“The right to vote in a free American election is the most powerful and precious right in the world—and it must not be denied on the grounds of race or color. It is a potent key to achieving other rights of citizenship. For American history—both recent and past—clearly reveals that the power of the ballot has enabled those who achieve it to win other achievements as well, to gain a full voice in the affairs of their state and nation, and to see their interests represented in the governmental bodies which affect their future. In a free society, those with the power to govern are necessarily responsive to those with the right to vote.”
—John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights, 1963
There has been much honoring of the memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy this week, and rightly so. He was dynamic figure who preached a “new generation of leadership” vision that still serves as an antithesis to the listless, austerity-burdened rhetoric of so many of today’s political figures—including some in Kennedy’s own Democratic party.
Kennedy saw himself as a liberal reformer, declaring in 1960: “If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’ ”
Kennedy was ardently in favor of religious tolerance, respect for immigrants and labor rights (in 1962 he signed Executive Order 10988, which established the right of most federal workers to bargain collectively). Yes, in his service as a senator from Massachusetts and later as the nation’s thirty-fifth president, Kennedy was a politician of his times, which meant that he could disappoint; surely, he was slower than need be when it came to challenging Cold War dogmas and in calling out Southern resistance to social and economic justice. But Kennedy evolved, as did the nation he led, during the course of his short but transformational presidency.
Kennedy devoted much of the last year of his life to advocacy on behalf of voting rights. His great civil rights address—delivered in the last year of his presidency from the Oval Office to a national television and radio audience—argued that “it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.”
Fifty years after his assassination, Kennedy can be honored in many ways. But a renewal of his liberal commitment to voting rights would surely be a fine place to begin. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which eliminated the poll tax, was placed on the national agenda by Kennedy, who made it his personal mission to eliminate the wealth barrier to voting.
Politically savvy, the president knew that enacting a constitutional amendment would be difficult, but he argued for going “the hard way” because of an understanding of the need to go around Southern resistance in the Senate and because of a determination on lock in voting-rights gains.
Kennedy promoted the amendment in speeches and letters to the Congress, and then in a steady stream of telegrams and phone calls that prodded governors and legislators across the country to get their states on board.
In the last months before his death, Kennedy was in the thick of the struggle for voting rights, telling Americans: “Finally, the 87th Congress—after 20 years of effort—passed and referred to the states for ratification a Constitutional Amendment to prohibit the levying of poll taxes as a condition to voting. I urge every state legislature to take prompt action on this matter and to outlaw the poll tax—which has too long been an outmoded and arbitrary bar to voting participation by minority groups and others—as the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.”
Beyond the bully pulpit, the president exchanged notes with governors such as Wisconsin’s John Reynolds regarding the details of legislative debates and votes. To a far greater extent than was known at the time, Kennedy personally managed the ratification process.
Thirty-six states ratified the amendment before Kennedy’s assassination—two short of the needed total. Kennedy and others hoped that Texas might break with other states and support the amendment. A statewide referendum on November 9, 1963, proposed to repeal that state’s poll tax and the campaign was intense. Opponents of repeal argued that people of color would “flood the polls” if the economic barrier to voting was removed. Supporters distributed literature that declared: “President Kennedy Wants You to Vote Saturday, November 9, to Repeal the Poll Tax.”
A special message from Kennedy read: “I share the conviction that the right to vote should not be denied or abridged because of the failure to pay a poll tax.”
The literature made the connection to the civil rights movement, urging a “yes” vote: “For Better Job Opportunities, For Better Housing, For Equality and Dignity, For Freedom.”
Unfortunately, a majority of Texas voters saw the change as a threat. The rejected repeal less that two weeks before Kennedy made his trip to Dallas. Yet the president continued his advocacy, getting prominent Texans such as Vice President Lyndon Johnson and US Senator Ralph Yarborough to lend their names to the effort.
Kennedy died without seeing his amendment added to the Constitution.
But his labors were not in vain.
The final states, Maine and South Dakota, signaled their approval in the weeks after the president’s death
When the Twenty-fourth Amendment was added to the Constitution in January 1964, the change in the founding document was heralded with front-page headlines in newspapers and broadcast reports from coast to coast—except, notably, in Southern states where too many media outlets had aligned themselves with the massive resistance to civil-rights legislation, even when that legislation took the form of a constitutional amendment.
The constitutional elimination of the barrier Kennedy derided as “the property qualification” for voting signaled the arrival of what the late president had hoped for: “another turning point in the history of the great Republic.” With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it seemed, finally, that the nation might move “beyond the new frontiers” of which Kennedy had spoken.
Unfortunately, as the historian Eric Foner reminds us, the history of the right to vote in America is one of expansion and contraction. And the rights Kennedy and so many others fought to expand have been contracting with the passage of restrictive “Voter ID” laws, attacks on early voting and same-day registration, and a US Supreme Court move to gut the Voting Rights Act. Responding to the legislative and judicial assaults on the voting rights, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison have returned to the constitutional route that John Kennedy charted when he set out to end polls taxes and property qualifications as a barrier to voting.
With support from groups such as FairVote and Color of Change, the struggle for a constitutional guarantee of voting rights has gone national. Communities across the country are passing resolutions urging Congress to approve the amendment and send it to the states. As in the period before Kennedy embraced the campaign for an amendment banning the poll tax, there is a burgeoning grassroots campaign for constitutional intervention on behalf of voting rights.
The Pocan-Ellison proposal states in simple language the values that voting-rights campaigners have championed for decades: “Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides,” and “Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.”
Or as John Fitzgerald Kennedy put it in 1963: “It is necessary [to] free the forces of our democratic system…promptly insuring the franchise to all citizens, making it possible for their elected officials to be truly responsive to all their constituents.”
Ari Berman describes the contemporary resurgence of Jim Crow throughout the United States.
There are times when the line between shock, rage and sadness become so blurred it is impossible to know when the flow of emotion ends or begins. The shock and rage come from hearing about an African-American student violently tormented by his three white housemates at San Jose State University. Thrown together randomly as first-year students tend to be, Logan Beaschler, 18, Joseph Bomgardner, 19, and Colin Warren, 18 found common cause in acts of racist sadism against their fourth housemate. They at times forced a bike lock around the neck of this young man. They barricaded him in his room. They nicknamed him “three-fifths” or “fraction” in reference to the three-fifths Compromise of 1787 that decreed slaves to be less than a full person. They hung confederate flags outside their room. They scrawled swastikas on white boards and hung pictures of Adolf Hitler. Let’s say their names again: Logan Beaschler, Joseph Bomgardner and Colin Warren, three people who made their dorm into a fascist chamber of horrors for their own amusement.
