Monday, June 29, 2009

Violating the Corpse
I've been tempted to post something about Michael Jackson, but there isn't a lot I could say that presumably hasn't been said elsewhere, probably better. Watching NY1 Friday morning, as they were conducting person-in-the-street interviews near the Apollo Theater in Harlem, I was struck that every interviewee was African-American, and every one expressed nothing but love and admiration for the deceased King of Pop. That Jackson obviously had huge issues with his own blackness--the dude dyed his friggin' skin, after all--evidently didn't do him lasting harm in the African-American community. (Though I do wonder if anybody talked to Keenan Ivory Wayans, whose "In Living Color" I think it was that rhetorically asked the question "If it doesn't matter if you're black or white, why are you trying so hard to be white?")

My only other thought was that "Thriller" might have been the last near-universally appreciated piece of entertainment in our culture. I'm sure there were some cultural rejectionists in downtown Manhattan who poo-poohed it, and if I'd been five years older at the time maybe I would have done so myself. But as is, I defy you to find five people in a hundred who didn't enjoy something on or pertaining to that album--one of the videos at least. It's almost impossible to think of anything in our irreversibly fractured culture today that would generate as much love across lines of class, race, and tastes.

Of course, Michael Jackson lived for more than a quarter-century after "Thriller," and most of that didn't go so well. James Howard Kunstler, in one of the more spectacular speak-ill-of-the-dead performances I've seen, disses the late entertainer and draws a parallel that I think is overstated but still more than a little disturbing:

Eerie parallels resound between the sordid demise of pop singer Michael Jackson and the fate of the nation.
Like the USA, Michael Jackson was a has-been. He hadn't recorded a song worth listening to in over two decades. He had done almost nothing but spin his wheels, hop around the globe from one place to another at enormous expense, and make himself available for award ceremonies to stoke his ego (and give advertisers a reason to promote some televised award show). He existed strictly on image, an anorectic figure nourished by moonbeams of attention, famous for saying that he loved his worshippers when the truth was he merely sucked the life out of them. In his last years, he even looked a bit like Nosferatu, the personification of the un-dead, and his fascination with ghouls was the basis for his biggest hit way back in the last century. A zombie nation deserves a zombie mascot.

He was a poseur, vamping in weird military outfits as though he were a five-star general in the Honduran army, or a character from a melodrama by the reprobate Jean Genet. He once materialized during halftime at the Superbowl in a shower of sparks, thrilling the multitudes while grabbing and stroking his sex organs, as though that was a heroic activity -- and indeed the nation seemed to emulate him as its culture became dedicated more and more to acting out masturbation fantasies. America was a fat man jerking off on the sofa watching a vampire of no particular sex vogue deliriously on the boob tube.

More than once the authorities tried to pin charges of child molestation on him for suspicious activities at his boy-trap, Neverland Ranch, with its carnival rides, private zoo, video game galleries, and inexhaustible supplies of sugary treats. The first time he settled with the alleged victim's family for $22-million. They just walked away with the loot and happily shut up. The second time, he moonwalked out of a court-of-law while weeks later jurors mysteriously went on TV to say, well, they did kind of think after-the-fact that he really did those things he was accused of, but, you know...
When he dropped dead last week, the nation's morbidly maudlin response suggested a cover story for the relief of being rid of him and all the embarrassment he provoked. One CNN reporter called him a genius the equal of Mozart. That's a little like calling Rachel Maddow the reincarnation of Eleanor Roosevelt. A nation addicted to lying to itself tells itself fairy tales instead of facing a pathology report. Yet, like Michael Jackson, the undertone of horror story still pulses darkly in the background. The little boy who grew up to be the simulation of a girl was really a werewolf. The nation that defeated manifest evil in World War Two woke up one day years later to find itself stripped of its manhood, mentally enslaved to cheap entertainments, and hostage to its own grandiosity. Maybe in grieving so exorbitantly over this freak America is grieving for itself. All the loose talk about "love" from the media and the fans gives off the odor of self-love. America is "the man in the mirror," the gigantic, floundering Narcissus, sailing into the stormy seas of history.

Of course, Kunstler fits every current event into his constant we're-going-to-hell-ever-more-quickly narrative (which I find fun in some perverse way). And his reminders of Jackson's sordid conduct, irresponsible spending and truly spectacular narcissism probably provide some helpful balance to the orgy of look-at-me grieving in the mainstream. Still, I wouldn't want the guy writing my obituary...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

It's Supposed to Be Difficult, But...
Friday morning, Andrew Sullivan voiced a point that certainly has occurred to me over the past few months:

Watching how this government can do nothing to reform healthcare, nothing to end the wars and occupations that drain the coffers, nothing to tackle entitlements even as the country teeters toward complete insolvency, nothing to reform a broken immigration system ... even after a president is elected with a clear mandate and a Congressional majority in both Houses: well, we know why America is fucked, don't we?

