Friday, April 30, 2010

Well that didn't take long

Just days after passing their bigoted racial profiling law, members of the Arizona legislature have passed several amendments to it.

One change removes the word "solely" from the provision stating that "The attorney general or county attorney shall not investigate complaints that are based solely on race, color or national origin." Another replaces "lawful contact" with "lawful stop, detention or arrest."

Note well that these changes are supposed to deal with problems with the bill that its proponents insisted never existed in the first place. So now it's "there never were any problems with this bill and besides, we fixed them." I'm not impressed.

That's because this - of course - does nothing about the basic problem with the bill, which is that it positively invites racial profiling. Both the original provision and the changed one supposedly dealing with that are just window dressing - unless, that is, you can cite me all the times cops said "I stopped them because they were black/Latino/whatever." There's always another reason, a different reason, claimed. It may be completely bogus, but it will satisfy the fearful and the bigoted.

Moreover, as if to prove the point, the legislature - which apparently just can't help itself - passed another amendment intended to make it clear that a "police contact" over accusations of violation of local civil ordinances can lead to questioning about immigration status. So someone complains your yard is overgrown or has too many weeds and the cops can come a-calling, demanding to see your birth certificate. Yeah, sure, that provision won't be abused.

The same basic problem exists: Until the legislature can do what the governor and most police departments admit they themselves can't, which is to define what constitutes "reasonable suspicion" and explain how you can just tell someone may well be an undocumented immigrant in a way that makes no reference to "race, color or national origin" and so could apply equally well to a white Irish guy in Boston as to a Latino guy in Tucson, the law will remain what it has been from the start: a bigoted blast from people who are terrified of the fact that their world is changing color and like King Canute* are trying to hold back the tide.

*Actually, it's now generally agreed that Canute staged the demonstration to prove that he could not hold back the tide, to remind his courtiers and assorted sycophants that no person can command nature.

Footnote: This business has provided another example of what is wrong with public polling and how poll results must be used carefully. The notable recent one, of course, was with health care when polls reported on people who opposed the bill without asking them why - which meant that those (such as me) who opposed it because it wasn't good enough got lumped with the corporation-bootlickers who wanted no change at all.

Well, according to a Gallup poll from the end of April, Americans who have heard about the Arizona bill favor it by a margin of 51-39 percent. (Sidebar relating to a different sort of complaint: The headline says "most" of us support the bill. Now, 51% may be a majority, but no way is it "most.") But in reading the actual results, it turns out that people were asked how much they had heard about that law, but not what they had heard. Lacking that information, the results are utterly meaningless and may reflect more Hannity-esque crap than actual information.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Another way good liberals prove they're not DFHs

On "Countdown" on Tuesday, Keith Olbermann made Hugo Chavez the bronze winner of the "Worst Person in the World" competition. The basis? Chavez has taken to Twitter. This, apparently, is supposed to be inherently hilarious because of Chavez's (well-deserved) reputation for verbosity.

But why, you ask, a "Worst Person" award for it, a dishonor generally reserved for people who have done something either offensive or foolishly outrageous? The idea of Hugo Chavez limiting himself to 140 characters at a time may be amusing, but offensive? Outrageous?

Ah, you're missing the point. It wasn't that Hugo Chavez being on Twitter is offensive or outrageous - it's that it's Hugo Chavez. And his being on Twitter wasn't the actual point; rather, it was to gave KO the opening to describe Chavez as, his exact words, "quote President unquote of Venezuela" and "Comandante Chavez."

That is, his being on Twitter was just the excuse to indulge in a little Chavez-bashing, a little demonizing, something in which all good liberals engage from time to time to prove that they really are "serious" observers who haven't strayed too far from the foreign policy consensus and their disagreements, where they exists, arise more over matters of effectiveness and advisability, not from any fundamental difference in philosophy and certainly not from any questions about basic moral principles. And doggone it, to prove they are totally unbiased because they will criticize leftists!

They do it to show, that is, that they are not, absolutely not, DFHs.

Now, there certainly are grounds on which Chavez can be criticized - more on that shortly - but quite bluntly, the legitimacy of his position as president is not among them. He was elected in 1998, then elected again in 2000 under a new Constitution with 56% of the vote, giving him a six-year term. He survived a military coup (which the US endorsed and blamed on him) in 2002 and defeated a recall referendum in 2004, gaining 58% of the vote that time. In 2006 he was elected to a second six-year term with 63% of the vote. These votes have been conducted under the watchful eyes of international observers, such as The Carter Center, who have concluded that they were free and fair - something which even his opposition ultimately had to admit.

Regardless of what you think of him or his policies, Hugo Chavez is the president of Venezuela. He's no more "quote president unquote" than Shrub was - and considering our the 2000 election, he's a hell of a lot less "quote president unquote" than Shrub was for the first half of his presidency.

He is not the first to wear the mantle of "the leftist who liberals find it politically convenient to make a point of saying they hate," but he is one of the longest-lasting. So the good liberals will bash him, make him their convenient whipping boy, just to show how truly American they are.

