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Ari Melber

Ari Melber

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Two Keys to the Iowa Caucus: Evangelicals Love Ron Paul, Romney's Bluff

The Republican presidential race actually begins Tuesday night. It is worth remembering that this is the first time we will hear from the voters—that everything up to this point, while presented as The Campaign, was actually a long, voter-less preseason consisting primarily of candidates, politicos, donors and reporters talking amongst themselves.

No one knows what these first voters will do. We do know that whatever they convey, however, it will depart significantly from The Campaign Narrative so far. The “front-runner” will definitely not be Herman Cain, for example, since he isn’t even running now that the real race is beginning. Last year’s conventional wisdom treated Cain like a huge contender—the press covered him more than any other candidate through all of November—while discounting “minor candidates” like Rick Santorum. Since the narrative and the hype have been such poor guides to this race, here are a couple points to help cut through the clutter when assessing the Iowa results.

The Expectations Game

Mitt Romney is expected to finish strong in Iowa: first or a close second. His advisers relentlessly played down expectations for the caucus, stressing that Romney did not campaign much on the ground. So if Romney wins, get ready to hear politicos and pundits proclaiming that he “beat expectations” and the race is basically over, given the momentum heading into New Hampshire.

Is that right? Well, Romney’s team has a point: It is hard to beat frontrunners that go on an early roll, and he did skip retail politicking in Iowa. Romney has done only thirty-three events in the state, while Ron Paul clocked over 100, and Santorum just did his 306th appearance.

It is absurd, however, to suggest that Romney is not campaigning hard to win Iowa. A pro-Romney PAC has spent about $4 million on ads there. More significantly, Romney’s own campaign leads the entire Republican field in direct contacts with likely caucus-goers: 31 percent say they have heard from the Romney campaign by phone or in-person, a notch above the 29 percent who have heard from Ron Paul’s famous machine, and double the 15 percent for Santorum’s campaign. With only five paid staff in the state, the Romney campaign probably achieved this voter saturation by contracting with out-of-state phone banks. (The campaign did not respond to questions on the topic.) Much of the political press has missed this data-point, buried in a recent ABC poll, but Romney appears to be running a real field operation. (You don’t usually beat Ron Paul’s army without one.) Romney’s finish in Iowa will reflect that field outreach, as well as Super PAC spending and the dividends from the ten million he spent wooing Iowans last cycle. If political framing was fair (or accurate), Romney would have the highest expectations of any candidate on Tuesday.

Rick the Anti-Mitt?

In many conservative minds, Rick Santorum has become what Rick Perry once was: a true conservative who can actually take the nomination from Mitt Romney.

Santorum’s late surge in Iowa surely reflects both local campaigning and a national disenchantment with the more prominent alternatives to Romney. Bachmann, Perry and now Gingrich each proved to burn brightly, but briefly. Santorum’s cash-strapped operation cannot replicate his Iowa strategy in future states, but that is the whole point of Iowa: a strong finish can jump-start an otherwise dying campaign. He doesn’t need to win, he just needs a strong enough finish to seize the spotlight as the alternative to Romney. Santorum’s speech on Tuesday night will be his introduction to many voters around the country, and given Ron Paul’s limited national appeal, Santorum can sell a third-place finish as the sign that conservatives should rally around him. He has begun making that argument, in essence, by quarantining Paul’s success as a libertarian sideshow in an irrelevant race.

“There’s really three primaries,” Santorum said on Sunday’s Meet The Press. “You have the conservative primary”—which Santorum defines as a race between him, Perry and Bachmann—“you have the libertarian primary, and then you have Gingrich [and] Romney sort of fighting for the establishment vote,” Santorum explained. “And our feeling was from the very beginning if we can pace ahead of Perry and/or Bachmann that we’d be in good shape and [we’re] moving in that direction, certainly, right now.”

The uncompleted thought here is that the libertarian primary ends early, as Paul fever cools. If Santorum can win the conservative primary, consolidating the intensity of the tea partiers and the Romney opponents, he could have the money and momentum for a long primary fight. But put aside the self-serving analysis—is there evidence of three such electorates?

