Universal Translator

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Impotence of the Death Penalty

D’you watch Dexter?

In case you’ve not seen this show, it is a series on Showtime and is about a serial killer.  The killer is actually the protagonist.  I came across it after it had been on the air for a few seasons, and watched the first coupla seasons on DVD.

Which was neat, because the DVDs had “bonus features” that included interviews of the people responsible for creating the series.  One of the things that I thought was interesting was a writer trying to describe how they dealt with the idea of making a serial killer the protagonist – how do you get the audience to feel sympathy for someone like that?

“We thought of Richard III,” he explained.  “If you ever read that story, Richard III is a terrible, horrible person.  But Shakespeare has him address the audience directly, and explain what he is doing.  What he is doing is still some terrible stuff, but now the audience has bought into it because – hey! – he asked us to come along for the ride.

“This is why we have so much voice-over in Dexter.  We need to have the audience see things from Dexter’s point of view.”

I thought that was interesting, because usually voice-over is thought of as a story-telling crutch.  Don’t tell me the story, show me.  But the Dexter crew have inverted that, so that what used to be a sign of weak story-telling is now a conscious plot to – well, not humanify – the character, but at least make him relateable.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Long Way to Go . . .

. . . for a very small joke.

 TMAN:                       Dude, tell me that thing again, with the numbers and the countries.

SWELLSMAN:          . . . .   Okay, let’s try this from the top.  First, pick a number between 1 and 10.

TMAN:                       Got it.

SWELLSMAN:          Tell me what it is.

TMAN:                       How is that a trick?

SWELLSMAN:          It isn’t.  But we fucked the trick up the last time we tried so let’s just do a dry run.  What’s the number?

TMAN:                       It’s two.

SWELLSMAN:          Swell, it’s two.  So multiply that by 9, and waddaya got?

TMAN:                       Eighteen.

SWELLSMAN:          Okay.  Now, take all the digits in that last answer and add them together . . . waddaya got now?

TMAN:                       Nine.  One and Eight equals Nine.

SWELLSMAN:          Perfect.  This is the heart of the trick.  Now subtract 5 from your answer.  Waddaya got?

TMAN:                       Four.

SWELLSMAN:          Great.  Now count down the alphabet until you get to the letter that is that number.  So “A” would be “one,” “B” would be “two,” etc.

                                    Got it?

TMAN:                       Yeah.

SWELLSMAN:          Okay.  Now think of a country whose name begins with the same letter as the one you just counted down to. 

                                    Got it?

TMAN:                       Yeah.

SWELLSMAN:          Good.  Now think of an animal whose name begins with the last letter of the name of the country you just thought of.

                                    Got it?

TMAN:                       Yeah.

SWELLSMAN:          Good.  Now think of a fruit that begins with the last letter of the name of the animal you just thought of.

                                    Got it?

TMAN:                       Yeah.

SWELLSMAN:          Good.  It was “Denmark,” “kangaroo,” and “orange,” wasn’t it?

TMAN:                       Whoa.  Not bad.  How’d you do it?

SWELLSMAN:          It’s not hard.  Most of what you are doing when you do this trick is convincing people they have a lot more control over their answers than they really do.

                                    For example, any number between 1 and 10 – when multiplied by 9 – yields a number whose digits add up to 9.  18, 27, 36, 45, etc. etc.  So no matter what you ask the dupe to do, he’ll always end up with 9.  Which means that when you tell him to subtract 5 from “whatever number he’s thinking of,” he’ll always end up with 4.

                                    The fourth letter of the alphabet is “D,” and there are only a few countries that begin with ‘D” – Denmark is the one almost everyone goes with.  Which means “K” is the first letter of the animal, and so almost everyone goes with Kangaroo.

                                    And then “O” is the first letter of the fruit, and so that has gotta be Orange.

                                    The key is to convince the dupe that he or she has any choice in the matter, despite the fact you are funneling him to a predetermined destination.

                                    It is, in its way, a lot like voting.

The Fox

I've been awake for more than 24 hours. Why isn't important, really . . . I was getting some things done and moving around and I just didn't realize it had gotten as late as it had until it was near five o'clock in the morning. But it's weird, with me at least . . . I am a creature of inertia and can keep going almost forever, until something comes along and snaps me out of my inertial state. Like realizing that it is near 5 o'clock. And then I suddenly feel very, very tired, realizing that the sun is about to rise.

So I drove the truck to Dunkin' Donuts (open 24 hrs, Yay!) and got a breakfast sandwich to take home with me. And then I went back to where I left my car and swapped out.

