Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Tangled Up in Unbelievable Foolishness

My new “Think Again” column is called “Something is Happening and You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Ms. Dowd?” and it’s here.  Guess who and what it is about.

My Daily Beast column was called “Obama’s next budget deal cave in” and that’s here.

I will be speaking on April 27 on “Kabuki Democracy” at Town Hall in Seattle, to make up for the gig that was cancelled in January, due to snow. More info here.  (Also, Katrina and I will be on a panel on Obama’s first year on Saturday morning, April 30, at the LA Times Festival of Books, which is at USC this year. I believe the panel begins at 10:30 am.)

I apparently discuss the book here, on the radio. 

Oh and all honor to David Byrne, conqueror of “Doctor Atheist von Gay, The French Celebrity Abortionist.’” 


I was lucky enough to be in Rose Hall last Friday night to see Eric Clapton join Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz@Lincoln Center Orchestra for a once (actually three times) in a lifetime opportunity. Joined by Taj Mahal, who did a short solo set and then came back at the end, they picked songs from what Wynton said were over 2,000 that Eric had compiled as possibilities : The setlist went as follows:

Ice Cream (Howard Johnson / Robert King / Billy Moll)

Forty-Four (Chester Burnett)

Joe Turner's Blues (W.C. Handy)

The Last Time (Bill Ewing / Sara Martin)

Careless Love (W.C. Handy / Martha E. Koenig / Spencer Williams)

Kidman Blues (Big Maceo Merriweather)

Layla (Eric Clapton / Jim Gordon)

Joliet Bound (Kansas Joe McCoy / Memphis Minnie McCoy)

Just A Closer Walk With Thee (Traditional)

Corrine Corrina (Bo Chatman / Mitchell Parish / J. Mayo Williams) - encore

It was much more of a jazz show than a rock or even a blues show. Everybody including Eric wore suits and ties. Everybody sat down quietly for the entire performance, both onstage and in the audience. Eric looked thrilled to be there, but truth be told, more than a bit intimidated. There was no rocking out, not even any breaking out. But there was virtuosity a- plenty, as well as reverence in abundance for music that deserves it, but does not necessarily benefit from it. I wouldn’t have missed it and the night before, at the gala at the at Rose Theater in Frederick
P. Rose Hall, they say they raised $3.6 million dollars for Jazz at Lincoln Center's performance, education and broadcast events. And hey, there will be a DVD, more evidence of what a fine fellow Eric has turned out to be. For more, visit Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Speaking of fine fellows, I guess this would a good time to mention Wynton Marsalis will launch a two-year performance and lecture series on April 28, with an appearance at Sanders Theatre. I’m doing this even though I recently gave a talk at Harvard, and not too many people thought that was worth getting all excited about. Then again, I’m willing to bet Eric Clapton has no interest in doing much of anything with me either Wynton will be lecturing on a variety of topics, they tell me, “to illuminate the relationship between American music and the American identity and he’ll be bringing his band on occasion. It’s really more than those Harvard punks deserve. The first one will be April 28 is titled “Music as Metaphor” and will feature Ali Jackson (drums), Dan Nimmer (piano), Walter Blanding Jr. (tenor sax), Carlos Henriquez (bass), James Chirillo (guitar and banjo) and Mark O'Connor (violin). Tickets are here

And while we’re on the topic, how about ponying up for the tenth anniversary celebration of the Jazz Foundation of America. There are two reasons to do it. On is the line up for "A GREAT NIGHT IN HARLEM" at the Apollo on May 19th. So far, it’s Macy Gray, Lou Reed, Roberta Flack,Christian McBride and Dr. John. The second reason is what they will do with the cash. That would include:

• Preventing homelessness and evictions by paying rents and mortgages

• Creating dignified work through our Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools Program

• Providing free medical care and operations through our partners at Englewood Hospital

• Keeping the heat turned on and food on the table through our Musicians' Emergency Fund

Go here and spend your money.

More reviews:

The third wave of Legacy Hendrix reissues from Sony Legacy is here for you Hendrix obsessives and it includes the posthumous odds-and-sods style “South Saturn Delta,”; a deluxe DVD edition of Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsys (Live at Fillmore East), with bonus footage includes a killer "Foxey Lady" and rarely performed live versions of "Power Of Soul," "Stepping Stone" and "Who Knows,” and there’s also "Power of Soul" where lots of other people do Hendrix songs including Santana, Prince, Sting, Clapton, and plenty of others, a bunch of which you may already have. You can see if that’s the case, here

I’ve also been enjoying a new book of photographs of Patti Smith from way back when taken by a friend of hers named Judy Linn. They are grainy, black and white photos of a completely unselfconscious artists hanging with Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, Tom Verlaine, etc. It’s called Patti Smith 1969-1976, and it’s a charming, albeit modest document. I prefer it to the rather more elaborate Mary McCartney, From Where I Stand. I didn’t know there was a Mary McCartney but she turns out to be a photographer with some pretty serious access to people named “McCartney,” as well as Madonna, Bono, Debbie Harry, Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Moss.

My favorite coffee table book of the week is called “Naked: The Nude in America,” published by Rizzoli. The pictures are interesting, sure, but the text really stands out. It’s by Bram Dijkstra who is a cultural, rather than an art historian and it makes for a fascinating study with a number of provocative and illuminating observations on the, the “incursion” of physical realism, nudity for shock value, and the pin-up-girl craze. The dude is also a fine writer, and begins his text as follows: “The mind-boggling contradictions of American culture are nowhere as obvious as in its constantly shifting attitudes towards the naked human body.” And again, the pictures, both paintings and photographs, are well produced and often chosen for interesting reasons. I also spent some time looking through another Rizzoli coffee-table entry, Great French Paintings from the Clark: Barbizon through Impressionism. It’s a fine collection. This full-color catalogue features more than 70 of the most important nineteenth-century European paintings in the Clark Art Institute, including fine work by Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, Manet, Degas, and Renoir, as well as Corot and Millet, with interesting essays as well. It’s not the Barnes collection, but it is something. (And too bad some of the Clark family’s funds landed in Marty Peretz’s lap, huh?)