Clearly, Romney appeals to the establishment and the GOP center. (Although most Washington Republicans would put Gingrich in the grassroots conservative category.) The telling error in the Santorum Theory, however, is assuming that Paul’s appeal is strictly limited to libertarian voters.

In fact, Paul owes part of his Iowa traction to support from evangelicals. Among Iowa Republicans, when you ask the self-declared “born again” Christians which candidates they agree with on the issues most important to them, Santorum ranks first (as expected). But Paul comes in second, beating Perry and Bachmann for the ideological kinship of evangelicals. They must see something in him beyond reforming the Fed. And while Romney leads those same evangelicals on the question of who is most electable, Paul also does better on that score than Santorum. To put it in Santorum’s taxonomy, Paul is winning the libertarian primary and getting a decent look in the conservative primary.

After Iowa

Once the Iowa results are in, there will be four key inflection points. First, the top candidates will make their cases in nationally televised speeches on caucus night—a chance for Santorum to go negative, or Romney to debut a confident, general election message. Then, flagging candidates may drop out as early as Wednesday, resorting the field. (Last cycle, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd were out by Wednesday after dismal showings in Iowa.) Finally, the remaining candidates will meet for back-to-back debates on January 7 and 8 in New Hampshire. Who knows, Santorum may even get some air time.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

PICTURES: Mitt Romney Releases Adorable Christmas Card of Entire Family

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign just sent out a Christmas card featuring the entire Romney Family, and they are as picturesque as ever.

The front of the card features the entire Romney clan in coordinated outfits. There are blue checkered shirts for the boys and orange and yellow polka dots for the girls, while Ann Romney stands out in bright red. Mitt keeps it casual, naturally, in blue jeans:

The card opens to a larger and even more idyllic family scene, if that’s possible:

The cards were paid for by Romney’s presidential campaign and contain the standard disclosures required for campaign materials under FEC law. (The Nation obtained a copy from a Romney donor, who just received the card in the mail.)

Presidential campaigns often use the holiday season as a theme for voter outreach, although it’s a delicate line. The pivotal Iowa caucus lands just a week after Christmas, so the holidays present a homestretch of fevered campaign activity, but it’s also a challenge for candidates to stay on voters’ minds without interfering with the season. Christmas cards are an easy way to thank supporters and drop direct mail. Last cycle, the Christmas politicking in Iowa was quite overt, with several top candidates cutting television ads that fused Christmas greetings with their campaign appeals. But I don’t think any of this year’s candidates can compete with the sweater-clad chutzpah of Mike Huckabee, who ran a very popular Christmas political ad decrying political ads.

PS: Here is Romney’s card from last year, also very adorable.

The Underminey Backlash Against Newt, Starring Peggy Noonan

I love it when Peggy Noonan writes columns like today’s sweet and vicious contemplation of Newt Gingrich. We learn that Gingrich is detested most by those who worked with him—a powerful list of Republicans who are now “burning up the phone lines in Washington” to protest his recent surgelet—and that while there are two ways to view Gingrich, he is, in the end, his own greatest foe: “a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, ‘Watch this!’”

Noonan is an influential conservative, of course, a former Reagan scribe who is the closest thing the Wall Street Journal has to Maureen Dowd—a zeitgeist-chasing free-associater who gets some big things right, even if annoyance is the cost of admission. So it’s striking to watch Noonan tick off Gingrich’s accomplishments in the voice of a long-lost underminey friend:

One way to view [Gingrich] is that he is so rich and varied as a character, as geniuses often are, that he contains worlds, multitudes… Another way to look at it: In a long career, one will shift views, adapt to circumstances, tack this way and that. Another way: He’s philosophically unanchored, an unstable element. There are too many storms within him, and he seeks out external storms in order to equalize his own atmosphere. He’s a trouble magnet, a starter of fights that need not be fought. He is the first modern potential president about whom there is too much information.

