers) particularly likes the results, but because they have stuck so steadfastly to the scheme: lay blame on Obama, Democrats, and Government, respectively. At best tolerated (at worst abetted) by a degraded mainstream media they have done this repeatedly, and mostly with impunity.

And because we expect less than little from the intransigent GOP, how can we resent them for proving the cowardice of their convictions? Particularly when the profiles in courage not on display by their political opposition is so…typical. My concern is—and has been for some time—the ways in which Democrats are congenitally incapable of articulating their achievements, and crafting a message that is either compelling or consistent. The shame of it is, all they have to do is tell the truth and it would set them (and the rest of us) free.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy, or that it would be embraced—at least initially. As I argued last month, it’s a hell of a lot less demanding to pick a handful of platitudes and recite them like zealots at a Sunday service. But this is not a matter of formulating counterpoints or rebuttals; it’s about crafting a narrative that is consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Naturally, telling the truth does not come naturally to elected officials who are often paid for before they take the oath of office, and this circumstance is further complicated by the question of how many of them really believe in left-of-center principle in the first place. Still, any introductory class in marketing or communications (or English Literature for that matter) will emphasize the importance of narrative; the necessity of telling the story you want to tell.

It’s not that difficult to imagine, and this shit practically writes itself. One speech, early in ’09, wherein Obama declared: “not only am I going to fund these projects, no American who wants to work will go without on my watch. I’m going to spend this money, because it is an investment on people, and you will be able to measure the results immediately. This is a mission on behalf of our well-being, and if you want to judge me in four years, I will take those odds. And if I’m wrong, the worst case scenario will be an early retirement where I can drive across this great nation over new roads and rebuilt bridges, and take advantage of the radically improved infrastructure that these projects made possible. I’ll walk away from the Oval Office happy and proud, because I’ll know we made a difference, and that is what I was elected to do.”

Obama was either too clueless or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be ready to fight back against the full-scale war the GOP declared on him the second he was elected. (His refusal to bother himself getting involved in the health care brawls all summer of 2009 is the second largest blunder of his presidency: he not only allowed the malevolent Republicans to define the narrative (wrongly), he let the Tea Party lunatics get a foothold and, with the lack of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government was the correct, patriotic thing to do. By the time he saw the grammatically-challenged writing on the signs, it was arguably too late. Meanwhile, against all probability, the masses with their pitchforks and flames, had—for lack of a tangible target for the ire—latched on to the Fox-spewed propaganda filling the inexplicable vacuum of what passes, these days, for political discourse.

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ii . Coal Mines, Sean Connery and (of course) George Orwell

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful investigation of the English working class, he makes the following observation: Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.

That succinct, typically clear-eyed assessment has stuck with me because, like so much of what Orwell wrote, it is not tied to any particular period of time. As I get older, I realize this quote can be applied to any number of professions. Put simply, money and means enable certain people to reside in entirely different realities. After one has read Orwell—hopefully at an early enough age that it makes one allergic to relativism and libertarianism—one can’t help but view the world through a sociological lens.

Quite by chance, I just watched an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. It’s one of those movies I’ve heard about many times and hear referenced often enough that I’ve had it on my to-do list for entirely too long. Plus, the notion Richard Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic—with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines.

If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “administrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell, of course) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed; circumstances were suitably dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes, that is a cliché but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally—and fully—occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of clichés) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

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iii. The Medium Remains the Message

As we stare down the ignoble specter of the GOP taking back the Senate next month, it is at once exasperating yet simple to see how we got here. Yes, the Democrats’ incompetence at crafting an actionable narrative has, at best, enabled the Republicans to proselytize their fealty to an ever-more-free market. But at least when they try (see: Clinton and Obama in campaign mode), they can compete, and occasionally win (!). The deeper and more disturbing issue is the way they’ve abandoned the very middle class their policies demonstrably support.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Democrats tread lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our chronically aloof commander-in-chief going to start reminding everyone that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest one percent? Apparently it does.

Feel-good (or, feel-bad) lip service is paid to the undeniable, growing discrepancy of salaries paid and taxes not collected on the makers vs. the takers, but the song remains the same (see: a dose Romney, a dash of Ayn Rand and an unhealthy smattering of Religulous paranoia to expedite a state like Kansas acquiescing itself into fiefdom). And we’ve not come to terms with the fact that the wealthiest percentile don’t just look down on—or worse, ignore—their lesser brethren. They neither understand nor want to understand: they contemplate the impoverished the way many of us might ponder serial hoarders: we see it, are disgusted by it, and wouldn’t ever want to be like them, but we simply can’t fathom how they got to be that way; what happened to make them so unreasonable.

What Orwell articulated so well, in part because it was (is?) so stark and systemic across the pond, is the way class is at once an explanation and excuse for imbalance—not only in practical and political terms, but as ingrained disposition: things are this way because they’ve always been this way. After a while, injustice just seems to be the natural order of things. Okay, but it’s supposed to be different in America. We ostensibly have laws and systems in place to prevent unchecked stratification. That we can’t quite challenge—or even believe—what our lying eyes tell us is, again, what the Reagan Revolution has wrought. However much he has disappointed, it’s certainly not (only) Obama’s fault that his party has generally avoided the entire issue of class for practically half-a-century.

But even if the seemingly unsophisticated battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism—ha!) seems a non-starter in 2014, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work weeks, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist as an evolved conciliation, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

Regardless of her short-term political (e.g. presidential) aspirations, Elizabeth Warren—and the Yes-We-Can-type approbation she’s accruing—is, if nothing else, an indication that at least one notable liberal understands the power of going back to the future. The fact that someone like her (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) exists is encouraging, but the fact that people are responding to this message should translate to a broader game plan, the sooner the better.