They will, for example, decry his "increasingly authoritarian" rule, which, I said not quite six years ago now,
always seems to be "increasing" but never seems to actually get to being authoritarian.
Still, it is true that there are legitimate criticisms of Chavez that can be made in the area of civil liberties, but they do not arise from his being some "Comandante" or autocrat or the "would-be-dictator" of liberals' imaginations, but from the nature of social revolutions, revolutions which have a dark side that can emerge if you're not watchful. As an example of the idea, speaking of Jesse Jackson in a letter in August 1988, I wrote that
Jackson sees himself ... as the embodiment of a movement, the physical expression of a certain idealism, who’s working through the Democratic Party as a vehicle for that movement. ... [A] couple of years ago I was concerned that Jackson was developing a Messiah complex, starting to equate his personal advancement with that of the causes he espoused and represented. It’s a risk that any leader runs, especially one as overtly ambitious as Jackson.
I raised a similar concern about Chavez himself nearly three years ago: Discussing an article in "Time" magazine, I noted it said that Chavez's revolution has a weakness: "Its inordinate dependence on Chavez, its one-man-show aspect. If he were to leave the scene, there's a feeling the whole revolution would unravel tomorrow."

I argued that the article overstated the case,
but in a longer view, that is not an irrelevant concern. Rather, it is a risk run with any movement, with any attempt at dramatic change: the possibility of its turning, however unintentionally, into a personality cult that can't survive the symbol. The result is that both leader and supporters come to equate the benefit of the leader with that of the movement as a whole, and the leader who starts saying "they need me" more often and with more emphasis than "I need them" is starting down a road that may in the longer term undermine what they set out to achieve.

Venezuela is not at that point and is not close to that point - but it is not so distant from it that it can't be made out on the horizon.
I believe that condition, one of Venezuela not being an authoritarian state but still the idea of it developing into one not lying outside the range of possibility, remains true today. Yes, I am well aware of Chavez's recent aggressive and ominous moves against some opposition outlets; however, the fact is that opposition media seems always to survive and even thrive despite repeated reports of "the last anti-Chavez" whatever it was that time "being forcibly shut down."

The greater risk, I think, lies in two other developments: One is Chavez's success in winning a referendum eliminating term limits for elected officials, including the president. He pushed for it on the grounds that he needed "10 more years" to complete the work he started. That not only speaks to the "one-man-show" weakness but hints at another movement starting to equate the leader with the movement itself, always a risky prospect. The other, related risk, arises from the increasing evidence of corruption and cronyism in his administration, which is another sign of a movement with leaders who have become too self-referential.

I believe that Hugo Chavez genuinely believes in his social revolution. I believe he is truly interested in giving the poor a power and a voice which they have never had before. I believe he genuinely wants to cut poverty, to improve education, to feed the hungry. But to the very extent that the revolution becomes about him, to the very extent that there is no structure, no movement that exists independently of him and so will survive him, to that very same extent he will in the long run fail while possibly turning into precisely that of which his enemies accuse him in the process. And that, especially considering what he and his movement have both achieved and survived, would be a very great shame.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

And a bit more on Arizona

First, I want to make the important observation that racial profiling is already happening in Arizona, even before the law goes into effect. It's just being done by the feds, not the staties. This is from KTVK-TV of Phoenix:
A Valley man says he was pulled over Wednesday morning and questioned when he arrived at a weigh station for his commercial vehicle along Val Vista and the 202 freeway [outside Phoenix].
The questioning was done by agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, appropriately acronymed ICE. He provided them his commercial driver's license and a social security number, but that wasn't good enough for the federales: He was arrested and handcuffed.

An agent called his wife, who had to leave work to go home and bring additional documents, including his birth certificate, to the ICE office before they would release him.

The two are both natural born US citizens and yes, you guessed it, they are Hispanic.
A representative at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ... said this was standard operating procedure.

The agents needed to verify Abdon[, the man arrested,] was in the country legally and it is not uncommon to ask for someone's birth certificate. She also said this has nothing to do with the proposed bill or racial profiling.
Of course it doesn't! I'm sure you question all the white drivers who pull into the weigh station and arrest any one of them who isn't carrying a birth certificate. Nothing racial at all involved.

The second thing here is to note that the prospect of a boycott of Arizona is firming up. For example,
[j]ust minutes after Brewer signed 1070 into law on Friday, the American Immigration Lawyers' Association canceled their annual fall convention. They had planned to host the September event in Scottsdale.

"We can't in good conscious [sic] spend the organization's money in a state that's going to pursue these kinds of policies," said Regina Jeffries of the AILA.
What's more,
San Francisco city officials are calling for a boycott of Arizona and businesses based there to protest the state's strict new immigration law.

The city attorney, Dennis Herrera, offered Monday to help with any challenges to the law. He says his teams will start determining which contracts between Arizona and the city and county of San Francisco and Arizona could be severed without penalty. ...

Several city supervisors are promising to introduce a resolution urging a citywide boycott of Arizona.
My wife and I were hoping to be able to afford one last big trip this fall. I had planned on surprising her by making arrangements to go to the Grand Canyon, where she has never been and really wants to go. But that's off, obviously. I can't stomach spending any money in Arizona and if I did make those plans, she'd smack me upside the head.

It really is too bad. Physically, Arizona is a beautiful state. Psychically, not so much.

A bit more on privacy...

...and why we should be concerned. You surely know that the government is amassing vast amounts of data about us. How massive is the pile? According to then-newly declassified documents obtained by last fall and discussed in a mostly gee-whiz article,
the FBI’s National Security Branch Analysis Center (NSAC) maintains a hodgepodge of data sets packed with more than 1.5 billion government and private-sector records about citizens and foreigners,
tens of thousands of records from private corporate databases, including car-rental companies, large hotel chains and at least one national department store....
Now it develops that not only is the government sharing at least some of that data, related to arrest records, with foreign countries, it's doing it even though it knows a significant amount of it is wrong.

