Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Year in Books 2011
So as we masticate the last few orts from the turdburger platter that was 2011, I'll finish this year here as I started it: with a list of books I read. Maybe it's an appropriate indicator of incremental progress that I had the 2010 list on the first day of 2011, but present the 2011 list on the last day of this same year.

Not that this is about raw counts, but I seem to have read, or at least completed, significantly fewer books this year than last--22 compared to 26. The difference might reside in books I got fairly far into this year before abandoning, a group that includes Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought, a lengthy comprehensive survey of early 19th century American history that I got maybe 350 pages into before deciding I'd had enough, and River of Gods, a high-concept sci-fi novel of maybe 800 pages that I got a quarter through and concluded that it just wasn't coming together for me. I read, and loved, about half of David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, a book of non-fiction essays; no doubt, I'll read the rest over the next few years. (With DFW, sadly, there's all too much motivation to stretch it out.) I also had a stretch this summer where I was reading quite a bit on my iPhone; a couple of the shorter selections noted below came through that format, as did a bunch I didn't finish: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Thus Spake Zarathustra, The Devil's Dictionary, and The Prince, among probably others.

What's cool about the e-books is that you can download many of these classics for the low, low price of "free," making it even easier (at least psychologically) to start something you've always been curious about but never quite wanted to pay for or even haul out of the library, and go as far with it as you'd like. Thus I have, among others, Siddhartha and Paradise Lost sitting on my iPhone, against the day I might decide to give either a spin.

The novel I read this year that most strongly resonated with me was the first one I finished: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. The best non-fiction was the first volume of Robert Caro's LBJ biography, The Path to Power. (I'm about 340 pages into volume three now.)

The list, in rough order and as I recall or can reconstruct. Starred items are particularly recommended...

Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)*
Super Sad True Love Story (Gary Shteyngart)
Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)*
Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (Steven Weisman, editor)*
1960 (David Pietrusza)
Old Man’s War (John Scalzi)*
The City and the City (China Mieville)
American Pastoral (Philip Roth)*
Notes from the Underground (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)*
The Mysterious Stranger (Mark Twain)
Losers (Michael Lewis)
The Fall of Paris (Alistair Horne)
The Wind-Up Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi)
A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel)
See a Little Light (Bob Mould with Michael Azzerad)*
The Path to Power (Robert Caro)*
Means of Ascent (Robert Caro)*
Man in the Dark (Paul Auster)
Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
The Enchantress of Florence (Salman Rushdie)*
Chronic City (Jonathan Lethem)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Trying to Resist an Awful Pun
(See if you can guess what it is; answer at the end of the post.)

I was talking with a colleague recently, a woman in a same-sex marriage, about the election next year and Obama's record. She said she planned to enthusiastically support him even though she wishes he'd done more to advance gay rights. I agreed on both counts, but added that civil rights aren't for him to give, but for her (or any unjustly denied constituency) to take.

Was thinking about that again just now when I came across this article about the president's position on gay rights heading into the 2012 race:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an audience of diplomats in Geneva this month that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” And in an interview in November, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, said that he was “proud” to support the right of same-sex couples to marry.

The president enthusiastically endorsed Mrs. Clinton’s message, issuing a presidential memorandum directing all federal agencies to promote gay rights overseas. And while he said nothing publicly about Mr. Donovan’s declaration — which went further than Mr. Obama’s own position on the issue — a senior administration official said that Mr. Donovan enjoyed “the trust and respect of the president.”

Mr. Obama’s strategy, administration officials and gay-rights advocates said, reflects two conflicting forces. He recognizes that support for gay rights and same-sex marriage is growing, particularly among young voters.

But he is reluctant in an election year to be drawn into a culture-war issue — one that reliably helps Republicans turn out evangelical voters in their favor and that also strikes a particular nerve with religious black voters, a bedrock Obama constituency in battleground states like North Carolina and Florida.

The original basis of my support for Obama during the 2007-2008 campaign cycle was a hunch I had that, like great past presidents, he had a compelling vision for where he wished the country to go on certain issues; a clear sense of where it was at the moment; and an idea of how to move it in the direction he supported. At various times on various issues, I've had reason to doubt not just the overall concept here, but all three components of it. On this one, though, I wonder if maybe the paradigm actually holds.

There's just no way I believe that Obama really doesn't support fully equal rights for same-sex Americans. The circumstances of his upbringing, the political circles in which he came of age, the totality of his known views about social justice and the grounds to be at least somewhat skeptical of his Christianity--by which I do NOT mean that he's a "secret Muslim," but rather that he embraced churchgoing for social and political reasons at least as much as from personal epiphany--add up to a very strong case. But while the trend is unmistakably positive, any lead of a (small-c) conservative temperament would be aware of the dangers inherent to pushing too hard, too fast. Thus it's politically logical, if not particularly admirable, for Obama to maintain this pretense of his views "evolving"--and to let the New Yorkers, Clinton and Donovan, walk point and convey the message to a deep-pocketed and increasingly powerful constituency.

Another point, which is actually very consistent with Obama's conduct through the first three years of his presidency: his personal views don't really matter! He can't issue an executive order mandating marriage equality. He has the bully pulpit, and in that sense his public statement might have some positive impact--but it also would additionally politicize an argument that really should transcend partisan battles. Remember that marriage equality passed in New York only because a small number of Republican state senators went along with it. Of course, they had numerous pragmatic reasons to do so--log-rolling by Gov. Cuomo, campaign contributions from Mayor Bloomberg--in addition to whatever part principle played. But if taking that stance would have put them on the side of a president hated by many if not most Republicans, it's very possible at least one or two of those Republicans would have declined to do so.

At the same time, I think Obama only can get away with this coy posture because he's already delivered on some major if lesser points: the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the non-defense of the abhorrent Defense of Marriage Act. And while I don't know for sure, I think he's also solid on the one function of the presidency most consequential to his personal views on equal rights: judicial appointments. There are larger problems here, especially the slow pace of nominations, but I'd be very surprised if even one Obama nominee to a judgeship is positively known to be hostile to equality. The progress might be slow, but it's sure.

(The bad pun? "Leading from behind," of course.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitchens' Death
Like many people, I found Christopher Hitchens' writing both infuriating and irresistible: the smugness, the more than occasional gratuitous cruelty and flat-out wrongness (not inaccuracy, mind you, though sometimes that too) on the one hand, the usually superb construction of arguments, the erudition and the almost-always superb prose on the other. His last regular column, in Slate, was a regular pleasure even though it fell on the bad side of that line at least once or twice a month. When his cancer diagnosis became known, I always wondered how long he'd be able to keep it up; when he missed a week or two, I'd start wondering if the end was here. But it still came as a surprise when I read yesterday morning that Hitchens was dead, about two weeks after I'd read his column on the Republican presidential debates. There was no indication whatever that it would turn out to be his final one.

I find this easy to admire: while no doubt Hitchens was a world-class egomaniac and self-aggrandizer, the narcissism was untouched (at least in print) by self-pity at what happened to him. I love that he was unrepentant about all the drinking and smoking, though maybe even more that "I would have quit earlier hoping to get away with the whole thing." That's exactly reflective of a man who felt he was on his own in the universe, responsible for himself above all else and delighted at that prospect. You don't get the sense with Hitchens that he died feeling a great deal of regret about work left undone or much left unfinished.

The reaction to his demise has been interesting. For the most part it's been love and admiration, though not totally unmixed with reference to Hitchens' peevishness, disingenuousness and various other faults. Others have noted that Hitchens himself wasn't in the habit of deference to the deceased; his takedowns of the likes of Mother Teresa were legendary. Perhaps with that in mind, Glenn Greenwald has fired off the harshest postmortem on Hitchens that I've seen:

[F]for the public at large, at least those who knew of him, Hitchens was an extremely controversial, polarizing figure. And particularly over the last decade, he expressed views — not ancillary to his writing but central to them — that were nothing short of repellent.
Subordinating his brave and intellectually rigorous defense of atheism, Hitchens’ glee over violence, bloodshed, and perpetual war dominated the last decade of his life. Dennis Perrin, a friend and former protégée of Hitchens, described all the way back in 2003 how Hitchens’ virtues as a writer and thinker were fully swamped by his pulsating excitement over war and the Bush/Cheney imperial agenda...