No matter what happens next month, it can hopefully provide sufficient momentum for the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging en route to 2016. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/22/2014.

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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 Terror Card, Torture and You or, The Evil of Banality (Revisited)

guantanamo_1765914c1

6/09:

Anyone who happened to miss this piece by Lakhdar Boumediene, entitled My Guantánamo Nightmare should check it out, here.

Here is a taste of the sickening, yet predictable torment this innocent man endured:

When I arrived at work on the morning of Oct. 19, 2001, an intelligence officer was waiting for me. He asked me to accompany him to answer questions. I did so, voluntarily — but afterward I was told that I could not go home. The United States had demanded that local authorities arrest me and five other men. News reports at the time said the United States believed that I was plotting to blow up its embassy in Sarajevo. I had never — for a second — considered this.       

The fact that the United States had made a mistake was clear from the beginning. Bosnia’s highest court investigated the American claim, found that there was no evidence against me and ordered my release. But instead, the moment I was released American agents seized me and the five others. We were tied up like animals and flown to Guantánamo, the American naval base in Cuba. I arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.   

In 2008, my demand for a fair legal process went all the way to America’s highest court. In a decision that bears my name, the Supreme Court declared that “the laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” It ruled that prisoners like me, no matter how serious the accusations, have a right to a day in court. The Supreme Court recognized a basic truth: the government makes mistakes. And the court said that because “the consequence of error may be detention of persons for the duration of hostilities that may last a generation or more, this is a risk too significant to ignore.”   

It provides me little pleasure to be reminded of a post I wrote almost three years ago that touched on some of this, and it certainly is sad to think we are slowly, begrudgingly accepting some measure of responsibility for the lives we’ve destroyed. None of this had made us safer and it has all been done –and is still being done– in our names.

“A perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm.”

That quote, attributed to a former CIA official who courageously remains anonymous, seems about as perfectly succinct a crystallization I’ve yet read regarding the mindset (the official one shared by the insiders as well as the unofficial one prevailing amongst the blissfully ignorant who don’t care to ponder what happened, how it happened, and why it happened) of the circumstances that precipitated the blatant, persistent torture of detainees. Oh, I mean “enhanced interrogation”, as the mainstream media dutifully scribbles at the behest of the bad guys.

Even the usually reliable Michael Kinsley has recently gotten in on the act, proving that there are some story lines so aggressively promulgated that no one working for the MSM is entirely insulated from their influence:

Indignation comes cheap in our political culture. Polls give the impression that the proper role of voters is to sit like a king passing judgment on the issues as they pass by like dishes prepared for a feast. “No, I’m not in the mood for waterboarding today, thanks. But I think I’ll have another dab of those delicious-looking executive-pay caps.” Prosecuting a few former government officials for their role in putting our country into the torture business would not serve justice or historical memory. It would just let the real culprits off the hook.

The reason this is so specious is that even today the New York Times still can’t quite bring itself to call these acts torture, (Repeat: The New York Times. This is the paper heralded and derided in equal measure as the voice of liberalism, no matter how laughable that claim.) Let’s not dance around the topic: editorial sanitizing of this magnitude is analogous to describing rape as an “enhanced fornication technique”. Does that seem over the top? Imagine if some pundit (not to mention average citizen) dismissed the horror of rape or even made fun of it? This is what tough guys ranging from Rush Limbaugh to “Mancow” Muller have done with the torture “debate”, turning one of our darkest hours into a farce, milking it for laughs as well as a measuring stick for how pro-America one is. Their heads would explode from the irony if there was anything inside their skulls to detonate. To Muller’s credit, at least he was willing to take the Pepsi challenge; although his ordeal was over before he could cough out the words “I’m a contemptible shit stain”. While it would be delightful, on purely karmic levels, to see some of these bellicose scarecrows, such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, O’Reilly and Beck attempt to last more than ten seconds on that table, it is beside the point, and further cretinizes what needs to be a sober discussion.

Certainly, anyone who has the temerity to insist that this practice (let’s call it drowning) is emphatically not torture, without ever having enjoyed it at the hands of a friendly, much less unfriendly, interrogator, richly deserves to be accordingly humiliated. But we all know that great white chickenhawks like those listed above (not to mention their craven yet rabid cheerleaders) would fold like a rusted lawn chair in a matter of moments. Anyone paying attention (and anyone obtuse enough to not already take the word of the people who understand these issues: the people from the United States armed forces) could have learned almost a year ago that Christopher Hitchens issued a definitive take on the matter. “Believe me, it’s torture,” he wrote. (And he should be given appropriate kudos for having the integrity to test the waters, so to speak, before feeling fit to pronounce what was, and was not, torture. Then again, he is not only embarrassingly more intelligent than these buffoons, he is also interested in the truth, something no one mentioned above could ever be accused of.)

Kinsley continues:

Between April and November of that year, there were dozens of articles about torture in general and waterboarding in particular in major print media outlets, on the Web and on TV, many describing it in detail and some straightforwardly labeling it as torture. Millions of people saw these reports, knew that torture was going on and voted for Bush anyway. There is no way of knowing how many of those who voted against him were affected by the torture question. A good guess would be “not many.” (Not me, for one, I’m sorry to say.) Bush’s opponent, John Kerry, never mentioned waterboarding.

