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Coming to a Bookstore Near You | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Coming to a Bookstore Near You

My new “Think Again” column is called “The Ryan Budget Show, Part 2,” and it’s here.

There are two (rewritten) excerpts from The Cause in The Nation this week. The cover story on Springsteen is here and my column on the meaning of liberalism is here.

I did another piece from the book in Sunday’s Times called “Cultural Liberalism is Not Enough” and that’s here.

As you may have guessed Monday is the official pub date for The Cause. My appearances for the week are:

New York:
Monday, April 16, 7:00 BARNES & NOBLE
2289 Broadway @ 82nd St.  

California:
Pomona College, April 18,
Debate with Hew Hewitt on 2012 Election, 7:00

Berkeley:
Booksmith, April 19, 7:30 @ Berkeley Arts & Letters at the Hillside Club
2386 Cedar Street
Berkeley, CA 94709
(You need to buy a ticket, here.)

Los Angeles
Los Angeles Times Book Festival, April 21, 4:30 PM
Panel: The Boys on the Bus: Covering Decision 2012.

The following Sunday night, the 22nd, I will be on “Moyers and Company.” I don’t know if it’s opposite “Mad Men” where you live but there is Tivo and On Demand and the DVR has been invented, I am told.

I will also be at Politics & Prose in Washington on April 25 at 7:00 and at the Center for American Progress for a lunchtime panel on April 26 beginning at noon, with lunch served at 11:30.

You can keep up at ericalterman.com if you are so inclined. And the book is still pretty cheap at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Now here’s Reed:

Center (Right) Pivot Irrigation
by Reed Richardson
If you fly over certain sections of the middle of the United States and look out your airplane window, you’ll no doubt see lots of strange crop circles dotting the landscape, as if the earth had been transformed into a kind of relentless practical exercise of Pointillist painting technique. Having spent my formative years growing up about an hour or two away from these countless examples in southwest Nebraska, I can tell you that what you’re looking at is actually a staple of the agricultural industry, something called center pivot irrigation. That the edges of center pivot irrigation plots always appear so crisp from 30,000 feet is no accident—the mostly arable land found just outside the irrigation zone typically has little or zero natural ability to sustain growth.

Like in agriculture, political punditry has its seasons too. And every fourth spring, the effective end of the presidential primaries ushers in a distinctly new period among the Washington press corps, one that, in many ways, is reminiscent of what goes in all those Midwest fields. Marked by the need for a constant, artificial construct to sustain its relevance, a tendency to circle back to the same ground over and over again, and an obsession with day-to-day minutiae that will have little effect on the final yield come the fall, the 2012 campaign coverage has now officially entered what I call its ‘center pivot irrigation’ phase.

Fueling this very literal meme is a sacred media shibboleth about the American electorate—that, for the past few decades, our country has firmly become a “center-right nation.” (This rather unctuous 2008 essay by Newsweek’s Jon Meacham might be considered the ne plus ultra of the form.) A closer look at the nation’s polity—one that digs deeper than the Gallup poll results of political self-identification that are almost always used as prima facie evidence for this argument—tells a rather different story, however.

Nonetheless, it has become a fixed point of agreement among the Washington press corps that upon the conclusion of the primary campaign, both parties’ candidates will (and should) start to swiftly reposition themselves to appeal more to the center-right independents and swing voters who sit at the critical fulcrum of America’s political spectrum. But there are a number of problems with this approach.

First off, by viewing the actions and policies of the respective Democratic and Republican presidential candidates through a narrow, blinkered “center-right” prism, the media coverage effectively absorbs a built-in political bias as its reference point. Even more troubling, the press rarely revisits the facts on the ground to see if the voters have significantly shifted their views since the last election. As a result, when the Republican Party undertakes a broad-based lurch toward its extremist flank, a press corps that defines reasonable compromise as merely splitting the difference between the two parties serves only to further this ideological shift rightward. 

Thus, Mitt Romney can embrace the radical, Draconian, and thoroughly unserious budget plan of Rep. Paul Ryan and, rather than get roundly pilloried in the press, get credit from the punditocracy for staking out a starting point for political debate (from—ugh—a former advisor of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, no less). President Obama, on the other hand, gets knocked for ‘not holding the center’ because he hasn’t abandoned his (popular) principles of fighting economic injustice fast enough for this National Journal columnist.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points out, if the press and pundits actually calibrated their centrist-loving coverage by policies and not politics, they’d have to admit a fundamentally awkward reality of the moment in American politics.

But the ‘centrists’ who weigh in on policy debates are playing a different game. Their self-image, and to a large extent their professional selling point, depends on posing as high-minded types standing between the partisan extremes, bringing together reasonable people from both parties—even if these reasonable people don’t actually exist.

So, in the end, the press’s fetishization of centrism, or, more accurately, center-rightism, facilitates a kind of journalistic malpractice. (Sometimes, in the case of the late Andrew Breitbart, it even occasions ridiculously manufactured bouts of faux-passion). It’s akin to reporting a story about a donut and focusing strictly on the hole. Sure, that’s where the middle is, but that’s not the part that matters. As vast stretches of the Midwest symbolically demonstrate, given enough nurturing, daylight, and—ahem—fertilizer, almost anyplace can be transformed from barren to fertile ground. But that doesn’t mean many people actually reside there.