There’s one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that’s quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud.

Fair enough, and to me at least Hitchens' cheerleading for the war against "Islamofascism" was his most obnoxious, unjustified and flat-out ugly position. (His over-the-top support for the hypocritical bastards who tried to impeach Bill Clinton in the late '90s, seemingly based on personal loathing for his fellow Boomer hedonist, was a fairly distant number two.) His willingness--his eagerness--to fellow-travel with the neoconservatives and provide intellectual and moral support for a global interfaith war was both tragic and, given his very public atheism, head-spinningly ironic. That he never stepped back and came closer to recanting the view than the occasional concession that the war in Iraq wasn't prosecuted all that well seems more evidence of his ego-mania than anything else. (It's a fascinating and, as far as I've seen, not-noted irony that Hitchens died within hours of the Iraq War coming to an official end.)

Even in his apostasy from the left, though, Hitchens refused to cede his intellectual or political agency. He favored Bush over Kerry in 2004, yet argued--at no personal or political advantage and probably to his disadvantage--that Bush probably stole the election in Ohio. The same stubbornness that bound him to the war in Iraq even after all its justifications collapsed had its root in the man's absolute and uncompromising resistance to totalitarianism in all its forms; in fact, I'm pretty sure that Hitchens hated Saddam Hussein for the same reason he hated the Catholic Church, and indeed organized religion in any form and flavor. He resisted control; he wouldn't accept any yoke whatever goodies, from a think-tank sinecure to the promise of eternal life, came with it.

As legacies go, this strikes me as a pretty fucking great one.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

When the Entertainers Run the Asylum
So it sounds like Herman Cain has shucky-duckied his way out of the Republican presidential contest, but thankfully we've got someone else returning to fill his sizable clown shoes: The Donald, who will be moderating a Republican debate with the frothing right-wing outlet Newsmax.

“Our readers and the grass roots really love Trump,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media. “They may not agree with him on everything, but they don’t see him as owned by the Washington establishment, the media establishment.”
[D]espite being derided by liberals – President Obama likened Mr. Trump to a “carnival barker” for his repeated assertions that the president was actually foreign-born – the real estate mogul carries weight with a certain element of the conservative base. And that sway seems particularly strong with the Tea Party wing of the base, which will be a decisive factor in the early primaries that are likely to determine the nominee. The debate, which unlike many recent ones will not be limited to a specific topic like national security or the economy, is set to happen just a week before the Iowa caucuses.

Newsmax sent candidates the invitation on Friday afternoon. It began, “We are pleased to cordially invite you to “The Newsmax Ion Television 2012 Presidential Debate,” moderated by a truly great American, Mr. Donald J. Trump.” Spokesmen for several candidates did not immediately respond to questions from The New York Times about whether they would accept.

Though presidential candidates may initially balk at the idea of appearing in a debate where Mr. Trump – with his bombast and The Hair – is the one posing the questions, they may ultimately see it as an invitation they can’t refuse. In fact many of the candidates have already met with him, some more publicly than others. Representative Michele Bachmann has sat down with Mr. Trump several times this year. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas had dinner with him at Jean Georges, the posh Manhattan restaurant. And Mitt Romney paid a visit but carefully avoided being photographed.

And Newsmax is a powerful player itself. It has a broad reach into the conservative base, with monthly Web traffic second only to Fox News among sites with conservative-leaning audiences.

Normally at this point I'd probably emit a sad sigh and say something about how this reflects the country's steep downward plunge. But while that sentiment is in there somewhere, right now I'm feeling more inclined toward schadenfreude: the chickens of Republicans turning over their party to its most entertaining and least serious elements are coming home to roost, and it couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch.

Trump essentially will be holding a televised contest for his endorsement: it probably will attract more attention than any other debate this year, and no doubt he'll make them work for it in full view of a public that mostly will be horrified at just how nutzo the Republicans have become... a point I don't think is generally appreciated. Because Trump is nuts--and the way to get his endorsement will be to ape him as closely as possible. For his part, is there any doubt at all whether Donald Trump cares more about the fate of the nation or the gratification of his own ego?

Two Republicans already have announced that they won't attend: the social moderate (but economic uber-con) Jon Huntsman and the libertarian Ron Paul. While Paul is pretty repulsive on a lot of fronts, he does seem to grasp the idea that the presidency is a dignified and important office that probably shouldn't be sullied by immersion in the spectacle of reality TV. (That said, Paul's flack seems to suggest that the old Texan would consider joining were Trump to publicly apologize for a past diss of Iowa Republicans... which is kind of clever if rather oily.) For Huntsman's part, he probably realizes he's got nothing to gain by fishing in that pool; his hope at this point is for Republicans to take a second look and realize that, one, the guy is a true conservative, and two, he probably could win. There's some reason to believe this is starting to happen.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich already has accepted the invite to Trump's debate show, making it that much more likely Mitt Romney will join as well. The other two Fox candidates, Frothy Mix and Batshit, surely will go and could emerge with the endorsement of their fellow entertainer. (If Trump doesn't give his nod to one of them, it's likely because he realizes they won't win and worries that his brand will suffer by association with a loser. When it comes to that sort of thing, the guy is legitimately sharp if no less repugnant.) Rick Perry, if he's not out by then, probably will go too; he's got the mammoth self-regard and sneering hatred of "libburls" that Trump will recognize and gravitate to, and it actually wouldn't shock me if Trump wound up supporting Perry.

I don't doubt that "establishment Republicans" are having a bad couple days with all this. They seem pretty conclusively to have lost control: when Karl Rove goes on TV to attack Republicans like Bachmann and Perry, you know The Plan has gone awry. They're still hoping for Romney, of course, but the guy inspires neither excitement nor trust.

Were this somehow all happening on the Democratic side, where shitting on the base is expected and in fact cheered, the likely result would be at least one or two candidates joining and delivering a "Sister Souljah moment": in this case, maybe taking Trump to task for his focus on Obama's birth certificate or other manifestations of Trump's unseriousness. But for every candidate other than Romney, this will be a case of like visiting like: Gingrich probably did more than anyone in the last thirty years to transform our politics into the zero-sum blood sport game that rightly disgusts so many Americans, and Bachmann and Santorum are both mostly known for extreme statements and personal eccentricity. (Well, maybe not in Santorum's case; he's best known as the deserving victim of the greatest political trick of the modern era.)

Romney is in a different and probably unique category. As I've written before, he passes the "me test": I don't for a second doubt that he's far smarter than I am, has better judgment and is incalculably more organized, so I'd rather see him in the presidency than me despite my disdain for his views. One recent New York magazine article presents a fascinating story of how Romney can make a pretty substantial claim as the architect of the modern "1% percent economy"--an accomplishment that's impressive whatever you think of its tangible results.

But he's got an evidently uncontrollable impulse to pander--which I think is at the core of why everyone, left and right, mistrusts him. Robert Draper's profile in this weekend's Times magazine leaves the reader equally with respect for Romney's intellect and managerial skills, and astonishment at his difficulty committing or connecting. Add in some recent signs of pique and the general and I think involuntary air he projects of being somehow too good for the (admittedly draining, depressing and disgusting) process of running for the presidency, and you're left with the impression of a candidate much stronger on paper than in reality.

It's almost enough to make you feel bad for the guy--and then you remember what he's actually for and the incredible damage his preferred policies already have done, and you're suddenly thankful for Donald Trump's ego and the rapacious stupidity of his co-partisans.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On God Telling You to Run for President
Three of the Republican presidential candidates now have 'fessed up to be just following orders from the Almighty: Michele "Batshit" Bachmann, Rick Perry (who apparently needs more specific instruction), and now Herman Cain.

My first thought about this was to admire God's sense of humor. What if they're all telling the truth? I imagined Him and His buddies sitting in the divine version of a man-cave (switch the pronouns if you'd like), pounding brews and cracking up over how He's jerking these dopes around. Granted, the Simpsons already did this in the one where Lisa is Joan of Arc, but if you're going to excise the full Simpsons oeuvre from the realm of dramatic consideration, you've got very little left.