On Monday, the ACLU blog cited an article in USA Today that
tells the story of Ann Wright, a former U.S. State Department official who became active in the anti-war movement after the invasion of Iraq. Wright has been repeatedly stopped at the Canadian border by immigration officials because our government gives them direct access to a database that includes her history of misdemeanor arrests for civil disobedience.
So first off, it's undeniable that such information is being shared with foreign governments, in fact not even foreign governments but individual cops of foreign governments. Just how is it that we can keep being assured of the "safety" and "confidentiality" of those records when they are so widely and freely shared, including with people not even subject to US laws regarding their dissemination?

But there's more.
The database the article discusses is managed by the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the government's primary computer system for sharing criminal justice information with law enforcement agencies throughout the country, and now beyond.... NCIC process an average of 7 million requests for information a day.
And according to Roy Weise, a "senior adviser to the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division," which manages NCIC, "about half" of the arrest records in the system have not been updated to reflect the disposition. In other words, the database says you were arrested for something - but if the charges were dropped or dismissed or you were acquitted, there's a 50-50 chance it does not say that.

The ACLU goes on to note that in 2005, the Migration Policy Institute found an error rate of 42 percent in NCIC "hits" between 2002 and 2004. How could it be this bad, the ACLU asks, when the Privacy Act requires agencies to make sure their records are sufficiently accurate and updated "to assure fairness to the individual" being examined or identified? Simple: The NCIC was exempted from the Privacy Act.

Oh, well, that's okay then.

Monday, April 26, 2010


A quick update on a post too old to be updated there: On April 8 I posted about the order to kill Anwar al-Awlaki. I noted at the time that I had sent a version of the post to the White House, edited to fit within the character limit imposed by the email system there. When I sent it, I checked the box saying I wanted a reply.

I just wanted to note that it's now two and a-half weeks later and I have received no reply either by mail or email, not even a pro forma, automated, "thanks for your comment" reply. Make of that what you will.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why we keep losing privacy

An article at TalkingPointsMemo starts this way:
At the intersection of political paranoia and old-fashioned, clinical paranoia you'll find microchips.
The article concerns moves in eight states over the past few years to ban any forced subcutaneous implantation of tracking microchips in humans. Three of those states have already passed bills to do just that.

But as you can surely tell from that opening sentence, the entire attitude of the article (and most of the accompanying comments) is one of snickering derision. Besides the references to paranoia (and opening the article by referring to a woman who insists she was forcibly implanted by the DOD in her "vaginal-rectum area"), the author, one Eric Lach, calls such implants a "still-essentially-hypothetical problem" and "a problem that doesn't actually exist yet." He points to outlandish arguments raised by the opponents of chipping (such as tying microchips to the End Times) and cites a couple of the weakest arguments advanced by one concerned group while ignoring the actual cases of attempts at or proposals for widespread chipping found in that same list.

He is, in short, an oh-so reasonable, oh-so serious, oh-so sober commentator attempting - and failing - to suppress a bemused smile at the antics of the wackos.

But here's the rub: There is no question that the technology to track via microchip exists; Lach himself tacitly admits as much. In fact, it's already in widespread use: Just give a thought to your mobile phone. And there have been serious proposals to apply that technology directly to humans. Usually it's for the person's own good (of course) - such as in Alzheimer's patients or "wanderers" in nursing homes or mental hospitals. Unless it's for the public good and safety (of course) - such as for parolees or people under house arrest or truant children (who might run away) or people in prison (who might escape) or people on temporary visas (who might overstay).

Then there is the idea of implanted microchips for identification, ones that carry information about you. Just think of the benefits! You're unconscious after a car wreck, unable to identify yourself or say who to call. It's right there on the chip, accessible to the appropriate reader! And what's more, there's your entire medical history there as well for the hospital to see! Wouldn't that be wonderful? This is no fantasy: My wife, a retired nurse, tells me in response to reading this post that she attended a health fair at which there was a booth signing people up for precisely that: a subcutaneous chip that would contain your complete medical history so that if "God forbid" something terrible happened, that information would be immediately available to any medical institution with the proper reader.

What's more, that sort of technology, of ID via implanted microchip, is already in widespread use in dogs. That neither that idea nor that of tracking chips has gained a lot of traction as applied to humans does not mean the technology doesn't exist. It does, as does the desire to use it. What has stopped it so far is, pretty much, the "ick" factor. But that ick factor has been overcome many times before. This is not a looming threat, but it is a real one.

So here's the problem in a nutshell: Lach says that
[w]hen Missouri was considering its own microchip ban in 2008, State Rep. Jim Guest told the Columbia Missourian that the bill was aimed at preventing employers from mandating chips as a requisite for employment, even though no Missouri companies were then engaging in the practice.
So according to Lach, we should wait until after subcutaneous chipping is a common practice before doing anything about it. We shouldn't try to prevent a problem, we should wait until after it is already is a problem before we act.

At which point we can have an oh-so reasonable, oh-so serious, oh-so sober discussion on how utterly foolish it is to even try to "turn the clock back" and how "the technology is here to stay" and how we need to have some "regulation" or "oversight" or "controls" to "manage" implants, which will continue to be used "in appropriate circumstances" that can and will expand over time.

And that, friends, is why our privacy keeps slipping away: Because dolts like Lach and his echo chamber in comments think it's a joke until they discover that they are part of the punch line, and then it's too late.

Footnote to both of the preceding

If only to confirm what we all knew and what I said: Racism is not dead.
According to a lawsuit filed by hotel waiter Wadner Tranchant, 40, the Ritz-Carlton [hotel in Naples, Florida,] honored a British family's request not to be served by "people of color" or with "foreign accents." ...