Now here’s Reed:

Obama’s Sunday School Lesson

Wednesday’s budget speech by President Obama was one of the more curious “policy” speeches I’ve heard in a long time. It immediately struck me as reminiscent of something I’d encountered long ago, but it wasn’t until hours afterward that I was able to identify it—it was an old Sunday School lesson I’d heard growing up. Paraphrasing, its premise goes something like this: Each of us can choose from basically three different governing rules to live our lives.

Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Silver Rule: Do unto others as they do unto you.

Iron Rule: Do unto others before they do unto you.

The first of these rules is mentioned, in various forms, several times throughout the New Testament (most commonly as part of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:12) and the point of that Sunday School lesson was to reinforce the importance and value of following such a rule. However, the so-called Golden Rule isn’t actually one of the Ten Commandments—despite what nearly half of Americans may think—and, in point of fact, Christians can’t claim sole ownership of this concept since an “Ethic of Reciprocity,” as its also known, also appears as a universal ideal in nearly every one of the world’s religions.

Living out this ethic requires one to be hopeful, trusting, compassionate, and altruistic, to believe that there is an enduring connection to one’s community and that the connection is not always an insufferable burden but instead can be a joyous responsibility. Golden Rulers abide by the notion that our individual destinies are quite intricately bound together and, furthermore, we are all better for it as a result. And for a president that often draws upon Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount for rhetorical inspiration, it was no surprise to hear him lean upon some of those same ideals to form the fundamental basis for his budget argument in Wednesday’s speech.

Indeed, it was hardly a coincidence that Obama’s one, brief invocation of God in the body of his remarks preceded a broad moral defense of those American policy programs that rely upon the Golden Rule as their fundamental funding mechanism.

“We recognize that, no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ we say to ourselves.

“And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities.”

That section alone was worth tuning if for, just to hear an American President put aside for a brief moment our country’s incessant mythologizing of the free market and rugged individualism to acknowledge that each of us has a vested interest in our neighbor’s fate. But he doesn’t just stop there. He then goes on to link the very concept of American Exceptionalism itself, which he is oft criticized for not touting incessantly, with our nation’s social commitments to helping the unemployed, the elderly, the sick, and the indigent.

“We're a better country because of these commitments....

I'll go further: We would not be a great country without those commitments.”

This Golden Rule-basis for policymaking is simply anathema to a Republican Party that now universally embraces as its guiding “path to prosperity” a draconian budget plan that takes dead aim at these social compact programs while further cutting taxes for the rich. With their plan, the GOP, spurred on by its extreme Tea Party wing, is effectively trying to seismically shift the policy ground in our nation rightward, from a Golden Rule to more of a Silver Rule approach, one where all interactions with the government are to be thought of in strictly transactional terms. In other words, it’s a philosophy that wants each of us to think that what I, as an individual, get out of government must exactly equal what I put in.

Of course, in a geographically vast and demographically diverse country of 310 million people, this calculus will never exactly balance out and, as a result, taxpayers in thrall to this Silver Rule way of thinking will rarely be satisfied with their share of the tax burden (no matter what silly ideas ridiculous centrist groups come up with). And when that disillusionment inevitably happens? Well then, Republicans can step in to conveniently suggest the next logical step—doing away with “ineffective” government program altogether. Such an extreme landing spot in our society often goes by the name of libertarianism, or, in Sunday School, we’d call it Iron Rule.

That is why the parts of Obama’s speech where he spoke of his moral justifications for opposing Ryan’s Medicare-killing budget plan resonated so well, while his attempt to match Ryan dollar-for-dollar in deficit reduction fell flat and left many listeners asking for more details. The Golden Rule sections of his budget speech seized the rhetorical high ground, keeping the fight on Democratic home turf where, it’s worth pointing out, most Americans also reside.

The other, more technical parts of his address, however, wobbled and began to cede too much negotiating ground to the Republicans right out of the gate. That’s because getting bogged down in discussions about what and how much should get cut increasingly comes off as a wonkish, narrow-minded policy exercise between two sets of Silver Rulers. But if the public can’t perceive a moral or philosophical difference between the two parties on an important issue like this, the press quickly follows suit and instead breathlessly buries itself in minutiae involving negotiating tactics and counter-proposals without ever delving into a broader discussion of the different policy proposals long-term impact. In this case, it means that the Democrats would lose their one big advantage when it comes to the budget—the fact that the American public wholeheartedly agrees with them.

Of course, I was apparently one of the few listeners who thought Obama’s speech spent too much time on details rather than too little. Then again, I would have judged the whole damn thing as a rousing success if he had simply condensed the entire thing down to two sentences about the Ryan plan: “Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it. That won’t ever happen on my watch.” and then walked out. That simple act alone would have been a dramatic way of contrasting the two competing fiscal paths now being presented to our country. Thankfully, Obama did more than that Wednesday, he presented the broader moral foundations behind this upcoming choice.

Do we continue to live up to our nation’s progressive ideals and fight to preserve what’s left of our existing Golden Rule-based society or do we abandon those ideals in favor of an increasingly atomized, privatized, and marketized country operating under Iron Rule? I know what my Sunday School teacher’s answer would be.

The mail:


Greer, SC

Since my earlier comments did not elicit any reponse on "Suspicion", I must make my own, if you will allow. The Elvis, original, rendition is more personal, more original & would be the favorite of any musical purist, whatever that means, but the Stafford version is still superior, stands the test of time. I defy you not to groove to the female background singers.

In further developments here in "GOP Paradise", I suppose you noted the Greenville County GOP convention had Newt, Santorum & Haley Barbour all speaking, Santorum won the straw vote with 31%. Greenville County is S.C.'s most populous country, the backbone of the state fundamentalist Christian GOP movement. Scary, huh?

To be fair, the attendence at the convention was about half of the size of the last one two years ago. And, Santorum has been making appearances in this area for weeks....he seems to almost have taken up residence. But, 31% for the man on dog sex guy, it still is scary. Did I say I was thinking of buying a gun? My wife just subscribed to The Nation, got our initial copy yesterday. Paradise is not lost, not completely.