Arrests have been made, the school is holding its own investigation, and students are rallying, and that is all well and good. The shock and rage becomes sadness, however, because this is not just any old university. This is San Jose State, also known as Speed City, also known as the place where John Carlos and Tommie Smith won NCAA national championships, learned the skills to set Olympic sprint records, and learned the politics to compel them to raise their fists at the 1968 Olympics. It was the place where Dr. Harry Edwards combined anti-racist militancy with sociology and sports, to create a synthesis that led to the formation of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It is the place where Lee Evans and Ron Davis showed the world that athletic excellence could be used as leverage to fight for dignity and make history. It is the place where that history is commemorated by the remarkable twenty-eight-foot statues of Carlos and Smith that stand in the middle of campus.
I spoke to John Carlos and I cannot do justice to the sadness in his voice.
“This is a heartbreaking situation,” he said. “At San Jose State that monument was established to promote diversity, love, understanding and respect. It is very difficult for me wake up and think that the school would be a place where students feel they can act in such a manner and think they can just abuse a person of color in such a way. Once again we are bitten by the ugly bear of racism. I would hope San Jose State would deal with this in as firm a matter as possible. This cannot stand.”
Pressure to make sure San Jose State truly confronts what has happened will be necessary. In recent years, San Jose State has made a concerted effort to cut itself off from its history and anti-racist traditions. It is currently being sued by former cross-country coach Ron Davis, the same Ron Davis mentioned above who was a part of those historic teams of the 1960s and a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame. Mr. Davis is claiming racial bias and discrimination led to his firing. He was fired after the school hired Gene Bleymaier, the fired former athletic director of Boise State, who turned that school into a national football powerhouse. Bleymaier is attempting to transform the San Jose State football team into a similar kind of cash cow and a haven for sponsors. Anti-racist history and corporate football don’t mix, and Ron Davis believes that he was a casualty of a new administration with new priorities.
A school that disrespects its own history and its own legacy as an iconic center of African-American liberation reaps what it sows. In this case, several residential assistants apparently knew to some extent what was happening, saw the Confederate flags and did nothing. Yes, Messrs. Logan Beaschler, Joseph Bomgardner and Colin Warren deserve to be punished to the fullest extent. But this is a school that needs to take a long, hard look at itself. If you are going to be home to “the statue,” you had better be worthy of what it represents.
Dave Zirin looks at the legacy of John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
—Aaron Cantú focuses on the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, social inequality and post-capitalist institutional design.
“The new debtors’ prisons.” The Economist, November 16, 2013.
To be ensnared within the mass incarceration system means to be either in prison, on parole or probation. In most places, the public offices that manage these three services are overburdened and broke, so private ventures have picked up the extra slack for profit. Private probation companies are especially nefarious, extorting payment from probationers to not only cover municipal court costs but also to enrich their own bottom line. They are a debt collection industry. Worst of all is if probationers can’t pay, they often end up in jail—even if their original charge was a non-jailable offense. Ironically, this usually ends up costing the presiding municipality more money, since it is so expensive to imprison somebody.
—Owen Davis focuses on public education, media and the effects of social inequality.
“Detained border crossers may find themselves sent to ‘the freezers,’” by Rachel Bale. The Center for Investigative Reporting, November 18, 2013.
Immigrants arrested by US Border Patrol have heard tell of what awaits them: las hieleras, or "the freezers." These are frigid, fluorescent-lit chambers where detainees are crammed for days without bedding or privacy. Though some immigrants will fight deportation or rightfully claim asylum, such as the Salvadoran family fleeing gang violence profiled in the piece, detainees are kept in a harsh confinement that likely violates international human rights standards. Meanwhile, our brave lawmakers in the Senate have stripped language from immigration legislation requiring "limits on the number of people held in a cell, adequate climate control, potable water, hygiene items and access to medical care" for detained border crossers.
—Omar Ghabra focuses on Syria and Middle Eastern politics.
"Lebanon and the Long Reach of Syria’s Conflict” by Dexter Filkins. The New Yorker, November 20, 2013.
The recent bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut is the latest of many ominous signs that Hezbollah and Iran's decision to intervene in Syria has made this a regional, sectarian conflict. Filkins puts this latest bombing into the context of the events in Syria over the past year, since the Iranians and their proxy militia in Lebanon turned the tide of the Syrian war in Assad's favor.
—Hannah Gold focuses on gender politics, pop culture and art.
“Radical Hospitality,” by Danya Lagos. Hypocrite Reader, November 2013.
Lagos astutely points out in her manifesto that the Radical Hospitality movement (coming to a museum near you), with its emphasis on giving its guests the choicest, most transporting experience possible, has become the moral equivalent of a hipster beer tasting. In these "artist-directed meal installations" that have come to define the movement, the bourgeois fantasy of sourcing the most exotic ingredients possible has merely transitioned to a new focus on ingredients that are so local they are not to be believed. This manifesto suggests a new paradigm for radical hospitality: the art of caring for others, as opposed to the art of impressing others. Radical hospitality could do so much more—it could welcome outsiders and strangers, create communities rather than produce waste, promote gender equality, "transmit emancipatory ideals" and fill bellies.
—Allegra Kirkland focuses on immigration, urban issues and US-Latin American relations.
"Border Patrol International," by Todd Miller. TomDispatch, November 19, 2013.
My college history professor used to say that borders are something that strong states impose on weaker ones. These imaginary lines, drawn on contiguous landmasses, define the spaces in which we live and who belongs inside them. In countries like the United States, however, such physical manifestations of hard power have morphed into a more abstract global project. This fascinating piece documents how interpretations of national defense have evolved since 9/11, with immense sums now spent on establishing, equipping and training border patrols in areas of US interest, from the Dominican Republican to Afghanistan. As Miller writes, "'Homeland security' no longer stays in the homeland: it's mobile, it's rapid, and it's international."
—Abbie Nehring focuses on muck reads, transparency, and investigative reporting.
"Heroes and Crusaders,” by Bill Keller. The New York Times, November 17, 2013.