So many ways to look at it! And bonus points for the TMI reference! But still, what comes through here, and in the growing chorus of influential Newt critics, is that Gingrich’s personal qualities make him not only hard to be near but impossible to rely on. (As one former chief of staff in a Republican White House recently said, “Listen to just about anyone who worked alongside Gingrich and you will hear that he’s inconsistent, erratic, untrustworthy and unprincipled.”) Noonan’s armchair analysis of what drives Gingrich’s unstable tics is interesting. although who knows if it’s true. New Yorkers used to say that Rudy Giuliani was strong during crises, but if there were none for him to tackle, he’d just create his own. Whatever the motivation, does Newt’s instability hold him back?

Noonan doesn’t claim to have interviewed many Republican voters, and she’s not burdened by the need to substantiate her imaginary sense of their views. But that doesn’t mean she’s wrong, either. Take these feelings projected on the Republican electorate:

Republicans on the ground who view Mr. Gingrich from afar, who neither know nor have worked with him, are more likely to see him this way: “Who was the last person to actually cut government? Who was the last person who actually led a movement that balanced the federal budget? … The last time there was true welfare reform, the last time government was cut, Gingrich did it.”

This is speculation, but it is somewhat testable. The idea is that Republicans see Gingrich as more serious, and ready to lead, than his carnival of rivals in this weird primary. Well, in Iowa, Gingrich is not only drawing some anti-Romney voters who simply left Cain and Perry. He has also convinced an even larger swath of Republicans that he has the best experience to be president. A whopping 42 percent of Iowa Republicans say that about Gingrich—more than double the number who think that of Romney. (The rest of the field near single digits.) Or to put it another way, at least 9 percent of Iowa Republicans who are currently backing another candidate still think Gingrich has the best experience to be in the White House. While national polls are less reliable, because they include states that have little exposure to the race so far, the same trend holds with Republicans across the country. (See this CNN poll.)

So Noonan’s hunch looks right. Republicans take Gingrich this seriously partly for good reason—he was Speaker of the House, dealing directly with the president—and partly, I suspect, because of the balming influence of television fame. Unlike, say, former Speaker Tom Foley, Gingrich labored to stay famous long after his stint in the House. He churned out books, movies, white papers and appeared on everything from Fox News to The Daily Show. The thrust of Noonan’s column is that there are two crowds for the two views of the two Newts—an “extraordinary divide in opinion between those who know Gingrich and those who don’t.”

The essence of fame, of course, is people knowing of you without knowing you. Gingrich’s hope, then, is to keep these worlds apart and his fans at a distance.

Related by Ari Melber :Gingrich: The Most Serious Joke in the GOP Race

It's Official: Internet Votes Congress the Biggest 'FAIL' of 2011

In another sign that frustration with Congress has spread well beyond people who follow political news, the irreverent FAIL Blog announced today that its audience just voted Congress the biggest “FAIL” of the year. The blog doesn’t focus much on politics—previous FAIL of the Year winners include Kanye West and Justin Bieber.

If you are over 35, perhaps you are wondering what FAIL means, (or whether you can find something else to read). It refers to a major or “epic” error or failure, often embarassing, and it grew into an Internet trend where people emblazon the word “FAIL” over an image. (FAIL blog even includes a form where people can make and share their own nominations.) For example, here are this year’s winners:

About 60,000 FAIL readers voted in the survey, settling on Congress despite stiff competition from famous train wrecks like Kim Kardashian, Charlie Sheen and Casey Anthony (who all finished in the Top Ten).

FAIL Blog is part of the very goofy and very successful Cheezburger blog network, which has grown to draw 24 million visitors every month, under the leadership of Ben Huh, its 33-year-old founder. Mr. Huh got started by plowing $10,000 of his own money into buying an offbeat and user-driven site called I Can Has Cheezburger, which focuses on, as the New York Times once reported, the pairing of “photos of cats with quirky captions.” With sales from ads, merchandising and five spin-off books, the company generates revenue in the tens of millions of dollars. The Times noted that the sites are not just popular because they are fun—they are popular because they run on a constant, pulsing feedback loop of user-driven content that reflects how people are feeling this minute:

One secret to the company’s success is the way it taps into the Internet zeitgeist. It seeks clues to what is funny right now by monitoring the Web for themes bubbling up on community forums, blogs and video sites.