And? To be certain, Kinsley is correct in the sense that while, on an ascending scale of wrongheadedness, it’s not appropriate to single out some lower-ranking scapegoats, and it’s not enough to “merely” bring the higher-ranking officials (e.g., the despicable lawyers and the leaders of the previous administration who gave them their very clear and unambiguous marching orders). There needs to be a wider net cast, and one that does not exonerate the Democrats who also whistled past this political graveyard. Indeed, the American populace, to a certain extent, is implicated here. But, as with the Iraq war, it was our supposedly free press that failed us the most: we know enough now about Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al to understand we could and should have expected the worst; while this does not mitigate their criminal misdeeds, we should not pretend to be shocked (or even particularly appalled) at the non-revelations of how they combined their extreme political pettiness (Machiavellian ruthlessness) and their general ignorance of the mess they were creating (“Bring ‘em on”, “last throes”, “stuff happens”, et cetera). But at the end of the day, it was the press who didn’t ask any tough questions, who didn’t expose or promote the obvious truths rotting right out in the open, like a fetid carcass.

And then there are the sociopaths, the ones who you actually fear believe not only in the apocalyptic fantasies they peddle, but feel they are the appropriate (even the chosen) ones to answer the challenges. Here you have the Kissingers, Weinbergers, Fleischers, Gingriches. These are seldom the ones behind the wheel (although some of them would jump at the chance), these are the ones riding shotgun, whispering not-so-sweet nothings into the impressionable ear of the idiot in charge (think Reagan, think Bush), the ones content to practice their dirty work long distance.

I have a special hatred in my heart for these smirking Iagos, the well-paid political hacks who reside inside the fortified cocoon of spin and subterfuge. The ones who are neither powerful enough to make the decisions or brave enough to do the damage; these are the ones who put on business suits before hitting the battlefield, talking points echoing around their half-empty heads. Their masters, the flies, crawl into the shit to lay their eggs, they are merely the spawn that emerges from this waste, camera-ready smiles frozen on their faces. They are born into this, never capable of playing on the field or willing to cheer from the sidelines, they are the equipment managers, the ones who want to be near the action but not close enough to get caught in the crossfire. These are the spokespersons and professional apologists; the career insiders.

Some are born into it; some are paid to do it. Some, like the irredeemably despicable Liz Cheney, are born into it and get paid (quite handsomely) to do it. But to single these scumbags out is like blaming rock musicians for the dumbing down of American culture. The fact of the matter is that if people weren’t willing or able to be duped by clowns like Karl Rove, then clowns like Karl Rove would have to find another line of work.

And it’s finally taken the one issue everyone used to agree on to illustrate, without the slightest possibility of misunderstanding, how far Republicans have slinked off the Reservation. Lampooning this new low is, of course, easy and would be amusing if it was not so pathetic and sickening (still, there has been no shortage of potshots, all of them quite worthwhile, some of them absolutely indispensable). Even the most battle-scarred political junkie has to marvel at how hurriedly the hardcore Right is dumpster diving into moral depravity, all for the sake of propping up their tattered and increasingly absurd ideology. While Andrew Sullivan and Frank Rich (embedded above) are always on the money, John Cole has a definitive take, here.

Considering what they have done with virtually every other aspect of the Bush years, I honestly expected them to do what they did with the trillions of dollars of spending and debt that happened with a Republican congress and a Republican President Bush- first, pretend it didn’t happen, then after being forced to acknowledge it did happen, claim that everyone was doing it and blame the Democrats and scream about Murtha and Barney Frank, and when that didn’t work, just pretend that it was “other” Republicans who aren’t “real conservatives” (Move along, these aren’t the wasteful spenders you are looking for) while ranting about earmarks. That is what they did with spending; I figured they would do it again with torture.

But they didn’t and they aren’t. Instead, they are mobilizing and going balls to the wall in defense of sadism. It is really quite amazing, and a testament to just how sick and detestable and rotten to the core the Republican Party has become.

 

It’s fortunate that in spite of the institutional apathy we still have indefatigable watchdogs like Glenn Greenwald tallying up the lies, spin and systemic deceit. He offers consistently refreshing proof that real progressives are not in the tank for Obama or any politician, but remain invested in holding elected officials accountable. There are dozens of other semi-high profile scribes out there, mostly representing the dreaded blogosphere. The old guard recognizes it is in their best interest to actively marginalize these voices, though that stale strategy is inexorably losing steam. The only people who disdain the bloggers more than politicians, of course, are the high profile (though increasingly endangered) Op Ed scribblers. These indolent bovines, along with their brethren–the so-called mainstream journalists–seem happiest when covered in the mud and slop their masters make for them. There are notable exceptions; for every Charles Krauthammer there is a Dan Froomkin; for every George Will there is a Frank Rich. For every twenty jejune Maureen Dowd columns, there is the all-too-rare exception.

The rest of the media, forever in the backwards shadow of the insular, elitist (yes, elitist) inside-the-Beltway circus, can’t (or worse, does not want to) figure out that the sources they quote (all too often anonymously) are waging war on the six-to-twelve hour spin cycle, so the details are massaged accordingly. And so we have Cheney getting equal, or more, air time than Obama, with the network nitwits breathlessly asking “Who is right?” That Cheney is getting so much play is not in itself a big deal; it’s undeniably newsworthy, and if he wants to dig himself deeper into his depraved ditch, I’m sure we all have a few shovels we’d be willing to lend him. In fact, he is unintentionally doing the country a large favor by backing himself further into a corner (not that he has any choice with the prospects of war crime trials, however unlikely, looming): he is drawing an unmistakable line in the rhetorical sand in terms of the rule of law and the ways it was trampled on his watch.