I posted something to this effect on BackSheGoes, and someone responded with the fair-enough point that in the milieu of the Republican primary voter, this both bestows cred and serves as a signifier of humility, because it suggests a motivation other than ambition. In the cases of Perry and Cain, any indication of something other than unlimited self-regard is probably welcome. Then again, humility is usually connected to self-awareness, and Bachmann falls terribly short on that score: I wouldn't be surprised if she literally started flinging poop at one of these debates, and no doubt she'd assert that also was on celestial instruction.

Of course, the thought I've always had regarding most of these folks and their conversations with God is that it's uncanny how often He tells them what they want to hear. I figured George W. Bush's vision of the Almighty was as a smarter version of W. himself, presumably without the daddy issues. That they view themselves as worthy of being God's instrument on Earth also suggests to me something different than, and in fact more like opposed to, humility.

In my admittedly limited grappling with theology, I never totally grasped the doctrine of unconditional election, the idea that God saved some while condemning others. I never wanted to understand it, I think; it felt too much like a blank check, a cosmic cop-out. If you're certain you're saved, you have nothing at stake; by the theory, there's no limit to what evil you can do without consequences, at least not the ultimate, eternal consequence. The twist, I suppose, is that nobody can be certain. But given the very evident self-regard of the individuals we're discussing here, can there be any doubt where they'd place themselves? We know what these people have done: Bachmann's hysterical homophobia, Cain's alleged acts of sexual aggression, Perry's pay-for-play despoiling of the earth. If they're all in God's good books, it's all forgiven... in fact, it's all encouraged: it's all Part of the Plan.

I guess there is another, more sympathetic view one could take. By most accounts, Lincoln's faith evolved while he was in office. This is understandable, of course; the life-and-death decisions he made every day surely created a powerful psychological pressure to find larger meaning, and the thought that all the suffering and destruction and extinguishing of life might have no larger purpose or higher sanction must have been unbearable. He famously said: "My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side." The doubt suggested by that framing seems far more resonant with Christian humility as I understand it than the bleating of the Republican presidential candidates. But perhaps there's a similar, very human, very vulnerable, yearning for certainty buried in what seems so much like bluster. Who would want to act--let alone vote, much less run--against God?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Some Notes on Occupy Wall Street
We now seem to be at a point with the Occupy Wall Street protest where it's more likely than not it won't just disappear, as those it has targeted no doubt were hoping, but nor is it certain where it's going or what its effects might be.

I think it's fairly clear that OWS at its core is a manifestation of economic populism, both contrasting with and complementary to the reactionary cultural populism of the Tea Party. A somewhat dumb and broadly dismissive compare and contrast article in today's Times almost but doesn't quite hit the core point: both ventures arise from a sense that the game is rigged against "ordinary people." The difference is that in the Tea Party's story, the government is the direct oppressor and "real Americans"--whites, Christians--are victims, while OWS places the blame on the economic elites who have bought the government and progressively concentrated wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands.

The way protest movements generally have worked in American democracy is that raw popular energy gradually translates into a policy program championed by political actors. This was true of the Populists (who were absorbed into the Democratic Party in the 1890s through the 1910s, and to whom both OWS and the TP can hearken back); the labor movement (a core element of Democratic coalitions for a century now); the civil rights movement (which initially wasn't partisan, but ultimately did more than probably any other single factor to prompt the ideological sorting that left all liberals in the Democratic Party and all conservatives in the Republican Party); and religious right (which is now a major component of the Republican coalition). It happened with the Tea Party as well--as you'd expect since the TP is essentially the back-engine of the Christian right, with its cultural resentments, attached to the lead car of the anti-tax movement. Most of the recognized champions of the Tea Party, senators elected in 2010 like Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio, are veteran politicians who cannily realized that this was a vehicle they could ride. I don't doubt the sincerity of their support for the movement--but the point is that the Tea Party agenda fit so closely with their pre-existing views as to represent continuity with, rather than a break from, what at least a big chunk of Republicans have sought for many years.

I'm not sure that will happen for Occupy Wall Street--though if it does, I think the impact will be far more fundamental in the direction of reform than has been the case with the Tea Party. In terms of style and culture, OWS is obviously much closer with the popular perception of the Democratic Party than the Republicans. What the protesters presumably want, though--a return to sensible regulation of the finance industry and a reduction of the role of money in politics and government--is as inimical to the Democrats of the last 25 years or so as it is to the Republicans. A core premise of the "New Democrat" movement and Democratic Leadership Council was that with labor's power declining, the party would have to become more business-friendly; otherwise it couldn't remain economically (and thus politically) competitive with the Republicans. The results have included the support of the Clinton administration for massive deregulation of the finance industry, low-lighted by the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Famously, Wall Street strongly supported Barack Obama in 2008, and despite the perception that the finance industry now "hates" Obama, it's still not clear that the bulk of finance-sector sentiment and giving will oppose the president next year (though Mitt Romney surely is trying hard for that).

In other words, it's going to be tough for the Democrats to simply embrace (or, if you prefer, co-opt) OWS--because doing so would constitute a direct frontal assault on an enormous resource pool for the party. At the same time, though, keeping some distance from the Dems might bolster the viability of Occupy Wall Street as a real movement of reform. Popular opinion of the Tea Party began to decline as it became clear just how indistinguishable its priorities and goals were from those of the still-discredited an unpopular Republican Party. Views of OWS aren't entirely clear, but it seems like among those who know enough to have an opinion, majority sentiment is broadly positive.

Matt Taibbi points out that OWS is "bigger than left vs. right." This is both its peril and its opportunity--the former because our opinion class doesn't know how to tell political stories other than in that frame, and when it comes to views of how to treat the finance sector, there's little meaningful difference between the two parties; but the latter because, left or right, just about everyone in America realizes that there's something deeply wrong in our economy and politics, and wants to see real change.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What I'd Be Blogging About If I Were Blogging
Each of these items probably merit a thousand words or so, if not more. But I don't feel like I have the time, and I'm less than sure I have the inclination, to give these topics the attention they deserve. So these summaries will have to do.

  • Ten Years Gone: Like everyone else, I was thinking about terrorism and its effects last weekend as we reached the tenth anniversary of 9/11. As it happened, I was out of town at a family wedding in Pennsylvania Saturday and into Sunday; at that happy occasion, there was very little talk about 9/11 itself but a surprising number of references, from liberals and conservatives both, to how dysfunctional and depressing our politics are these days. I talked with a very conservative older cousin from South Carolina who's been thinking about running for Congress (he would have primaried Joe "You Lie!" Wilson) who was fully as disgusted with everything as I am; other relatives and family friends made endless passing but blistering references to the mess in Washington.

    Nationally, the response to the 9/11--the dumb war in Iraq put entirely on the national credit card, the expansion of the security state, the torture regime and the rest of it--divided the country even more profoundly after the Clinton impeachment and the 2000 election, and further deepened cynicism and despair regarding government. In New York City, though, where we suffered the most in both human and psychic terms, the awfulness of that shared experience--the horror of the day itself and the enormous grief of the days and weeks afterward--brought people together, and continues to do so. There was a sense after the attack, which remains today, of "fuck those fundamentalist assholes--I'm staying right here." Bush famously said that the terrorists "hated us for our freedom." I think closer to the truth is that bin Laden hated NYC for the same reason Hitler did: the diversity, the tolerance, the functionality of an open community in which millions of unplanned human interactions every day conduce to an unmatched volume of economic and creative activity.

    New York is like DC in that you'll meet very few people "from" here. But I think it's far more common to "become" a New Yorker than a Washingtonian; for all the expense and inconvenience, the place gets its hooks into you, claims you, and changes you. The experience of 9/11, for all its horror and sadness, did something like that as well. In a weird way, it made New York stronger and more of a community. That this didn't happen for the country I think is part of the national tragedy.

  • Thanks again, 2008 Phillies. With thirteen games left before the playoffs, the Phillies are on pace to complete the greatest season in their 129-year history. This is the most absurdly loaded baseball team I've ever had the pleasure of rooting for, with three of the five or six best starting pitchers in the league, eight all-stars in the lineup, and tremendously impressive depth--as demonstrated by the fact that they're going to set a franchise wins record despite having lost more than half the lineup to the disabled list at different points this season.