Bill Dunlap

Lake Oswego, Oregon

Eric: Your column on the Ryan Plan makes me think that Rep. Ryan has a new take on the much debated idea of "American exceptionalism." Namely: Modern industrialized countries can treat their sick, take care of their elderly and provide a safety net for their poorest—except America.

Neil Lambert



Back in the 90's,I used to look forward to every time you were on one of the news stations being interviewed (for some reason, I think of you talking to callers at C-Span; perhaps you were promoting books) and took great pleasure in your skill. You had two wonderful qualities: One was, you never lost your cool; you stayed rational and calm no matter what; and two, you always had the facts (and never took the cheap way out, being insulting or even short with people.) You were knowledgeable and patient.

I'm sorry to read this latest piece of yours, so many years later, because, like the Democratic party and the mainstream media that left me behind after Clinton, your tone has changed. It all seemed to vegin with the election of George W., suddenly I was seeing all the nastiness I used to abhor in Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and Newt Gingrich in the 90's -- and Lee Atwater, going back further. I hope that you haven't changed as negatively as they have, but the piece here is not convincing.

Okay,you were obviously going for humor, and I realize that with the internet and a new generation of college-aged, i-Phone-trained liberals, comes a definite snark. But the remark about the Tea Party is below you and treading dangerously close to the "Sarah Palin is a c***" t-shirts (th'p not profane.)

I don't know, but it didn't seem to be your style. I know about the campaign to tag the TP "extremists" and about the concern these people causes on the left. I fear that much of it is'because the TP people do challenge Obama's beliefs, and, too, there is a new culture of silencing those who disagree with the orthodoxy that was not there before the year 2000. But the accusations in your piece fail to get a laugh and look just a bit desperate...and afraid.

You see, I, a Democrat voter since Carter, am now a Tea Party person. Perhaps if you hadn't grown older in your media bubble, you might have become one, too. I won't bother explaining why we are not the "rump fringe" or whatever derogative term you used for us (because I know that YOU know it isn't accurate. We are the future, not the past.) But I will ask you to think about this:

Who are the "mean-spirited" ones these days, Eric? Who seems to have no limit to their means as long as it results in the right ends? Who is quick to jump on anything negative about Obama as "racist" and slings around slurs consistently to describe their fellow Americans?

It's no longer n***** or kike; now, it's kindergarten teachers writing death threats to legislatures and calling those who think differently "stupid."

It's "bagger," "winger," "homophobe," "xenophobe," "islamophobe," "Zionist" "rednecks," "fundies" or "those who believe in a mystical being in the sky."

The hatred is blatant for Christians, Jews, blue collar people -- truck drivers, plumbers -- non-college graduates, Southerners, and anyone (especially males) from a traditional, Scotch-Irish background or rural ("hillbillies"). And it comes from members of those groups themselves, who have been so filled with self-hatred that they eat their own, never bothering to notice that the "supressed" Holders they stand up for to not thank them, but instead are quick to speak of "my people."

I hope you haven't left me behind, too, as the Democratic party and the media did. But it sure looks like it. And I'm sorry. I thought you were one of the good ones. I know you still could be.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Liberals and the Liberals who Hate Them

Eric’s columns this week:

New Think Again: "Brave, Radical, and Smart" (Liberals who wont take their own side in a fight).

New Nation column: "Fox: The Liars' Network."

New Daily Beast column on the new DNC chief.

Now here’s Reed:

Telegraphing the Pitch

Earlier this week, the Republican National Committee unveiled a new primary debate plan that would give the RNC substantially more power to schedule candidate forums and choose conservative moderators from outside the realm of traditional media to host those events. Conservative talker Hugh Hewitt, in a grandly pretentious Washington Examiner op-ed from this past Sunday that really has to be read to be believed, portentously hailed the plan’s “promise of serious discussion of issues of deep importance to the conservative electorate tired to death of the agenda journalism of the Obama-loving MSM.” Predicting that such a plan “could yield a renaissance in campaign coverage,” Hewitt went so far as to draw up what amounts to a right-winger’s dream team of alternative panel members and potential debate topics:

“Imagine one or two debates on foreign affairs, moderated by a senior statesman and featuring questions from public intellectuals like Charles Krauthammer, Victor Davis Hanson and Liz Cheney."

"A debate moderated by the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot and featuring economic historian Amity Shlaes and other writers and reporters knowledgeable about the history of markets and regulatory policy would be valuable."

"Or perhaps a forum on the Constitution, courts and judges moderated by Robert Bork and featuring former federal appellate judges Michael McConnell and Michael Luttig? The possibilities for great and informative debates are many and long overdue.”

Let’s be really honest here, what kind of serious, fact-based policy discussions can the American public expect from the Republican primary candidates if each debate is dominated by a collection of demagogues, intellectual poseurs (courtesy of our old friend LTC Bob Bateman) and duplicitous, power-hungry officials the likes of which are listed above. Indeed, for each debate, the RNC might as well go ahead and follow the lead of a certain New York baseball team and let the moderators use hand signals to telegraph to the candidates just which canned talking points to use next. In fact, I finally let my curiosity get the better of me and decided that I would try to humbly come up with a potential list of “serious” questions that might match the tenor of Hewitt’s “smart questioners” at just such a GOP presidential primary debate. Feel free to submit your own as well...

Round Robin section:

– Just how awesome was Ronald Reagan? (For brevity’s sake, please avoid using the terms “amnesty,” “Beirut” or “signed a tax increase” in your answer.)

– Gitmo: What can we do to make it less humane for those terrorists lucky enough to be coddled there indefinitely?

– (Special for Newt Gingrich) What does the Obamas’ successful marriage say about how secular progressives are flagrantly undermining the vital role that mistresses, infidelity and divorce play in shaping American exceptionalism?

– Critics say the fact that millionaires and multinational corporations often pay nothing at all in incomes taxes here in our country is a travesty. Detail how your administration would go about lowering this unfair tax burden even further.

– What is your stance regarding teaching evolution in our schools? (Trick question: If somebody really cared about their child, they would already be home schooling them!)