The problem is not that he is making his case convincingly; it’s that the Democrats (“led” by the half-witted and choleric Harry Reid) are scared enough of their own shadows that when a high-ranking (no matter how unpopular) Republican plays the terror card, they tremble with Pavlovian precision. The spectacle of Reid being played like an accordion, while spewing largely unintelligible tough talk (“Can’t put them in prison unless you release them”) was a new low, even by the minute standard he has set during his mostly feckless tenure.

 

The other, larger problem is that the media is obsessed with the us-and-them, false equivalence sham. It’s irresponsible enough to allow equal air time for obviously self-interested charlatans like Cheney and Gingrich; it’s incompetence bordering on dereliction that they ignore available evidence for the sake of sensationalism. To take just one of the more insidious examples, the notion that torture (although we won’t call it torture) was effective and saved thousands, perhaps millions, of lives is risible on every level. The simple fact that we got the info we needed from certain suspects before we tortured them should be a slam dunk for overdue accountability. The fact that the aforementioned torture was inflicted not to save lives but in the desperate attempt to coerce an acknowledgment of the fabricated tie between Sadaam and Osama is sickening as it is irrefutable. Even worse, and this is perhaps the most contemptible aspect of the disgrace that is Guantanamo, all of these so-called arguments rely on the erroneous assertion that all of these detained individuals represent the “worst of the worst”. In other words, it’s explicitly understood, in the Cheney version of this story, that every single person we’ve captured is guilty. Of course, even a cursory examination of the case files reveals that more than a handful of these people, aside from never being charged with a crime, had no ties or connections to Al-Qaeda. There are many examples, here’s one.

Where is the media in all of this? Busy handicapping the spin as a legitimately alternate perspective. Impartiality, in today’s media, means allowing liars to lie with impunity and letting Americans decide for themselves which “side” is more convincing. No wonder more than fifty percent of Americans have indicated that torture is acceptable in certain circumstances. John McLaughlin himself actually uttered the words “not all waterboarding is the same” on a recent show. Thanks for clearing that up for us, big guy. Virtually the remainder of the chattering class has been perfectly content to keep their readership on a need-to-know basis. Not taking a principled stand is one thing (only people who find actual inspiration in movies like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington expect more than this from our supine press), but to actively disengage with reality is unconscionable. If only these posers had sufficient shame, or awareness, to understand how poorly they’ve performed in the service of our nation.

Obama, as Matt Taibbi points out here, has gone from not exactly distinguishing himself in this matter (as well as waffling on the mostly lucid and unassailable take he offered on the campaign trail) to clumsily ensnaring himself in this mess to, against all probability, upping the ante. Count me amongst the people who are willing to give him some more time, and some additional benefit of the doubt (certainly, he inherited this disaster and only the most naively optimistic folks on the left actually expected he could waltz into office and change this fiasco overnight). Count me also amongst those who are puzzled (at best) and disillusioned (at worst) by his behavior. By hanging back and letting the Cheney pushback gain traction, he immediately made his task a lot harder than it had to be. Rookie mistake? Let’s hope. By ostensibly trying to avoid politicizing the matter (as if that is possible in contemporary America) he all but guaranteed it would be entirely about politics. And thus far, the bad guys are winning. It’s early still and Obama has shown himself to be a master of the long game, but it’s difficult to get a good read on how (or why) he’s allowed this opportunity to slip from his hands, and into the oily, scaled claws of Darth Cheney. Inconceivably, the attacks that happened on the last administration’s watch turned out to be the gift that keeps giving. Only in America.

 

Lastly, there are the rest of us. Part of the equation, one hoped, in electing Obama was to begin moving past the Bush debacle as quickly as possible; in this regard, any warm body (well, any warm Democrat’s body) would do the trick. But Obama, his eloquence and affirmations aside, spoke forcefully about reclaiming the rule of law and undertaking the imperative task of restoring America’s standing in the eyes of the world. Part of that promise entailed renouncing, without equivocation, the types of travesties that in a pre-9/11 world would never happen on U.S. soil. That was part of the evolution of a democratic nation, we learned from our past mistakes and, as unforgivable as they were, we moved on. The Bill of Rights and that little thing called Habeas Corpus guaranteed (at least in principle) that if atrocities occurred, they would be recognized, denounced, and those responsible held to account. Mostly, it reassured the world that anyone on our soil would be treated in accordance with our laws. As quaint as it may sound to 21st Century ears, Americans once overwhelmingly endorsed this quite simple proposition; it was, in effect, the bulwark our freedom was built upon.

As we now know, 9/11 changed everything. 9/11 gave us the terror card, still the only dark ace up the sleeve of the detestable GOP; as we’ve seen in recent weeks, it still trumps the house (of Representatives). 9/11 gave us Guantanamo and the bottomless pit of moral putrefacation. 9/11 gave us Jack Bauer who, along with Walker, Texas Ranger, will keep us safe and ensure that America remains unfriendly turf for evildoers and liberals. How else, really, to explain the hysteria that attended the announcement of some detainees possibly being moved to maximum security prisons within the U.S.A.? Only a craven populace spoon-fed the aesthetic sensibilities of Prison Break could possibly conceive a scenario where these hardened (yet untried) criminal masterminds band together to bust out of their chains and wreak havoc on the pastoral American heartland. The same simpletons obsessed with owning guns, it seems, are afraid to actually use them if the situation ever arose. But that’s a joke anyway; only people who steer their mental ships to the ill-winds blown by Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News could really get weak in the knees imagining escaped al-Qaeda agents roaming their gated communities.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, more people were horrified by the possibility (not to mention the certainty) that innocent civilians were plucked out of their offices or homes and spirited away overseas, held without charge and tortured without compunction? How about, instead of imagining our children being savaged by terrorist outlaws on the loose, we contemplated the possibility of our children being held, in a foreign country, with no legal recourse, and indicted without a trial? Without even being told what they supposedly did? These are the dark fantasies Kafka imagined and Orwell anticipated, but the point of such dystopian fiction was to depict the worst case scenario so as to shake slumbering citizens awake.

A perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm.

Here we are, in a scared new world, with atrocities having been committed in our names. Those most culpable keep on rattling the sabres of insanity, strutting like peacocks on a TV screen near you. The journalists watch their own backs while their bosses are too busy watching their profits dwindle to process more bad news. The politicians fear nothing more than losing their status, and will be accountable enough to go on record once the dust has finally settled. Almost everyone else reclines in silence, well-fed and secure behind the wall of sleep.

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The Problem with The Homeless Problem

HOMELESS

THERE IS A MAN who sits near the pumps at the gas station I drive by each day. The man is very obviously from somewhere else and has about him a certain look—the meek, awestruck eyes, the apprehensive gestures—that indicts him as someone who speaks little if any English. A stranger.

He remains respectfully distant from the customers—who incessantly fill their tanks, like bees returning to the nest before heeding the urgency of their instinctual obligations—but near enough to the action to remain in plain view. He sells flowers. Actually, he doesn’t seem to sell anything; he pretty much sits there, on an upturned milk crate, often from early morning until well in the evening, after the rest of the weary warriors have commuted past him, home from work and their worries of the wicked world. He silently plies his wares, content to play his part in the charade: he is not accomplishing much, he is begging, and the milk crate and collection of fading flowers at his feet communicate an inexpressible anguish. Please help me, his unscrubbed face, his unlaced sneakers, his oversized slacks, his filthy, fidgeting fingers—everything but his voice—all ask, saying what he cannot, and will not, say for himself.

***

Hey brother, can you spare a life, the woman moving past me does not say.

I’m in too much of a hurry to stop (like always, like everyone else getting on and off the subway), but there is something so familiar about her that I’m compelled, despite everything I’ve learned, to pause and look back: she is still there, off to the side, shabbily clad, immediately recognizable by her contrast to everyone around her; she wants to approach one of these businessmen, but all of them are walking too fast, too deliberately, too purposefully. Getting from Point A to Point B so we can get paid.

Automatically, the doors move aside and sweltering air earnestly greets everyone headed its way. It takes about five seconds (as always) to feel the heat and then the money dread: if it weren’t for the money, it wouldn’t take much—in a strange city, lost, alone. Broke. That’s how shit like starvation and sleeping on grates gets started. Quiet in the corners, huddled under bridges, working the frenzied crowd for a friendly face, hoping for the handout that never comes.

I don’t have any lives to spare, but I’ll dig deeper and give ‘til it hurts.

This hurts me more than it hurts you, I don’t say.

***

Who was he?

I think the same question each time I see him (once a week, sometimes more, occasionally double-shifts: the same man in the same spot, holding the same sign that tells everyone who he is, now—prompting the question: who did he used to be, at some point in the past?) at the intersection he has stood at for several months now. The cardboard sign he holds both question and answer: Homeless veteran (the explanation), can you put some pocket change in this plastic cup (the question). The sign says he is a veteran. Okay. And even if he isn’t actually a veteran, he has been homeless long enough to be a veteran; or if he is not actually homeless, he has been acting the part long enough to earn the title. Either way, it is time for a promotion.

And so, I think, this is the problem with the homeless problem: it wasn’t (some of us learn—too late) the ones who hustled or even approached you who were down and out; they were the ardent ones, half the time they weren’t even homeless; it is the ones you never see, even when they’re sprawled on the concrete right beside you, the ones who are down, the ones who are out, the ones who have nothing to ask for, nothing to say, nothing to do except wait, sit it out until time or the whiter man’s burden delivers them that eventual, inevitable verdict. It was the ones you could afford not to be afraid of, the ones who could not even hurt themselves, because they’d already dug as deep inside as their ashen fingers could reach, the ones too dead to tear out their hearts, but not dead enough to unloose their souls, the ones who learned (too late) that death was only impatient for the fools who failed to acknowledge it, it had all the time in the world for those who the world owed nothing except the decency of an overdue release.

Could that be me?

A primal foreboding, an ancient fear. Who knew how it happened, who could make sense of it? And yet. These people do not wake up one random morning, on the streets and out of their minds. Or do they? If you believed the signs the man on the corner held, the government did this to him—and could do it to anyone else: that was his message, his mission.

The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it is the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

***

A memory:

Newark Airport. That shithole. A place has to be exceptionally beautiful, appalling, or incomprehensibly pointless in order to be easily remembered years after a brief visit.

When I was a kid, (I couldn’t have been much older than ten) my father and I had a layover in Newark Airport. Even then, I was perceptive enough to understand that this was no place I ever needed to return voluntarily.

An unassuming older man (at any rate, he was noticeably older than my old man, which made him old) sat in one of those impossibly plain plastic chairs, with his pants leg rolled up. It wasn’t until we got closer that I realized two things: he was alone, and he was scratching at a series of scabs on his shin. For some reason he looked our way at the moment we passed him, and after sizing us up, he stood and amiably approached my father.

“Sir, did you need someone to help you and your son carry your bags?”

“No thanks, we’re okay,” my pops replied, looking ahead and picking up the pace.

The man was persistent. In the space of fifteen seconds—my father denied him three times—my emotions slid from the appreciation of possibly having someone carry my suitcase for me, to the vague, uneasy suspicion that my father was being somehow rude, a jerk, to the unsettling awareness of recognition. I sensed something I’d seen plenty of, but never before in any person older than myself: fear. I saw it in his eyes, and felt it in my insides.