And the lawsuit claims that this wasn't the first discriminatory demand made by a guest, and honored by the hotel. "Other employees of defendant Ritz also encountered similar treatment on multiple occasions," the complaint reads.
Under the heading of "Unintentional Humor" comes the official comments of the chain:
The Ritz-Carlton cannot comment on pending litigation but can say the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company does not allow discriminatory actions by employees or guests.
"Management," you'll note, is not included among those not allowed to discriminate.

On the other hand, it should be noted that the reason we know about the incident beyond the suit is that managing director Edward Staros insisted the request be logged and accompanied it with a note stating that the family was "very, very prejudice[d]."

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A sort of footnote to the preceding

So Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed that xenophobic, racist, un-American, unconstitutional, just downright fucking offensive bill empowering, indeed pressuring, all Arizona police to arrest anyone who can't prove on demand that they are in the US legally. Making that demand requires only "reasonable suspicion." What constitutes the basis for such suspicion is undefined, positively inviting the widest possible interpretation - or, perhaps more accurately, the narrowest possible interpretation: If you're white, you're all right; if you're brown, you go down.
"This is the most reprehensible thing since the Japanese internment," said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state senator and community leader. "This is the saddest day for me. It's shameful."
But oh no, Brewer insists, that's completely wrong. There will be absolutely no racial profiling involved. None at all. Nope, uh-uh. How can she be so sure? Well, because she got language in the bill prohibiting cops from “solely considering race, color, or national origins.” Oh, well, then, excuse me, I surely am, as she says opponents are, "overreacting." Because, after all, if you can't solely consider race, color, or national origin, if that can't be the single thing you use to suspect people of being "illegal," how could there be anything racist or xenophobic about it? I mean, after all!

In fact, there are lots of other ways you can tell who is an "illegal."
Law enforcement officers can spot illegal immigrants based on their clothes, Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) claimed last night. ...

"They will look at the kind of dress you wear, there's different type of attire, there's different type of...right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes," Bilbray [said].
So demanding "You papers, please" of some guy because he's brown, that's right out. Will never happen. Because that would be wrong. But making the same demand because he's brown and has that kind of shoes - I mean, you know, that kind, the kind "illegals" wear - well, that's different. That's just fine. No racial profiling there.

What's more, there's a way you can be sure there will be no profiling: The law also gives legal standing to any citizen who wants to sue police for inadequate enforcement. And obviously that will only be used by good government types seeking to insure completely fair and unbiased treatment and not by some septic-brained mouth breather pissed off because "the cops ain't lockin' up enough Spics."

The ACLU is among the groups and agencies planning to challenge the "discriminatory" bill, saying it
requires law enforcement to question individuals about their immigration status during everyday police encounters. The law creates new immigration crimes and penalties inconsistent with those in federal law, asserts sweeping authority to detain and transport persons suspected of violating civil immigration laws and prohibits speech and other expressive activity by persons seeking work.
Indeed, the law essentially makes it illegal to pick up or transport day laborers (or for day laborers to be picked up) even though courts have found that solicitation of work is protected speech under the First Amendment.
"By signing this bill into law, Brewer has just authorized violating the rights of millions of people living and working here[," said Alessandra Soler Meetze, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arizona. "]She has just given every police agency in Arizona a mandate to harass anyone who looks or sounds foreign...."
Some people are predicting electoral doom for the GOP in Arizona in the longer term as a result of the anger this will generate in the Hispanic community. In the shorter term, various groups and individuals are calling for a boycott of Arizona, something like the effective boycott of Colorado in the early 1990s in protest of a vote to repeal legal protections for gays and lesbians there. Among those people is Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), who got death threats as a result.

Among others is me.

With all that said, though, a question remains: Why did I call this "a sort of footnote to the preceding" post? It's because of the chief sponsor of the bill, one Russell Pearce, who called the signing "a good day for America." In an interview with NPR in 2008, he said of undocumented workers,
Invaders, that's what they are. Invaders on the American sovereignty and it can't be tolerated.
He also admitted to
feeling uncomfortable with the way society is changing in Arizona. He attributes it partly to Mexicans' and Central Americans' "way of doing business."

"Drive around parts of Phoenix. I get calls all the time and it's not that they're Hispanic, it's because the culture is different."
Different in a way that, according to him, means higher crime, "more violence, kidnappings are way up."

Robert Cruickshank writes that
[t]his conflation of "illegal" with "Hispanic" is by no means new, even though there are lots of Irish undocumented immigrants in the US. What Pearce represents is the very same phenomenon we're all too familiar with here in California: white anxiety at the fact that their country was never as white as they believed, and is becoming steadily more diverse. Blaming "illegals" is merely an easier way of couching one's racism.
Thus, a footnote because it seems to me I just said something quite similar to that: These people are "uncomfortable with the way society is changing." More accurately, they are scared out of their wits because whether or not the US "was never as white as they believed" it clearly is not as white as it was and never will be again. Their entire concept of their personal world is crumbling and they know it. And that leads to such as this bill and to right wing militias, to efforts to stop the "invasion" of The Other. Combining that fear-driven racism with the very real loss of economic security many of us have suffered leads to fantasies and phantoms, to screeching about "death panels" and hunting down Kenyan birth certificates. It leads to a zero-sum calculation directed against those who are weaker than you either socially or economically or both, viewing every gain for them as an equivalent loss to you. It leads to anger, to resentment, to cults of personality, sometimes to violence, all of it, at root in the masses of people (not their exploiters among the rich, the powerful, the well-established but the masses of people), a cry of "For God's sake, leave me alone!"