So the site’s take on politics, when it does weigh in, probably reflects something real. For his part, Mr. Huh says this years’s FAIL results show that the distaste for Congress is more widespread than ever. “Our fans have spoken and it has to be somewhat expected,” he said, “in a year of D.C. scandals, gridlock, crises and a Gallup approval rating of 13 percent.”

Donald Trump's Debate Power: It's About Race

Yes, Donald Trump is back. His elevation as a moderator of a pivotal debate in Iowa on December 27—the Republican candidates’ final joint appearance before voting begins—provides a sad but fitting coda to this unhinged primary season.

When the news broke over the weekend, the media largely reacted with lighthearted derision. The Times led the Trump news by announcing, “It’s officially a reality television Republican primary now,” while several commentators said the debate is basically an SNL skit that writes itself. I’m all for mocking The Donald, but these waves of satire do risk obscuring the dark side of this news.

Let’s be clear. In Republican politics this year, Donald Trump’s signature issue, and narrow-but-intense constituency, was built on a race-baiting effort to dislodge the president’s long-form birth certificate from the Hawaii Department of Health.*

When that succeeded, Trump dredged up other tired, obvious racial attacks, demanding that the president “get off his basketball court” (really), and advocating an “investigation” into how Obama, a “terrible student” (sans evidence), got into top schools. “That’s just code for saying he got into law school because he’s black,” said CBS journalist Bob Schieffer at the time, condemning the “ugly stain of racism” in Trump’s publicity tour.

Trump’s self-appointed role and enduring appeal is built on these racial attacks, not mere celebrity. In fact, he is far less influential among the broad Republican electorate than your average celebrity billionaire, precisely because Trump’s controversial buffoonery appeals to the narrow slice of conservatives who still feel, amazingly, underserved by the right-wing red meat on offer from a rather extreme primary field.

As the conservative National Review recently noted, a Trump endorsement would make twice as many Republicans less likely to vote for the Trump-anointed candidate, as compared to those who would be more likely to back Trump’s pick.

Among all voters, Trump is electoral antimatter. His endorsement drives away five times as many people as it would attract (31 to 6 percent). Trump’s largest negative bounce, if you’re wondering, is among non-white voters. (All these numbers are from a poll by Fox News, where Trump appears in a branded weekly segment.)

So yes, Trump is a reality star, which fits our narrative of made-for-TV political phonies like Herman Cain and Sarah Palin. And yes, as Jay-Z once said, “I’m not a businessman, I’m A Business, Man!“—which captures Trump’s preternatural ability to insert himself at the nexus of media entertainment and politics-for-profit, an erogenous zone of visibility that most candidates feel powerless to oppose. (Ron Paul and Jon Hunstman are commendable exceptions, although a near-certain loss tends to clear the mind.)

At bottom, however, Trump is a fleeting power-broker in this Republican primary for the very same reasons he repels most of the American electorate: Mr. Trump is an irresponsible, race-baiting phony exploiting the worst tendencies in our politics for personal gain. And there’s nothing funny about that.
* P.S. At this point, it seems unnecessary to detail the evidence that for many adherents of Birtherism, though not all of its leaders, the birther obsession draws on racism. For more development of this point, see my Nation article about Trump’s birther campaign in April, “Confronting the Coded Racism of Donald Trump.”

Photo: Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Convention. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

New Viral Video Features a Baritone Barack—From 20 Years Ago

Barack Obama has spawned many viral videos, but the latest uses some of the oldest footage ever taken of Obama, from when he was just 29 years old.

The year was 1991, and as graduating editor of the Harvard Law Review, Obama recorded a “Black History Minute” for broadcast on TBS. He recounts Charles Hamilton Houston’s work as an NAACP legal director and Howard Law School professor, and while Obama’s face looks almost exactly the same as today, several commentators note that his voice is quite a bit deeper. “Obama’s voice in 1991, far lower-pitched and more measured than what Americans are accustomed to in 2011, is only marginally recognizable,” writes Meg Gasvoda, who first reported that the video surfaced online.  At the irreverent site Gawker, Lauri Apple went further, saying Barack’s early baritone was “quite sultry!”