As we walked away my old man waited until we were at a charitable distance, then looked at me meaningfully and offered the somber assertion: That’s as low as you can go. I asked him to elaborate, as was my style, and he was either unwilling or unable to add anything to his observation, as was his style. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what my father was saying, I understood him perfectly. It was because I understood him that I needed him to say more, to talk to me a little longer about it, about anything, anything to interrupt that silence and the sudden thoughts that accompanied it.

***

It’s easy to believe that people like this exist for our sakes: they are dying lessons on how not to live, warnings of what could happen if you weren’t careful and found yourself scratching at scabs in the world’s ugliest airport. Or enlist, get used up and ask not what your country can do for you, because you’ve already received the answer. We forget, or we don’t allow ourselves to entertain the idea, that these people have histories; that these shadows and signposts don’t happen to serve a purpose for anyone else; they were once actual people themselves.

I realize, now, my father was wrong about one thing. That’s not as low as you can go. You can go lower, a whole lot lower. But perhaps it’s more disturbing to see the ones that are on the way down, it’s somehow easier to accept the ones at the bottom of the ocean; it’s the ones who are sinking, who are still within reach, who are drowning noisily in front of you, who sometimes have the temerity to ask you to hold out a hand. These are the ones we can scarcely tolerate, because every so often we look at them and see ourselves.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 11/5/2014.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part Two, The Dems

obama_superman_statue_by_kindlepics-d5ju8nl

i. Ridic, Redux

LAST MONTH I WROTE about the Power of Political Narrative and the ways Republicans have kept it simple (stupid) and mostly stuck to an inflexible script for the last thirty years. No matter how flawed that script is, in reality, and no matter how many times reality makes a point of pointing out that virtually every talking point—taken as Gospel and enforced as Scripture—results in the opposite of what it claims (Clear Skies Act, etc.), a reckoning never occurs.

As such, we saw austerity when we desperately needed stimulus, coddling of Wall Street cretins when perp walks were well-warranted, craven acquiescence on the Guantanamo catastrophe, “Death Panels” instead of a public option, et cetera. Not that these are the results Obama (or the left) wanted or predicted, but because of—at least in part—the ability of the other side to sling the same excrement at every policy, proposal or achievement, defying a twice-elected leader to bring about change we can believe in. Or pocket change for the middle class. Or something.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last two years (doubling down what they did the previous four years) was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, smug and certain they are about to retake the Senate. By refusing to govern they are likely to be rewarded, not because anyone (even Fox viewers) particularly likes the results, but because they have stuck so steadfastly to the scheme: lay blame on Obama, Democrats, and Government, respectively. At best tolerated (at worst abetted) by a degraded mainstream media they have done this repeatedly, and mostly with impunity.

And because we expect less than little from the intransigent GOP, how can we resent them for proving the cowardice of their convictions? Particularly when the profiles in courage not on display by their political opposition is so…typical. My concern is—and has been for some time—the ways in which Democrats are congenitally incapable of articulating their achievements, and crafting a message that is either compelling or consistent. The shame of it is, all they have to do is tell the truth and it would set them (and the rest of us) free.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy, or that it would be embraced—at least initially. As I argued last month, it’s a hell of a lot less demanding to pick a handful of platitudes and recite them like zealots at a Sunday service. But this is not a matter of formulating counterpoints or rebuttals; it’s about crafting a narrative that is consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Naturally, telling the truth does not come naturally to elected officials who are often paid for before they take the oath of office, and this circumstance is further complicated by the question of how many of them really believe in left-of-center principle in the first place. Still, any introductory class in marketing or communications (or English Literature for that matter) will emphasize the importance of narrative; the necessity of telling the story you want to tell.

It’s not that difficult to imagine, and this shit practically writes itself. One speech, early in ’09, wherein Obama declared: “not only am I going to fund these projects, no American who wants to work will go without on my watch. I’m going to spend this money, because it is an investment on people, and you will be able to measure the results immediately. This is a mission on behalf of our well-being, and if you want to judge me in four years, I will take those odds. And if I’m wrong, the worst case scenario will be an early retirement where I can drive across this great nation over new roads and rebuilt bridges, and take advantage of the radically improved infrastructure that these projects made possible. I’ll walk away from the Oval Office happy and proud, because I’ll know we made a difference, and that is what I was elected to do.”

Obama was either too clueless or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be ready to fight back against the full-scale war the GOP declared on him the second he was elected. (His refusal to bother himself getting involved in the health care brawls all summer of 2009 is the second largest blunder of his presidency: he not only allowed the malevolent Republicans to define the narrative (wrongly), he let the Tea Party lunatics get a foothold and, with the lack of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government was the correct, patriotic thing to do. By the time he saw the grammatically-challenged writing on the signs, it was arguably too late. Meanwhile, against all probability, the masses with their pitchforks and flames, had—for lack of a tangible target for the ire—latched on to the Fox-spewed propaganda filling the inexplicable vacuum of what passes, these days, for political discourse.

sean-connery_richard-harris_the-molly-maguires

         ii . Coal Mines, Sean Connery and (of course) George Orwell

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful investigation of the English working class, he makes the following observation: Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.

That succinct, typically clear-eyed assessment has stuck with me because, like so much of what Orwell wrote, it is not tied to any particular period of time. As I get older, I realize this quote can be applied to any number of professions. Put simply, money and means enable certain people to reside in entirely different realities. After one has read Orwell—hopefully at an early enough age that it makes one allergic to relativism and libertarianism—one can’t help but view the world through a sociological lens.

Quite by chance, I just watched an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. It’s one of those movies I’ve heard about many times and hear referenced often enough that I’ve had it on my to-do list for entirely too long. Plus, the notion Richard Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic—with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines.