Pulling into the street, my headlights sweeping across the road, I saw a cat streak just on the outside of my lights and run into the tall grass where the roads intersect. Pulling up to the intersection myself I glanced over to where the cat had run and realized that it wasn't a cat at all -- it was a fox.

The fox had a bushy tail, and a lean body. It stood its ground and glowered at me as I looked at it through the glass of my passenger side window. I didn't have anywhere to go, and I was captured by the fox's stillness as it glared. I wondered what he was thinking, what he was doing on an early autumn's Saturday morning. I wondered if he might not be annoyed that he had to deal with me, when he had counted on nobody being around this early on Saturday to spot him.

After a moment, the fox lowered his head but did not otherwise move. Then he pulled his lips away and showed his teeth. It wasn't a smile.

I don't know why. He couldn't possibly have seen me inside the car. Probably he was just reacting to the car's prolonged stillness, never realizing that I was sitting inside and looking at him.

But I got the hint. I nodded a nod that the fox wouldn't see, or even know how to interpret, and let my car drift into the first lane of the next road. I left the fox behind to follow his own early morning foxy pursuits.

And that's it. There is nothing else to say, but I am very tired now and I've eaten my breakfast sandwich and I am about to tumble into a well-deserved sleep, my dogs snoring up around me. I don't know why the fox meant something to me, but he did.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Banksters: Conspiracy or Confluence?

I have a very good friend, a guy I’ve known since Junior High School, which -- these days – means that we’ve been buddies much longer than half our lives.  (In fact – I just took the time to calculate this -- in only three years we’ll have been best friends for 2/3rds of our lives).  He is by far my oldest friend and most of our really funny, really weird stories involve things that happened when we were hanging out together and were both much younger and much, much stupider.  My buddy and I talk and debate politics and the economy often, and we agree about most things.  We are as close as brothers.

But we generally part ways when it comes to the perfidiousness of the 1%.  My buddy is convinced that the huge funneling of our nation’s massive resources to a smaller and smaller number of people over the past 30 years has been an intentional, meticulously planned scheme from the beginning:

“I’m telling you,” he recently told me, “when they look into this shit 100 years from now they’ll figure out this was planned from the start.  Cut taxes on the rich, cut government spending for the rest of us, and convince us it was for our own good while they whistle all the way to the bank.  There’s no way the last 30 years happened by accident.”

Me?  I have a higher disregard for people.  I distrust conspiracies and complicated plans.  I thrill to a good heist movie, same as anyone else, but I also know that any plan that involves more than 3 people and requires split-second choreography (“Adjust your watches on my mark . . . 3, 2, 1, Mark!”) never ever really works out in Real Life. 

People just aren’t that smart and – even if they were – they’re never that competent.  Generally speaking, Big Evil doesn’t result from well thought-out, complicated, secret conspiracies involving large numbers of people.  Big Evil more often results because a large number of small, greedy, grasping jackasses – working entirely autonomously – suddenly find a loophole to exploit, and subsequently use the leverage their initial exploitation gives them to twist and exploit the system even further until eventually they control that system completely.

But – sometimes – I get hit with something that makes me wonder if my buddy might not be right after all.  Maybe the past 30 years haven’t just been a confluence of events, driven at every step by nothing more than the blind grasping of the already overly privileged.  Certainly it isn’t too unreasonable to think that the public relations campaign they’ve launched over the past decade or so wasn’t just coincidence.

If that were the case then half the nation and all of our TeeVee pundits wouldn’t keep reflexively repeating that the 1% are the “producers,” the “achievers,” or the “job creators.” 

Instead, it’d still be the other way ‘round.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

We're Hierarchical Creatures for a Reason

I swear I don't mean to keep harping on Occupy Wall Street today, but Matt Yglesias has something up today that raises another point that's been on my mind recently.

In trying to explain why the economic situation in Europe is proving so difficult to resolve, Yglesias asks us to envision a problem that has more than one potential solution. For example, he suggests, imagine a large group of people traveling in three cars to go on vacation together. One of the cars runs out of gas and another suffers a flat tire. Yglesias lists five different ways to resolve the situation, points out that these various solutions impact everyone involved in slightly different ways, and then explains that
the issue you're going to have isn't that the problem is "too hard to solve" it's that getting everyone to agree on one particular solution is difficult.

