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The Uses and Abuses of 'Anti-Semitism' | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

The Uses and Abuses of 'Anti-Semitism'

My new “Think Again” column is called “Is Defense R&D Spending Effective?” and it’s here.

My new Nation column is called “The (Adam) Bellow Curve” and it’s here.

My Forward column, which I wrote quite a while ago, but is only appearing today, is here. It’s a reply to Josh Block, Politico, etc, re alleged anti-Semitism at CAP and elsewhere.

Oh, and I participated in this Moment survey on the question "What does it mean to be 'pro-Israel' today?" It's pretty interesting, here.

I’m in Jamaica, about to catch a plane, so here’s Ree.d

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

by Reed Richardson

During his New Hampshire primary victory speech Tuesday night, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney clearly laid down a major political marker for the 2012 election:

 

Make no mistake, in this campaign, I will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense…This election is a choice between two very different destinies.

 

On the last point, he is, at least, correct. Though President Obama gets (and deserves) criticism for his at times ineffectual response to the ongoing economic crisis still plaguing this country, Romney and his party nonetheless offer up an economic policy contrast that is as radically different as it is dangerously wrongheaded. In the GOP’s definition of ‘economic freedom,’ which is under no circumstances to be confused with ‘capitalism,’ Americans would get to enjoy, among others, perks like:

-The freedom to pay more taxes, unless you’re wealthy.

-The freedom to earn lower wages, thanks to misguided right-to-work laws.

-The freedom to have your guaranteed Medicare coverage eventually replaced by a private-sector voucher of ever decreasing value.

-The freedom to have your democratic voice drowned out by increasingly enfranchised corporations and their money.

Taken together, a central theme appears in these new economic freedoms—an unmistakable ideological tilt toward the haves over the have-nots. If you already got yours, there’s little to object to here. But if you weren’t born into a six- or seven-figure household or live in the right zip code or know the right people, these proposals will make the path of navigating of the American dream even more difficult, if not downright impossible. 

Sadly, it’s a trend that’s been underway for decades, as real wages have stagnated for all but the richest Americans. And according a Pew study released Wednesday, more and more Americans of all political stripes are fed up with it:

[T]he perceptions of class conflict have increased significantly among members of both political parties as well as among self-described independents, conservatives, liberals and moderates.

 

The result is that majorities of each political party and ideological point of view now agree that serious disputes exist between Americans on the top and bottom of the income ladder.

But what’s being offered up by the Romney and his party in 2012, in essence, is not just more of the same, but the prospect of blowing an even bigger hole between poor or middle-class Americans and the rich.

Not so fast, says one Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation in a New York Times article on the study from yesterday. After the Times gives a straightforward analysis of the Pew survey’s data, Rector inexplicably gets the story’s last word, brushing off the study with a throwaway comment—that the Times reporter allows to stand unrefuted, I might add—about how government data routinely undercounts aid to the poor and taxes taken from everyone else.

To [Rector], the findings did not mean much, ‘other than that the topic has been in the press for the last two years.’

Oh, if only the press really were responsible for this public awakening. But as our traditional media so powerfully demonstrates time and again, as it did by first ignoring and then sneering at the Occupy movement, covering systemic economic problems like our nation’s widening gap in income inequality aren’t exactly its strong suit. Nor is digging deeper for the real policy context of a candidate’s statements on the campaign trail, for that matter.

Case in point, the recent kerfuffle over Romney’s “I like being able to fire people” comment. It didn’t take long for conservative commentators to leap to his defense, armed with the old “taken out of context” shield. Certainly, that’s where Washington Post pundit Kathleen Parker came down this week when she lambasted the other Republican presidential candidates for seizing on it.

Some of them are frankly making fools of themselves by taking his comment about firing people waaaaay out of context and using it to characterize him as a job killer. The intended deception is obvious to anyone who has been following recent events and is so transparently dishonest as to be embarrassing.