That's a cry both unanswered and unanswerable because the clock of history is not going to stop for them any more than it would stop for anyone else. Which is why, when I look at the TPers, even as I fear the potential harm they can do, even as I openly despise the racist agenda (such as the Arizona bill) that they enable, I can't help but see them, in the long run of history, as other than tragic figures - like Shays' Rebellion but without the dignity - or as tragicomic ones, remembered more as a slogan or a label (such as "teabaggers") than as a real movement - like the Know Nothings but without the longevity.

That, however, is in the longer term - and in the short term they still must be opposed. I just think our opposition will be more effective if we keep in mind that there are some legitimate economic grievances underneath the screaming.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A not altogether unsympathetic look at the teabaggers

Everyone knows about the New York Times/CBS survey published earlier this month of those who say they are part of the teabaggers - excuse me, the “Tea Party movement” although it really has to be Parties since there are several of them, some created by GOPpers and some merely embracing them while claiming to be nonpartisan and altogether independent and exactly why, considering what “tp” is for, being a “TPer” is supposed to be such a much better label than “teabagger” escapes me - in any event, that survey and others have shown them to be a clearly conservative grouping and a clearly political minority one. They are multiple steps to the right of the general public on a variety of attitudes - in some cases, the NYT/CBS survey reports, 20 or even 30 percentage points to the right.

Put another way, they are the typical right wing of the GOPpers: socially reactionary, xenophobic, and racist.

But is that because they are in the TP or are they in the TP because they are such people? In other words, is the teabagger movement just a collection of backward bigots who happened to get louder than normal and get some media attention by doing a lot of screaming - or do people get sucked into the movement because others play on their fears, not creating them but exploiting them, amplifying them, focusing them, turning those fears into the underpinnings of a cause for other purposes which would not function without the energy that bigotry generates?

It’s been demonstrated often enough by both psychological testing and historical analysis to be common wisdom that the one common factor that unites those who call themselves “conservative,” crossing all lines of age, sex, race, nationality, and gender, is fear of change. The more change, the more conservatism grows. Conservatism, bluntly, is based on fear - and I don’t mean fear-mongering as a political tactic here, I mean an internal fear, a personal fear, that the world around you is no longer comprehensible. I’ve written before of the idea of a “worldview,” a way of organizing the world we perceive around us such that it makes sense. As I said one time, our
worldview significantly shapes our views on matters of philosophy and morality and it informs our positions on issues of public policy. Even those who have no concern with the latter still have a worldview shaping the former. What that worldview consists of can vary wildly from person to person, but every sane, sentient being has one; you can't function without it.
If the world, if society, around you is changing in ways you can’t seem to understand, that don’t fit your personal worldview, you can become disoriented and frightened - and that fear, that fear of the changes, will make you more conservative. (Which is also why people in general tend to become more conservative as they get older: The more “set in your ways” you are, the more used you are to things being a certain way, the more disturbing changes can seem.)

Now, remember when Barack Obama was attacked during the campaign for referring to people in western Pennsylvania as “clinging to their guns and their religion?” The point was clumsily expressed and deserved a clearer explanation, but the point was entirely valid: The people in the area were suffering real economic dislocations. Jobs were disappearing and more importantly for the purpose here, the sort of stable communities on which those people had depended for generations were disappearing along with them. So of course they clung to their guns and their religion. When you are under pressure, constantly stressed, when the things you have counted on seem to be slipping away, you are going to cling ever more tightly to those things you have left, those parts of your world that still make sense, that you still can control. It is a natural, normal, entirely human reaction.

So when people already subjected to social and economic stresses inflicted by forces beyond their control and usually their understanding are faced with things becoming even more - from their perspective - unhinged, such as by the election of a black president, well that just can’t be right and racist leanings provide the seeds for conspiracy theories that serve, ultimately, to deny this really could be happening legitimately. As one TPer was quoted as saying of Obama:
He’s a socialist. And to tell you the truth, I think he’s a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don’t care what he says. He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him.
We have seen this kind of thing many times before in our history. Indeed, the TPers remind me a great deal of the equally-cliched “angry white male” of the 1990s. To show how much, I’m going to include a lengthy quote from a letter I wrote to a friend in the UK in 1995. See how much of this you think still applies:
What makes the present moment more difficult is that the so-called “angry white male” is not without legitimate grievances: His hopes are shrinking, his dreams for his family and his children are fading, he keeps working harder and getting less for it - he is, in short, losing ground and has been doing it for nearly 20 years now. (Real median family income in the US peaked around 1977 and has been declining more or less continuously since, despite the fact that the average work week has lengthened and more spouses than ever are working. Consider that the rich have gained over that time, and it’s clear that the decline suffered by the middle class and the poor is considerably worse than that average.) Meanwhile, things that he thought he could take for granted in his social relationships have been subjected to almost constant assaults in which he is too often cast as the conscious villain of the piece rather than as what he is: the unwitting beneficiary of standards and (pre-)judgments that profit him in the short run but damage him in the long run.

The result is that he feels pressured, frustrated, haunted by the suspicion that he’s failed his family, that his efforts are unappreciated, and that he’s being blamed for things that “aren’t my fault” - which combine to make him bitter and defensive; ready, even eager, to have someone to blame to relieve his own guilt and creeping despair.

Bill Clinton, of all people, expressed it well in a speech on April 8: Referring to middle-aged white men who when they were 20 looked forward to a “good life” of sending their kinds to college followed by a secure retirement, he said “Now they’ve been working for 15 years without a raise and they think they could be fired at any time. And they go home to dinner and they look across the table at their families and they think they let them down. They think somehow, what did I do wrong? It’s pretty easy for people like that to be told by somebody else in the middle of a political campaign with a hot 30-second ad, you didn’t do anything wrong, they did it to you.”