That's why normally human institutions are arranged into hierarchies. If a military convoy was in some kind of jam, the highest-ranking officer just picks a solution. In the White House, they'd have a bunch of meetings and then Barack Obama would pick. But Europe doesn't have a good process for making decisions. So since every possible option has various downsides, they keep not picking any particular option even though not-really-deciding is basically worse for everyone. And "everyone" in this case includes non-EU folk like you and me who suffer from the general panic. (emphasis added)
This has been bugging me about the "alternative communities" the Occupy protests are building across the country. They seem to take it for granted that any organization of humans into hierarchies is somehow inherently wrong -- hence the emphasis they place on being "leaderless," and making sure "everyone has a chance to speak," and "respecting the process." And this insistence on "respecting the process" already has led to some strange incidents.

For example, until only this past Monday there was some real fear that Occupy Wall Street might be turned out of Zuccotti Park because they were losing "the support of allies in the Community Board and the state senator and city electeds who [had] been fighting the city to stave off [OWS's] eviction, get [OWS] toilets, etc." Those allies were abandoning OWS because of the incessant drumming of the drum circles. Despite the fact such drumming might have ended up driving OWS out of the park completely, after "more than 2 weeks of mediation" between the OWS General Assembly and the drummers it seemed that no solution to this problem could be worked out until the very last minute. So . . . crisis averted, I suppose, but one gets the feeling that this shouldn't really have been allowed to develop into a crisis in the first place.

Another example is Occupy Atlanta's refusal to allow Congressman John Lewis to address them when he showed up unexpectedly. I've mentioned this incident before, so this time I'll just reproduce the explanation provided by The Daily Show's John Oliver in episode 168 of his and Andy Zaltzman's magnificent weekly podcast, The Bugle:
There was also a moment at a rally when Congressman John Lewis, the historic civil rights leader, attempted to address the crowd only for some moron to propose a motion that he shouldn't speak, as no one person was more important than anyone else in the movement. And -- to the frustration of the majority of the crowd -- Congressman Lewis was then unable to speak.

Now, whilst no one would claim that John Lewis was more important as flesh-and-blood than that protester, he is a shit of a lot more important as a human being, and when in his presence you might want to shut the fuck up and listen to him.
The thing is, humans haven't been organizing themselves into hierarchies for millennia because we're all a bunch of power-seeking jerks (well, not only because of that); we've been doing so because top-down organized hierarchies provide some necessary efficiency when it comes to decision-making, especially when dealing with unexpected circumstances where decisions need to be made quickly.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that top-down organization is the only way to organize ourselves, or even that it is always the superior way . . . only that it is sometimes the best way to make decisions. The Occupy Movement's unshakeable and total aversion to any hierarchical organization, under any circumstances, seems to me just as foolish and overly rigid a point of view as would that of someone who insisted on always following a strict top-down chain of command.

The Richer Get Even Richer

Following up on my Wealth Condensation post from last month, Chris Douglas has an interesting column up today titled Why the Rich Get Richer that I recommend checking out. Douglas provides a fairly clear and commonsense hypothetical situation that does a good job demonstrating how you can be unduly disadvantaged against competitors who already control a large amount of existing capital -- even though you may far outclass those competitors in intelligence, skill, work ethic and talent.

As a result, those who already own a great deal of an economy's wealth tend to accrue even greater and greater amounts of wealth over time -- a positive feedback cycle, with all the attendant horrors such cycles bring to any dynamic system.

One More Tiny Bit of Kvetching

Referring once more to Andrew Sabl's recent foray to Liberty Plaza Park, I was also struck by this expressed statement, which I have seen in various forms before coming from OWS:

[OWS’s] official blog disavows the right of any working group to produce demands.  On the contrary, saith the blogger, “[w]e are our demands. This #ows movement is about empowering communities to form their own general assemblies, to fight back against the tyranny of the 1%. Our collective struggles cannot be co-opted.”  (Jed Brandt and Michael Levitin in the Occupied Wall Street Journel echo this: “What it is, the demand the 1% can’t comprehend, is us. It is the individuals and villages, the cities and peoples across the world who are seeing each other on the far side of appeals and petitions. It is the world we are becoming.”)
I don't know precisely what the protesters mean when they say things like "we are our demands" or "our demands are us," and I don't know what they think that sounds like to outsiders.  But I'm pretty sympathetic to the OWS movement and to me it sounds like the "collective narcissim" about which Sabl complains, or the "self-centeredness" about which I have complained before that seems to lead so many OWS protesters to believe that the point of protest is to attract attention even if the protesters themselves are incapable of articulating why they deserve that attention.

Because, see . . . I always thought the point of a protest movement was to articulate something bigger than the individuals involved.  The Civil Rights Movement was bigger than the individuals who marched for Civil Rights; ending the Vietnam War was bigger than the people who marched to end the Vietnam War.