If you're curious about the genesis of the word "muckraker" as it's used today, I suggest Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest book, Bully Pulpit, or perhaps at least Bill Keller's review in this week's New York Times Book Review. It asserts that, like Team of Rivals, Goodwin's earlier book about how Lincoln built his cabinet, this volume invites surprisingly contemporary comparisons to present day through its portrayal of the relationships between power, profit and the scrutiny of the press. Bully Pulpit masquerades as a dual biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, who shared one of the greatest friendships of the century, but the thread that runs throughout is the rise of the muckraking journalists who challenged them at every turn and were allowed to question Roosevelt even "during his midday shave." There's even a great illustration by Paul Rogers that seems to sum up the zeitgeist of the early 20th century as narrated by Goodwin.
—Nicolas Niarchos focuses on international and European relations and national security.
“Last Jew in Afghanistan faces ruin as kebabs fail to sell,” by Jessica Donati and Mirwais Harooni. Reuters, November 12, 2013.
The Jewish community in Afghanistan has dwindled from several thousand strong at the beginning of the 20th Century to one—Zabulon Simintov. And now he’s closing his Kabul kebab shop, which also houses the nation’s only synagogue. Donati and Harooni’s piece artfully mixes Simintov’s story with the on-the-ground realities of life in Afghanistan today: the security situation is so bad there that customers have dwindled and it’s too risky to run a business. Simintov blames his woes on the US-led invasion in 2001. “It is better to see a dog than to see an American,” he said. “If the situation in the country gets worse, I will escape.”
—Andrés Pertierra focuses on Latin America with an emphasis on Cuba.
“A Lesson From Cuba on Race,” by Alejandro De La Fuente. The New York Times, November 17, 2013.
Renowned Cuban intellectual Alejandro de la Fuente debates the relationship between race and economic inequalities, using post-1959 Cuba as case study. Cuba has done more than any other country in the hemisphere, he says, to eradicate racism and economic inequalities that reinforce it, yet the culture of discrimination is still is alive and well today. This culture is just as important as material differences and should serve as a lesson for other countries in the Americas.
—Dylan Tokar focuses on Latin America, politics and literature.
“Inside The One-Man Intelligence Unit That Exposed The Secrets And Atrocities Of Syria's War,” by Bianca Bosker. Huffington Post, November 18, 2013.
The subject of Bosker's profile is Eliot Higgins, better known as the blogger Brown Moses. Higgins began writing about Syria in 2012, and he has since become an expert at identifying the weapons used in the conflict by mining the social media that has been pouring out of the country via the Internet. See also Patrick Radden Keefe's profile in The New Yorker and this multimedia presentation by NGO Tactical Tech.
—Elaine Yu focuses on feminism, health, and East and Southeast Asia.
“Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course,” by Max Chafkin. Fast Company, November 14, 2013.
This may not be an open critique (or a casual Foucauldian one) of MOOCs, but the essay shows why Massive Open Online Courses aren't the revolution its founder envisioned, why tech-innovation-branding giants are contradicting themselves (there's only so much you can corporatize out of education), and why it does little to address the structural problems of uneven access and other inequalities, despite the alluring premises of free or low-cost education, and of celebrity professors being commercially (but not personally) accessible.
Like most media and political writers, I often let bygones be bygones, painful as that may be. Then there are the especially tragic or high-stakes cases. For example, the media failures in the run-up to the Iraq war, given the consequences. This explains my reaction to the Columbia Journalism Review’s announcing yesterday, after a widely watched search, that it was hiring Liz Spayd, late of The Washington Post, as its new editor and publisher.
Now, I suppose I should review her entire career, for context, though others are doing it and you can read about it in plenty of places. And here’s a memo from Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School (and a Washington Post vet himself) on the hiring, and Spayd’s own reaction. She was managing editor of the Post or its website for many years until last year, and obviously supervised a good deal of important work (and some not so terrific, of course). But I am moved to recall, and then let go, one famous 2004 article, also at the Post, by Howard Kurtz, which I highlighted in my book on those media failures and Iraq, So Wrong for So Long.
In a nutshell: The New York Times, under Bill Keller, had printed as an editors’ note a very brief and very limited semi-apology for its horrific coverage during the run-up to the war, dubbed a “mini-culpa” by Jack Shafer. The Post, almost equally but not so famously guilty, didn’t even do that, to its shame, leaving it to one of its reporters, i.e., Kurtz, to report it out. His piece made the paper look pretty bad, with some embarrassing quotes from editor Len Downie, Bob Woodward and Karen DeYoung, among others, usually along the lines of, “Well, what could we do?” And there was this passage about Spayd:
Liz Spayd, the assistant managing editor for national news, says The Post’s overall record was strong.
“I believe we pushed as hard or harder than anyone to question the administration’s assertions on all kinds of subjects related to the war…. Do I wish we would have had more and pushed harder and deeper into questions of whether they possessed weapons of mass destruction? Absolutely,” she said. “Do I feel we owe our readers an apology? I don’t think so.”
Of course, the paper’s editorial page was even worse, making the news disaster that much more damaging.
In some ways, the “hero” of the Kurtz piece was Walter Pincus, the longtime national security reporter who had tried to get more skeptical stories on Iraq WMD in the paper (or get them on the front-page).
But while Pincus was ferreting out information “from sources I’ve used for years,” some in the Post newsroom were questioning his work. Editors complained that he was “cryptic,” as one put it, and that his hard-to-follow stories had to be heavily rewritten.
Spayd declined to discuss Pincus’s writing but said that “stories on intelligence are always difficult to edit and parse and to ensure their accuracy and get into the paper.”
The much-respected Michael Getler later reviewed his years as ombudsman at the Post from 2000 to 2005, and offered a strong critique of the role of the paper’s editors in the Iraq WMD disaster. He observed:
I should say at this point the Post is an excellent paper, and it also did some excellent reporting before the war—more than you might think. But I also had a catbird seat watching it stumble and, while my observations are necessarily about the Post, they may be more broadly applicable. From where I sat, there were two newsroom failures, in particular, at the root of what went wrong with pre-war reporting. One was a failure to pay enough attention to events that unfolded in public, rather than just the exclusive stuff that all major newspapers like to develop. The other was a failure of editors and editing up and down the line that resulted in a focus on getting ready for a war that was coming rather than the obligation to put the alternative case in front of readers in a prominent way. This resulted in far too many stories, including some very important ones, being either missed, underplayed, or buried.
Getler chronicles the many important stories the Post either did not cover or buried deep inside the paper (including reports on large antiwar marches). Then he adds:
Here’s a brief sampling of additional Post headlines that, rather stunningly, failed to make the front of the newspaper: “Observers: Evidence for War Lacking,” “U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program,” “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Legality of War Is a Matter of Debate,” and “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” In short, it wasn’t the case that important, challenging reporting wasn’t done. It just wasn’t highlighted.