And who, according to those bastards, are “they?” Intrusive big government. Irresponsible poor people. Environmental elitists/extremists/doomsayers. Selfish minorities. Pushy women. And what is it they “did?” Taxes that take away your money. Laze about on those taxes - your taxes - while you work harder than ever. Environmental laws that take away the job you have. Affirmative action programs that take away the job you deserve.

So the problem isn’t that the “angry white male”’s frustrations are without any legitimate cause. It’s rather that the very people who are most responsible for his contracting future, for his sense of loss (and for his genuine loss of economic security) - that is, the corporate elite, the rich, the powerful, those who’ve selfishly gained from the economic trends of the past two decades, those who benefit the most from the old oppressions and divisions - are the very people who are doing their damnedest (so far successfully) to get him to point his finger at anyone except them. The sad fact is, it’s always easier to blame those weaker than yourself for reasons that are not only sociological but also psychological: In a foot race, you may resent or envy those in front of you, particularly if you see them pulling away - but it’s those coming up from behind who make you feel a threat to your position. Meanwhile, challenging the legitimacy of the position of the leaders would require an adjustment in how the structure of the race itself is viewed. In other words, blaming the poor requires only calling them names. Blaming the rich requires re-thinking the nature of society. Which of those is more likely to be seized on by lost people who feel their world no longer makes sense?
Doesn't a lot of that, particularly the economic stress, the shrinking future, the looking for someone to blame, sound like today? Consider that according to the survey, TPers
are far more pessimistic than Americans in general about the economy. More than 90 percent of Tea Party supporters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared with about 60 percent of the general public. About 6 in 10 say “America’s best years are behind us” when it comes to the availability of good jobs for American workers.
So yes, for many of those who identify with the TPers, they are not without real grievances and not without genuine frustrations. But, as should be obvious, now just as then while the anger may be justified, the target, for the most part, is not. These people have been misguided. Misled. Lied to. Manipulated. They are directing their frustrations at the weak, not the strong; at the victims, not the victimizers; at the servants of the powerful (in and out of government), not the powerful themselves (mostly not in government). For all of the noise, all of the shouting, all of the energy, all of the speeches signs slogans, the fact is they for the most part really have no idea what’s going on, what the real causes of their stresses are. They just know they want things to be the way they used to be. They want “their country” back.

But that in turn raises the single thing that has struck me most about the entire movement - assuming it could properly be called that, which is yet to be seen. Yet I’ve seen little comment on it; perhaps that’s to be expected in the face of the overt bigotry to be seen in many expressions coming from their midst, but I still find the lack of attention a little surprising.

That something is that there is an overwhelming, an extreme, sense of what can only be called entitlement in the entire undertaking. It comes through clearly in the pronouncements of the teabaggers (in their signs and comments) and as something being heavily played by their leading voices (in their speeches and press releases). They repeatedly, repetitiously, say “it’s our country.” They loudly declare that they’re going to “take it back.” They insist that government failure to do what they want is “ignoring the will of the people.”

Leave aside the obvious responses of wondering just who it is that they’re going to “take it back” from and why elections are not “the will of the people” and consider a particular point in that NY Times/CBS survey. One question asked “Do the views of the people involved in the Tea Party movement generally reflect the views of most Americans?” Some 25% of all respondents said yes - while 84% of people who identified themselves as TP supporters did.

Overwhelmingly, they are convinced that they do represent “the people," that they are "the people." According to the survey,
[t]he overwhelming majority of supporters say Mr. Obama does not share the values most Americans live by and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. ...

“The only way they will stop the spending is to have a revolt on their hands,” Elwin Thrasher, a 66-year-old semiretired lawyer in Florida, said in an interview after the poll. “I’m sick and tired of them wasting money and doing what our founders never intended to be done with the federal government.” ...

“I just feel he’s getting away from what America is,” said Kathy Mayhugh, 67, a retired medical transcriber in Jacksonville.
They maintain this even as their views widely diverge from - and are more to the right of - the general population on a number of significant points and to a significant degree. In some cases, the difference is not just wide, it’s wild:

For example, their opinion of the job Obama is doing as president is more negative than that of the general populace by over 40 percentage points. Not 40 percent more, 40 percentage points more. Their personal opinion of him is 50 percentage points worse. (Yes, I know many of us have an unfavorable view of Obama but that's on an entirely different basis and doesn't take away from the point, especially because an unfavorable view based on left convictions adds to the negative numbers among the general public and so reduces the gap between the TPers and the nation as a whole.)

Some other examples: On the question of government creating jobs versus reducing the deficit, the gap between what the public wants (jobs) and what the TPers want (cut the deficit) is over 30 percentage points. The gulf between TPers who want “smaller government with fewer services” and the general public is over 40 percentage points.

TPers are more than 20 percentage points likelier to say that “too much been made of the problems facing black people” and 13 points more likely to claim that blacks and whites have an equal chance of “getting ahead in today’s society,” which is another way of saying that racism just isn’t a problem any more.

Asked if income taxes should be raised on households making more than $250,000 a year to help pay for the health insurance bill, 80% of TPers said that was a bad idea while 39% of all respondents did - a gap of 41 percentage points. And while a majority of TPers approved of a ban on denying health insurance due to pre-existing conditions, they were still 22 points less likely than the general public to feel that way.

I don't want to weigh this down with numbers and you can go to the link and check the results for yourself. The point is that time after time, the views of the TPers are clearly, sometimes dramatically, sometimes stunningly, to the right of the general public - but the TPers are still convinced that their views represent those of the majority.