But . . . "we are our demands"?  "Our demands are us"?  I don't know what the OWS protesters really mean when they say such things, but these ideas certainly don't sound like anything particularly noble.  And so I've got to think that OWS trying to explain itself to others along such lines is not going to be particularly helpful.


Why Economic Libertarianism Is So Naive

Bill Maher, of course, has his show Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO.  What some people don’t know is that he has also taken to filming Overtime With Bill Maher afterward.  Overtime, essentially, is a 7 – 10 minute extra feature in which he brings out all of his guests for that night’s episode and they discuss questions submitted by his audience over the internet.  It airs on HBO On Demand a few days after Real Time is broadcast.

Last night I was watching Overtime and one of the questions culled by Maher’s staff asked whether people were getting “stupider” or “meaner.”  Maher, of course, answered “both.”  This provoked a mild objection from his guest Penn Jillette, the illusionist and Libertarian, who argued that while it always seems to us as if things are getting worse, over the great arc of time the human condition has improved dramatically.  Jillette also took issue with Maher’s assertion that people are generally nasty pieces of work, and argued instead that the great majority of us are actually very nice people.

Maher’s response, essentially, was that if people have gotten less violent and generally kinder in their dealings with each other over the centuries that doesn’t reflect any change on behalf of the human species so much as it reflects improvements in human institutions.  As we’ve gotten better at governing ourselves, Maher asserted, we’ve tamped down on some of the inherent viciousness of which we are capable.

But Jillette took issue with this too.  I think because of his Libertarian leanings, Jillette found it difficult to accept that restrictions on human conduct might be necessary, and so he kept stressing that the vast, vast majority of people have no wish – for example – to rape or kill others.  And then the conversation devolved to a discussion about religion and whether religious beliefs are necessary to ensure moral conduct.

This back-and-forth between Maher and Jillette got me thinking about our regulatory institutions and how they should be structured. 

To the extent Jillette seemed to suggest that humans don’t really need any strictures to control our behavior because most people are “inherently good” – well, he’s right about most people being “inherently good” but he’s wrong about everything else.  It is true that most of us are inherently good people who would never rape, or murder, or steal, or inflict suffering on others for our personal gain . . . but some would. 

In fact, I would argue that in the absence of any controlling rules or prohibitions on human conduct there would be an inexorable tendency over time for more and more people to act worse and worse toward each other.  Even if just 1% of the human population consists of ruthless, self-centered pricks – and the other 99% are angels – there isn’t much doubt that over time the 1% will tend to acquire more power and more resources than the other 99%.  (Sound familiar?)  If I’m willing to shoot you to take our goods, your horse, or your woman and you aren’t willing to shoot me to do the same . . . guess who’s going to end up with two thumbs and all the goods, horses, and women?

It is very probably true that most people wouldn’t willingly shoot another just to take what the other person has, but when they are competing against others who are willing to do so the pressure to descend to that more vicious level is greater until eventually, without a formal social structure punishing such ruthlessness, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

This is precisely why we need the minimal business regulations – with real teeth in them should they be violated – that Libertarians such as Jillette tend to find anathema.  It may be that most merchants would never think of cheating their customers by using filler instead of real food, or selling a 7 ½ ounce can of something and labeling it “8 ounces,” or lying about the quality of their products – but some would.  Without a way to police bad behavior, an inexorable pressure builds upon all the competitors in a particular market to cut a little corner here, shave off a little there, or keep their thumb on the scale when their customers can’t see it; they can always console themselves with the idea that “everybody does it.”

Simply stated, it would be foolish to construct a regulatory scheme – or to do without one entirely – based on what “most people are like”; regulatory schemes have to be constructed based on what “some people will do.”

We don’t have to believe – as Maher seems to – that we’re all bastard-coated bastards with a creamy bastard filling . . . but it would be naive to refuse to recognize – as Jillette wishes to -- that some of us are.

Maybe OWS Will Just Have to Pass the Baton

Via the Washington Monthly, I learn that Andrew Sabl decided to visit Occupy Wall Street personally, and that his first-hand impressions match up pretty well with what I’ve been able to glean by keeping abreast of news accounts and reading the General Assembly minutes the protesters put up on their website.

Arguing that “[t]he [concerns] of Occupy Wall Street are both valid and popular . . . .  The people occupying Wall Street are total flakes.  The second fact in no way discredits the first,” Sabl goes on to draw an analogy between OWS and Kevin Costner’s character at the very beginning of Dances With Wolves, whose “impotent flamboyance” causes Confederate Troops to break their cover in an attempt to kill him while simultaneously inspiring others to actually fight the battle that Costner’s character cannot. 