The video was first uploaded to YouTube on Thursday, by Andy Kaczynski, a 21-year-old history major at St. John’s University who has interned for the Republican National Committee.  He found the video tucked away in an obscure message board from last year.  By Saturday, however, the clip hit a healthy 200,000 views, with links from political sites like Breitbart.tv and FoxNews.com. (By contrast, the last video from the Obama campaign, uploaded on Wednesdsay, has 27,000 views.) 

Over the weekend, Kaczynski posted video from Obama’s 2000 primary debate with Representative Bobby Rush, which Kaczynski says is “online for the first time.” He has uploaded videos of several GOP candidates, but lately he he’s been focusing on Obama’s archive. “I realized there seemed to be a lack of Obama videos from 1990–2004,” Kaczunski told The Nation, adding, “I decided to do some research to see what I could find.”

The “Black History Minute” is below, although it still doesn’t top the best old-school Obama video in the archive—his awkward interview touting Dixie Kitchen, a local restaurant, on a lost epsiode of the local show Check, Please!  “I have to put in a plug for their peach cobbler,” then–state senator Obama intoned, “which people tend to gobble up pretty good.” Those were the days.

Four Signs Herman Cain Isn't Really Running for President

Herman Cain is running a pretty strong presidential campaign, depending on whom you ask. The press covers him intensely: In early November, Cain was the “dominant” newsmaker in a whopping 72 percent of all campaign news stories, (according to a Pew report). Cain’s rivals now see him as a threat, attacking him regularly. And Republican voters are following these cues, at least in theory, telling pollsters that they support him. But what about Herman Cain?

A review of his recent activities, commonly referred to as a presidential campaign, suggest four big reasons why he is not really running for president at all.

1. Iowa

The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus is crucial for every presidential campaign. Since 1980, the Republican who won the caucus usually went on to win the nomination. Iowa is especially critical for underdog and cash-strapped campaigns, because the caucus system relies on grassroots organizing, enabling candidates with time for retail politicking to beat better-funded rivals. So underdogs usually seize on the state. That’s why Rick Santorum has held 198 events in Iowa this year, leading the current field. It’s why during this time in 2007, long-shot candidates like Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama were camped out in the state. (They both went on to win Iowa.)

Herman Cain, however, can be found just about anywhere but Iowa.

During the current homestretch, he is on a twenty-eight-day break from the state. His campaign says he will return on November 19—but not to meet with precinct captains or do voter turnout. Cain was lured by the prospect of yet another debate, a “Thanksgiving Family Forum” moderated by celebrity pollster Frank Luntz. All told, Cain has spent only thirty-four days in Iowa, which trails Bachmann, Gingrich and Santorum.

2. Everywhere else

Is it possible that Cain is neglecting Iowa, yet building a firewall in other key states?

Not really. Time magazine recently surveyed Republican officials in key primary states and found that Cain’s actual campaign presence, compared to his rivals, was “infinitesimal.” “There is almost no organization to speak of,” said former New Hampshire GOP chair Fergus Cullen, adding that local Republicans would not know “whom to call” to schedule Cain in the Granite State.

Beyond the missing field program, which every campaign needs to morph theoretical public support into actual voter turnout, another operative told Time that Cain’s South Carolina operation doesn’t even have a political staff to return calls from US senators:

“We see nothing to resemble a real campaign,” says another GOP operative, who is based in South Carolina and knows of only one Cain staffer there. [B]oth of South Carolina’s U.S. Senators and one member of its House delegation sought assistance with reaching out to Cain, but the strategist said he’s been unable to get the campaign to respond.

Either Herman Cain is running the first major presidential campaign without a field program or political department, or he’s not running a presidential campaign at all.

3. “The World’s Most Expensive Book Tour”

Many candidates use a political autobiography to sell their candidacy. Cain has inverted that strategy, however, using the mechanics of a presidential campaign to sell his new book.