    Yet they're still more likely than not to fall short of winning a second world championship in four seasons, owing to a playoff tournament in which the factors that conduce to success over 162 games--depth in the rotation and lineup, a steady managerial hand at the tiller, and the capacity and willingness to change how players are used as circumstances dictate--mean far less than who's hot that week. I'm still pretty sure the 2010 Phillies were the best team in baseball, and they were bounced by a Giants team that had about-as-good pitching and a handful of hitters who were hot while the Phils' mashers went cold. It could happen again--as it did to the Angels in 2008, the 2007 Indians, the Mets and Yankees in 2006, the Cardinals in 2005 and 2004, the Yankees and Braves in 2003... all teams that won the most games in the regular season yet didn't get to celebrate with the big trophy at the end.

    If this happens to the 2011 Phillies, it'll suck. The team is both admirable for their accomplishments and likable for who we perceive them to be, and many of their most prominent players--Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco--haven't won it all despite long and accomplished careers. For Philadelphia, though, the psychic necessity for this team to win it all is severely lessened by the fact that their 2008 predecessors already did it... breaking the 25 year championship drought that had even the most rational Philadelphians (admittedly, a low bar) wondering if the town might not in fact be operating under a curse. That such considerations won't be on the minds of fans this October should lessen the tension level to something survivable... though I'll still probably revert to functional alcoholism for the month. I'm not sure how else to do it.

  • One to watch. I might actually have an aspirant to political office to seriously cheer for in 2012: Elizabeth Warren, the consumer advocate who's running against the very pretty Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts. In theory, Warren should be a strong candidate: at a time when the public detests career politicians, she joins the race as a 62 year-old outsider with modest roots and a great story of economic populism to tell. If she wins--and it's kind of extraordinary that even certain folks relatively far out on the right are open to her candidacy. And I felt this way even before seeing the word "workforce" in the top item on her "priorities" web page. In a time when the Democrats have at best allowed and at worst abetted the destruction of the middle class and a concentration of wealth unprecedented in recent history, Warren's message should resonate. Here's hoping,

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Some Musings on the Campaign
Because watching things fall apart can be fun...
  • Tim Pawlenty ended his campaign last week after losing to state-mate Rep. Batshit in Iowa. As he continued on in the race, Pawlenty increasingly reminded me of a fictional Minnesotan: Jerry Lundegaard, William H. Macy's hapless car sales manager/would-be kidnapper in "Fargo." Like Jerry, "T-Paw" seemed constantly to be trying to project a confidence and charisma he didn't feel, and perhaps thought himself smarter than he was. The theory of Pawlenty's campaign was that he could emerge as more tolerable to the Zombie Army than Mitt Romney while remaining acceptable to the money gang whose preferences are usually determinative. But this required showing something to both groups--and Pawlenty delivered for neither, failing to take Romney on in an early debate and proving unable to raise enough money to endure a setback in the silly straw poll.

  • I think this probably could have been predicted from Pawlenty's memoir title, "Courage to Stand." To stand for what? I think the silent subtitle is "For Whatever You'd Like Me to Believe." Even there, he was never going to out-pander Romney. That awful title has me trying to think up equally lame political memoir names: Forward to Our Future? My American Adventure? Patriotism and Principle? Blech.

  • The new Republican contender who's aiming to be mutually acceptable to the nuts and the greedheads is Rick Perry. He's got a much better chance than Pawlenty, because he's not boring. Perry's problem is that he's so obviously an asshole, and unlike New Jersey governor Chris Christie--another unapologetic asshole, but a pretty clearly intelligent and engaged guy--there seems to be little principle and less thought behind it. The Bush comps are obvious and valid as far as they go, but what the pundits seem to be missing is that the press corps on some level must feel remorse at having given Dubya such a relatively easy ride in 2000; they won't do that with Perry. His personality is just much uglier than Bush's, his politics far more raw, and the public will see all that in high-def.

  • I'm starting to wonder if Jon Huntsman has it somewhere in his head to go independent. The mullahs of right-wing radio surely will go fatwa on him after his TV appearance tomorrow morning, if they haven't already. His polling is in Gingrich territory. He's got little institutional support. But he projects reasonableness, he's got some clear admirers in the press corps... and the country is utterly disgusted with politics-as-usual. Also, his family is really, really, really rich. There are efforts in progress to secure national ballot access for independents. What if Huntsman announces in December or early January that he's leaving the Republican Party because our country's problems are too big for partisanship-as-usual--the same logic he can claim for his decision to serve in the Obama administration--and that he'll seek the presidency as an independent? If he could claim endorsements from every disaffected Republican--Colin Powell, Bruce Bartlett, Alan Simpson--and a bunch of civic-minded business leader/officials like Bloomberg? Maybe some of the old Clinton machinery would come around for him. It's a long shot, but I think there's a certain logic to it. He's damn sure not going to win as a Republican, and I think Sullivan is being over-optimistic yet again if he thinks the Rs will be more receptive to a Huntsman campaign by 2016.

  • Speaking of Sullivan, he published a letter of mine that essentially covered the same ground as the previous post. See it here, if you'd like. This is where I think both his own biases and his deep investment in Obama--which I readily grasp--blind him; Obama's "restraint" isn't even the issue so much as his willingness if not eagerness to continually shit on his "base." The evidence is coming in that this will be a huge problem for him next year.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Hollow Man
I'll admit to a great deal of personal embarrassment, almost to the point of shame, at how wrong I seem to have gotten Barack Obama. He was elected, in my view, above all else to change the story we Americans had been telling ourselves about the role of the public sector in the life of our country, and there was reason to believe he'd do this superbly.His 2005 Knox College commencement speech, which I've written about here many times, is an absolute masterpiece in this regard.

But Obama either no longer believes that story, or doesn't feel he can tell it. For all the political and policy successes his defenders can point to--and they are real--he hasn't done anything to restore the view held by Americans of past generations that government was on their side, actively defending their vulnerabilities and advancing their interests. As has been pointed out many times, he's bent over backwards to exonerate and incorporate many of the same Wall Street figures who were involved with the meltdown. The result is that If anything, the dysfunction of the federal government has people thinking even less of their representation than was the case three years ago--and increasingly drawing the conclusion that the system itself is broken. Hence Joan Walsh's piece in a couple days ago (which I was going to write about at greater length, but I think it fairly speaks for itself) making a strong case that the real "crisis of confidence" in the country is that of government, and Democrats as the "party of government."

Yesterday I wrote about the disappearance of the Left, the absence of any force to balance the Zombie Army of Tea Partiers that has emerged from the closed informational loop of FOX News and right-wing radio, identified the many choke points within the system devised by the Framers and dragged our country rightward... and down. I think it's a fair charge that almost everyone who worked so hard and gave so much to put Obama into office has faltered badly since then. But the other side of the argument--that Obama himself sold us a bill of goods, and has proven to be someone very different from the inspirational progressive leader and impassioned reformer we thought we had elected--is valid too, and today in the Times has perhaps its most powerful and persuasive case that I've seen, by the researcher and consultant Drew Westen.

When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy. After a great technological revolution or a major economic transition, as when America changed from a nation of farmers to an urban industrial one, there is often a period of great concentration of wealth, and with it, a concentration of power in the wealthy. That’s what we saw in 1928, and that’s what we see today. At some point that power is exercised so injudiciously, and the lives of so many become so unbearable, that a period of reform ensues — and a charismatic reformer emerges to lead that renewal. In that sense, Teddy Roosevelt started the cycle of reform his cousin picked up 30 years later, as he began efforts to bust the trusts and regulate the railroads, exercise federal power over the banks and the nation’s food supply, and protect America’s land and wildlife, creating the modern environmental movement.

Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

The point that technological/economic change always precipitates a concentration of wealth as the best-connected use their informational advantages to take a disproportionate share, and the role of centrist populism (my words, not Westen's) in pushing through reforms in response to re-level the playing field, is 100 percent correct. I'm a little embarrassed that this hasn't previously occurred to me; that is *exactly* what happened with both Roosevelts, abetted by their successors of both parties (Taft and Wilson, Truman and Eisenhower). FDR was successful enough in creating a new regime of regulations and domestic institutions, in response to the Great Depression, and international institutions toward end of and following World War II, that the half-century after he died saw the flowering of the most successful civilization in human history--the America we all grew up in and expected would last indefinitely.