– After having repealed Obamacare as your first legislative act as president, what would you charge Congress with doing next to solve our nation’s daunting health care problems: Repeal Medicare or repeal Medicaid?

– Hypothetical situation: You, a Federal Reserve Governor, a unionized public school teacher, and a pregnant illegal immigrant starting to go into labor are all stranded inside an oddly unfurnished Detroit mosque during a climate-change-refuting blizzard and you only have a single bullet left in your legal, concealed-carry handgun, who do you pray will get “called” to heaven first?

–If you could have dinner with any five figures from history, how big of a steak, in ounces, would you hope to be served as you ate alongside Jesus Christ, Ronald Reagan, Ayn Rand, Joseph McCarthy, and a random Founder whose name escapes you right now, OK, let’s just say George Washington?

–How would your administration go about discerning the voting preferences of unborn fetuses every Election Day and isn’t it safe to assume that their choice would cancel out that of the mother, especially if she wasn’t married and/or wore pants?

–Please address a fellow candidate at the forum and, in discussing his or her inability to stay true to conservative principles, explain how their failings pale in comparison to the lingering questions about Obama’s true birthplace.

–Describe in one-minute the process by which all Americans will be able to shop nationwide for cheap, J.D. Power-ranked organ transplants thanks to the completely privatized health care marketplace your administration would set up.    Thirty-second follow-up: Quickly summarize your campaign’s innovative pilot project whereby the chosen dollar amount of one’s annual health insurance deductible would directly correlate to one’s standard income tax deduction.

Lightning Round:

– Bomb Iran: Yes or Now?

– On a scale of one to ten with ten being the absolute highest, how much weaker and more feckless is Obama’s leadership style than Neville Chamberlain’s?

– Show of hands, which of you supports a 9-month waiting period before any abortion could be performed?

– On a scale of one to ten with ten being the absolute highest, how much more domineering and tyrannical is Obama’s leadership style than Genghis Khan’s?

– OK, who here supports a five-year waiting period before a child would be eligible for Head Start?

– If you could repeal just nine amendments from the Bill of Rights, which one would you leave intact—the 2nd or the 10th?

– Who would support eliminating Head Start and replacing it with a dollar-for-dollar tax credit off of the first $50,000 each citizen earns in capital gains each year?

– Name an influential or perspective-changing book you’ve made it a point to never read.

– More important: making Social Security less social or less secure?

– Bigger threat to our democracy: high voter turnout or collective bargaining?

Final Question:

–Some on the left (wait for boos to die down) say that the Tea Party merely represents a clever repackaging of the same-old, politically aggrieved social conservatives that have always existed at the right-most fringe of the Republican Party and that by increasingly kowtowing to this rump minority of the American public the GOP is endangering both the party’s future as well as that our of nation. So, I ask you, just how awesome was Reagan again?

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

I Know a Little

This week’s Think Again column is called “The Conservative Class Warfare Against Free Speech” and it focuses on Republican efforts to control academic research and writing, here.

Oh and I’ll be speaking at Vassar College on the evening of April 5th on the topic of “How Jewish Intellectuals became 'American' by becoming liberals.” All future appearances, by the way, are here

“And baby I can guess the rest…”

Jonathan Chait, writing in The New Republic, demonstrates the danger of a little knowledge put in the service of a pundit’s prejudices. Chait, who, together with Ronald Radosh and David Horowitz, was a lonely defender of Marty Peretz’s views of the Middle East, (and James Kirchick’s reporting of it), seizes on this paragraph in Franklin Foer’s review of Irving Kristol’s most recent posthumous collection:

"Israel’s socialistic ethos alienated Kristol. “Truth to tell,” he later recalled, “I found Israeli society, on the whole, quite exasperating.” He was not alone. In 1951, he received a copy of a letter from a Columbia student named Norman Podhoretz. This missive had circulated to Kristol by way of Cohen, who had received a copy from its original recipient, Lionel Trilling. The letter was an account of Podhoretz’s first visit to Israel. “I felt more at home in Athens!” he told Trilling. “They are, despite their really extraordinary accomplishments, a very unattractive people, the Israelis. They’re gratuitously surly and boorish.... They are too arrogant and too anxious to become a real honest-to-goodness New York of the East.” On the basis of Podhoretz’s chilly response to the Jewish state, Kristol recruited him to write for Commentary."

To make this point:

"The truth is that the original neocons were very far from deep, emotional supporters of Israel. They were pro-Israel, but their pro-Israel views stemmed from their general hawkishness rather than vice versa. In any case, the neoconservative ideology was wildly simplistic and intellectually corrupt, as Frank well shows, but this particular understanding of it has always been misplaced."

But if Chait had taken even a moment to consider what he was trying to argue, it might have occurred to him that what a person wrote about Israel in 1951 has virtually no relevance to what he may have thought or written twenty or so years later. Specifically, the June 1967 war changed everything for American Jews and Israel, and note that the date is awfully consistent with the origins of neoconservatism.

Israel’s victory in the “Six-Day War” of June 1967 played an enormous role in forging a new, Israel-centric identity for millions of American Jews, whether religious or secular. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, writing two months after the war in Commentary, with its memories still fresh, noted that the crisis had united American Jews “with deep Jewish commitments as they have never been united before, and it has evoked such commitments in many Jews who previously seemed untouched by them.... There are no conventional Western theological terms with which to explain this,” he said. “[M]ost contemporary Jews experience these emotions without knowing how to define them.... Israel may...now be acting as a very strong focus of world wise Jewish emotional loyalty and thereby as a preservative of a sense of Jewish identity.” [I]  "Jews all over the world walk with greater pride upon the face of the earth because of the state of Israel," Commentary associate editor Werner Dannhauser accurately discerned immediately after Israel’s victory. "The Israelis have simply showed us all that Jews need not always be powerless before the murderous intentions of their enemies," Podhoretz himself crowed in a letter to the famous psychologist Erich Fromm, "and it is this rather than any stirring of militarist or chauvinist fervor, that has moved so many Jews outside Israel." [II]  Three years later Podhoretz put his new view quite plainly in an article with the deliberately provocative—from the point of view of Commentary’s history of universalism and anti-Zionism—title, "Is It Good for the Jews?" Podhoretz explained why Jews ought to look "at proposals and policies from the point of view of the Jewish interest." [III]  And he later announced that "the role of Jews who write in both the Jewish and general press is to defend Israel." Critical reporting of Israel, Podhoretz insists, "helps Israel's enemies--and they are legion in the US.” Meanwhile, it’s true that Kristol took longer to come around to these views, but come he did, obsessing at the end of his life over what he termed the “political stupidity of American Jews.”