Cain prioritizes stops on his commercial book tour over time in primary states, which led the Washington Post to dub his campaign “the World’s Most Expensive Book Tour.” Before recent allegations of sexual harassment, Cain anchored a slew of media appearances to plugging the autobiography. His campaign even plowed $36,000 into purchasing copies of the book, This is Herman Cain, along with his earlier tome, They Think You’re Stupid. In fact, the campaign bought the books directly from Cain’s company, T.H.E. New Voice. The initials refer to “The Hermanator Experience,” a phrase that Cain trademarked seventeen years ago to encapsulate his inspirational speech program. Yes, they do think you’re stupid.

4. “I have not raised my prices”

Even after earning a place atop the GOP field, Cain has not cut back on earning money, despite the demands of a busy book tour/presidential campaign. Put aside the book-buyback program, (since FEC rules prohibit such sales from enriching a candidate), and Cain has still found time for a second job this year. Cain may not be great at campaign fundraising, but he sure knows personal fundraising.

“I’m still doing paid speeches,” Cain told Bloomberg Businessweek last month. He estimates that he's made a quarter of million dollars from talks this year. In a telling caveat, Cain stressed that he has not jacked up his rates even though, thanks to recent events, he thinks that he could.

“I have not raised my prices,” Cain said, adding, “I’m not gonna take advantage of my newfound popularity just to put more dollars in my pocket.”

Everyone knows it takes chutzpah to run for president, but as Herman Cain is proving, it also takes chutzpah to pretend to run for president.

Georgetown Professor Explains His New Class on Jay-Z

Jay-Z never went to college, but that won’t stop him from entering the canon.

This fall, Georgetown University launched its first-ever class devoted to the popular rapper, “Sociology of Hip Hop: Jay-Z,” with a syllabus promising units on “Hustling Hermeneutics” and the “Monster of the Double Entendre.” The course is taught by Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist with eighteen books under his belt, ranging from historical assessments of Martin Luther King to ruminations on the impact of Tupac.

“We wanted to take up a serious investigation of [Jay-Z’s] art and craft,” Dyson explained in an interview with The Nation. “Behind the billionaire sexiness of a pop cultural icon,” he says, it is worth considering “what the rhetorical and literary fuss is about.”

So far, students are lining up for the fuss.

Despite a 9:30 am start time, the class has 140 people enrolled—three times the size of a typical seminar. Assigned reading includes Decoded, Jay-Z’s guide to the backstories and references of his dense lyrics, and nonfiction by Adam Bradley, an English professor, and Zack O’Malley Greenburg, a Forbes reporter. Unlike most majors, however, these Georgetown students begin with a deep knowledge of the source material.

“They’re intimately familiar with the terrain,” Dyson says, “and they laugh at an old man like me—52 years old—[being] so intimately into the culture.” Millennials are uniquely attuned to the the music’s societal critique. “They understand that as a black man, [Jay-Z’s] humanity has been questioning from the beginning,” recounts Dyson. “Many are white kids—they bring a level of criticism about the culture they have emerged from,” he adds, “because they’ve seen that culture through Jay-Z’s eyes.”

Growing up on hip hop also impacted this generation’s views far beyond music. According to Dyson, this cohort was primed for the Obama coalition a long time ago.

The first black role models that millennials encountered were in hip hop, he says, which showed “these kids the legitimate cultural and intellectual authority that a black person might have, and to accept it as authoritative. [That] helped Barack Obama become president.”

In 2008, demography was definitely destiny. While many accounts of the election underplayed the age gap, a majority of American voters over 50 actually backed McCain. Obama won voters under 30, however, by a whopping thirty-six-point margin (66 percent to McCain’s 32 percent).

The ascendance of a handful of black Americans does not resolve all of America’s racial challenges, however, a point that both Obama and Jay-Z have made, in their own ways. On Jay’s latest album, Watch The Throne, his boasts of personal success are pinned squarely to the concern that very few black Americans have broken into the super-elite. “Success never smelled so sweet,” he raps, “I stink of success, the new black elite.” But who is that, exactly? The song continues:

Now please, domino, domino
Only spot a few blacks the higher I go
What’s up to Will? Shout out to O
That ain’t enough—we gonna need a million more…

So while credit goes to Will Smith and the big Os, presumably Obama or Oprah, the list is way too short for Jay-Z. That line is clearly “a political statement,” Dyson says, with Jay declaring that if he “can name them by name,” there are not enough black moguls.

