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Stupid Is | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Stupid Is

My new Think Again column is called “Fox: Crazy Like …. Ailes” and it’s here. I think the title is self explanatory.

My new Nation column is called “The Problem of Republican Idiots.” That strikes me as equally so, though I shouldn’t be the only person pointing it out. It’s here.

Two things: I went to this suprisingly excellent 75th Birthday concert benefit for these terrific foundations that, believe it or not, were started and have been kept going by Wavy Gravy last Friday night. I didn’t know about the work of the Seva foundation, but now that I do, I think you should give them some gelt. The address is here.

And the Italian film festival at Lincoln Center began yesterday. If you’re in the city in the next two weeks, the schedule is here. I saw “Unlikely Revolutionaries” yesterday and it was a lot of fun and I wish we had a country more like that.

Now here’s Reed:

Catch 2012

If the recent news of stubbornly high unemployment claims, weakening jobs reports, a re-imploding housing picture, and softening manufacturing activity didn’t convince you that both our country and President Obama’s chances for reelection are teetering on the brink of disaster, then how about these two A1, above-the-fold stories from today’s New York Times and Washington Post?

To the Times’ and the Post’s credit, these broad analyses of the economic trouble we’re not yet out of get the splashy, front-page attention they deserve. Would it were that such an ominous convergence of gloom could somehow redirect the political debate on Capitol Hill and in the Beltway punditocracy. You won’t catch me holding my breath in anticipation, however.

That’s because worrying about the economic problems of the here and now has become passé among too many of the so-called serious folks in Washington. All those millions of Americans who still can’t find a job or who remain trapped in shady or upside-down mortgages—their troubles are sooo 2009, don’t you know? Instead, the newest problem-that-must-be-solved-now involves tackling the budget deficit, an issue that those same politicians and pundits also agree must include “taking on entitlements,” which is the rather quaint euphemism that the cable news talking heads and op-ed columnists employ because because none of them like to say “gut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security” out loud.

To get a sense of the current political landscape, you can’t do much better than this quote from the Times piece:

“Republicans have set the terms of debate by pressing for large cuts in federal spending, which they say will encourage private investment. Democrats have found themselves battling to minimize and postpone such cuts, which they fear will cause new job losses.”

In essence, our federal government now finds itself facing something of a Catch-22. A fragile economic recovery on the verge of stalling out and crashing back into recession has been effectively rendered off-limits to legislative intervention, while Washington instead uses up all of its political capital fighting over an issue that will be subject to the whims of countless future Congresses and Presidents. What’s more, the draconian spending cuts being bandied about by Republicans as the solution to the deficit are not only not likely to work, they are precisely the kind of shocks to the economic system that could devastate the recovery. So, according to this backwards thinking, securing our nation’s long-term financial footing requires us to willingly accept shooting ourselves in the foot in the present, but this self-inflicted economic wound only prolongs our current economic pain, which will, in turn, end up significantly undermining our nation’s finances down the road.

Simply put, this makes no sense. Yet the President and the Democrats, I fear, are ready to succumb to this paradoxical argument and, as a result, pin their reelection hopes 18 months from now on threading an almost impossible political needle. When it came to the stimulus, it’s now clear the administration miscalculated—starting too small and stopping too soon—but it no doubt saved the nation from a severe depression and it bought Obama enough time to pass his health-care law. However, if the President and Democrats decide to now play along with the Beltway conventional wisdom and effectively pivot away from jobs and unemployment, they are gambling with their political lives.

Indeed, getting caught up in a “serious,” “bipartisan” debate on the deficit and, more specifically, acceding to any substantial cuts in Medicare or Social Security, is to squander the political momentum that is shifting back in the Democrats’ direction. Even the shrewdest of compromises would likely translate into a tactical victory for the Republicans, since the passage of any budget deficit legislation still won’t put a single American back to work or prevent a single American family from losing their home. All of which makes a strategic victory for the President in 2012 increasingly difficult, especially if the same types of headlines we see now are running above the fold next November. Or, to borrow Obama’s own campaign phrasing, you can’t win the future if you don’t first win the present.

Below is more from the Israel Film Festival of last week. The review is by Rachel Druck.

“Missing Father”

Though the Six Day War may get all the press, it was the Yom Kippur War that scarred a nation, and whose psychological repercussions are all too often overlooked in the unending conversations that revolve solely around land. It is a trauma that is particularly personal for Yair Elazar. Yair’s father David Elazar, known in Israel (a country where they are familiar enough with their generals that they assign them endearing nicknames) as “Dado,” was the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War. Dado was forced to resign after the controversial Agranat Commission, convened by the Israeli government after the war, declared that he was personally responsible for the State of Israel’s lack of preparation. After nearly a lifetime of service to the Israeli military, Dado died of a heart attack two years after his resignation.

Missing Father is Yair’s attempt, after the birth of his daughter, to discover where “father” fit into the figure of “Dado.” In doing so, Yair sets up a formidable task for himself. Dado’s history was the history of the State of Israel, and his face could have graced countless Zionist propaganda posters. He was a deeply charismatic figure and people were simply drawn to him; an Israeli acquaintance I ran into after the screening who served under Dado—and does not have much to say that is complimentary regarding the Israeli military establishment—still spoke of Dado fondly, in tones tinged with awe.

In one of the most touching scenes from the documentary, one of Dado’s friends admits that when he came to the shiva after Dado’s death, he stole a pair of Dado’s glasses on the side of his bed; he simply needed to have something that belonged to Dado (he returned the glasses to Yair). Though Dado remains a controversial figure, it is nonetheless acknowledged that his actions during the Yom Kippur War saved the State of Israel. The more towering the myths, the harder it is to understand the men, and in Israel, where the personal is often the political, those lines are often blurred beyond recognition.

Yet ultimately it is not the towering figure of his father that hampers Yair, but the ways in which Yair is unable to understand his father’s generation, and the ways in which he is able to relate to his father’s story. The generation gap that emerges over the course of this documentary is staggering. Yair simply cannot understand why his father was not home during his formative years, while his mother, his father’s friends and colleagues, and even his older siblings cannot seem to understand what Yair is asking them. And it is, in fact, baffling to hear Yair demand to know why his father, the Chief of Staff, was not home more often during the Yom Kippur War.

Ironically, Yair does not manage to emerge from his father’s shadow, though the film was clearly a project undertaken so that Yair can compete with his father, and ultimately demonstrate who has the better parenting skills. Yair’s failure to loom large over the film is not for lack of trying. Yet the countless pictures of Yair, the reaction shots, and the home movies of Yair with his family felt like impositions into his father’s story, rather than the playing out of a father-son narrative. It is only when Yair takes the camera off of himself, and instead displays his father in action that I began to be invested in his father’s story, and would have been open to hearing more about his son’s search for him.

Meanwhile, as an American born more than a decade after the Yom Kippur War, albeit a relatively educated one, I found myself occasionally disoriented by a documentary that takes for granted an understanding of Israeli figures and political events. I could not understand why Yair kept harping on whether his father had extramarital affairs until I discovered from my Israeli acquaintance that Dado had been known as a womanizer (and, to be honest, someone needs to alert the head of Bangable Dudes in History about David Elazar). Military campaigns were mentioned that I had no knowledge of. Though Missing Father documents Yair’s personal search for his father, Yair perhaps takes for granted the sympathy of the audience, and never stops to think about whether the audience is committed to his journey.

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