And that, I think, is the key or at least a key to that extreme sense of entitlement. Consider the demographics revealed in the survey: The teabaggers are, on the whole, white, male, older, somewhat richer, and somewhat more educated than the general populace. Which means that until fairly recently, these people were “the people.” That is, their views, their take on life and society and politics did define what it meant to be American. They did define the standard to which others were expected to hew, the default from which others diverged as anything from odd to abnormal to aberrant. When someone pictured "an American," they tended to picture a somewhat older, upper-middle-class white male. And it's entirely reasonable to think that those who are now TPers came to maturity thinking of themselves in just that way: that they defined "American."

But that has been changing for several decades now. The world in which they grew up, the world in which they formed their worldview, is disappearing, splintering, crumbling. To be black is no longer to be inferior, to be Latino is no longer to be alien, to be a woman is no longer to be second-class, to be a single mother is no longer to be marked for life, to be gay or lesbian is no longer to be "the love that dare not speak its name." The casual racism, the offhand ethnic slurs, the "gentlemen's agreement" about Jews, no longer prevail. No, of course this is not to say that racism, sexism, homophobia, and antisemitism no longer exist, but it is to say they are no longer regarded as acceptable parts of normal social discourse. The world has changed, it is changing and will continue to even against resistance. (You want a good example of that? According to the survey, only 16% of TPers think same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, as opposed to 39% of all respondents. But an additional 41% of TPers approve of "civil unions." So even among the TPers, 57% approve of some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples, close to the 63% of all respondents who feel that way. And how long ago would either of those numbers have seemed an impossible notion?)

Not only are attitudes changing in ways the TPers find difficult to absorb if not beyond the pale, the demographics are as well. According to projections, by 2025, "the immigrant, or foreign born, share of the population will surpass the peak during the last great wave of immigration a century ago." By 2050, nearly one in five Americans will be immigrants as opposed to one in eight now. By that same time, something approaching 1/3 of all Americans will be Hispanic. And most shockingly for the TPers, the most difficult for them to accept, is that it is projected that by 2050 whites will make up just 47% of the population of the US and TPers will be "a minority in our own country!"

The TPers may not know those particular numbers, they may not know the particulars of the projections. In fact, I expect that they do not. But they know the feel. They know the look. They know that the world around them is changing in ways they don't understand and can't control. They are confused and frightened and worried about the future, not only the social future but the economic future as well: The TPers rate their own economic condition about the same as members of the general public do, but they are considerably more likely to rate the economy as "fairly" or "very" bad and to say it's getting no better or even getting worse. What you have there is a combination ripe for exploitation by political con artists among the right wing, the GOPpers, and the monied, who are skilled at pointing fingers and creating a "them," an "other," for people to blame.

So in some ways I understand the TPers. In some ways I share their frustrations and sympathize, even empathize, with the roots of those frustrations even as I reject the TPers' convictions on a host of issues and attitudes. Ultimately, however, I have two main overriding responses: One obvious one is concern that this could turn (again) to murderous violence: The line between TPers and such as Timothy McVeigh and Scott Roeder is not nearly as thick as they would suggest.

The other is that I feel sorry for them. Truly. First because some of the changes that are so frightening to them will not be stopped. They can adapt or they can live the rest of their lives in fear because they will not turn the clock back. They are no longer the definition of American and never will be again. Second because they are almost a sort of Greek tragedy with the doomed hero: They have, again, been manipulated and mislead into blaming their troubles on the wrong forces and the wrong people. To the very extent that their movement, if it develops that far, succeeds, to that very same extent they will lose and find themselves even deeper in the pit they themselves dug on behalf of their real masters who they failed to recognize.

Footnote: One amusing bit from the survey was the ranking of Congress. Asked "Do you approve of the way Congress is handling its job?" TPers disapproved by a whopping 96%-1%. Asked the same question about their own Congressional representative, the disapproval dropped to 49%-40%. (The figures for all respondents was 73-17 disapproval and 46-36 approval, respectively.)

So just like the population as a whole, the TPers essentially said "Congress sucks! My own Rep? Well, they're not so bad. It's all those others who really suck."

Oh, and one other thing to keep in mind in looking at the poll results: The results for the TPers were of course included in the figures for "all respondents." Which means the difference between the TPers and the rest of us, the non-TPers, is even greater than indicated.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

It's just a question

Having been out of touch for a few days, it was only last night that I became aware of the newspaper reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post that President Obama had ordered the “targeted assassination” of Anwar al-Awlaki. I note that the references were not to “capturing” or “kidnapping” him so he could be brought here for trial, but to assassination. The question that arises is:

Mr. President, just who the hell do you think you are?

We (supposedly) have no king, no czar, no leader with absolute authority. So who do you think you are that you can order the murder - and let’s be honest here, that’s what we’re talking about, the cold-blooded murder - of an American citizen? An American citizen who has been convicted of no crime, who has had no day in court, but is to be stabbed or shot down in the street or have his body ripped to shreds by a bomb based solely on the kind of intelligence that has served us so well in the Middle East, from the fall of the Shah to the supposed existence of WMDs.

Mr. President, just who the hell do you think you are?

You are claiming for yourself a power, an authority, that even the Bush administration - that shredder of the Constitution, that underminer of privacy, that stripper of civil liberties, that embracer of torture, that invader of foreign lands without justification - an authority even the Bush administration did not claim for itself: the power to order, on your own authority, subject to no oversight and no need for proof beyond your personal belief, the “extrajudicial killing,” the “targeted assassination,” the murder, of American citizens.