(And where did Marty’s politics come from? Well, in September 1967, a left-wing "New Politics" convention convened in Chicago, largely funded by the then hard left Peretz, using, as he would for the coming decades, his second wealthy ex-wife’s substantial inheritance. The conference collapsed amid a storm of acrimonious accusations, when Black Caucus rammed though a resolution condemning the "imperialistic Zionist war." Though its members later rescinded the resolution, the damage was clearly done. Peretz moved sharply rightward, particularly on racial issues and those involving Jews, and would eventually tell Henry Kissinger in 1974 that his “dovishness stops at the delicatessen door.”)

Now it’s true that there’s a great deal more to the story of the origins of neoconservatism than Israel—it’s not even clear that it was the prime reason for the transformation—but to dismiss its importance on the basis of a comment made by Podhoretz in 1951—when, in fact he was on the far left, with no tribal loyalty to Jews whatever (and on his way to calling for the end of the Jewish people and the defeat of the United States in Vietnam)—and tie that to the origins of neoconservatism in the late sixties and seventies—itself an explicit rejection of these views—well, to be charitable, it’s just plain silly.

And speaking of Jews, and we almost always are here, lately, this is pretty interesting...

[I] Edward S. Shapiro, A Time for Healing; American Jewry since World War II. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, 207-208.
[II] Benjamin Balint, Running Commentary, The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right. New York: Public Affairs, 2010, 110.
[III] Balint, 114.

The Mail
Stephen Kottler
Lewiston, ME
Don't know if you've ever seen a Mavis Staples concert, but if not, take the next opportunity. Transcendent experience.

Mavis and band are world-class rockers and sweetbeings, charming and energetic, appeared to enjoy playing together and entertaining. One of the best guitar wizards I've ever heard, Rick Holmstrom.

We were in center 8 feet from stage. Just happened. Fab venue. Time your next trip to Maine to coincide with the music of your dreams at Stone Mountain.
Mavis is 71 y.o. Don't wait too long for next tour.

Her latest ("Grammy-award winning") disc "You Are Not Alone" has been my frequent to constant companion for driving, dishwashing and dinner prep (to say nothing of singing along) for months. (As we Yankees say, "So fah.")

I recommended (about this fervently) another artist a year or so ago. No idea if you became a fan of whoever that was. Billy Joe Shaver?
Best regards,
Steve Kottler

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

The Best Things in Life...

This week’s Think Again column is called “The Conservative Class Warfare Against Free Speech” and it focuses on Republican efforts to control academic research and writing, here.

Now here’s Reed:

Playing for Time (and Money)

While T.S. Eliot famously called April the “cruellest month,” it’s anything but for two distinct segments of American society: baseball fans and, in recent, alternating odd-numbered years, those few individuals who have somehow convinced themselves that they would actually want the job of President of the United States. For both the former, which count me as among the afflicted, and the latter, this time of year is usually all about eternal hope and making open, unqualified pledges of devotion to one’s cause.

But something’s gone awry with the political calendar this year and, perhaps not surprisingly, the Beltway press wasn’t prepared for it. Reversing a recent trend for earlier and earlier starts to the primary season, this cycle nearly every legitimate Republican candidate for president (and even those who are decidedly not so legitimate) has so far shown little interest in publicly declaring his or her candidacy. (Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, when not churning out ridiculous, chest-thumping videos in apparent homage to Michael Bay movie trailers, has at least announced the formation of an exploratory committee.) Indeed, the GOP hopefuls are so coquettish about their intentions this election cycle that the traditional first Republican primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Library, which attracted 10 candidates in early May of 2007, had to be postponed this week due to a lack of official invitees.

Of course, jumping in early and polling well the year prior to a presidential election doesn’t guarantee success in the eventual primaries, let alone Election Day, just ask Rudy Giuliani. So, it’s perhaps understandable if potential candidates continue to hedge their bets a bit, especially since the past two years haven’t been kind to any of the GOP frontrunners’ approval ratings. What’s more, this coyness also allows them to strategically deflect some of the typical campaign trail media spotlight and, no doubt, gives a few of those with no real shot at the nomination something of an ego boost.

But among Republican presidential hopefuls, this newfound hesitancy to officially join the race is less about peaking too early or controlling their message and more about the adapting to a radically different fundraising environment, as this McClatchy article points out:

“One key reason for this year's late start is money, both how they raise it and how they spend it.

“‘The Internet makes a big difference,’ said an adviser to one potential candidate, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. ‘People can raise money a lot faster’ if they haven't declared their candidacy, which then kicks in federal campaign-finance regulations.”

In other words, declaring your candidacy when you should and playing by the rules is for suckers. Granted, FEC fundraising rules, particularly in the run-up to a presidential bid, have been more honored in the breach than in the observance by both parties for more than three decades, as this Campaign Legal Center white paper from earlier this month makes clear. And in that respect this cycle is no different, as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour and Sarah Palin have all used the time-honored tactic of setting up state-level and federal leadership PACs to amass large campaign warchests for potential primary runs while skirting many of the FEC’s stricter contribution rules that are supposed to govern those candidates who are legitimately “testing the waters.” Or as the CLC concludes, “Nearly all of the likely candidates in the 2012 presidential election are raising and spending funds outside federal candidate contribution limits, with many also receiving corporate contributions banned by federal law.”

