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The 'Undo-Everything' Congress: What the Press Doesn't See | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

The 'Undo-Everything' Congress: What the Press Doesn't See

My new Think Again column asks the (obvious, I think) question: “Shouldn't the Iraq War have finally killed the "Liberal Media?"

One question that if you read me at all regularly you know constantly confuses me is “What do the US leaders of the BDS movement think about Hamas?” I always suspected this, but now it’s official, at least if you take Sara Schulman as your guide. They don’t. Amazing, I know, but how else could a leftist lesbian feminist activist support a movement that is virulently and violently opposed to everything for which they profess to stand?

And since I don’t like to be personally abused from my left without also catching flak from my right, I note with regret that The Israel Project is being taken over by one of Washington’s foremost Jewish McCarthyites, ex-AIPAC flack Josh Block. In the universe of The Nation, I am often accused of being no better than AIPAC on the issue of Israel/Palestine, and so it's funny that in the universe of AIPAC I get the no-less ridiculous accusation of actual anti-Semitism. Anyway, Block’s appointment is bad news for honest, respectful discourse about Israel and the Palestinians but good news for Sarah Schulman and BDS, since behavior like Block’s often pushes people in the camp of BDS, simply out of distaste for the hardline tactics of the Israeli right-wing. What neither organizations will do, I can promise you, is further the cause of Middle East peace or improve the lives of the victims of its violence.

Alas, the Forward piece whitewashes Block’s nastiness and exploitation of the anti-Semitism issue, which is particularly ironic for me, since it was a trigger for my decision to resign my gig as a columnist there. I wrote a letter to the editor about it, which has received no acknowledgement, alas. If it remains ignored, I’ll throw it up here next week. In the meantime, I look forward to slanderous attacks on my character from both organizations in the not-too-distant future.

And speaking of genuine anti-semites—and believe me, I do not use the term lightly or without evidence—The New York Times has a wonderful feature on Majora Carter, Betrayer of the Poor and Powerless whose interests she apparently exploits to enrich herself, (and incidentally) a shande on the good name of the Bronx High School of Science.

Alter-reviews and this week’s list
This week’s list is: “Musicians who are generally considered to be lame or kind of a joke, but are actually really good and in a few cases, genuinely great.”

I was inspired to choose it because I came across two genuinely amazing YouTube videos featuring Tom Jones and Janis Joplin and Tom Jones with Crosby, Stills Nash & Young. That reminded me that I forgot how much I really liked Jones’s last two albums: the gospel one that came out the summer before last and the new one, which is sort of gospelly, Spirit in the Room, which begins with a killer “Tower of Song” and also has a wonderful “Just Dropped In,” another classic of my misspent youth. So if you think Tom Jones is lame because he kind of reminds you of Engelbert Humberdink, you could not be more wrong. Now I just need to see him live. A friend of mine, who took his mom’s cleaning lady saw him once and said, “He’s not just great; he’s James Brown-great.”

So here’s the list:
Tom Jones
Neil Diamond
Seventies Bee Gees
America (the band, not the country)
Kenny Loggins
The Monkees

Almost but not quite:
Neil Sedaka
Barry Manilow (though I am sorely tempted about Barry because of how great this video is)

And speaking of great videos, have you ever seen anything more amazing than 13-year-old Derek Trucks on “One Way Out"?

I post a lot of music on my Facebook page, so everyone should feel free to look it up there. I use it for public stuff only so you don’t need to “friend” me—I hate that verb—but you can. I am indiscriminate.

Now here’s Reed:

My first long feature for the Nation website, "The Doomsday Prepper Caucus," was published earlier this week. It’s all about how mainstream conservatism is increasingly adopting the dystopian narratives and apocalyptic mindset of this country’s right-wing survivalist fringe.

The 'Undo-Everything' Congress: What the Press Doesn't See
by Reed Richardson

There is a frustrating tendency within the Washington press corps to misattribute individual behaviors to things or groups that are not, strictly speaking, a single person. Of course, everyone who covers politics, including yours truly, takes some liberties in using broad generalizations like “Republicans act like X” or “liberals think like Y.” When done judiciously, these rhetorical shortcuts can serve as a handy synopsis of the stakes of an issue. But this practice can easily become a lazy, intellectual crutch, one that misleads and misinforms.

Perhaps nowhere is this convention more abused by the media than when covering Capitol Hill. (A common example of this: Pollsters’ annoying habit of only testing the approval rating of “Congress” without asking the public their views on the respective parties therein, which can elicit noticeably different results.) By treating the many disparate parts and motives of 535 Congressional members as one amorphous (and highly unpopular) entity, then the press can completely muddy the picture of what the public does or doesn't like. This ambiguity shouldn’t be tolerated even if our federal legislature was working well, but when it has effectively ground to a halt, as it has right now, media misdiagnosis only serves to exacerbate the crisis. 

How badly broken is our nation’s highest lawmaking body? Consider this: The 112th Congress that just concluded in early January set a record for the lowest number of laws passed—220—since record-keeping began in 1948. Ezra Klein explains the awful, awful record of the 2011–12 “Do-Nothing” Congress in more detail:

[I]t almost shut down the government and almost breached the debt ceiling. It almost went over the fiscal cliff (which it had designed in the first place). It cut a trillion dollars of discretionary spending in the Budget Control Act and scheduled another trillion in spending cuts through an automatic sequester, which everyone agrees is terrible policy. It achieved nothing of note on housing, energy, stimulus, immigration, guns, tax reform, infrastructure, climate change or, really, anything. It’s hard to identify a single significant problem that existed prior to the 112th Congress that was in any way improved by its two years of rule.