During the '90s and '00s, that order began to break down and things got badly out of whack. In addition to a new technological revolution (a tide that initially lifted all boats, as the lowest quintile saw income gains, and certainly did more than anything else to make Bill Clinton's presidency successful), we had the end of the Cold War, which had held things in check; the politically driven erosion of the New Deal regulatory apparatus; and the increasing role of money in politics, which was regarded widely, and on a bipartisan basis, as an enormous threat... but was never really addressed, at least not in a lasting way.

Clinton either didn't see all these things coming or didn't realize it would present such a problem; in any event, he owns a large share of this through his signing the repeal of Glass-Steagall which did a tremendous amount to set up the damage of a decade later. And of course George W. Bush was perfectly cast in the McKinley/Harding/Coolidge role of self-righteous schmuck who actively made things worse, throwing in unnecessary and calamitously expensive tax cuts and wars for good measure.

Elected in 2008 to set all this right, Obama seemed like our last, best chance to put everything back into balance. In this, it's hard to judge him as anything but a near-total failure. Westen tries to figure out why:

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s storytelling. [...]

THE real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit. [...]

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there — the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.

A final explanation is that he ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.

A lot of this stings. I read "Dreams From My Father" in summer 2007 while on vacation in California, and it moved me from likely favoring Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination to absolute, active, full-throated support. I left the book with a friend whom we stayed with and haven't re-read it since. I loved the idea of a president who was a better writer than me, but it also seemed clear that this was a man with unusual gifts of observation and analysis. As Westen observes, though, the truth is that he didn't really do that much in his pre-governmental career. And the "present" votes, in both the Illinois legislature and the Senate, seemed like such a transparently political attack that I shrugged it despite a slight tug of concern.

The last part especially registers, though. Obama's dual and dueling platforms were a perfect match for many of us conflicted ("self-hating" seems strong but maybe not inaccurate) liberals, who both wanted fundamental progressive reform and an end to the zero-sum politics of the previous twenty years, the Wars of the Clintons and Bushes. Our mistake, and maybe Obama's, was in thinking that this was somehow inherent to the Clintons: that the epistemic closure on the Right might open itself to a transparently temperate individual who both seemed to embody the possibilities of America and went out of his way to honor the perspective of his political opponents, even leaving rhetorical offerings at the Shrine of the Blessed Reagan. We thought that maybe Obama could win his political fights by co-opting his enemies rather than destroying them.

He could not, and in trying to do so only hurt his cause, and ours. The rising frustration so many of us now feel probably involves both our own culpability and increasing disbelief that he's still trying, rather than recognizing and responding to the true nature of an enemy that bears him a relentless, implacable and essentially lizard-brain hatred.

Edit: See here a vehement disagreement with Westen's argument. If you read it carefully, though, I think it's clear that 1) the writer's issue is less with the content of Westen's message than its form and some of the devices he uses, and 2) he blames liberals of Westen's stripe for seeing what they wanted to see in Obama rather than the candidate/president himself. Both points are fine, but neither really rebuts Westen's diagnosis of the problem: Obama isn't fighting, and as a result he, and progressivism, is losing. Badly.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

How the Left Was Lost
I'm surprised to find out that it evidently was John F. Kennedy, rather than Thucydides or someone like that, who said, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan." Taking his turn on the historical stage in a time when it was all but taken for granted that liberalism was the mainstream political philosophy of the United States, that Democrats were the country's national governing party, and that Democrats were reliably liberal, I doubt JFK would have an easier time making sense of what's happened in our country these last three years than I do. But I think even he would conclude that all of us who call ourselves liberals own a piece of the latest defeat.

This past week, the United States narrowly avoided an unprecedented default on our national debt, when a Democratic President and Democratic-majority Senate acceded to almost every demand of a Republican-majority House of Representatives, which had put the national credit at risk to win a political fight. The Republicans took a hostage they probably weren't really willing to kill, and were lavishly rewarded for it: at best, the deal that was struck gives Democrats a partial and provisional chance to win the portion of the fight that was deferred.

It's a shocking, almost unimaginable turnaround for a party that took unified control of the federal government just two and a half years ago, on the strength of consecutive huge victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections. The credit rating agency Standard and Poor's added a final, bitter punch line Friday night when they downgraded the country's credit even though default was averted, mostly because "we see ... America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy."

Both the spending to be taken out of the budget as a result of the agreement and the possible higher costs that will ensue from the credit rating downgrade will further hurt the economy, which increases the odds that a Republican will win the presidency in 2012. Again, it would be difficult to imagine how things could have played out better for Republicans.

How did this happen?

Observers seem to split along two lines of explanation: the Democrats are either false--in other words, not at all unhappy with a set of outcomes that seem utterly dismal for liberalism, the view held by the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi--or inept, as mainstream voices on the left seem to be arguing. (There's a third camp, which features Andrew Sullivan: he thinks Obama's playing rope-a-dope with the Right. I'd love to believe that, but I don't.)

Ultimately, though, Obama's reasoning or motivations, and those of the Democrats in the Senate, don't matter. What I think is more to the point is that even the greatest general can't lead an army that doesn't exist. There's no longer any effective Left to speak of in American public life.

This feels a strange complaint for me to make, as I'm probably an almost perfect example of a Left-disdaining moderate liberal Democrat: in other words, a stereotypical Obama voter. But what I'm realizing is that when you have a strong, active, determined Right, the absence of a countervailing Left means that the center will drift to starboard. Hence the dreary repeated pattern we're seeing of Obama compromising himself, and us, into virtual capitulation: unlike FDR and the question of whether or not to desegregate defense industries, nobody is "making him do it." (The link here, which I'd never read before to my recollection, is almost heartbreakingly prescient.)

I don't know how we turn this around. Ralph Nader--who has to be the absolute last fucking person I want to hear from on this particular question--thinks it's inevitable that Obama will face a primary challenge. I have to admit that the idea occurred to me last week, and not in a bad way. But all that's likely to accomplish is to push the president's re-election odds from about 50-50 to maybe 15-20 percent; incumbent presidents who face serious primary challenges simply don't win, because they take fire from their own co-partisans and have to expend badly needed time and resources simply winning renomination. (I'm not sure Nader's right. Any potential challenger will have to face an unprecedented deluge of money, and the complete and utter end of any further ambitions they might have for a role in public life.) Worse, we really can't afford another Republican presidency, with its likelihood of further tax and "discretionary spending" cuts and another war or two.

So what's to be done? It's not like there haven't been efforts made to build an activist infrastructure on the Left--but they only seem to work in certain even-numbered years (almost sufficing to beat Bush in 2004, then helping the Democrats to their big wins in 2006 and 2008). I found groups like increasingly annoying and ineffectual after an initial burst of enthusiasm for them in 2002-4, and thus tuned out... but my sense is that the Obama campaign pretty much ate them all in 2008. Again, that's not a good vehicle for obvious reasons.

Maybe, though, politics as such isn't the answer at all. Direct action, in ways that are fun for participants and attention-grabbing for press, could be one answer; another that I keep thinking about is if, say, ten million middle- and upper-class liberals announced they would tax themselves at the 15 percent rate applied to hedge fund managers rather than the higher rates they actually pay. That would both sting the government and highlight the crying need for tax reform. There have to be hundreds of other, similar ideas that could put meat to the bone of liberal thought and engage the public in a newly direct and powerful way.

Back in a day or two, hopefully, with thoughts on the centrality of government and how the narcissistic impulse might help explain why the un- and under-employed have been so quiet in their desperation.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Brink
These would be fascinating times except for the fact we have to live in them. Hour by hour, day by day, we're now seeing the full rank flower of 30-50 years of economic and political trends: the absolutist strain, able to perceive only total victory or utter defeat, in majoritarian-democratic politics; the ability of a solid faction, fermented in a closed informational loop, to throw into utter chaos a system consciously designed to force compromise and consensus by its many choke points; what happens when the Left altogether loses the courage of its ostensible convictions.