Of course, Liz Spayd was just one of a group of editors and hardly deserves full blame for the Post’s performance. But she did defend that record afterward—and said no apology was needed.
Thursday morning, as Senate majority leader Harry Reid was on the floor guiding his caucus through the necessary steps to scrap the sixty-vote threshold on judicial and executive branch nominations, Heritage Action sent out a strongly worded alert. “For Harry Reid and President Obama, this is not about a couple circuit court judges; this is an attempt to remake America to reflect their unworkable and unpopular progressive vision.”
In many senses this is a crazy thing to say; as scholars of the Senate correctly note, Thursday’s maneuver simply returns the body to its constitutional and historic norms, wherein the president is able to effectively staff the executive branch and federal judiciary. The sixty-vote threshold was a relatively recent aberration, wielded to the extreme by the Republican minority in the Senate.
But in practical context, Heritage is actually correct. Filibuster reform is a victory for progressive politics.
Recall that the biggest historical achievement of the filibuster was to delay a federal anti-lynching law and then to delay enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1950s. Today, it’s one of the most powerful tools for conservative politicians: just in recent months, they have used it to dramatically delay or stop a Democratic president from filling crucial posts at a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed to protect Americans from rapacious financial companies; to keep seats on the National Labor Relations Board empty; and to prevent the president from appointing judges to the federal bench who can counterbalance the right-wing ideologues placed there by George W. Bush. (Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who were both reluctant to embrace rules reform, were reportedly finally swayed last month when a Bush-appointed judge on the District of Columbia Appeals Court ruled against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act as an infringement upon religious liberty.)
In short, the filibuster provided one more pump-brake on the slow but sure recent leftward trend in American politics; it was of utility only to the minority party, which is of course the ossifying, conservative GOP.
After Senate Democrats finally executed the rule change Thursday afternoon, and after Reid and his leadership team held a relatively somber news conference where Reid said it was “not a time to celebrate,” Reid and some of the Senators behind the push for rules reform—Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Chuck Schumer and Tom Harkin—met with progressive groups in a room off the Senate chamber. (The Nation and a small handful of reporters were invited to observe.)
The people in the room and the outright celebratory nature of the meeting belied the true ramifications of Thursday’s rule change for progressive politics. The Senators entered to thunderous applause and more than a few hoots and hollers, and behind their podium stood many members of the Congressional Black Caucus and representatives from a wide array of progressive groups like, for example, the Sierra Club.
Many people in the room were responsible for mobilizing public support for a relatively obscure Senate rule change—groups like Democracy for America, CREDO Action and Daily Kos, which arrived at the meeting with 285,000 signatures supporting filibuster reform.
Progressive organizing was indeed crucial to changing the filibuster, with Senators like Merkley and Udall working the inside game while the outside groups got the public riled up. Many Democratic senators—including Reid—didn’t want to do rules reform back in 2009 when the GOP began its unprecedented obstruction, and it took a lot of convincing.
They were candid about this fact during the Thursday meeting. “There were some people that needed to be convinced, and—we don’t need to go into that—but they are convinced,” Harkin said, as the room erupted in laughter.
“[Merkley and Udall] brought this idea to me, and in my heart I knew they were right, but I couldn’t accept that they were,” Reid said of his initial reluctance. “I wanted to try to get along. For two Congresses I tried to get along…we tried and tried and tried.”
Though the assembled progressives were ebullient, they also hinted that the push wasn’t over. Progressive legislation, too, has often fallen victim to the filibuster. Few people remember that, before Republicans took over the House, Democrats passed out a cap-and-trade climate bill and the Disclose Act, a major piece of campaign finance legislation—both of which died in the Senate despite a Democratic majority.
“Let no one think our work is finished,” Merkley declared at the end of his remarks. “What was accomplished today was tremendous. I am looking forward to Mel Watt being the Federal Housing Finance Authority director. I am looking forward to President Obama having his fair opportunity to fill judicial vacancies.”
“But I am also looking forward to the moment when we can have legislation come to the floor of the US Senate and have a fair chance of getting an up-and-down vote, to do right by working Americans,” Merkley concluded, and left the podium to raucous applause.
Todd Gitlin on how students are leading the fight against climate change.
My new “Think Again” column is called “Murdoch and Ailes were "Right from the Start" and it’s about new and not-so-new revelations from a new book about you know who.
Alter-reviews, special guitar gods edition:
Eric Clapton, Unplugged
Eric Clapton, Give Me Strength: the 1974-75 Recordings
Eric Clapton et al, Crossroads Festival Blu-ray and CD
The Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters (deluxe)
Grateful Dead, Dave’s Picks, Vol. 8
Garcia Live, Volume 3, December 14-15, 1974 Northwest Tour,
It’s been a rich autumn for old Eric Clapton releases. There’s a nice new two-CD/DVD version of “Unplugged,” from 1992, the album that launched the whole movement. Clapton’s willingness to go in new directions has always distinguishd him from other guitar gods and these peformances tend to justify themselves, though not always, and especially not in the case of “Layla,” which is a travesty. There are a few new versions on the cd including a cover of “Big Maceo” Merriweather’s “Worried Life Blues,” an alternate take of “Walkin’ Blues” and early versions of “Circus” and “My Father’s Eyes” and an hour of rehearsal footage on the DVD, which is pretty cool to watch once or twice. (It’s also surprisingly cheap.)
I first discovered Clapton around 1974 or so and he was my pre-Born to Run favorite musician for “Layla” and the first solo album. I was so excited when he returned to recording and touring and a little shocked and disappointed at how mellow it all sounded; next to no guitar solos at all. But the dude was a prophet and this was where music was going; it caught up in the early eighties, and the stuff has worn tremendously well. You can now pay a lot of money for “Eric Clapton--Give Me Strength: The 1974-75 Recordings,” which is five CDs and a Bluray--or so they tell me, I only got the download.