Just so, Sabl argues, with Occupy Wall Street:  they’ve managed to draw out the 1% who would much rather focus on “the deficit” and “out-of-control government spending” than on things like “the economy,” “income inequality,” and “jobs.”  And while OWS’s fetish for having no leadership, no structure, no organization, no formal demands, and no allegiance to any actual political group will forever prevent it from being able to take effective action on its own, that doesn’t preclude other, more formally organized groups from doing so.

More below the fold.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Continuing Our Theme . . .

Passed along w/out additional comment:
This morning, news consumers woke up to news that the Congressional Budget Office has found that the "top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation's income over the last three decades," while incomes have stagnated for the working classes. Much of this, the CBO found, is the result of conservative government policies that are deliberately less redistributive than the policies of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when the class gap was much less extreme. (emphasis added).

(via Steve Benen)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Economic Inequality is - Literally - Killing Us

A fascinating article in Time discusses research that shows high degrees of economic inequality in societies leads to greater mortality, less healthy populations, higher rates of addiction, and greater stress levels. This is the case regardless of the overall weath of the country studied, regardless of the fact that the people in lower economic rungs are not actually living in poverty, and regardless of one's access to health care.

And, following up my earlier point about how things in America seem to have taken a turn for the decidedly worse with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, once again we see:
In the U.S., inequality has been rising since the 1980's. Between WWII and Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency, average income grew by about $19,000. The bottom 90% of the country received 65% of that increase.

Between 1981 and 2008, however, average income grew by about $12,000. About 96% of that went to the top 10% richest people in the country. The ratio of pay between CEOs and average workers also became much more extreme over the same time period: in 1980 it was around 35 to 1. Today it is about 185 to 1.
So not only are the very wealthy keeping all the income gains at the expense of everyone else, they're literally killing everybody else by doing so.

Ronald Reagan Was the AntiChrist

Well . . . not really. (Probably.)

But one thing I've become increasingly struck by is how often the phrase "thirty years" pops up whenever people write about how much America's changed -- for the worse. I've certainly referenced it a number of times when pointing out that income stopped growing for working- and middle-class Americans thirty-odd years ago, and that our disastrously high private debt levels really took off at the same time.

Today Howie Klein has a great piece up about the Conservatives' endless crusade to funnel even more money to the uber-rich in which he quotes Robert Reich pointing out that massive tax cuts for the wealthy didn't start until 1980 and cites an article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine pointing out that America's economy began to be largely remade in the image of Wall Street "during the eighties." Over at The Nation Barbara Ehrenreich has an article describing how difficult it now is to be homeless in America, and how "the current prohibition on homelessness began to take shape in the 1980s."

It does seem like a real sea change took place in America when Ronald Reagan took office, and I don't mean that in a good way. Of course, I don't imagine that Reagan really was solely responsible for this decline in Americans' standard of living -- it seems more to have been a confluence of factors -- but his ascendency to the Oval Office does provide a quick, back-of-the-envelope notation for remembering just when it was our country began to fail.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Climate Change Happens Now

I swear, I love National Public Radio but its efforts to negotiate modern American politics make it do things that drive me up the friggin’ wall.

You may already have heard of Lisa Simeone.  Simeone has a show called Soundprint that is aired on NPR affiliates.  She was fired (although after some resulting uproar she has since been reinstated) because members of the conservative blogosphere complained that she had been identified “as [an] Occupy DC leader in several news articles.”  (I don’t know much about Occupy DC, but if it is anything like Occupy Wall Street this is rich because part of the ethos of the Occupy Movement is that it “doesn’t have leaders.”)

It is a cliche that National Public Radio is a hotbed of liberalism, but I listen to it all the time and – as a Liberal – I just don’t see it.  (Hear it?)  To me, it seems instead to work so hard trying to avoid that cliched image that it bends the other way.  For listeners this often results in some truly mind-boggling dissonance.

For example, I cannot count the number of times I have literally been screaming at the radio in my car as some whacked-out no-name Conservative politician has been given airtime in which to declaim to the nation that climate change is “a myth.”  It is at least the equal of the number of times I have screamed at my car radio as I listened to some pundit give the “contrarian” view on climate change – that is, the view that it is “a myth.” 

NPR, you see, needs to present “both sides of the story.”

And then late yesterday afternoon, whilst driving to the grocery store, I was treated to an interesting report about The Future of Kiribati.