If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “administrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell, of course) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed; circumstances were suitably dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes, that is a cliché but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally—and fully—occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of clichés) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

KeepGovtOutOfMyMedicare-sign-cropped

iii. The Medium Remains the Message

As we stare down the ignoble specter of the GOP taking back the Senate next month, it is at once exasperating yet simple to see how we got here. Yes, the Democrats’ incompetence at crafting an actionable narrative has, at best, enabled the Republicans to proselytize their fealty to an ever-more-free market. But at least when they try (see: Clinton and Obama in campaign mode), they can compete, and occasionally win (!). The deeper and more disturbing issue is the way they’ve abandoned the very middle class their policies demonstrably support.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Democrats tread lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our chronically aloof commander-in-chief going to start reminding everyone that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest one percent? Apparently it does.

Feel-good (or, feel-bad) lip service is paid to the undeniable, growing discrepancy of salaries paid and taxes not collected on the makers vs. the takers, but the song remains the same (see: a dose Romney, a dash of Ayn Rand and an unhealthy smattering of Religulous paranoia to expedite a state like Kansas acquiescing itself into fiefdom). And we’ve not come to terms with the fact that the wealthiest percentile don’t just look down on—or worse, ignore—their lesser brethren. They neither understand nor want to understand: they contemplate the impoverished the way many of us might ponder serial hoarders: we see it, are disgusted by it, and wouldn’t ever want to be like them, but we simply can’t fathom how they got to be that way; what happened to make them so unreasonable.

What Orwell articulated so well, in part because it was (is?) so stark and systemic across the pond, is the way class is at once an explanation and excuse for imbalance—not only in practical and political terms, but as ingrained disposition: things are this way because they’ve always been this way. After a while, injustice just seems to be the natural order of things. Okay, but it’s supposed to be different in America. We ostensibly have laws and systems in place to prevent unchecked stratification. That we can’t quite challenge—or even believe—what our lying eyes tell us is, again, what the Reagan Revolution has wrought. However much he has disappointed, it’s certainly not (only) Obama’s fault that his party has generally avoided the entire issue of class for practically half-a-century.

But even if the seemingly unsophisticated battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism—ha!) seems a non-starter in 2014, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work weeks, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist as an evolved conciliation, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

Regardless of her short-term political (e.g. presidential) aspirations, Elizabeth Warren—and the Yes-We-Can-type approbation she’s accruing—is, if nothing else, an indication that at least one notable liberal understands the power of going back to the future. The fact that someone like her (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) exists is encouraging, but the fact that people are responding to this message should translate to a broader game plan, the sooner the better.

No matter what happens next month, it can hopefully provide sufficient momentum for the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging en route to 2016. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/22/2014.

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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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Technology and Politics: The New Calculus of Campaigning, Part Five

Election 2012: What We Will See

Boiled down to key words and concepts, there are a handful that should figure prominently as we head into 2012. The first, oft-mentioned word is data. We have already examined the ways in which information—the gathering and utilization of it—is the lifeblood of any contemporary campaign. In terms of practical impact, we can expect that data analysts and engineers will be important, coveted jobs during the next presidential election. Indeed, it is quite likely that recruitment has already begun in order to fill these roles.

Besides data, the other key word (and concept) going forward is mobile. Murshed Zaheed predicts that mobile apps are set to explode, and campaigns will have to focus attention on how to properly calibrate this eventuality. For instance, an ad will appear very differently on a tablet vs. a PC or especially a smartphone. Creating content and communications appropriate and accessible for mobile devices is going to be a primary directive for the immediate and foreseeable future. Ad campaigns in general will only increase in sophistication and intensity. It was ingenious, for instance, when the Obama organization found ways to purchase ads for video games during the 2008 election. In addition to hyperlocalized messaging, campaigns are likely to integrate video clips into their online ads. It won’t be long until we see more specialized advertising opportunities, including sponsored tweets, which will add another layer of exposure for politicians to take advantage of.

Perhaps most important, as always, will be the ways citizens respond to and engage with the process. According to CEA’s study, 21 percent of U.S. adults are likely to participate in a “Tele-town hall” meeting, where supporters of candidates can attend a town hall meeting via the Internet. Obviously this speaks to the convenience as well as the interactive possibilities inherent in this forum. That one in five U.S. adults are willing to get involved reveals a growing comfort with electronic interaction as well as social media sites. Political strategists will be wise to continue reaching out to the younger demographic: 33 percent of young adults (ages 25-34) indicate willingness to participate in a “Tele-town hall” meeting, while 22 percent of the same group are likely to follow campaigns for national elections on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

It is too early to predict how the 2012 election will play out, but we already have a reasonable idea of the ways technology will impact the process. It may not, in fact, be premature to imagine a viable path toward celebrity in the years ahead. Imagine a “citizen journalist”, properly informed and motivated, recording or creating content and putting it on YouTube. With compelling material and a bit of luck, a news channel may pick it up or even better, it goes viral. And just like that, fifteen minutes of fame, or even responsibility for helping change the outcome of an election. Or perhaps it could lead to something potentially more gratifying and lucrative, such as a job working on a political campaign!

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Technology and Politics: The New Calculus of Campaigning, Part Four

Facebook and Twitter: The Once and Future Kingmakers

The younger generation, in addition to literally growing up alongside all these recent technological advances, understands that our world is increasingly a connected one. Between reality TV and the “voyeur videos” prevalent on YouTube, the distinction between the personal vs. the public is ever blurred. As such, they have understandably utilized social media for its social aspects (hence its name). Students and younger professionals initially embraced location-based networking sites like foursquare with the assumption that there are—or should be—no particular secrets or boundaries. Shrewdly, these sites have incentivized participation, partnering with businesses for discounts and special deals. As a result, we see more people willing to offer their privacy as a sort of postmodern form of currency. We can expect to see a widespread deployment of these various platforms by a variety of demographics for a variety of purposes.