It’s got 461 Ocean Boulevard, There's One In Every Crowd and the live E.C. Was Here—standing as one of the most remarkable rebirths in rock's history plus live tracks from Long Beach Arena (including unreleased versions of Crossroads, I Shot The Sheriff, Layla and Little Wing), the Hammersmith Odeon, Nassau Coliseum and Providence Civic Center; The Freddie King Criteria Studio Sessions featuring the previously unreleased versions of “Boogie Funk” and the full unreleased 22 minute version of “Gambling Woman Blues”
I saw last year’s editions of Eric’s “Crossroads Festival” shows last year at the Garden. Among the highlights were the surprise pairing of John Mayer and Keith Urban for the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down,” which turns out to be a much better song than I previously realized, Keith Richards and Eric doing “Key to the Highway.” Vince Gill performing "Tumbling Dice" with Keith Urban and Albert Lee and members of the Allman Brothers and by far, Eric and ABB doing my favorite song, of late, "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad," and truth be told they could have played more together since they had a whole set worked out at the Beacon a few years ago, which made for two of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. The hype for Gary Clark Jr. struck me as a washout however and Clapton did not have to open the shows (and this Bluray) with his sappiest and most McCartney-at-his-most-mawkish songs. So plan to do some fast-forwarding on this terrific sounding Bluray depending on your taste. Not all of it will be loved by everyone but with so many acts—I didn’t even mention Keith and Eric on “Key to the Highway” or Eric and Robbie R, Jeff Back or Buddy Guy or that 14 year old kid Quinn Sullivan, or the acoustic peformance by Warren, Derek and Gregg, especially on “The Needle and the Damage Done,” so it’s hard not to want to have this no matter what your taste in guitar gods. Eric closes well, too, with “Sunshine.” There’s a highlight two cd package as well. Both are pretty decently priced.
And speaking of my favorite band, I somehow neglected to mention the beautiful package put together to mark the 40th anniversary of the Allman Brothers Band’s fifth album, “Brothers and Sisters.” They were in terrible shape, but it’s a damn fine record and this is a lovely package. Duane died in the fall of 1971. 1973's Berry Oakley died early in the recording of this album. They were replaced by pianist Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams, but also by an expanded role for Dickie Betts. It was their best selling album ever--clearly their most radio friendly and now we get in the “Super Deluxe Edition” a disc of previously unreleased Jams, Rehearsals, and Outtakes, and a complete show on two cds from Winterland in September, 1973. It all sparkles and came before the band destroyed itself--in that iteration--with more drugs than anyone could do and arena shows that ended their rapport with their audience. Thank goodness it was only temporary, though nobody would have guessed it at the time--what with Gregg marrying Cher and falling asleep in bowls of spaghetti
Finally, speaking of my other favorite band, there’s now a “Dave Picks, Volume 8”: the last of the limited edition releases in this series this year. It’s a complete show from 11/30/80 at the Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA. The highlight for me was the incredible "Scarlet>Fire,” but maybe not for you. (Again, these were not their best years.) It’s three CDs and you gotta register at the Dead website because they all sell out immediately. And hey, you can watch “Dave” talk about his work, here. He’s pretty smart.
And if that’s not enough for you, you can order GarciaLive Volume Three: December 14-15, 1974 Northwest Tour, 3 CD Set featuring over 2 1/2 hours of previously unreleased music mastered from original soundboard recordings. Jazzier than usual, but with a nice rapport within the Legion of Mary band featuring Merle Sanders Wonderful 18 minute “Boogie On Reggae Woman” to open. Two “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”s though, is one too many, minimum. The Dead were on hiatus and this was one of Jerry’s most fruitful periods, musically, so it’s a nice if non-essential addition to the oeuvre. More here.
By Reed Richardson
What Sen. Harry Reid did Thursday wasn’t a win for Democrats as much as it was a triumph for democracy. That the Washington conventional wisdom likely won’t characterize it that way, though, shouldn’t be surprising. For far too long, the Beltway media has, by turns, overlooked, enabled, and normalized what has been a relentless, unprecedented siege campaign by Senate Republicans against Constitutional privilege and White House authority. Once a rare, last-ditch bureaucratic maneuver on the part of the minority, filibusters are no longer about extending actual debate on legislation or questioning the fitness of a political appointee. Instead, having been deployed a record 446 times since 2006, they’ve effectively been weaponized by the GOP as an extra-Constitutional end run around settled law. So, to say Reid “went nuclear” on the Senate rules Thursday is to ignore seven years of overwhelming evidence that the Republicans blew them up first.
Nevertheless, this week’s press coverage of Republican filibusters leading up to the nuclear option was more of the same old objective ambiguity. On Monday, for example, there was the Associated Press, vaguely talking about how Obama’s nomination of Judge Robert Wilkins to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals “[fell] short of the 60 votes required to advance” with nary a mention of the word “filibuster” anywhere. Even when the press does accurately describe the obstruction, as the Washington Post did last week in a story about the GOP filibuster of D.C Circuit nominee Judge Nina Pillard, it undermines the reality by trotting artificially balanced anecdotes as part of the old “both sides” canard. Dig down into the data, however, and you find that the GOP has blocked judicial nominees at a higher rate than at any other time in U.S. history.
Over time, the media’s steady use of euphemisms and false equivalence has buried the larger narrative of Republican filibuster abuse. Likewise, it compartmentalizes each round of executive or judicial nominations into discrete events, which only allows the GOP to escape real accountability for their egregious abuse. For instance, when NBC News’s political tip sheet First Read previewed Reid’s “nuclear option” move Thursday, note that it only did so with respect to the three most recent judicial nominees blocked by the GOP.
“And so after Senate Republican filibustered President Obama’s nominees to sit on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals—not on concerns about ideology or qualifications, but over the president’s ability to appoint ANYONE to these vacancies—Senate Democrats are poised to change the rules via the so-called ‘nuclear option’”
No. No. NO. While credit is due for highlighting the intellectual dishonesty of Republicans, this kind of short-sighted analysis of Democratic motives would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high. This incredibly simplistic explanation leaves the reader with the mistaken impression that, though Republicans are being stubborn, Harry Reid just up and changed the rules in something resembling a fit of pique after a rough couple of weeks.
This is not a new phenomenon, unfortunately. Over and over, the Beltway media has examined these filibuster events through a blinkered, ahistorical prism. Thus, no mention of how Obama has tried several times to fill these same D.C. Circuit Court vacancies since he first took office in 2009, to no avail. Or that one of these court vacancies was created more than eight years ago when John Roberts—yes, that John Roberts—was elevated to the Supreme Court. Also routinely left out of the coverage, the dozens of filibusters of other federal judicial appointees as well as the heads of numerous executive agencies, like the CFPB, NLRB, FCC, CIA, and EPA. And let's not forget the time Republicans attempted the first-ever filibuster a Cabinet nominee. Indeed, Republican filibusters have become so de rigueur in the Senate that, on several occasions, some in the GOP have thought nothing of threatening to block every single White House nominee, regardless of merit or need.