Ever heard of Kiribati (pronounced “Kir-i-bass”)?  No?  Well, I don’t blame you – few have.  It is a very small island nation in the Pacific Ocean and is not known for being a national player on the world stage.  I have never visited the nation, it being so far-flung and all, but it holds a special place in my heart for two reasons.

First, its capital is Tarawa Island.  Tarawa was the site of one of WWII’s most bloody battles between Japanese and U.S. forces.  The heavily fortified Japanese lost, but before they did they utterly decimated the U.S. Marines who were ordered to take the island.  My home town is the home of Camp LeJeune, world’s largest Marine Corps base.  One of the base’s neighborhoods, for servicemen and their families, is “Tarawa Terrace.”  These days almost nobody knows where the name “Tarawa” comes from, but in fact it was named for all the men who died trying to capture that tiny atoll.

Second, Kiribati is the setting of J. Maarten Troost’s exceptionally funny, true-life account The Sex Lives of Cannibals:  Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific.  Seriously, do yourself a favor, click through, download this thing and read it.  Wry, witty, humane . . . it will crack you up.

Anyway . . . .  Yesterday NPR had a lengthy report about how Kirabati is looking for a new home.  Rising sea levels, you see, are rendering this low-lying island nation uninhabitable.  Uninhabitable today . . . not in 100 years, not in 50 years, but right now.  A government spokesman spent some time explaining that the rising sea levels are swamping the islands’ fresh water sources and that they have been trying to construct sea walls to keep the rising oceans from encroaching but “they keep getting destroyed.”

The Kiribati people don’t wish to emigrate to and be assimilated by other nations, but instead want to maintain their own cultural and national identity.  The point of the report was that they are contemplating purchasing and outfitting already existing oil drilling platforms to work as “man-made islands” on which they can maintain their nation.

That’s a remarkable and (to me, at least) fairly outlandish idea, but I think it pales before a more immediate, pressing fact:  a nation is already, right now, being washed away by climate change.

And yet we won’t hear about any of this during the workweek or, indeed – and even on NPR – ever again.  The science of climate change is still “up for discussion,” and you would be a fool and a communist to suggest that maybe . . . just maybe . . . we might think of doing something about it right now.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The GOP’s Mythic Quest for Purity

Just an open question, throwing it out there for others to ponder, but what is it about the Conservative mindset that drives them to such extremes?  Is it a need for intellectual simplicity, a basic unwillingness to grapple with the complexity of the world around them?  Is it a desire to reduce all issues to a single Manichean moral vision, with a clear distinction always and easily drawn between good/bad, right/wrong?  Is it fundamentally an authoritarian drive, a need to identify an “other, an ideologically impure group” against which they can rally themselves as members of the “true faith”? 

I’ve begun thinking the modern GOP’s radicalism is systemic in nature.  That is, Conservatives seem to think it a virtue to take extremist positions solely for the sake of taking extremist positions.  As George Bush famously said, they “don’t do nuance.”  For modern Conservatives extremism is a feature, not a bug.

And so in the last GOP presidential debate Herman Cain was asked about his recent statement that he would consider negotiating with terrorists if necessary to win back captured American soldiers.  Almost the entirety of the field jumped all over him for this, because as everyone knows “you don’t negotiate with terrorists” – and there cannot possibly be any exceptions to this rule or any extraneous circumstances in which it might not apply.  

And then Ron Paul delighted many of us watching when he asked if that didn’t mean Ronald Reagan was wrong when he sold arms to Iran in part to secure the release of American hostages?  The rest of the field was fairly well gobsmacked as to how to respond.  

More below the fold.

Sarah Palin Update (Kind of)


A month or so ago I predicted that Sarah Palin would not run for office, but would instead try to position herself as a “kingmaker” within the Republican Party; if she could convince GOP candidates that she was capable of delivering a substantial bloc of Republican voters, then the candidates would have to kiss her ring to obtain her endorsement.  This would keep her a viable political celebrity and help to ensure continuing (paid) speaking engagements.

So far that hasn’t happened; to date I have seen no reports that any GOP candidate has been pressing for Palin’s endorsement.

But in what is (for me, at least) a surprising twist, Donald Trump seems to have stepped into the role Palin seeks to fill.  To date Trump has met with Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and – we now learn – Rick Perry.  What’s more, Trump apparently turned Perry into a Birther.