Last term’s Congress was so bad, in fact, that it surpassed the previous low benchmark of productivity, the 104th Congress, which just so happened to have ushered in a new House majority with this ethically challenged guy as Speaker. Quite a coincidence—the first arrival of robust Republican majorities while a Democrat is in the White House also occasions a near fatal case of Congressional gridlock. History shows us the 105th Congress wasn’t much more attentive to our democracy’s needs and neither, by the looks of it, will the current Congress. Though there may be fewer Republicans in the 113th, three months in the number of laws successfully passed by it can be counted on one hand.

But again, for Beltway pundits to lament Washington’s inability to put policies to problems as merely the unwillingness of Obama to show leadership and compromise with Congress, as a whole, is to grossly misread the myriad currents and eddies at work. The truth is, the injection of hard-right Republicans into the House and Senate the past two election cycles have tipped the scales of conservatism’s center of gravity severely rightward. Hailing from blood-red, GOP-safe districts, fueled by Tea Party animosity, and obsessed with reducing the deficit, this new amped-up fringe of the Republican Party is holding up the people’s business in an unprecedented manner. Yet for all their radical intransigence, they rarely draw anywhere close to the same amount of scrutiny or pundit criticism as that which befalls President Obama.

To get a sense of who these folks are, one good proxy is the list of twelve Republicans who voted against John Boehner for Speaker back in January. But that still undercounts this nihilistic caucus a bit. A fuller picture involves cross-referencing the “Nay” votes on the fiscal cliff billdebt ceiling extension and the first and second tranches of recovery aid for Sandy victims from earlier this year. All told, you’ll find the names of roughly two-dozen reactionary Republicans coming up again and again.

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The rising stars among this group—men like Rep. Tim HuelskampRep. Justin AmashRep. Paul BrounRep. Thomas MassieRep. Steve StockmanRep. Ted Yoho and Rep. Louie Gohmert—may have lost the battle on the aforementioned votes, but, make no mistake, they’re winning the war on the direction of this Congress. And on their coverage by the establishment media, as well. Each one of the linked-to stories above, for instance, was published by Politico, the breathless industry newsletter of the DC political scene. Read through the articles and you’ll find most are written as unrepentant “beat sweeteners,” a.k.a. gauzy profiles that offer up little to no context of just how out of the mainstream their views really are. 

But by lavishing uncritical attention on people like Huelskamp, who labeled the sequestration’s Draconian spending cuts a ‘significant victory’; Stockman, who has already threatened to impeach Obama over his gun control reform; and Broun, who claims Obama has “upheld the Soviet Constitution,” publications like Politico allow themselves to be co-opted into the breakdown of Congress itself. The failure to hold the like of Huelskamp and Stockman accountable sends a warning shot across the bow of more mainstream Republicans. The not-so-subtle message: to avoid a 2014 primary challenger—someone liable to get the same glowing attention by a Beltway publication that merely wants to "drive the conversation"—don’t even consider voting alongside Democrats, and think twice about acceding to the wishes of the House GOP leadership. That’s right, this small coterie of conservatives is even willing to blow up its own party’s chances at gaining a majority and passing a bill if it doesn’t suit their fringe views. Or as Huelskamp ominously noted not long after the 113th Congress convened: "You know, it’s only going to take seventeen of us."

In 1955, William F. Buckley unapologetically defined his magazine National Review as being for conservatives who "stand athwart history, yelling 'Stop.'" The extreme right-wingers in Congress today have even grander ambitions, however, which might best be described as standing athwart government, yelling ‘Back.’ No longer content with grinding the wheels of our federal government to a halt, they’re looking to unscrew the lugnuts, roll away the tires and sell off the rest of the parts for scrap to the states and private industry. While they may call themselves Republicans, they function more and more like anti-Democrats—their policies universally defined as the undoing of almost anything and everything the left is doing or has done. To them, there is no aspect of Obamacare not worth repealing, no income tax on the rich not worth cutting, no social insurance program not worth weakening, no regulation not worth gutting, no budget not worth rolling back to levels last seen decades ago. In other words, there is no pain on the poor and the middle class not worth inflicting.

That Congress has devolved to the point where a small, radical minority can exert such an outsized influence on it and, by extension, our political future is undoubtedly a tragedy. That the same press corps that bemoans undue partisanship and unfulfilled compromise can’t seem to be bothered to notice this suggests another—that the undoing will only get worse before it gets better. 

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

Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The mail
S. Rex Cohen
Baltimore, MD
re: Richard Vatz-
Check out the Baltimore Jewish Times "Letter to the Editor" section for March and July-August 2012, where right-winger Vatz is outed as an "alibi Jew"—i.e., someone Jewish (on their pareents' side) who never met an anti-Semite he wouldn't defend. The instance in question had to do with a local talk-show host, a Joe Sobran acolyte known for his animus toward Jews and Israel.

Vatz's attempt to defend this bigot (on whose show Vatz often appeared)—as was true in your case—consisted of high-flown bluster and rhetorical tricks, not refutation of specifics, since the latter were irrefutable.
Plus, engaging in "vulgar bullying," he was caught red-handed deliberately misrepresenting/falsifying the case against the talk-show host!
Finally, FYI: Vatz has served as the faculty adviser to Towson University's "White Student/Pride" club.

Terry C. Maine Kenny
Cheyenne (currently)
Dear Eric, Thank you for a piece that honored the memory of Anthony Lewis; his work and courage. It moved me to tears. Some history of the book that introduced me to your excellent work, Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, and your experience with Lewis was a gift. Thank you for printing the correspondence, also. Keep standing up for our country, for facts and logic, for liberalism. We who believe in the principles upon which this nation was founded find matter-of-fact sense and response to those "barking dogs" of the right who name call or offer no actual debate a tonic is these times.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Eric's e-mail spat with the Richard Vatz mentioned above in his last blog post.

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