To be fair, some of the blame for this situation must be directed back at Senate Democrats and the White House. For too long, Reid and a few of his more tradition-bound Senate colleagues have enabled GOP intransigence through ill-advised, one-off filibuster moratoria that Republicans have demonstrated no compunction about discarding at their leisure. What’s more, this constant Republican stonewalling has inculcated a noticeable hesitancy on the part of the administration in terms of putting forth nominations. And too often both Reid and the White House seem to mistake willful, partisan obstruction with good faith disagreement. Spending months or even years searching and vetting highly qualified nominees only to have them summarily dismissed over and over should have long ago taught Reid the lesson he only fully learned this week.
Breaking the logjam this way, some media naysayers worry, will forever change the Senate, making it operate more like the House. And that’s probably true, but the operative word in that sentence is, well, operate. For, right now, the Senate is a broken legislative body, hijacked by a spiteful few extremists who are wholly uninterested in performing even the most routine aspects of government business.
While that obvious point isn’t lost on even the most process-obsessed members of the Washington press corps, time and again news organizations have failed to draw a bright line between Senate Republicans’ filibuster abuse and the dangerously anti-democratic precedent set by their behavior. Lacking any kind of pushback from the press, is it any wonder Republicans kept pushing further and further? As a result, they felt free to intentionally hamstring regulatory agencies for years by leaving them short-staffed and without leadership, effectively undermining the executive branch’s Article I authority. And why not consistently flout the president’s judicial appointees—to, say, maintain Republican dominance on the D.C. Appeals Court? It only negates the electoral mandate provided by the public. Hey, it’s not like the press is really going to notice.
But make no mistake, even though it may fly underneath the radar of almost every big-name pundit, tilting the balance on the D.C. Appeals Court matters. For most of Obama’s tenure, the court has been split evenly, with more Republican appointees enjoying seniority. As a result, its been a friendly legal ground to enable all manner of successful right-wing regulatory challenges, whether it’s cracking down on labor organizing to unraveling the Affordable Care Act’s free contraception rules or undoing tougher Dodd-Frank regulations on out-of-control CEO pay. And it figures to loom large in the administration’s upcoming push for stricter carbon emissions rules for power plants. Outrageously, Republicans have responded with thinly veiled partisan arguments about workload to argue for cutting back the number of D.C. Circuit judges. (Phony arguments that are little more than rank hypocrisy.) Reid’s move will ensure that the court gets its full complement of judges and that overturning tougher environmental regulations among other liberal policy priorities just became a much tougher road for conservatives.
But it’s not just judicial appointees that can have a far-reaching impact. This past week, we saw what it can mean for workers and people in low-income areas when the Senate nominations process functions as intended. After scuffling along for years with only a minimum quorom, a now fully-staffed and fully-engaged NLRB handed down a major ruling against Walmart Monday one that penalized the company for illegally disciplining and firing employees who had participated in labor strikes. Likewise, on Wednesday, the newly created CFPB—whose inaugural director was only just approved by the Senate this past summer after a long filibuster fight—announced its first major settlement against predatory lenders.
With a rabidly conservative Republican majority in the House making legislative progress all but impossible, legal rulings and enforcement actions represent the best shot at policy success for Democrats until 2015, at the earliest. Not coincidentally, it's precisely the kind of duly-earned progress the Senate GOP’s filibuster abuse would have kept on unfairly delaying had Reid not acted. In the end, the story of Thursday's “nuclear option” is mostly a tale of winners, though—our democracy first and foremost, but both Democrats and Republicans too, since the move ultimately makes government more responsive and actually enhances the value of winning elections. (The next GOP Senate Majority Leader will no doubt come to appreciate Reid’s decision when there’s a Republican in the White House). Perhaps the only real loser in all this is the Beltway media, which showed once again that it can miss a big story up to and even after the moment it blows up.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
In an observant post last week, the blogger Braze noted one of the difficulties with using Spoonerisms as the basis for cryptic clueing. A Spoonerism—in which the corresponding sounds of two words are swapped, for example to render “The Lord is a loving shepherd” as “The Lord is a shoving leopard”—is a well-established genre of wordplay, and possibilities for using them abound.
The problem, as Braze pointed out, is that there’s no way to flag a Spoonerism without explicitly invoking Spooner—which instantly gives the game away. He’s absolutely right. We’ve been searching for years for some alternative indicator for a Spoonerism, but with no success. In fact, every clue we’ve ever published that was based on a Spoonerism mentioned Spooner himself.
(Spoonerisms are so named after the Rev. William Spooner, a famously absent-minded Oxford professor who—like Yogi Berra after him—had many more malapropisms attributed to him than are likely to be genuine. A favorite Spooner anecdote, unrelated to Spoonerisms, has him preaching a long Sunday sermon, taking his seat, and then remounting the pulpit to add, “Every time I mentioned Aristotle, I meant St. Paul.”)
Here are a couple of examples from the files:
EASY CHAIR Spooner’s tacky first-born gets a comfy seat (4,5)
RUB NOSES Spooner’s point: flowers kiss on the tundra (3,5)
NEW DEAL Roosevelt’s program, as expected: genuflect to Rev. Spooner (3,4)
But Spoonerisms are only one example of a whole range of wordplay that goes beyond the standard typology of anagrams, reversals, charades and so on. It’s not uncommon for us to come across a bit of wordplay that fits more easily into the world of Will Shortz’s weekly NPR challenge, which comes with explicit instructions (“Take an eight-letter name, then delete one letter and reverse the remainder…”) than the more elliptical style of cryptic crosswords.
Just recently, for instance, we had a puzzle that included the word FIRMWARE. The clue was based on the observation that if you swap the last letters of FIRM and WARE you get FIRE and WARM—a sort of non-phonetic last-letter Spoonerism variant. There’s no obvious way to flag that, so we wound up simply describing the process, albeit somewhat cryptically:
FIRMWARE Permanent programs can heat up if terminals are interchanged (8)
Another example was this clue, based on a very specific letter substitution:
VISCOUNT Aristocrat’s price markdown, initially reduced by 99% (8)
Again, there is no specific name for this kind of wordplay, and so the constructor can do no more than suggest how it works. The result, as the Rev. Spooner might say, is a cladistic Sioux.
What do you think about Spoonerisms and other unusual wordplay? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.
“Rick,” a Facebook friend writes, “curious to see what you make of the old debate (which may have some new evidence, see Galbraith II) re JFK and Vietnam. Would we have gone or stayed if JFK lived? Or was he the fervent Cold Warrior some paint him as? (My dad marched in his inauguration, and was almost killed six or seven years later.)”