It's grimly satisfying to see the Republican establishment now shitting itself over its inability to corral the monster it created. The problem, again, is that we all will suffer the consequences--in higher interest rates, a double-dip recession, loss of national prestige--it won't be forgotten that we did this entirely to ourselves; smart economic and strategic competitors will bend themselves to thinking about how to get us to do this again (and indeed, other than 9/11 itself, what wounds have we suffered as a country over the last decade that weren't self-inflicted?)--and the greater likelihood that the same attention-deprived electorate that empowered this right-wing suicide cult will blame the well-intentioned but feckless Obama for the downturn, and replace him with a fellow-traveler of the people who brought this on us.

I don't know what the answer is; I doubt anybody does. Our economy and our politics each seem to reinforce the worst tendencies of the other; probably the same could be said of either with the culture that informs and encompasses both. The traditionally recommended remedy--more democracy--seems too susceptible to money and manipulation to pull us out of it; other means are both repellent and impractical.

What's kind of mind-blowing is that we're at the precipice of something profound and transformative, maybe more than anything in our lifetimes, and the protagonists--almost everyone on the right, and surely more than a few on the left--are still scrabbling for tactical advantage and trying to ensure that the other side eats the blame. I suppose they can't do otherwise, but that too says a lot about the bad road we're on.

Yet we can't just put this on the politicians. That they seem to reflect the country so well--in its smallness, selfishness, and myopia--is maybe the most discouraging element.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The All-Stars of American Decline
In honor of the MLB all-star selections announced today, as well as Independence Day weekend, I’m handing out some honors of my own: the All-Stars of American Decline.

These aren’t the people “responsible” for our regrettable perch at the precipice: that distinction is probably best reserved for, one, the public officials and unelected political actors who have made the decisions that led us to imperial overstretch, fiscal teetering, and embedded (and legal) corruption of our business and political spheres; and two, the shapers of culture and popular opinion, mostly entertainment executives and media moguls, who have eroded our attention spans, blunted our compassion and capacity for reflection and nourished our appetite for spectacle. If you read this site, you know what I think of Grover Norquist and Rupert Murdoch. No, these are the folks who less caused the problems than embody them.

Right up at the top, and the inspiration for this idea, is the political pundit Mark Halperin. He’s in trouble, suspended from his job, for having called the president “a dick” after his White House press conference the other day. A notorious hack even by political pundit standards, Halperin personifies the despicable Beltway mindset that views politics in a way entirely disconnected from the real-world effects of public choices. What was absolutely typical of his work wasn’t the pseudo-controversial remark, after a few minutes’ buildup of "oh, I'm about to be NAUGHTY!," but rather the total absence of observation or analysis of how the ideologically extreme and frighteningly irresponsible positions of the negotiators in the budget reduction meetings might have prompted the president's ire.

(And, as notes, he's not even good at it. Mike Allen of Politico is just as hack-y in approach, but at least he brings something to the table as a journalist. Halperin's both insipid and dumb as shit.)

I don’t think I have the stomach to fill out a whole lineup of Decline All-Stars, but we can round out a top five of individuals and types. There’s Bristol Palin, her mother’s daughter in every respect with the absence of discernable talent, pronounced mean streak and evidently unlimited self-regard.

(Actually, self-regard is the consistent element of all these selections: despite a pretty much total lack of tangible accomplishment or demonstrated ability, they think the sun shines out of their collective ass. This is the sense in which these individuals embody our shared problem, which—to simplify, but not all that much—boils down to an inability to accurately assess ourselves.)

There’s Terrell Owens, who’s a somewhat problematic member of this club because he evidently is talented—exceptionally so—and at times has shown himself a hard worker to boot, as when he rehabbed furiously to suit up for the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. But Owens is narcissistic at a level that might shock even these other narcissists: he wrecked a series of very strong football teams (most famously the 2005 Eagles), and now seems more interested in his reality TV show than anything else. (I heard a rumor that he tore his ACL working on the show, which I desperately want to believe, but can’t find anything to substantiate it.)

There’s every Wall Street asshole who made obscene money shorting the economy without any adverse consequence, then whined anonymously to the press—see this New York magazine story as the example—about how upsetting it’s been to be vilified by the president and others. The selective perception and willful historical amnesia of this group is also sadly representative of our larger problems; so too the absence of any meaningful policy correction to ensure that we don't repeat the mistakes of 2008 as the next bubble inflates.

And finally, because we can’t and shouldn’t let democracy itself off the hook, there are Representatives Anthony Weiner and Michele Bachmann. Congresswoman Batshit you know about, so I’ll just note that her total absence of legislative accomplishment or thought leadership on anything non-crazy would disqualify her from aspirations to higher office in a more functional country. As for Weiner, while I’m sympathetic to the view that his personal life is his own and that the Democrats showed their usual fear of their own shadows in pushing him offstage so quickly and insistently, there’s no arguing that his judgment and self-control were all-time awful. And that he evidently hit a wrong button—being old and tech-impaired, I don’t grasp how Twitter works, but my understanding is that he accidentally made public the dick-pic that was intended to be private—adds a comical element. Also, that his name is WEINER and he did all this.

Having watched the guy for a few years and met him once (he came to the think tank where I used to work for an off-the-record conversation in 2008, when he was expecting to run for mayor the following year), none of this was all that surprising. There was always a strong whiff of opportunism. presumption and entitlement to Weiner. His core political identity was that of an outer-borough moderate-to-conservative Democrat, which was how he ran against Freddy Ferrer in the 2005 mayoral Democratic primary. But as a more assertive Democratic left began to cohere online, he perceived, I suppose to his credit, that there was an opportunity to win fans and raise money by remaking himself as a loud ’n’ proud lefty. He’s by no means a dumb guy, though he’s also not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Before the scandal, probably his most revealing moment was when he dropped out of the 2009 mayoral race, basically admitting that he didn’t want to risk his career against Bloomberg’s billions. As we now know, he might well have won had he stuck it out.

More principled people tend to take those risks, fighting for something larger than themselves. Which again is why Weiner joins this list.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Batshit for President!
We now have the likes of Nate Silver suggesting that Michele Bachmann is "a legitimate contender to win the Republican nomination." She's polling 22 percent in Iowa, a point behind Mitt Romney, with strong "favorables" from that state's rabid social conservatives. Bachmann is a very accomplished fundraiser and highly effective retail politician. By all accounts, she "won" the most recent Republican debate a couple weeks ago.

She is also--there's simply no polite way to put this--certifiably fucking crazy, and one of the most vicious and hate-filled people in American politics. The evidentiary points here are almost innumerable, but Matt Taibbi has a good short primer of Bachmann's career to date. His summary assessment:

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

Think about the characteristics you value in a leader. For me, the first four that come to mind are humility, intellectual curiosity, pragmatism, and a calm temperament. Bachmann claims that God has communicated with her personally, a la the microphone in the braces from "Real Genius"; gets facts wrong at a pace and on a level that makes Sarah Palin seem like Daniel Patrick Moynihan; and has claimed that lesbians are trying to kill her, that we're all at risk of having to live under Sharia law, and that President Obama and many if not most Democrats are "anti-American" and should be "investigated." She also has a legislative record pretty much entirely devoid of any actual accomplishment.

What she has, in addition to (as Taibbi perfectly puts it) "the gigantic set of burnished titanium Terminator-testicles swinging under her skirt," is, one, innate political talent, and two, a perfect, better-than-Palin story to tell of anti-intellectual, liberal-hating grievance that alone will swing something like 30 percent of the electorate. Under the wrong set of circumstances--say, a debt-limit default and deep double-dip recession, plus disentanglement from our various wars in a manner that reads as "defeat"--she could win not just the nomination, but the general election. A few months ago I would have put the odds of this below one percent; now, it's maybe in the high single digits.

One test I've started to apply in simply thinking about presidential candidates is whether I'd rather they have the office than me. Bear with me for a minute: this isn't nearly as egotastic as I'm sure it sounds. I think I would be, if not the worst president in American history, easily down there with Bush II, Buchanan and Harding. I'm lazy ("sloth"), I often don't prioritize well, and I overreact to things. I'm not even good at Civilization, despite having put probably thousands of hours into that wonderful and highly addictive game. But I'd rather see myself in there than Batshit Bachmann. Possibly even after suffering brain damage.