He was responding specifically to a reader's complaint about the climate change bill that the House narrowly passed later on Friday, which has been attacked from the left as insufficient for the magnitude of the challenge, and from the right for adding a cost burden to taxpayers in a time of recession. Its prospects for passing the Senate seem somewhere between slim and none, particularly given the president's likely reluctance to push anyone hard on its behalf. But I was thinking of health care, a higher priority for the Obama administration but an issue perhaps even more resistant to meaningful solutions. (I mean this as distinct from political action. My guess is that Congress actually will pass something--Democrats up for election next year will need it, as will the President when the economy doesn't revive on cue--but it won't be that helpful as far as expanding coverage or controlling costs.)

In an important piece differentiating between health care reform that limits costs and reform that actually improves health outcomes, Ezra Klein offers a key insight into just why this issue, but not only this issue, is so resistant to progress. He points out that the congressional committees with the most responsibility for getting health care legislation through are Energy and Commerce in the House and Finance in the Senate--because it's about the money, not the outcomes. A second point is that "health" as a concept reaches into the realms of other committees that have no obvious role in the current debate; this is really where we see how hard it is to create meaningful change.

The country's health-care debate is like a driver who has grown so obsessed with the workings of his car that he's largely forgotten where he was driving. We built a health-care system because we care about our health. But the means have become the end, and it is now the system, and not our health, that obsesses us. And that obsession may be preventing us from doing things that would actually make us healthier.
[T]he spending conversation has consumed the health conversation. It is not hard to understand why. "Somebody makes money taking care of a person once they're diabetic," says Shannon Brownlee, author of the book Overtreated. "They don't make money making sure all elementary schools have a playground and neighborhoods have sidewalks." They don't make money preventing the diabetes in the first place. In 2007, we spent $2.2 trillion on health care. A mere 3 percent of that went to measures meant to improve public health. Similarly, Obama's health-care plan in the campaign was estimated to cost $65 billion a year (which was an absurdly low estimate). The plan included a provision that would "promote public health," but it had neither specifics nor a price tag. "The irony is that we use health as a rhetorical trope a lot in the health-reform debate," says Harold Pollack, a professor of public health at the University of Chicago. "There's a big payoff to pointing to health as a beneficial outcome from health reform. There's not a big political payoff to advocating for enacting specific measures that would improve health."

Indeed, lots of interest groups stand to lose money if society becomes more concerned about health. As Brownlee notes, "Our agricultural policy is actually counterproductive for health. We subsidize everything that gives you diabetes and nothing that keeps you healthy. Every grain you can think of is subsidized, particularly corn, but are carrots subsidized? No. Is the advertising of carrots subsidized? No." But if you want to change that, you've added the agricultural industry and politicians from corn states to your list of opponents. "As you expand this question you gain more enemies who prefer the status quo than you gain friends," says Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island.
It's not easy for the political system to combine health promotion with health-system reform. Nutrition is inarguably a major determinant of health. But the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over health-care reform, has little power over farm subsidies. Those go through the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. Crime reduction is similarly important -- children don't play outside if their community is unsafe. But public safety is handled by the Judiciary Committee. Pollution is also a huge issue, as one might expect. But that's the Committee on Environment and Public Works. "One thing I've learned here," sighs one senior administration official, "is that the structure of the committees inhibits you from considering multifaceted, complicated legislation."

Emphasis mine. Probably most public policy debates could be framed as "focused special interest good versus diffuse public good." This makes it easy for progressive activists to demonize insurance companies, agribusiness, "polluters," weapons manufacturers, and other deep-pocketed malefactors. (Those on the Right do this too, with a different cast of villains; trial lawyers are probably the most common and reviled, IMO with at least a little justification for the sand they throw into a wide variety of societal gears.) But focusing the public is a nearly impossible task, even with "a clear mandate and a Congressional majority." And it's not always the obvious bad guys who are in the way: to take the example Klein uses, it's not implausible that cutting corn subsidies today could lead to enormous health savings ten or twenty years, as unhealthy foods become more expensive to the point where lower-income families shift consumption away from them. But to Sen. Whitehouse's point, if you take on Big Corn, your math (especially in the Senate) gets that much harder--probably past the point at which you can pass anything.