The argument that John F. Kennedy was a closet peacenik, ready to give up on what the Vietnamese call the American War upon re-election, received its most farcical treatment in Oliver Stone’s JFK. It was made with only slightly more sophistication by Kenneth O’Donnell in the 1972 book Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, in which the old Kennedy hand depicted the president telling him, “In 1965, I’ll become one of the most unpopular presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. But I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m elected.” O’Donnell also claimed that in an October 2, 1963, National Security Council meeting, after debriefing Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor on their recent trip to Saigon, “President Kennedy asked McNamara to announce to the press after the meeting the immediate withdrawal of one thousand soldiers and to say that we would probably withdraw all American forces from Vietnam by the end of 1965. When McNamara was leaving the meeting to talk to the White House reporters, the President called to him, ‘And tell them that means all the helicopter pilots, too.’ ” Promptly, wrote O’Donnell, McNamara double-crossed the president, giving the reporters merely a prediction of the end of America’s war, not Kennedy’s prescription of the end of America’s war: McNamara merely said they thought “the major part of the the U.S. task” would be completed by the end of 1965, nothing about the president’s intention to complete the task by the end of 1965.
O’Donnell was seeing the world through Camelot-colored glasses. As the historian Edwin Moise demonstrates in A Companion to the Vietnam War (2002), NSC minutes are a matter of record, and the notes show the president himself approving a statement that was only a prediction that things would be over by the end of 1965, framed merely as the observation of Taylor and McNamara. (“They reported that by the end of this year, the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 military personnel assigned to South Vietnam can be withdrawn.”)
Now, on the broader claim that Kennedy truly intended to end the war by the end of 1965, things get more interesting, and that’s where the case recently made by James K. Galbraith, son of the famous Kennedy hand and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, comes in. As he put it categorically in a letter to The New York Times, “President Kennedy issued a formal decision to withdraw American forces from Vietnam.” Is that true? Only literally, which in the end adds up to mostly nothing.
Kennedy, of course, was the first president to send soldiers to Southeast Asia, 16,732 of them, supposedly as mere “advisers,” but many of them actually combatants. As Kennedy had told famously told The New York Times’s James Reston late in 1961 after the failure at the Bay of Pigs and the erection of the Berlin Wall, “Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.” And a damned good place, his military men kept telling him: early in his third year as president, his Vietnam commanders reported that “barring greatly increased resupply and reinforcement of the Viet Cong by the infiltration, the military phase of the war can be virtually won in 1963”—an opinion he continued hearing repeatedly. That’s important context, for whether JFK’s plans on what to do in Vietnam were contingent on military success in Vietnam—as opposed to cutting and running even if that meant leaving the country to the Communist insurgency—is key to this debate.
As Edwin Moise notes, though, “President Kennedy also read much more pessimistic evaluations. These were written mostly by civilians—some by officials in the State Department, others by journalists like Malcolm Browne and David Halberstam. Kennedy did not openly commit himself to either the optimists or the pessimists.” What he did do was insist publicly that he would never cut and run. July 13, 1963: “We are not going to withdraw from that effort…. we are going to stay there.” September 2: “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.” September 26: “We have to stay with it. We must not be fatigued.”
And what of privately? Bug-out plans were indeed drawn up. Galbraith points to an October 4 message from General Taylor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Program currently in progress to train Vietnamese forces will be reviewed and accelerated as necessary to insure that all essential functions visualized to be required for the projected operational environment, to include those now performed by U.S. military units and personnel, can be assumed properly by the Vietnamese by the end of calendar year 1965. All planning will be directed towards preparing RVN forces for the withdrawal of all U.S. special assistance units and personnel by the end of calendar year 1965.” (Galbraith himself adds the emphasis.) “Execute the plan,” the memo continues, “to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963…”
Noam Chomsky ably took on this claim by pointing out that the withdrawal plan in question, labeled NSAM 263, included language Galbraith conveniently omits, for instance, “It remains the central object of the United States in South Vietnam to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy. The test of all decisions and U.S. actions in this area should be the effectiveness of their contributions to this purpose.” And that supporting texts included phrases like “without impairment of the war effort,” and that “what furthers the war effort we support, and what interferes the with the war effort we oppose,” and “our actions are related to our fundamental objective of victory.” Moises points to language in minutes from the October 2, 1963, NSC meeting: “President Kennedy indicated he did not want to get so locked into withdrawal plans that it would be difficult to cancel them if the war did not go so well after all.”
In other words, whether John F. Kennedy’s formal decision would be carried through in the interim between October 1963 and January 1966 was contingent on what happened in the future. One day this summer I issued a formal decision to go the beach. Then it rained. And so I did not go to the beach.
And as anyone who knows anything about the Vietnam War knows, the people funneling intelligence to the president were alarmingly adept (“the military phase of the war can be virtually won in 1963”) at claiming the sun was shining when it actually was pouring down rain. In fact, when it came to America’s military prospects there, it was winter in Seattle just about all the time. But tomorrow was always going to be sunny, if you asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The best evidence that this “formal decision” by JFK lacks forecasting power is the actual outcome of phase I of that selfsame formal decision: to remove 1,000 soldiers from Vietnam by the end of 1963. Only 432 were actually removed by the end of 1963 (“although,” writes Moise, “some sources give lower figures,” and even that may have merely been the result of shifting deployment schedules). Sometimes war is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
And that’s not because there was a new president by the end of 1963, at least if you trust Galbraith, who cites as clinching his argument (though it actually proves his argument is wrong) that a December 11, 1963, memo noting that the plan to withdraw 1,000 soldiers was still in force, “with no reference to the change of commander in chief.” Through the rest of 1963, in other words (Galbraith’s words), America’s Vietnam policy was still Kennedy’s, not LBJ’s. The policy, as articulated two days before Kennedy’s death by Henry Cabot Lodge, America’s ambassador to Vietnam: “We should continue to keep before us the goal of setting dates for phasing out U.S. activities and turning them over to the Vietnamese…. We can always grant last-minute extensions if we think it wise to do so.”
Finally, consider context. We all know how the Cold War worked: Republican claims about “losing China” motivated a generation of Democrats into pants-pissing fears about not looking tough enough on the reds. Writes Moise, “It is hard to believe that Kennedy as a man who had spent so much effort cultivating an image of machismo and youthful vigor would not have cared about being thought a Communist appeaser.” He observes, with subtly and sharp historical acumen, “It is not at all unusual in Washington for people to write plans based on a ‘best-case’ scenario. It also seems possible that when Kennedy based plans on the optimists’ projections, he was using this as a way of putting pressure on senior military officers to be realistic in their reports. They might be less inclined to write inflated claims of progress if they were clearly told that such claims would be treated as justifications for troop pullouts.”