(Edit: though I sort of loathe him and his blatant soullessness terrifies me, I wouldn't hesitate to vote for Mitt Romney if the only two choices were him and me. Likewise, among the Rs running, Huntsman and Gary Johnson. Pawlenty, whom I see as a more pathetic Romney--he's empty without the money to create an impressive facade--I'd have to think more about, but probably. Gingrich no, Palin no, Perry probably not, and trying to put Ron Paul through the exercise makes smoke come out of my ears like a robot from a 1950s sci-fi flick caught in a logic paradox.)

No doubt, any journalist who watches this person will reach the same conclusion. So I'd suggest that Bachmann's candidacy isn't even a test of the electorate's collective intelligence and attention span--they failed that one in 2004, and as the line between democracy and entertainment completely disappears, I don't see them passing a re-test--but whether we still have anything like a press corps capable of playing its assigned role as the protector of small-r republican-government. I don't doubt that many of the corporate overlords who own media companies will look at Bachmann, with her right-wing ideology and absence of critical thinking skills, and see a powerful instrument for their own advancement. But profit doesn't mean much, I would think, if it comes amidst a general collapse.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

One for the Good Guys
Maybe it's a good thing that the actual moments in which society takes measurable steps forward are often about as dramatic as watching a guy carrying groceries and dry cleaning root through his pockets looking for his keys. So it was when the New York State Senate voted to enact marriage equality last night. Senator Stephen Saland, a moderate Republican whose district runs along the Hudson below Albany, provided the decisive 32nd vote that put the bill over the top after negotiating an amendment that allayed fears of liability on the part of religious institutions, and gave remarks that, on the page, seem fairly stirring. In the delivery, however, he may as well have been proposing to name a post office after some 19th century burgher, except that my guess is he'd have spoken with more passion. Tom Duane, the sponsor of the measure who's spent years fighting for a right intensely personal to him, was only slightly less subdued. Of the main characters, the only one who even sort of played his part was incomparable asshole Ruben Diaz Sr., an unashamed bigot who was petulant, incoherent and obnoxious as one would expect, though more regarding Senate procedure than the measure itself.

But this isn't about the moment; it's about the magnitude of what it accomplished. The vote came after days of stalemate, during which I'd drawn the conclusion that Senate Republicans--caught between the promises of the Conservative Party to deny them ballot access if they voted to allow same sex marriage, and the implied threat of their biggest funder, Mayor Bloomberg, to withdraw support if they didn't--would simply run out the clock and not bring it up for a vote. That they didn't is a tribute both to Governor Cuomo, whose actions backed up his stated commitment to equality (and who can count on some deep-pocketed friends with long memories when he runs for president in five years), and to Dean Skelos, the Republican Senate leader who voted against the measure but neither strong-armed his members to do the same nor pushed hard to avoid the vote.

For the state Senate Republicans, holding onto an artificial one-vote majority thanks to gerrymandering but fenced in by demographics and the increasing distance between the New York electorate (even outside the City) and their national party, there was no winning move here: vote yes, and lose a sizable chunk of their current support that they can't afford to part with, but vote no and face a furious financial and electoral onslaught when everyone's up again next year, led by a very popular governor. Skelos probably played it as well as possible: members like freshman Michael Grisanti, the Buffalo Republican representing a strongly Democratic district who provided the symbolically important 33rd vote, surely improved his chances to survive when trends don't favor Republicans nearly as strongly as they did in 2010. (Grisanti was also by far the best speaker of any who took the floor last night.) The Times also suggests that Republican Wall Street donors cultivated by Cuomo played a role almost as decisive as that of the governor himself.

It's no news to anyone who reads this page that I am not generally optimistic about the future of our society, particularly in its political guise--largely because we're well on the way toward making Margaret Thatcher's famous quip that "there's no such thing as society" a self-fulfilling prophesy. One can guess the view of Zaphod Beeblebrox on taxes; that's us now. Each of us sees himself as the Most Important Being in the Universe, with individual imperatives that cannot be violated. Economically, this is leading us toward a disaster that could hit as soon as this summer... yet, socially, it's taking us to a better place. (The Times story notes that the Wall Street big shots "were inclined to see the issue as one of personal freedom, consistent with their more libertarian views.") In a moment where we should take our satisfactions and signs of progress wherever we can, this is worth celebrating.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

Maybe it's just the course of my activities this holiday weekend, but I feel like I'm seeing more attention paid to Memorial Day this year than has been the case in previous years. The Phillies-Mets game I attended yesterday (unfortunately for me, at least in terms of the outcome) featured all kinds of honors for military personnel; various stations on basic cable are going all-war-movie, all-weekend (though I found "Apocalypse Now Redux," which Annie and I watched Saturday night, kind of an interesting choice if the idea is to honor the American man/woman-under arms), and so on. The Phils-Nationals game I've got on right now features stars-and-stripes hats, and a sergeant just called "Play ball."

And perhaps this is me forcing the world to fit into my own views, but I can't help thinking this somehow reflects a large and growing discomfort with our country's role in the world, as policeman for global order and/or our own imperial prerogatives. With the news that an errant air strike killed another dozen-plus Afghani civilians on Saturday--retaliation for a Taliban attack that was retaliation for something we did, which was retaliation for a previous terror strike, and so on going back ten years now--can anyone cogently explain why we're there now? Or when we'll leave--really? Or why we won't make this mistake--whether you consider the mistake the initial intervention, or the absurdly prolonged deployment--again?

The other point, in terms of domestic considerations, is that these wars aren't cheap; we're over a trillion even by conservative official estimates, with outside analysts suggesting a much higher number. The debt concerns now obsessing Washington would be literally non-existent were it not for the wars and the tax cuts, all put on the national credit card, in the previous decade. But this is not much discussed; it's more emotionally satisfying to debate the few million spent on NPR and Planned Parenthood. If there's hope for a change in policy, though, this is where it resides: I'll be very interested to see if the presidential campaign of Ron Paul, who for all his despicable and flat-out bizarre views on other issues is consistent against the excesses of empire and not afraid to say so, gains any traction. And it probably doesn't hurt that the outgoing Secretary of Defense is urging this conversation on the country, even if he might not be comfortable with how it could resolve.

It's probably too easy to say that the fetishization of the military and the culture of enforced patriotism (or rather a certain type of hyper-nationalistic patriotism) is itself a way to sustain the status quo in terms of our absurdly disproportionate defense spending and hyper-aggressive foreign deployments. But it doesn't hurt, particularly with a silent but steadfast bipartisan consensus around both notions: the Republicans because the projection of American military power touches something deep and pleasurable inside many of them--on some level, inflicting civilian casualties might well be a feature rather than a bug--and the Democrats because, well, they're spineless cowards ("Democrats"). Until we figure out that it's possible to separate honoring military servicemembers from supporting the missions of empire we send them on, we'll continue to sacrifice soldiers and argue that their sacrifices must not be in vain.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Tribalism, Revenge, Principle and Politics
Given how our media/political culture is structured, it was inevitable that within a day (at most) of the news that a U.S. operation had killed Osama bin Laden, speculation would start to bubble about how much this would help President Obama's prospects for re-election next year. While the news of bin Laden's death pushed lingering speculation over Obama's release of his "long-form" birth certificate completely out of the headlines, I'd argue that the two items (the birth certificate and the killing of bin Laden) are related.

The "birther" issue obviously and transparently was about Obama's "otherness": the emotional need on the part of those who hate and fear this president to believe he wasn't born an American tied to the idea that he differs, in appearance but also in perspective and formative experience, from what we instinctively call to mind when hearing the word "American." The release of the certificate dispelled one aspect of difference (polls show the number who believe he was not born in the U.S. fell sharply after the release); but the president's emphasis on "getting" bin Laden (however defined) creates a new point of emotional connection between the president and a segment of voters who might not previously have identified with him. I wouldn't be shocked if his support among the military community is up next year; if so, remember this week. His determination to capture or kill the mastermind of 9/11 and evident satisfaction in having done so binds him to the public in a way we hadn't seen before.

As the story broke Sunday night, I was flipping back and forth between the Mets-Phillies game on ESPN and news coverage while waiting for Obama to speak. The news filtered through Citizens Bank Park, prompting spontaneous "U-S-A!" chants; this was, perhaps, a nice moment of community, as were the gatherings outside the White House and in Times Square. But there was something about the celebration of what essentially was a murder--however justified--that troubled a lot of us. My wife very quickly said it didn't change anything in the geopolitical sense; this is probably true, and I think Glenn Greenwald is right that this is more likely to prompt us to double down on belligerent and unwise foreign policy decisions than, say, declare victory in Afghanistan and speed up the process of withdrawal. It's sobering to think that our failures rather our successes are more likely to prompt thoughtful reconsideration of choices made.