A close reading suggests other subtleties in the lyrics. The “domino” repetition is probably not merely a rhyming device. Variations of the game, like Chickenfoot Dominos, award the highest score to the player with the fewest black dots, known as “pips.” So in Jay’s parallel, the higher one goes in elite society, the fewer blacks one sees. (Again: “Domino, domino / Only spot a few blacks the higher I go.”)

The point may not be immediately apparent to listeners, but that’s why we have hip-hop class.

While Dyson is zeroing in on America’s favorite rapper, broader hip-hop studies have been spreading across many campuses. Over 300 hip-hop classes cropped up around the country, NYU launched a Hip Hop and Pedagogy Initiative in 2007, and the McNally Smith College of Music now offers the only accredited hip-hop diploma in the United States.

So, what would Jay-Z make of all this?

For starters, the subject respects the instructor.

“Dyson could have been someone’s older brother on my block,” Jay-Z once wrote, “when I was coming up in the Marcy projects in Bed-Stuy.” That street credentialing is from Jay’s introduction to Know What I Mean?, the professor’s 2007 book on hip hop. It continues:

How many folk out there can talk about pimping in terms laid out by Hegel? Or use Kant to explain the way that prison fashion moved from the cellblock to the city block?

Pretty special props from a rapper who boasts about going from abject poverty to a $450 million fortune without much training. (“Teacher said I was a lost cause / cause I used to roam them halls,” he rapped in 1999, “Still I spit knowledge / dropped out of high school, skipped college / Who woulda thought I’d make it ‘Big’ like Ms. Wallace?”) Jay found a way to excel without higher education—a source of bragging rights—yet he also values erudition. That’s undeniably part of his work and, increasingly, part of his ambition beyond music.

Dyson said he has texted Jay about the class, including an open invite for a visit. The two men also talked about the curriculum last month, when they connected at a New York fundraiser for the Shawn Carter Foundation.

“He was pretty amazed that students were taking this class seriously,” Dyson recalled. The fundraiser, a freewheeling carnival on the Hudson River, was a big hit. It raised about a million dollars for Jay’s charity, which awards college scholarships to disadvantaged youth.

Photo of Jay-Z performing at a Philadelphia rally for Barack Obama on November 3, 2008. Credit: Bbsrock

Senate Votes for Obama Jobs Bill, but GOP Filibusters It

In the first official test of President Obama's jobs proposal, the Senate voted to advance the massive $447 billion bill on Tuesday. The tally was fifty to forty-eight, with an additional vote in favor expected from Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat. That majority support is a significant endorsement of Obama's economic agenda—but you'd never know it from the way things unfolded since Tuesday night.

While opponents of the jobs bill were clearly outnumbered, they signaled their commitment to filibustering the legislation to death. It takes sixty votes to cut off debate, of course, and Republicans voted against an initial, procedural cloture motion to move from debate to the straight vote.

So, the bottom line is that the Senate currently has the votes to pass this bill. The GOP is willing, however, to shut down Senate business indefinitely just to prevent that vote.

If you glance at the headlines, though, you'd think the Senate just failed to come up with the votes for this bill. Here are just a few typical (and influential) examples:


Political reporters have become so accustomed to the constant abuse of the filibuster, they don't even lead with the news here: A jobs bill during an unemployment crisis has majority support, but is being blocked from a straight vote. It's not just reporters, either—the political establishment, including many Democrats, have largely accepted the premise that all legislation should be subjected to a sixty-vote super-majority hurdle. Yet this is a very new, very damaging way to run the Senate. (Washington Post's Ezra Klein has the radical data.)

Contrast the US press coverage to a view from across the pond, where the Senate's undemocratic obstruction apparently turns more heads. The BBC went with a simple reference to the cloture, while the International Business Times really breaks it down:


Under the Senate rules, Republicans can talk bills to death and deny most legislation a vote. But that doesn't mean the rest of us have to cover their tracks.