Of course, the irony is that it was Sarah Palin herself who started this fad when she met Trump and the two of them – for unknowable reasons – went to a chain pizza restaurant where Trump embarrassed himself by failing to eat his pizza like a true New Yorker.  Jon Stewart explains:

I have absolutely no idea why the Republican presidential aspirants think that kissing Donald Trump’s ring will do them any good – I can’t imagine that Trump wields any real power within the party – but I do delight in imagining how bitter it must make Palin to be ignored by the candidates and reality TeeVee alike.

Ah, politics . . . thy name is schadenfreude.

Friedman Files: Case File No. 2

(For an explanation of what the “Friedman Files” are, see here).

Last weekend I was talking with my sister, and she said something that gave me an interesting insight into how perhaps a certain segment of the American public thinks of things like the debate over raising taxes on the wealthy.

Now, for these purposes, that “certain segment” would be people like my sister and brother-in-law.  They are professionals and do very well for themselves – especially when considered against the median household income – but they are by no means anywhere close to being part of “the 1%.”  My sister is a very intelligent woman, but like a lot of people she is disinterested in politics, doesn’t understand how the economy works, and tends to listen to people who sound like they know what they are talking about.

My brother-in-law is also a very intelligent person but he, quite unfortunately, gets his information from founts like Rush Limbaugh.  So he tends to believe many things that are not actually true and this, ah, “colors” his understanding of things.

In any event, I was talking with my sister about the need to raise taxes on the wealthy, and we were discussing in particular the Democrats’ plan to pay for their latest proposed Jobs Bill by imposing a 0.5% surtax on income over $1 million.  And then the following dialogue took place:

SIS:     Yeah, that’s all well and good that a small extra tax is going to be placed on people making over a million dollars.  But you know how that sounds to people like me and [my husband]?  It makes us think that we’re going to have to pay these extra taxes, and we’re nowhere near making a million dollars a year.

ME:     Well, so why on earth would you think you guys are gonna be taxed?

SIS:     Because that’s how it always works.  Look, you can’t tell me that the rich don’t control the government.

ME:     Uhhmmmmm . . . nooooo, I’d never try to tell you that.  That’s kind of what we’ve been discussing:  how the rich took over the government and now use their power to avoid paying their fair share in taxes.

SIS:     Right.  So they control the government.  Which means they won’t allow the government to raise their taxes.  So when people start talking about how we need to raise taxes, they won’t be the ones who end up actually paying higher taxes – the government’ll “compromise” and it’ll end up being me and [my husband].

I had to admit, I had never thought of it that way before.  Not that I think my sister is correct, mind you, but I can make out her logic.

It is an impressively depressing example of how thoroughly the uber-wealthy have managed to take control of the United States.  Not only do they in fact control the levers of power, but they have convinced at least some of the people in America – people like my sister – that there is nothing that can be done about it. 

Want the rich to kick in a tiny surtax to pay for teachers, cops, firefighters?  Not possible.  Want to keep pushing the need to kick in money to pay for teachers, cops, firefighters anyway?  Well, then, you’re gonna be on the hook, buddy, so go ahead if you wanna . . . slit your own throat.

It’s a weird kind of Stockholm Syndrome in which the lives and well-being of ordinary people have been taken hostage and, while they may not love their captors, any spirit they may once have had for fighting back has been utterly crushed.

No wonder voter turnout is so low in this country.

The 1%'s Own Terror Gives the Game Away

I had a weird revelation the other day:  the ultimate success or failure of the Occupy Wall Street Movement will not be determined by the protesters themselves, but by the 1% and all of their political and media enablers.

But believe it or not, the 1% do feel . . . well, probably not guilt . . . but at least a vague and deeply disturbing apprehension that they may have to pay for what they’ve done in their sociopathy.  And it is this that will help ensure the Occupy Movement’s continuing success.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kudos to James Fallows

For this article about the media’s refusal to report accurately that the modern Republican Party is actively working to make the federal government as dysfunctional as possible.

Years ago, shortly after President Obama was sworn into office, I had a conversation with my old college roommate during which he told me that, “I just wish people on Capitol Hill would stop this bullshit arguing and work out a compromise.  Both sides are just dug in and so nothing is getting done.”

Now, my old college roommate is a good guy, and not a dumb guy, but unlike me he has a wife and three children so he isn’t the most up-to-date guy when it comes to news.  And I am, of course, a news and politics junkie.

“Dude, what the hell are you saying?”  I asked.  “Have you paid any attention at all to what Obama’s been trying to do with the stimulus bill?  He’s bending over backwards to work with the Republicans and they are mostly saying screw you to him.  I don’t think you can blame the impasse on ‘both parties.’”

(Oh for those naive days when early 2009 presented a political problem that we could call “an impasse.”)