There's a reason, beyond their own self-sabotaging tendencies, that Democrats have tried and failed to get this done for more than 60 years. It's our system itself. Every time is different, and maybe the ways in which this moment is different--larger and more ideologically coherent majorities, numbers that tell us without question that the status quo will crush us in terms of budget strains, a business community that has moved from full-throated opposition to ambivalence--will prove meaningful enough to get something done. But I'm not particularly optimistic that whatever is done ultimately will be all that helpful.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Nixonland vs. The Age of Reagan
Having finally broken through (I think, I hope) the jet lag problem, I woke up this morning at an acceptable time and finished one of the books I'd started on my trip, The Age of Reagan by historian Sean Wilentz. In it, Wilentz attempts to trace the political vicissitudes of the last four decades through the prism of Ronald Reagan's political legacy and the forces that contributed to his ascendancy and continuing influence on the political life of the United States. Though flawed (as any work of near-contemporary history must be), it provides an interesting complement and counter-argument to one of my favorite books of last year, Rick Perlstein's Nixonland.

An old friend (and, I think, Oxford classmate) of Bill Clinton, Wilentz seemed to me before reading this book the Monica Lewinsky of political historians, equally disposed toward donning the presidential kneepads, and of all Hillary Clinton's high-profile outside supporters in the 2008 campaign, he might have been the most obnoxious towards Barack Obama. Wilentz's screeds in The New Republic during the campaign changed my view of him, which had been sky-high after reading his outstanding The Rise of American Democracy in 2006. He keeps this up in the postscript to "Age of Reagan," referring to Obama's "sketchy past" without evident concern for the many questionable actions and political trimmings of his friend Hillary Clinton. (In the preface to the paperback edition, written after the November election, he's somewhat more complimentary toward Obama; whether this is representative of a sincere change or heart or an act of party loyalty, I wouldn't claim to know.) That said, in the lengthy section of the book devoted to the Clinton administration, he's fairly even-handed toward his friend the former president, praising his political resilience and defending "triangulation" as a concession to political realities rather than abandonment of principles but blasting Clinton's personal immorality (my word, not his) around the Lewinsky affair and at least relating, if not sharing, some criticisms about his political choices and tactics (the secretive health care reform task force led by Hillary, the decision to attempt health care before welfare reform, etc).

In an ironic twist considering his view of Obama, Wilentz strongly implies that he shares the new president's much-discussed opinion, articulated during the campaign, that Reagan was a transformational president in a way that Clinton was not. He argues, correctly, that Reagan was significant both in his policy accomplishments--the successful prosecution of the Cold War, reducing tax burdens, and stopping the momentum of (though not rolling back) the welfare state--and in his tactical moves, such as politicizing the judiciary to (as Ed Meese put it) ensure the durability of his revolution. Clinton essentially fought a series of defensive actions, particularly after his politically disastrous first two years gave the Republicans control of Congress. Any chance of his leaving a more significant legacy than short-term prosperity and setting down some markers in post-Cold War foreign policy (almost all of which were quickly disregarded by his successor) ended with Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 election. As I've written here before, I think Clinton's best legacy is probably his setting out a plausible progressive centrism that was picked up later by Obama among others. But even there, Reagan compares favorably; where Clinton is somewhat warily admired by most (not all) Democrats, Reagan is worshipped by virtually every Republican. Wilentz makes a great point at the end of the book, observing that the vapid argument among the 2008 Republican presidential contenders about who was "Reagan's true heir" was itself a strong clue that the "age of Reagan" was coming to an end.

(Actually, an argument could be made that Clinton set a template for Obama just as Richard Nixon, himself operating toward the end of a liberal age, did for Reagan. But that's probably another subject for another day.)

Rick Perlstein's argument is that we continue to live in "Nixon's America," suggesting that he, not Reagan, is the key political figure of the last third of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. This view is actually compatible with Wilentz's view that Reagan dominated the politics of the last 35 years if you view Nixon as the tactician and Reagan as the visionary. Nixon's political practices and notions of power--specifically, the demonization of opponents in an unending campaign, and the utter primacy of the executive branch--proved his lasting legacy to his party and country. But Reagan, vastly the better politician, was the leader--maybe the only Republican leader--who could really implement, and institutionalize, that legacy. (And it took George W. Bush, a lousy imitation of Reagan in almost every way, to destroy it.) Uniquely, he managed to impugn the Democrats without suffering much blowback as a hyper-partisan warrior or even an unpleasant person; and his hands-off management style both enabled sharper-edged partisans in and out of government, like Meese and Lee Atwater while insulating Reagan himself from the uglier side of politics. (It also enabled messes like Iran-Contra, of which Wilentz offers a perceptive analysis.)