He concludes archly, “To have reached a firm decision to withdraw, so long in advance, he would have to have felt that no possible new development, between 1963 and 1965, might create a prospect of an acceptable outcome of a continued struggle. To have thought the situation was such an unmitigated and unmitigatable disaster, he would have had to think that most of what was being said about he Vietnam War in the National Security Council was nonsense, and that his top military and foreign policy advisors were fools or liars. If he felt that, he did an extraordinary job of concealing it.” I agree wholeheartedly.
So what would have happened in Vietnam had JFK lived? Let the man who knew him best have the last word. Asked in 1964 whether America would have “go[ne] in on land” if the South Vietnamese were about to lose, Bobby Kennedy answered, “Well, we’d face that when we came to it.”
Part II of this series considers whether JFK’s assassination influenced the passage of LBJ’s sweeping social reforms.
Charlotte Hays, the conservative writer and director of cultural programs at the anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum, has a new book out, titled When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question. A broadside against the moral and aesthetic failures of the lower orders, it’s a fascinating work, not for what it says but for what it represents. It’s a sign that at least some on the right are abandoning the NASCAR-fetishizing Palinesque faux-populism of recent decades for a more overt style of class warfare.
A chapter on the foreclosure crisis and crushing student debt, for example, is called “White Trash Money Management.” “There are, I thus adduce, two keys to not being White Trash: having a job and paying your bills on time,” Hays sniffs. “The first is getting more difficult in this economy, but it is still White Trash to go on disability if you aren’t positively unable to lift a finger.”
Hays’s work is saturated with that particular kind of right-wing smugness born of the conviction that one’s willingness to express common prejudices is a sign of free-thinking audacity. What’s interesting is where it’s directed—not at liberals or their sacred cows, but at fat, broke, ordinary Americans. “We look like hell as a nation, and fat people bear a large brunt of responsibility for this,” she writes. “I can remember when going to New York meant seeing beautiful, pencil-thin people in stylish clothes on Fifth Avenue. Where are they now? The other day I saw a fat guy in polyester in my favorite New York restaurant.” Heaven forfend! She’s so delighted with her description of diabetes as “the talismanic White Trash disease” that she uses it twice.
This marks quite a change from the dominant conservative style of the last two decades. Until recently, the modern right defined itself in opposition to caricatured elitists—particularly fashionable New Yorkers. Think of the Club For Growth’s famous anti-Howard Dean commercial, with the earthy old couple decrying the candidate’s “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, volvo-driving, New York Times–reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show.” Tom Frank’s hugely successful What’s the Matter With Kansas? was all about this sort of ostentatious down-home shtick. “In the backlash imagination, America is always in a state of quasi-civil war,” he wrote. “[O]n one side are the unpretentious millions of authentic Americans; on the other stand the bookish, all-powerful liberals who run the country but are contemptuous of the tastes and beliefs of the people who inhabit it.”
This style, obviously, hasn’t entirely vanished from the right, but lately a bit of overt disgust towards those unpretentious millions has crept in. Or maybe crept out—if conservatives once tried to keep their contempt for hoi polloi behind closed doors, Mitt Romney–style, now they’re displaying it proudly.
You can see it in the growing prominence of Fox’s Stuart Varney, who got his own show on Fox Business Network in 2011. When he’s not giving interviews about his love of juicing and his many estates, Varney specializes in sneering at the poor in an impossibly posh English accent. (“Many of them have things,” he once said. “What they lack is the richness of spirit.”) Then there’s Charles Murray, who, taking a break from theorizing the innate inferiority of African-Americans, turned his attention to inequality among white people in last year’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. That book argued, among other things, that a “decay in industriousness” among working-class white men, not decay in the labor market, is a major factor in our country’s growing class divide.
And now we have this nasty little book, which has received favorable coverage in National Review, The Washington Times and The Weekly Standard. Writing in the latter, Judy Bachrach called it a “plaintive tract…. a serious political one, in fact.” In a sense, Bachrach is right. Hays’s flip dehumanization of struggling people does have a serious purpose. It’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore inequality’s ravages or to blame them on gay marriage or snotty university professors. Conservatives find themselves faced with a choice: either acknowledge that our economic system is failing the American people, or deride the American people for failing our economic system.
Hays opts for the latter. Her book’s message is essentially the same as Murray’s: Americans are falling behind because they are lazy and dissolute. She even mocks the idea that full-time work alone should be enough to escape poverty. The colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth, she writes, “knew you had to work full time—and then some—and maybe still do a little starving.”
In some ways, it’s nice to see right-wingers drop their everyman act and be forthright in their defense of traditional hierarchies—at least they’re being honest. Still, as La Rochefoucauld famously said, “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.” Hays’s book shows us what it looks like when ugly, vulgar ideas are displayed without shame. Maybe we’d be better off with at least a pretense of decency.
Michelle Goldberg on why liberals need to kick Alec Baldwin to the curb.
The war in Afghanistan has lasted twelve years, making it the longest in American history. Despite the unpopularity of the conflict, President Obama is working with the government of Afghanistan to formulate a new security deal that would leave US troops in the country for at least a decade more—without the approval of Congress.
A bipartisan group of senators, led by Senator Jeff Merkley, are planning to introduce an amendment to the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would slow down the President’s plans to turn a 12-year conflict into a twenty-three-year war. The amendment “expresses the sense of the Senate” that President Obama should seek congressional approval no later than June 1, 2014 for any extended presence in Afghanistan. As The Nation’s George Zornick points out, although the amendment isn’t binding, a debate in Congress could “mirror the debate over intervention in Syria earlier this year—where congressional support never materialized.”
The Democratic leadership may not let the Senate vote on this crucial amendment. Join us in calling on Senate majority leader Harry Reid to bring Senator Merkley’s amendment up for a vote. Our elected representatives must have a say in whether we prolong the war in Afghanistan. Then, to amplify your voice, call the Senate majority leader at 202-224-3542 and tweet at him @SenatorReid.
Earlier this week,The Nation’s George Zornick reported on Senator Merkley’s plan to introduce this crucial amendment.
On the twelfth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! spoke to Malalai Joya, an activist and former member of the Afghan Parliament who has argued forcefully against a continued United States military presence in her country.