(To be clear: I was glad to hear of bin Laden's death. I was in Lower Manhattan on the morning of 9/11, walked through the smoke and pulverized remains of the Towers to get to the Brooklyn Bridge and wander through Brooklyn toward home on that shocked, mostly silent morning. I had peripheral connections to a couple of those lost on that day, and like every New Yorker felt the deep wound that was inflicted on our City. Even worse, it remains my view that the attack knocked us off course as a nation and society; it ensconced the most consequentially harmful administration we've ever had, enmeshed us in multiple wars and pushed us down a dark road of war, lawlessness and debt that we remain on, and that I doubt we'll ever get off without consequences that might dwarf those of the attack itself. Maybe I'm just more inclined to mourn what I think has happened to my country than actively celebrate the demise of the individual among those most responsible for putting us on that unfortunate path. I don't begrudge others their rejoicing, but I couldn't really share in it.)

There are some who criticize what increasingly seems like an assassination mission, notwithstanding the claims of Pentagon officials that the strike team was prepared to take bin Laden into custody. I don't believe that, and while I share in the abstract Greenwald's concern that we don't seem particularly eager to hear the details... I'm not particularly eager to hear the details, and I can't shake the sense that we're better off with him dead than we would be with him in custody. We as a society aren't who we were 65 years ago, when the Nazi war criminals were tried for their crimes at Nuremberg; evidently we can't even try lesser terrorists, so there's no chance we could have done for Osama bin Laden. Instead, the national appetite for revenge would have been whetted that much further by the knowledge we could torture the mastermind of 9/11 whenever we wanted.

Self-indulgence, individual and collective, is now our universal watchword; we're bloodthirsty; we love spectacle; and we resolutely fail to perceive or even entertain the concept of causal relationships. If one faces these truths, it's clear no good would have come of imprisoning or trying bin Laden. In custody, he would have remained a symbol and rallying cry for terrorists and perhaps Arab Muslims more generally, depending on how things unfold with the Arab Spring. I wish things were otherwise, but they aren't, and it's difficult for me to believe that the president and his advisors didn't come to the same conclusion and thus gave the order to kill.

While the killing of bin Laden probably amounts to a political sugar rush for Obama, the development of this week that I think might really lift him next year was the Republicans' waffling on their proposed phase-out of Medicare. Every Republican in the House voted for this exceptionally unpopular measure... but then their leadership walked away from it. (It's something of a problem for the Republicans that without the Medicare changes, their budget doesn't get to balance even with all the other crazy assumptions--2 percent unemployment and so on--baked in.) The question is whether the Democrats can hang this on the Republicans next year, trapping the presidential nominee between a position the party's hardcore base and biggest donors are adamantly for but that large majorities reject. Given what they showed us in 2008, I think it's likely Obama's team will find a way to make this stick.

The Republicans have made an interesting bet on the politics of 2012: ostensibly that the public is ready to have a "serious conversation about the cost of government," but that it will buy their premise that all change should be on the spending side (NO NEW TAXES EVER! DADDY TOOK MY ICE CREAM!) and that almost all cuts should be on the backs of the poor and politically disadvantaged. This doesn't bespeak a wager on seriousness so much as selfishness and cruelty. I wish I had more confidence that they're wrong.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Now We're Talkin'
Two and a half years into Barack Obama's presidency, my biggest disappointment has been his unwillingness or inability to articulate a coherent and resonant message about the proper role of progressive government in 21st century America. Obama the candidate seemed to promise both a return to progressive values--the rule of law, respect for individual freedoms, an unapologetic defense of the signature Democratic policy achievements of the last century (and expansion of them into this one) and the regulatory state--and a technocratic expertise in governance that would be appropriately humble about the limits of what could and should be done at the federal level which would manifest both in domestic policy (hence the repeated tips of the cap toward behavioral economics) and internationally.

On much of that, he simply hasn't delivered. The Obama administration has institutionalized nearly all of the Bush/Cheney Security State, continued the dumbassed and fiscally ruinous war on drugs, and viciously pursued whistle-blowers. There have been a few advances--perhaps most notably, the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell--but by and large, the record on values is disappointing for liberals. Likewise the president's embrace of Republican frames in domestic policymaking: seemingly everything he's said has indicated acceptance of core premises that the federal government is feckless and inefficient. Even the battles he's "won," such as passage of the stimulus, Affordable Care Act and (if you care to call this a victory at all) the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, generally haven't featured strong pushback against the talking points of the right.

Obama likely would assert that his use of stronger language or clearer contrasts with political opponents might have jeopardized even those accomplishments, furthering the very perception of government ineptitude that constrains him and Democrats more generally. This may or may not be true, but that perception endures anyway--as does the sense that this president has no stomach for big fights. His problem in this area is that presidential greatness doesn't come without conflict; it isn't achieved without risk, without a willingness to set one's position in clear contrast to that of the other side and offer the public the clearest possible choice. Ronald Reagan did that, in his time; Bill Clinton really didn't in his, which is why (as Obama himself noted during the '08 campaign) Reagan was a transformational president while Clinton was basically the most fun and interesting guest at the kick-ass party that was the 1990s.

This week, when he set his own view for deficit reduction against that of the Republicans, we might finally have seen Obama come out swinging:

[The Republican plan] says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. Who are these 50 million Americans? Many are somebody's grandparents -- may be one of yours -- who wouldn't be able to afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down's syndrome. Some of these kids with disabilities are -- the disabilities are so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we'd be telling to fend for themselves.

And worst of all, this is a vision that says even though Americans can't afford to invest in education at current levels, or clean energy, even though we can't afford to maintain our commitment on Medicare and Medicaid, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about that.

In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. That's who needs to pay less taxes?

They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that's paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That's not right. And it's not going to happen as long as I'm President. (Applause.)

This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. Ronald Reagan's own budget director said, there's nothing "serious" or "courageous" about this plan. There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don't think there's anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill. That's not a vision of the America I know.

The America I know is generous and compassionate. It's a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share. We're a nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We sent a generation to college on the GI Bill and we saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare. We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives. That's who we are. This is the America that I know. We don't have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit our investment in our people and our country.

Without glossing over the details absent from the president's plan and its at least arguable want of real political courage (it's unlikely in the extreme that we can get to balance without any new taxes, directly or indirectly, on the middle class), this is both enormously preferable on the substance and a political winner. Every Democrat on the ballot next year should echo that "34 seniors pay $6400 more for health care so a billionaire can get a $200,000 tax cut" line, as it's the best representation yet of the clear truth that Republicans care less about deficit reduction than they do for tax cuts.

The fanatical Republican resistance even to tax reform that might close some distorting loopholes, let alone tax increases or expiration of fiscally irresponsible tax cuts, is one of the two biggest problems in this debate. The other is their refusal to understand why the US in the 20th century enjoyed both the largest and the most equitably distributed prosperity in history: our unprecedented investments in human capital. Enormous (and largely collective) investment in education begat the first mass middle class; as we start to disinvest, at least in relative terms, the middle class comes under increasing strain. I'm pretty sure Obama gets this, as he articulated in both his state of the union speech and Wednesday's address, and his team has reiterated in the vapid but probably effective "win the future" sound bite.

Staying focused on both these points gives him the edge over the Republicans in the contest for "who gets to be the grown-up," which is a decent proxy for who wins independent voters next year. It further helps that whoever gets to engage Obama in that fight as the Republican presidential nominee probably first has to go far, far in the other direction: it's only possible to win that nomination by catering to the most distorted, fact-resistant right-wing fantasies, both in terms of things like Obama's place of birth and the idea that the budget can be brought into balance solely by cutting Things Liberals Like (NPR, foreign aid). The cultivation and constant reinforcement of a hardcore 15-20 percent of the electorate on the far right helped the Republicans win back the House last year; next year, what's required to keep that base happy might have the effect of giving Obama a second term--another requirement for presidents who aspire to transformational status.