But in a true ironic twist, it is Parker who’s guilty of missing the real context of Romney’s comments, waaaaaay guilty (based on her standard, I added a sixth ‘a’ to way for emphasis). That’s because Romney’s ‘fire people’ comment grew out of an explanation of his own health care policy prescription, which happens to directly contradict his professed belief in having more ‘economic freedom’ to fire one’s health care provider if dissatisfied. As fellow Post pundit Matt Miller helpfully explains about the incident:

[Romney’s] saying that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act — which offers people precisely the choice among competing private insurers that Romney’s own health-care reform did in Massachusetts — is instead some cartoon version of socialized medicine.

 

It’s a blatant falsehood. The Big Republican Lie.

Unfortunately, most of the media elite stopped as short as Parker did in executing a thoughtful analysis of Romney’s comments. Instead they mostly remained caught up in the campaign-trail insults hurled Romney’s way over his years working at private equity firm Bain Capital, an experience that he boldly touts as prima facie evidence of his ability to revive the sluggish economy. But when even Bill Kristol, who can be reliably counted on to repeat almost any Republican talking point, recognizes the dangers of manning the ramparts in defense of Bain, it should be clear to the press and the public that the Romney’s ‘economic freedom’ mantra is little more than carefully constructed house of cards.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop the Post’s Jennifer Rubin, who stokes an apparent white-hot hatred of Bain critic Rick Perry, from trying to mount a long and spirited defense of Romney’s private equity years earlier this week. But even in this defense of ‘profits’ and ‘markets,’ she offers up some key tells about the real ideological motivations behind the economic freedom agenda.

As an example of the choice facing the country in November, she trots out Romney’s newest health care buddy, Rep. Paul Ryan, to talk about his plan to radically restructure Medicare:

But we don’t want to turn this safety net into a hammock that lulls people into lives of dependency and complacency. Number one, it’s not affordable. Number two, it drains your society of its vitality, its entrepreneurial spirit and its energy which makes us so prosperous in the first place.

Ryan’s been trotting out this too clever by half “safety net = hammock” talking point for nearly a year now. In this quote, however, he modifies it ever so slightly from his original by eliding the adjective “able-bodied” when describing all these potentially dependent and complacent “people.” Why? Could’ve just been a rhetorical oversight, of course. Or perhaps he’s realized that that term has a noticeable whiff of racial subtext to it, coming as it does from a prominent member of a political party that has a long history of stoking economic resentment.

After all, thirty-five years ago, it was Republican saint Ronald Reagan who was publicly bemoaning “strapping young bucks” on welfare buying T-bone steaks. And just last week, it was Republican hero Newt Gingrich singling out the African-American community for being “satisfied with food stamps.” (This despite the fact that more white people receive entitlement assistance than blacks.) All this is no coincidence. Woven together, all this conservative dog whistling feeds a vicious, divisive stereotype—that lazy, shiftless brown people are willing to forego their ‘economic freedom’ in order to exploit a system that gives them everything they need after taking it from hard-working (white) Americans. One hundred years ago, you could boil this same kind of thinking down into one crude, poisonous image.

But besides advocating for taking a corporate raider approach to the social safety net, Rubin also alleges private equity firms did nothing less than help save the American economy. From what or whom, becomes clear once you click over to the American Enterprise Institute blog post she quotes from in her column. There, you’ll find an analysis that tut-tuts the fact that in the 1970s, “many workers protected by strong unions were able to extract wage gains which failed to reflect the slump in output.” The rise of private equity and leveraged buyout firms—like Bain— that championed investor profits above all else represented “an important catalyst in Corporate America’s struggle to regain its once competitive stature.” Who lost in this ‘struggle’ is now clear, as the arrival of this new era in business coincided with the beginning of the end of real wage gains in this country among the poor and middle class.  

As more and more Republicans fall in line with what looks to be his inevitable nomination, Rubin thinks Romney could be ideally suited to sway the public toward his party’s increasingly ruthless dogma. I, on the other hand, remain somewhat hopeful that a public already dissatisfied with living in a country that seems to operate under two different set of rules—one for the rich and one for the rest of us—will see things differently, even if the press fails to do. But in the end, this is the core debate our nation should be having in the run-up to November—whether or not we want to create a society where, for a vast majority of citizens, ‘economic freedom’ means having nothing left to lose.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

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