Jonathan Franzen on Occupy Wall Street, Obama, Nixon, HBO 'Corrections' Series and, Yes, Oprah

Jonathan Franzen is for the Occupy Wall Street protests. In fact, the celebrated novelist is for just about any action that “revives a conversation about economic disparities, and how utterly shafted the middle class is.” In a packed session at the New Yorker Festival on Saturday, Franzen elaborated on his politics, his meeting with President Obama, the accomplishments of Richard Nixon and, of course, several more literary topics.

Politics loomed throughout the discussion, not only because searing social critiques undergird Franzen’s most famous books, Freedom and The Corrections, but also because Franzen’s fans take his nonfiction narrative seriously.

Moderator David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief, asked whether Franzen is disappointed with Obama (he isn’t), and while there were audience questions about Patty Berglund (“I wanna talk to you about Patty!,” as they say on TV) and even Oprah (Franzen started graciously, but added a dig about having to sit through “four segments on Michael Jackson’s secret family” before Oprah interviewed him about Freedom), people kept returning to politics.

The Wall Street question, which was first out of the gate, had Franzen channeling Elizabeth Warren. “What Republicans call class warfare,” he said, is actually a vital, neglected effort to address economic inequality. When real unemployment is at 16 percent, Franzen observed, people “should raise socialist questions.”

There is no outlet for that conversation, however, within the major political parties.

In Franzen’s telling, President Obama is caught between the populist desires of a downgraded America and the interests of his elite financial supporters. “I knew he was tight with Wall Street,” Franzen said, recalling his views of Obama before the 2008 election, “the first time I heard about him was from a banker.” Franzen said he still “loves” Obama, though, and it’s clear that support endures not despite Obama’s liberal shortcomings but because they were already factored into the picture. “I got a sense of who [Obama] was,” Franzen said, somewhat cryptically. “I knew he would never do anything for the environment,” he later added.

These are not just idle observations from a distance. Franzen apparently has some pull on President Obama, who nabbed an advance copy of Freedom and then invited the novelist to meet him at the White House last year. Asked about that meeting, Franzen said their conversation focused not on fiction but on Nixon. “He was our last liberal president,” Franzen recalled telling Obama, arguing that Nixon’s legislative achievements were more liberal than anything Clinton or Obama could ever do. Obama laughed, Franzen remembered, and said, Yeah, the only problem is that Nixon was crazy.

The other quality Franzen deeply appreciates about Obama is his openness to other people’s views and ethics. In partisan circles, this has come to be associated with weakness and poor negotiation, but I think Franzen means it more in the idealistic sense of practicing a politics of good faith—or the Jeffersonian ideal that “not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle.” So Franzen credits Obama, he said, for rejecting the common premise “that all the good people share my politics.” Instead, one can acknowledge that there may be perfectly good people who, for example, voted for Rick Santorum. Franzen volunteered, however, that he’d still “have a hard time being good friends with someone who voted for Santorum.” This admission came in response to a question from The Nation’s Eric Alterman, who said that while he probably shares the author’s politics, it feels like reading Freedom might leave one feeling hopeless. Apart from Obama’s ray of light, Franzen said he genuinely felt that the last ten years of politics were worse than usual, with more rampant lying in public discourse. So he is “a little discouraged.” Compounding these dynamics, the media and culture are more driven by technology, Franzen added, stoking a constant desire for stimulation over “interaction or discussion.” (That complaint draws on a media critique Franzen has made for some time, including a widely discussed lecture and essay this year, “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts”).

Finally, in more literary news, Franzen confirmed that he is writing an adaptation of The Corrections as a full four-year television series for HBO. The flim rights to that book were actually optioned back in 2001, by Scott Rudin, but a full-length feature never got off the ground. It’s a little hard to imagine the book, which focuses on the grandparents of a Midwestern family, excelling as a movie or series. Yet as Franzen said on Saturday, mainstream success has made him a less angry and more positive person, and with the right attitude, maybe the book will make for great TV.  And it will surely do better than "Black Leather Gloves," a screenplay that Franzen said he wrote as a "get rich quick scheme" back when he was struggling to earn a living as a novelist.

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