And that last point is the most salient. In fact, the anonymous advisor in the McClatchy article is somewhat disingenuously justifying the GOP field’s collective Hamlet routine in terms of the last electoral battle rather than the conditions of the next one. Sure, Obama’s dynamic 2008 fundraising campaign, which raised nearly $750 million, far surpassing what it would have gotten had it accepted federal matching funds, proved that harnessing the Internet has the power to bring in heretofore unseen amounts of campaign cash. But conservatives responded to this threat by not only building a similar online fundraising capability, they went one better in preparation for 2012 by successfully using the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to radically realign political power in favor of corporations and undermine transparency in our democracy.

Indeed, the recent mid-term elections were but a test drive for the newfound power of these now financially unfettered outside advocacy groups, whose spending more than quadrulped from $68.9 million in 2006 to $294.2 million last year, according to this 2010 post-mortem from Public Citizen. What’s more, that same report notes: “$228.2 million (or 77.6 percent) was spent by groups that accepted contributions larger than $5,000 (the previous maximum a federal political action committee, or PAC, could accept in a single election cycle) or that did not reveal any information about the sources of their money.”

The Democratic majority in the House was the first victim of this onslaught of secret, coordinated political spending and the right-wing’s plans for 2012 are only bigger and bolder. And while the Democrats can counter this spending somewhat with their own outside advocacy groups, the real threat to our democracy can be found in this Center for Public Integrity article, which details how the prospect of facing such a sea of secretive corporate money can cause even the most devoted individuals to turn away from politics altogether, disillusioned by what they see as a now-hopelessly unfair process of funding our elections.

Ultimately, that’s what’s really behind the Republican presidential contenders near-universal willingness to hang back from officially declaring their candidacies. Romney, Huckabee and other undeclared GOPers know that their campaigns won’t be the only large political expenditure dog in their fight to unseat President Obama. In fact, millions of additional dollars are already being spent on conservative campaign ads from groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, with even more to come in the general election next year. So why bother with the inefficiencies of an extended primary campaign and lots of message-muddying intra-party debates when one can outsource a much more unified political framing of Obama to the likes of Karl Rove. After all, that leaves those Republicans vying to be the next president with more time to devote to what is increasingly the most important activity in American democracy, raising money.

The Mail:
To the Asbury Park Press

Thank you for your March 27 front-page story by Michael Symons, "As poverty rises, NJ cuts target aid." The article is one of the few that highlights the contradictions between a policy of large tax cuts, on the one hand, and cuts in services to those in the most dire conditions, on the other.

Also, you've shone some light on anti-poverty workers and analysts such as Adele LaTourette, Meara Nigro, Cecilia Zalkind and Raymond Castro, among others, all of whom have something important to add to the discussion: real information and actual facts about what is happening below the poverty line.

These are voices that in our current climate are having a hard time being heard, not just in New Jersey, but nationally. Finally, your article shows that the cuts are eating away at the lower edges of the middle class, not just those already classified as in poverty, and are likely to continue to get worse over the next few years. I'm always glad to see my hometown newspaper covering these issues.
Bruce Springsteen

Michael Green
Las Vegas, NV

I have the book, No Cheering the Press Box, which consists of oral histories of old-time sportswriters—it is magnificent. But the subject hits home with me, partly as a onetime reporter who made his share of mistakes, and now as a historian also writing for the media and still making mistakes. Also because of a story.

In Las Vegas, our main daily, the Review-Journal, has been very right-wing in its editorials. This is vexatious to me but, hey, it's the editorial page. However, last year, the R-J's news columns became, in many ways, an open campaign newsletter against Harry Reid. Some reporters didn't play along; some did. Headlines and layout often were skewed. The LA Times even did a story on it and noted that the editor, Tom Mitchell, hung up on its reporter. After Reid won the election, publisher/columnist Sherm Frederick suddenly became a consultant/columnist (he has had ill health, to be accurate about it) while Mitchell became "senior opinion editor." The theory is that Reid's victory prompted their firings—according to some, because the owners, the wealthy Stephens clan, feared having to deal with Reid; in my opinion, because Stephens realized they did their worst to Reid and he STILL won, showing their inefficacy.

Now to my bigger point about objectivity. I am a history professor and do a lot of teaching and writing on Nevada. At one point, I was banned from being quoted in the political columns because I am openly, actively, a liberal Democrat; before that, at a local columnist's suggestion, I had to be identified as a liberal Democrat, which was fine with me if the paper identified another oft-quoted academic as a Republican, which he is. Strangely, that policy disappeared. But the R-J bosses apparently concluded that I could not separate my political bias from my work as a historian. Yet the publisher and editor wrote weekly columns—and still do, now in their different roles—that often make Pat Buchanan look sane, and claim that their newspaper is fair because they are fair journalists. They lose me somewhere in that argument, and they demonstrate one of the big problems with modern journalism (and pre-modern, for that matter): the unwillingness to admit error and bias.

Danny Grainger
Greer, SC

Doc, report from here in the land Michelle Bachmann characterized as a "GOP Paradise." Pretty much business as usual. Our former Governor Sanford has been tracked on the beaches of tropic climes, while our newly elected Governor Nikki Haley has been busy demonstrating no relent in the assault on my sensibilities. After campaigning to "take the state back" from the good old boys, she has been busy setting up her own new network of good old boys to replace it, all of them Republican or Tea Party and campaign contributors most of all. She dumped Darla Moore, who has helped obtain pledges of $70 million for the University of SC business school, dumped her in favor of an attorney who donated $3,500 to her campaign for a seat on the school Board of Trustees.

She, as a result, pissed off all the USC students, alums and rooters of the sports team quite severely. This I have to take as a momentary feeling of mild exultation, here ensconced as I am in this Paradise. Oh, did I mention the new Lt Governor has over 90 charges of campaign finance abuse leveled at him by some entity dedicated to ethical charges in the state. Distressed at having to spend a lot of his personal money getting elected he went the route of piling up many personal expenses on the campaign tab.

So, here in Paradise...well, it is far from it, frankly. I wish I could live in a Paradise like NYC but I am far too limited financially. So we slog on. It has its entertainment value, however. Finally, what I actually wanted to ask: which is the better song "Suspicion"?...the 1962 Elvis original, or the Terry Stafford 1964 hit cut?

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

'If I Turn Traitor...'