Reagan wasn't just the clueless front man for a right-wing cabal; he had clear guiding principles and insisted that his appointees follow them. This was in contrast to Nixon, who was far from a model of consistency in foreign or domestic policy, but was also much more engaged with details. But Reagan also had a capacity for compromise and negotiation that served him well at home and abroad; Bush, among his many other flaws, almost entirely lacked this capacity, with the result that he and/or his appointees and aides took Reagan's supposed ideological bent at face value and then fused it to Nixon's paranoia and viciousness. The results, as Wilentz suggests, really did bring the age of Reagan to an end.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Mysteries of Jet Lag
Yesterday (a loose term, as I'll explain below), a bit before I completed a 14-hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, I came across the following passage in a book I'm reading, Roberto Bolano's 2666:

Amalfitano had some rather idiosyncratic ideas about jet lag. They weren't consistent, so it might be an exaggeration to call them ideas. They were feelings. Make-believe ideas. As if he were looking out the window and forcing himself to see an extraterrestrial landscape. He believed (or liked to think that he believed) that when a person was in Barcelona, the people living and present in Buenos Aires and Mexico City didn't exist. The time difference only masked their nonexistence. And so if you suddenly traveled to cities that, according to this theory, didn't exist or hadn't yet had time to put themselves together, the result was the phenomenon known as jet lag, which arose not from your exhaustion but from the exhaustion of the people who would still have been asleep if you hadn't traveled.

Actually, this could explain why twice very early this morning--at about 1:45 and then again right around 2--I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, jacking my cab fare from JFK into the neighborhood of $60. It wasn't that there's really work going on; the construction signs and activity were a clever delaying tactic on the part of the universe, a more elaborate version of the screen behind which one might change clothes in a studio apartment with a stranger in the room.

(Bolano goes on to suggest that his character probably had read this in a sci-fi novel and forgotten that he'd read it. I'm actually pretty sure it's from an episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone revival, which had the theory that the universe is actually a series of moments strung together like boxcars, in which everything that exists is built anew; when you lose something and then later find it right where you'd initially thought it was, the reason was that the builders of that particular moment in which you deemed it lost had forgotten to include it, then later rectified the mistake.)

My trip, from the place where I was staying in Sydney to my home in Brooklyn, took a few minutes less than 30 hours in all. It occurred to me that there are two ways to think about this: one, that this is a fuck of a long time to be in transit, and two, that it's kind of miraculous to travel just under 10,000 miles in that little time--including my insult-to-injury five-hour-plus layover in LA.

Having spent a lot of time on planes over the last two weeks, including not only the to/from Sydney travels, but a trip-within-the-trip excursion to Japan (9.5 hours each way), I've come up with a few new rules I'd like to see imposed for air travelers:

1) They really should serve turkey as the lunch/dinner meal on planes. I certainly could have used some tryptophan (sp?) as I failed to fall asleep on the Sydney-to-LA flight.

2) For particularly large intercontinental flights, if you're traveling with a baby, that should cost you more (not less, as I believe is the case). Also you should have to personally apologize, reading a script I wrote that includes descriptive words and phrases like "inconsiderate" and "selfish narcissistic asshole," to every other traveler within ten rows in every direction.

2a) All families traveling with babies should be seated together, so that when one starts to cry, they all do. Rather than my whole fucking flight being essentially a nursery, just make one section of it.

3) For redeye flights, people who plan to read should be seated together rather than having overhead lights scattered throughout the plane.

Back with some actual thoughts on stuff--or maybe just the differences between American and Japanese baseball--probably over the weekend.

Monday, June 01, 2009

So I saw this earlier today:
Cheney Supports Gay Marriage
It's not surprising when Vice President Dick Cheney disagrees with President Obama. But it is surprising when he takes a more progressive position than the president.

Said Cheney: "I think that freedom means freedom for everyone. As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay, and it is something we have lived with for a long time in our family. I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. Any kind of arrangement they wish. The question of whether or not there ought to be a federal statute to protect this, I don't support. I do believe that... historically the way marriage has been regulated is at the state level. It has always been a state issue and I think that is the way it ought to be handled, on a state-by-state basis... But I don't have any problem with that. People ought to get a shot at that."

Dick Cheney is much, much better on this issue than Barack Obama.

That hurts. If there are two "values" that matter above all others to me, those would be rule of law and equal rights. In our time, the nexus of issues around national security and government power, most prominently torture, are the focus of rule-of-law questions, and full equality for gays is the key rights question. Cheney couldn't be worse on the first, yet he's very good on the second; Obama is good but not great--this is a new, and very serious, concern--on the first, and bad but not awful (certainly disappointing, in that his words have so far outrun his deeds) on the second.

I suppose it's important to remember context: it's dubious that Cheney would have publicly taken his position while in office, when doing so would have alienated a large chunk of his supporters, while Obama's reticence on gay equity is probably driven in considerable part by memories of how related issues bedeviled the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency. But when one considers these as moral rather than political questions, it's disconcerting to realize that Cheney, whom I regard as a monster in most circumstances, has it right while Obama, a public figure whose worldview and moral outlook seemed closer to mine than anyone in my lifetime who ran for the White House, is at best too timid and at worst deplorable.

As I'm heading out of the country for a couple weeks, this probably will be the last post for awhile.