It is bad enough that we even talk about “targeted assassinations,” bad enough that we openly embrace methods for which we previously denounced ideological enemies - and hypocritical enough that we will still denounce them for it. But with this, a bright red line is to be crossed, a bright red line that once crossed can’t be uncrossed: the officially-sanctioned, cold-blooded murder of an American citizen, someone supposedly protected by Constitutional guarantees of due process at least from their own government even if they are outside the US, guarantees that apparently evaporate in the face of the all-powerful mantra “terrorism.”

Mr. President, just who the hell do you think you are?

And once that line is crossed, where can you draw a new one? Indeed, how can you draw a new one? Bluntly, Mr. President, if some future administration approved a domestic “targeted assassination,” how could you object? Because “domestic” is different from “foreign?” That sort of absolute distinction was supposed to exist regarding US citizens. If the one can be ignored, why not the other?

Once that bright red line represented by the murder of Awlaki is crossed, what is to prevent the slippery slope, what is the impenetrable roadblock on the path, to the targeted murder of some future administration’s domestic political opponents based on a claim that they were a danger to “security?” And if that seems far-fetched, just remember that it was not that long ago that an administration embracing torture and ordering the murder of a US citizen would have seemed equally unthinkable.

Mr. President, I say again: Just who the flaming hell do you think you are?

Footnote: An edited version of the above was sent to the White House as an email; the editing was to keep it below the 2500-character limit. Which was an annoying experience because when I finally got it down to a length the WH system would accept, it turned out to be a trace over 2000 characters. The method they use to judge length, whatever it is, is seriously screwed up.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Just to say Happy Easter

Here's something for you to do: If you know some Bible-thumping Christian who mentions Easter, ask them how the day is determined.

If they say "the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox," say "You pass."

If they say "the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the vernal equinox, which is fixed as March 21," say "Damn, you're good - or an astronomer."

Saturday, April 03, 2010

A while longer

So I've been on another of my unplanned hiatuses (hiatusi?) and of course my hit count, not high in the best of times, has dropped accordingly. The truth is, I'm in another of those dark periods - I feel discouraged, tired, and overwhelmed. Mostly discouraged.

I keep thinking of the things I wanted to comment on but couldn't find the energy. Like a final post mortem on the health care bill, including expanding on the fact that now that the bill has passed, now a number of its supporters are acknowledging its shortcomings, some for the first time, and now media outlets have started to mention that a significant part of the opposition - a third by some measures - was because the bill was too weak. (Or was it true that they honestly didn't realize it, they just never thought of it? Which is worse, conscious corporatist deception or blinding stupidity?)

I especially wanted to respond to this bit by Josh Marshall, which argues
that the key condition of political success is almost always a genuine willingness to lose well. ...

A genuine willingness to lose means just that: you might lose. You might lose big.
I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. But I want to know - and wanted to consider at some length - why when that same sentiment is expressed by say, supporters of a national health care system (or even single-payer) or a third party candidate for office, they will be dismissed by all good "serious" people (including Josh Marshall) as "unrealistic" if not ridiculed as "believing in magical ponies," condemned as "helping the other side," or, in some cases, denounced as "stalking horses."

I also said nothing about the seventh anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. In fairness to myself, I'm not sure just what I could have said beyond what I had written a few weeks earlier, but I did want to write something about the role of armed private contractors there - and never did.

I also wanted to discuss the Iraqi elections, especially the giddy response among "serious" people to - assuming it holds up - the squeaking victory of Ayad Allawi's slate over that of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. It was the end of sectarian rule! The "quintessentially democratic" expression of "unexpectedly sophisticated" voters!

Which of course it wasn't; those who are saying that sectarianism and tribalism are no longer issues in Iraq sound to me pretty much the same as those who declare "racism is dead" in the US. And in much the same sense: In each case, the influence of the forces in question may have waned some, but they are still potent. :cough: teabaggers :cough:

And I wanted to try to puzzle out the logic of those who are predicting a dramatic shift in power in Iraq based on the idea that the oh happy day pro-American Allawi will put together a coalition of his grouping, the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Kurds and oh my! You have a multi-ethnic, multi-regional government combining Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds and secular parties and religious parties that shuts out Maliki's pro-Iran bloc and it's the best thing ever! A total justification of the war!

Except - not only is Sadr pro-Iran (so much so that he's now living there) but both his grouping and Maliki's are dominated by Shiite religious parties. Without Sadr, Allawi can't form a government. So precisely what is the advantage to Sadr to enter a coalition with secular Sunnis when simply by saying no he can force Allawi to the side and make a coalition with Maliki's bloc (and some Kurds) to maintain a government dominated by religious Shiites? Especially when Maliki's bloc and Sadr's bloc had an informal agreement before the election to do precisely that? I find it hard to see what Allawi could offer Sadr that would be that much better - or better at all - than what Sadr could get just by sitting on his hands.

In fact, if appears to come down to the simple hope that Sadr, who apparently detests Maliki (the feeling is mutual), will simply refuse to work with him or that his bloc will make demands Maliki would not accept, leaving an alliance with Allawi his only option.

We'll see - but what can't be denied is that Moqtada al-Sadr is in the position of kingmaker in Iraq. And I'm still not sure what Allawi could offer him that would be acceptable to his own bloc and to the Kurds other than "we're not Maliki." I doubt that would be enough.

And there was, of course (Of course!) the news about CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

Anyway, those are brief mentions of things I wanted to write about at length - but I lack the spirit. And I suspect it remain that way for a few more days anyway.
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