I’ve got a new Think Again column, “Triangle at 100: Back to the Future?” The 100th anniversary of the fire is today and the column is here.

My new Nation column called “Happy Birthday, Rupert Murdoch!” and it’s here.

My Daily Beast column is called something like “Stop Taking Michelle Bachmann Seriously” and that’s here.

And my Moment column is called “A Cautionary Tale” but it could be called “One more whack at the Marty Peretz mole” and it’s here


I have to say I’m a little embarrassed to admit how unfamiliar I was with the oeuvre of Dave Frishberg, now that I’ve had the opportunity to educate myself a bit. I went to the Oak Room the other night because I have a thing for Jessica Molaskey. And she did not disappoint. But she stepped aside for much of the show and allowed Mr. Frishberg’s lyrics to shine under his own quiet, unadorned delivery and elegant piano playing. The show was called, “Do You Miss New York?,”—as clearly the 77 (or so) year old Portland native had many highlights. There’s the title song: "Were those halcyon days/ Just a phase you outgrew? Do you miss the thrills, the subways, the shlepping/ Is it still second nature to watch where you are stepping?" And my favorite, aside from the clever opener was “My Attorney Bernie,” which Jessica sang and a wonderfully clever, updated version of “I’m Hip,” whose music was by written music by Bob Dorough and was originally recorded by the late Blossom Dearie. And I’m sure she felt lucky to have it. This odd, but immensely enjoyable couple will be at the Algonguin’s Oak Room through April 2. There are a lot worse ways to spend a great deal of money.

Now here’s Reed:

No Cheering in the Press Box

There’s a longstanding journalistic trope—most often associated with sportswriting—that speaks to objective role the media is supposed to play in covering any event: there is no cheering in the press box. It’s a message that is simple, clear-cut—don’t become beholden to the subjects you’re covering. But when it comes to actually executing this perfect poise of neutrality, well…I can’t speak intelligently about the personal proclivities of every member of the media in the country, but I do know this for sure, they’re all human.

I was reminded of the uncomfortable intersection of human frailty and media ethics on Tuesday when I came across this excellent piece from Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnaski. One of the best journalists and writers working today—and that’s on any beat, anywhere—Posnanski expertly weaves his own personal struggles into an essay about those of Rulon Gardner, whom he covered during one of the greatest Olympic upsets in history—Gardner’s incredible victory over the Russian Greco-roman wrestler Alexander Karelin at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.

Posnanski’s piece struck home, on one level, because, well, I’m human and I happened to have been there to watch Gardner’s victory as well. I too can vividly recall the palpably electric atmosphere that permeated the Exhibition Hall as the match’s final minutes ticked away, with Gardner clinging to a frighteningly fragile, one-point lead. According to the sport’s rules, Gardner had to spend many of those final minutes in a defensive posture, with Karelin desperately attacking, trying to throw or upend him to score a point. Miraculously, stay put he did. For one night at least, the age-old question was answered—the immovable object defeats the unstoppable force.

(And because I didn’t have to file a story like Posnanski, I was also able to watch, later that same night, the U.S. defeat Cuba in the gold-medal baseball game, where Ben Sheets pitched a masterful, three-hit, complete-game shutout that should go down in history as one of the best, big-game performances, bar none. All in all, not a bad way to spend my 28th birthday.)

But the story hit home to me for other, larger reasons. In it, Posnanski pull back the curtain a bit about the adage of never cheering in the press box, eloquently pointing to a more subtle and pernicious habit that can often befall the press while he’s at it.

“Sportswriters, all of us, will be asked at least a thousand times in our lives if we still root during games. The stock answer is: ‘Yes, but I don’t root for teams. I root for the story.’ Sometimes, the more world-weary among us — maybe the more honest — will say: ‘I root for me.’ These two answers really mean the same things — rooting for the story, and rooting for ourselves is all tied together. Sportswriters root for short baseball games. Sportswriters root for story lines to emerge early enough to lengthen the writing time. Sportswriters root for good people — or at least accommodating ones — and interesting angles and clear narratives and dissolved traffic and bowl games in San Diego. Sportswriters root hard against U.S. Open playoffs. The loudest cheer I ever heard in a press section happened the day Payne Stewart sunk a long putt on the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2 to win the U.S. Open. I’m sure some were happy for the veteran Stewart winning his second Open. Most were happy that they could go home.”

Or, to put it another, simpler way, sportswriters, like all journalists, are human. They don’t file stories in a vacuum. Nor should they. Even great ones are susceptible to moments of objective fallibility. And those that aren’t so great? Well, they may be able to keep their rooting interests and partisan preferences mostly hidden, but then bias can still show up in much more banal and insidious ways, like when it’s spurred by a desire to quickly meet a deadline, easily fill the news hole, and guarantee lots of cheap web clicks. It’s a sad reality that also plagues the Beltway media, as Ryan Lizza got one Capitol Hill press flack to admit openly in the New Yorker a few months ago:

“Bardella was surprisingly open in his disparagement of the media. He said, ‘Some people in the press, I think, are just lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That’s just embarrassing. They’re adjusting to a time that demands less quality and more quantity. And it works to my advantage most of the time, because I think most reporters have liked me packaging things for them. Most people will opt for what’s easier, so they can move on to the next thing. Reporters are measured by how often their stuff gets on Drudge. It’s a bad way to be, but it’s reality.’”

Rules against cheering in the press box—and its equivalent on the politics beat, no overt partisan support or campaign donations—may pass the test of press impartiality on a rudimentary level, but it clearly doesn’t guarantee fair or unbiased, let alone insightful coverage. But all too often today, mastheads consider the former to be the de facto equivalent of the latter, regardless of the actual quality of journalism being produced. In fact, you can bet that a lazy reporter who is more than willing to gobble up any juicy bit of worthless gossip or pre-arranged spin job passed their way will rarely, if ever, encounter the kind of professional opprobrium commonly leveled at those members of the media who dare to express their personal beliefs publicly. In other words, phoning it in is fine, as long as you don’t slap an Obama or McCain bumper sticker on your car.