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

The mail:
John Robert BEHRMAN
HOUSTON, Texas

I, too, noticed failure to mention Goldwater-Nichols in Drift. I recall it, though, as an attempt by both the professional and reserve military (Goldwater was a Brigadier-General, Gary Hart was an Ensign, and Wm. J. Crowe was Chair of the JCS) to isolate Reagan from some of his fantasies and very dubious or corrupt civilian advisors. General Al Gray's near-mutiny and the Ill Wind near-prosecution of Navy Secretary John Lehman are my main memories of this time prior to the rise of Pompey, um, Powell.

I wonder, though, about these crocodile tears over the Guard and Reserve from Boomer Liberals. I really wonder what Col. Harry S. Truman (former Sergeant in the Missouri state militia) or Major Jubal R. Parten, his wealthy patron from here in Texas, would think of your and my generation's hand-wringing and draft-dodging?

Maddow's analysis of War Powers is journalistic. It is based on the history of her day. Which is fine, but shallow. She imagines a War Powers that sort of arose with, oh, Jefferson and Madison, as if Hamilton and Adams or Burr, Jackson, Morris, Houston, and so on did not exist and the Civil War never happened.

War Powers are based entirely on the existence of "well regulated militia" in each state and, in turn, on "universal manhood suffrage" in those states. We never came close to either.

I agree with her critique of developments on my generation's watch. I am sure we deserve her adorable sarcasm. But, her sweep of history should not be rooted in an "originalist" fantasy, if we are ever going to fix what is wrong today. Nuclear Ceasarism peaked with Douglas McArthur, Curtis LeMay, and Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, not Colin Powell or even Stanley McChrystal.

We are not out of the woods, but building more wholesome civil-military and, I would say, economic and financial institutions should not rest on a leftist myth-history or generational apologia, especialy now that right-wing, Federalist/Whig myth-history is driving us right over a cliff in a white-racist recap of Toussaint L'Ouverture (Newt Gingrich?).

Originally, the Federalists were against both universal suffrage and well regulated militia. They still are against these, and radical ideologues have prevailed utterly, certainly on the Supreme Court:

We have a long-term hire military and virtually Royal Navy but Pirates of the Caribbean where a Yankee Merchant Marine should be. Originally, the Democrats, you see, could never come up with the taxes to maintain a Swiss-style militia or, of course, extend suffrage to and arm black men, free or slave, right up through the Civil War, not even here in the Department of the West.No, we -- Southern Democrats -- could never reconcile republican pretense with slavery or our preference for private debt and commerce or extractive industry over infant industry and free soil ... so, the Whigs, at least the Northern Whigs, styled themselves "Republicans" and ... still do.

And, Democrats today?

Well, today, we cannot tell the difference between a property-qualified franchise, a poll tax, or a credit-scored franchise as long as there are clerically-mediated "civil rights" for "Atticus Finch" to dispense and a chain of professional and racial patronage where a real political party -- not just literary and legal conceit -- should be.

And, what should be a "Second Amendment Right-to-Vote" today is an absurd Anglo-Saxon fryd of gun-owners rooted in the Magna Carta: "I don' need no stinkin' badge, I got a concealed handgun licence."

That is nothing at all of your Roman-Swiss precepts of a uniform militia obligation, universal suffrage, or ... "a republic, if you can keep it".

The mess we are in is not a right-wing plot but a judicial coup to which Democrats have contributed a surplus of elite opportunism, a paucity of egalitarian principle, not much popular resolve, and a historical vacuum chamber.

======
John Robert BEHRMAN is the Democratic Executive Committeeman for Texas Senate District 13

Danny Grainger
Greer, SC

I would only say as to the harkening back to Madison & Jefferson as models of the liberal, cooly deigning militaristic intent, it is well to remember Madison did actually get us into the War of 1812 after all. And Madison's Secretary of State did promulgate a rather imperialistic view of South America.

There is no doubt our professional military has serious flaws. One of which is they have been put through a meat grinder for over a decade. There are other problems. But, again, it is not as though Madison as a peacenik. Jefferson was quite happy to engage the bashir of Tripoli.

And, while the nascent nation did demobilize quite rapidly, it was a citizen army at heart, hard enough to keep in ranks during a war, much less when it is over. And when there is no liklihood the Contintental Congress would keep paying them. The distaste for the standing military was not just a matter of cost, it was the power of the monarch that was seen when the military was considered. If you had an army you would use it, and the executive could manipulate to become the next Napoleon. Hamilton, for example, would have done such a thing.

When the issue of revenue arose, Washington was able to raise some 30,000 troops in short order. Hardly a defenseless situation I would say. The Executive will find the force & the rationalization, whether they be liberally minded or not, in my humble opinion.

Robert Beck
Santa Cruz
Your criticism of Rachel's "Drift" is pretty much right on. She makes much of the integration of the National Guard as somehow connecting the military to the citizentry; but the change to a voluntary military was a change from a citizen’s conscripted military to a President’s voluntary professional military. Warfare would no long be considered such an abnormal behavior that conscription was required along with an urgent demand for a quick victory. Warfare was just another occupation to be used in a reality show directed by the government of the United States. A national purpose might be offered with mentions of sacrifice, but the ending of conscription removed what had been a very personal and national plebiscite. And has done more to undermine our values and institutionalize war than perhaps any other single action including the Cold War.

Korean Vet.

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