Think of the time and money (and paperwork) saved once the world effectively turned digital during the last decade and a half. Consider how miraculous it must have seemed for political operatives to have email and Internet searching, both of which eliminated expensive, time-consuming research and outreach efforts. The simple act of creating a website was a space age advancement for an industry where communication is crucial. Now think about what Facebook and Twitter do to this equation.

Initially, an individual’s presence on the Internet was anonymous; now one’s persona is their web presence. If Facebook enables us to communicate with a network of friends, Twitter makes it possible to broadcast to virtually the entire connected universe. Facebook is by nature personality-based (who and what you “like”), and broadcasts these preferences to a controlled circle of acquaintances. Twitter breaks beyond social circles and is capable of disseminating messages via an echo chamber effect that places a premium on information, not personality. Put another way, Facebook allows you to see what people you know are saying; Twitter is universally searchable and therefore more optimized for viral distribution. On Facebook you can only see what people you know are saying about an event; on Twitter you can see what the entire world is saying.

For obvious and understandable reasons, political operations have been quick to incorporate these advancements into their arsenals. With Facebook and Twitter, the very notion of what a “friend” signifies is less literal. Twitter can create an intimacy that is not contingent upon personal contact. A voter can claim they “know” or have “met” their congressperson via a webcasted Town Hall, or by following their Twitter feed. The advantage for politicians is the crafty ways they can at once reach a mass audience while imparting what are often received as personalized messages. If this sounds inconsequential, consider how many millions of dollars and hours have been spent over the centuries involving candidates traveling the country for carefully-staged photo-ops wherein they “meet” their constituents. With one tweet this can be accomplished in seconds, at no expense.

“Strategery”

Mike Shields, a political strategist with almost two decades of experience inside (and outside) the nation’s capital, has a sign on his office wall that reads “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives nor the most intelligent but the one most responsive to change.” Darwin’s quote certainly applies to so many areas of existence, but it has special relevance in the world of campaigns and elections.

“There is a constant arms race in politics,” he says. “Both parties want to adapt and implement the latest tools and technology to their advantage.” Once again, the notion of data and its import is reiterated by an insider with myriad battle scars. “It boils down to the simplest scenario: you have to figure out who is most likely to show up and vote and then, how do you get them to vote for you?” To achieve success, the candidate with the most (or best) data has a distinct advantage.

The data, Shields confirms, is not necessarily new, but the ways it is gathered are, and technology has dramatically improved the process. For instance, in 2008 Obama’s website requested visitors to sign in first, before entering—as opposed to giving them the option to do so at the end of their visit when they might forget. This way, in a rather unobtrusive but remarkably effective fashion, the campaign captured crucial information. That Obama used Facebook effectively (creating groups, encouraging specific communities to interact and operate independently, etc.) is uncontested, but Shields is already anticipating the next wave of innovation. “Web ads will be the future of political advertising,” he predicts. “Where broadcast TV (ads) are inevitably reaching everyone, including non-voters, a specific website enables you to target a niche audience and ensure that a specific message is received.”

That said, Shields also suggests that good old fashioned email is still the most effective method of communication. “Having a strong online presence can help you overcome other deficiencies,” he says. “It is imperative to have an effective e-campaign; this is still as important as any other factor, particularly as it relates to fundraising and candidate messaging.”

Kombiz Lavasany, who worked at the DNC during the 2008 elections and is now at {new} partners, has been at the vanguard of much of this activity. As such, he is in as secure a position as anyone to discuss the past and predict the future. In fact, he suggests that we are only beginning to see the real impact and implications of social media. “Twitter was not mainstream until after the ’08 election,” he says. “Reporters who have been using it did not get on the bandwagon until late ’08 and early ’09.” 2012, he suggests, will be the first campaign that fully integrates Twitter and Facebook.

Peter Pasi, an Executive VP at emotive, llc, has seen the battlefield from the Republican side of the fence. In his opinion, after 2008 the GOP finally understood that an appropriately robust web presence was necessary in order to organize and facilitate online contributions. In less than two years there was an increased Republican presence on Facebook, and there is no question that social media had a dramatic impact on the 2010 elections. “Facebook was initially fun; now it’s a business,” Pasi says. “Today we see people paying specialized companies to manage their Facebook feeds and tweet for them.”

Another potential game changer, also mentioned earlier, is the evolution of mobile content and delivery. People can now watch high resolution videos on their phones, as well as make donations. Pasi references the concept of conversion rates and how it applies to people who browse vs. those who buy. “The conversion rates via a smartphone are essentially 100%,” he says. “If you see an ad, you don’t even need to wait to get to a PC; you can email a donation right on the spot.”

Murshed Zaheed, also from {new} partners, traces his unique understanding of community outreach and attitudes to sports message boards from the late ‘90s. His expertise and political leanings led him to work with a then largely-unknown candidate named Howard Dean. Zaheed has since been a witness to (and player in) the ways Democrats have incorporated each new iteration of technology into their strategic goals. Where Democrats once enjoyed a distinct advantage, it was in 2010 that Zaheed saw Republicans make tangible strides. With a more level playing field, and abundant evidence that politicians on local and national levels fully appreciate the import of technology (in general) and social media (in particular) we should expect the intersection of innovation and elections to reach a crescendo next year.

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