But my college buddy would not be convinced.  He wasn’t sure what was happening on Capitol Hill, but he was sure that both sides were to blame.

And why wouldn’t he be?  In their zeal to prove that they don’t take sides, our media always have to report that both sides are to blame . . . even if that is not, in fact, the case.

Which really, really sucks if you believe in the idea of representative democracy – as I do.  Let’s not forget that this is still a relatively new experiment, this idea that we can govern ourselves, and so we should be on guard against any threat to our being able to do so.

It seems to me that one of the biggest threats we face is the idea that we might, as a people, make some really bad decisions because we have some really bad information.  That we might, just as a f’rinstance, keep electing Republicans who are committed to dismantling our government because nobody ever points out to us that dismantling our government is what these people are all about.  Instead we are told . . . everybody does it.

No, no they don’t.  Right now the Democrats are at least trying to do things to get the United States moving again, and the Republicans are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.  Not if there’s a Democrat in the White House who might get credit for it. 

So kudos to Fallows for calling out the media enablers who perpetuate this lie of “equivalence,” and who thereby keep the American people from the information necessary to decide for ourselves in which direction we should steer the country.

I would dearly love to see more of the mediacracy stand up and take their fellow members to task for this.

On the Nature of Protest

Something I’ve said for a while is that the 24/7 news cycle we now live under has forever changed the nature of political protest.  Back when we all got our news from only 3 different TeeVee channels and a coupla national newspapers, back when the news got shut off except for a few hours every day, a massive protest/rally could command the nation’s attention.  If half a million anti-war protesters assembled on the Washington Mall for a weekend then we’d end up talking about it for days – weeks, even.

But that is no longer the case.  The largest protests in the history of the human species were the protests to prevent the U.S. from going to war in Iraq and they got barely a mention by the media.  Once the protest/rally/marches were over they were flushed down the memory hole and conveniently forgotten by a press eager for the chance to showcase a War Spectacular.

The Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Movement/Occupy Together people (I don’t even know what to call them any longer) have at least internalized this lesson and figured out that the only way to keep shining a spotlight on a problem is not to leave.  And to keep yelling.

Which is one of the reasons I found this article by The Atlantic’s Wendy Kaminer so disturbing:

Do Occupy Wall Streeters have a First Amendment right to occupy public parks indefinitely, 24/7, to the exclusion of other uses?  No, they do not, obviously.

Really?  That’s obvious?  It doesn’t seem so to me, and I would like to hear why Ms. Kaminer thinks it is so obvious that the OWS crowd doesn’t have this right.  But she never explains herself, she just states it as a fact, calls it “obvious,” and then moves on.

Later, Ms. Kaminer supposes that

Cities may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on mass protests; a one or two month (or even a two week) time limit on a tent city in a small public park in a busy urban area would probably be deemed reasonable even by a court sympathetic to the protests (as I am.)  So would a ban on overnight camping.

I confess, I just don’t get this at all.  And – reading Ms. Kaminer’s article – I wonder how much of what she is espousing is just based on a desire to get back to “business as usual.”

For example, there is her reference to a time limit on a tent city protest “in a busy urban area.”  Is that supposed to make a difference?  Should we be more willing to let people do a tent city protest in the woods than we are to permit them to protest in “a busy urban area”?  And if that is the case, then isn’t what Ms. Kaminer really is suggesting is that protests are fine so long as they don’t inconvenience anybody?  But the very point of a protest is to inconvenience people in order to draw attention to one’s cause.

When bus drivers go on strike, they are telling the city for which they work that their contribution to everyday life is worthwhile, and that they need to be compensated accordingly.  We don’t tell those striking bus drivers “Yes, I support you, but I also can’t afford to be inconvenienced so you don’t have the moral right to withdraw your labor.  Now take me to my office.”

Same/same when it comes to the Occupy Movement.  How dare someone suggest that they – or any other movement – have only 2 weeks in which to make their point and then, having made their point, are to fold up tents, go home, and let “the serious people” ponder what it was they had to say?  This strikes me as the absolute height of arrogance.

I would argue that – given the nature of the world we live in now – the 18th century ideal of “petitioning the government for redress” must be read so as to include the right to a 24/7 occupation of a public space.  I would argue that this is, in fact, what the First Amendment means in the 21st century.  I would argue that to suggest otherwise is to betray the very first founding principle upon which our society ultimately depends.

I could be wrong, of course, and I’d love to hear why that is.  But to just dismiss this idea, as Ms. Kaminer does, is to assert a position and then side-step the debate.