For the latest exhibit of the fallout from this kind of mindset, see former Sports Illustrated NASCAR reporter Tom Bowles. I say former because up until last month, Bowles had a promising career at SI, but then he went and cheered in the press box when another one-for-the-ages upset occurred at this year’s Daytona 500. Adding insult to injury, he tried to defend his actions on Twitter by pointing to the lack of bias in his actual reporting on the race. That, apparently, was a left-hand turn too far for his bosses and he was subsequently fired. But what’s interesting is that rather than adopt the traditional pose of chastened journalistic sinner, Bowles is far from contrite:

“[M]y position hasn’t changed. I took those ethics courses in journalism just like everyone else; I understand the importance of impartiality in reporting. But last time I checked, where you’re supposed to be judged is whether that actually shows up on paper […] I was far from the only reporter who clapped that day; the sad part is I’m the only one bold enough to admit it in the face of peers overly focused on the values of reporting rather than the act itself.”

The whole piece is worth a read, however, because Bowles also gets at the all-too-cozy and often incestuous journalistic relationships that many media members—on all beats, whether it’s sports, business, or politics—enjoy with the subjects they cover on a daily basis. (Full disclosure: I work as a contractor with Time Inc. to edit the annual SI Almanac but have never met or worked with Bowles, or Posnanski for that matter.)

Again, Bowles:

“It’s a place where the ‘official’ media claim to follow the rules, then give us their opinion seconds afterwards on verified Twitter accounts while hanging ‘off the record’ with the athletes they cover during the week. […] So the first step to a solution is recognizing the clapping problem, which is that we’re all inherently biased: wired to judge, love, hate, and experience every emotion in between, parts of the brain we can’t shut off like a water fountain.”

Replace the word athletes with “politicians” or “CEOs” or “generals” and you’ll have a fair assessment of a significant problem confronting modern journalism. It’s why self-censoring beat reporters can be counted on to condemn legitimate scoops by uncompromised outside journalists not as as “unethical behavior” rather than courageous truth-telling. Our press has become more obsessed with the symbols of fairness and unblinking press coverage than with the actual process itself. In the end, it’s not the cheering behind the scenes that bothers me so much—that can be fixed with greater transparency. Instead, it’s the cheering that goes on unabashed on the front page that makes me worry what the future of journalism will look like.

The mail:

Frank Lynch

Really Not Worth Archiving


Funny you should bring up Concert For George today; I did not see Elton John at MSG Wednesday night, but a review at The Daily News reminded those who needed reminding and informed those who needed to be informed how Leon "stole the show" at Concert For Bangladesh - - without the details some of us remember, that stunning Jumpin' Jack Flash / Youngblood medley. I didn't live in NY 40 years ago, but saw the film in its theatrical release, and nothing was so memorable as Leon. The Bob Surprise was nice, but it wasn't anything like Leon did.

Leon's contributions to rock and roll are immense - - not just on his own songs, but Badfinger's "Day After Day," and other session work as well as the songs he's written which have been covered over and over ("This Masquerade," "A Song For You").

Oh, I forgot, we were talking about Concert for George. Can I just say that every time I've watched it, that final song with the ukulele's and the paper petals floating down, I always cry? Always?

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.


Brackets, Brackets, Everywhere

I’ve got a new “Think Again” column called “NPR and O’Keefe: Déjà Vu All Over Again,” and it’s here.


First things first: If you’re going to be in the city anytime soon, go see the new production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia which opens on Broadway tonight at the Barrymore Theater. I saw the original, in 1995, and remember loving it. I think it was more elaborate than this one and some people thought it better but I can’t remember. I only know this one is great and made me feel grateful that Tom Stoppard was ever born. It’s a magnificent combination of intellectual stimulation, entertaining banter and profound moral challenge. How he does it, time after time, well, there’s just about nothing like him. You can read about the guy here.

Lucinda Williams’ new album, Blessed is her best in a while; my favorite since the wonderful Essence. I saw her do a spirited set at Webster Hall the other night and the new stuff fit right in with her best work. At this point in her career, she’s reached the point of an Elvis Costello or a Steve Earle where she just has too many great songs in her catalogue to give you everything you want. (I particularly missed the classics from Lucinda Wiliams.) The new songs, however, sounded just as warm and powerful as the old ones. On the album they are smartly produced, but live they work in a more visceral way. You can read all about the record here.

I also caught a lovely solo performance by Randy Newman at Town Hall. It’s hard to know how much of his self-hatred shtick is real. If I had written as many brilliant songs as Randy, I’d feel pretty good, about that anyway. He’s become a kind of Hollywood icon for his gooey movie work, but the “real” material is as bitter and biting and brilliant as ever. It’s also, I’ve noticed, impossible for anyone else to play. Randy has just released his second “songbook” volume, in which he plays his old songs on solo piano. When I heard it, I ordered the first one, which had somehow slipped by. If you are unfamiliar with his work, these are a good introduction, but you’ll want more. Info about the record is here.

And the oldies just keep coming. Rhino has released Concert for George on bluray. If you don’t have it, it’s really one of the best purchases you could ever want to make. It’s beautiful music and quite moving. Had I known about the show, it would have been worth a trip across the pond. The lineup is stellar and the vibe is sad and beautiful, but the music is really first rate. It’s a big part of the reason that George is my favorite these days, retrospectively. The BR is pretty cheap, too, here.

Legacy has released a 40th anniversary edition of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. It’s still great, and while there is no new material from the vaults, it comes with two documentaries: Songs Of America—originally broadcast on CBS, this TV special is comprised of footage of the 1969 tour and a new one, about the making of Bridge, featuring new 2010 interviews with Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Roy Halee and more key principles involved with making of the album.

A bit newer on the old scale is Billy Joel playing the final show done at Shea Stadium. It’s not exactly hard to find live versions of most of these songs, though perhaps not with Billy looking this gray. The highlight is the emotional appearance of Paul McCartney for “I Saw Her Standing There.” (I saw McCartney’s opening of Citi Field where Billy returned the favor on the same song.) Also included in the show are Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, John Mayer, John Mellencamp, Steven Tyler and Roger Daltrey, though for a few of them, you have to watch the extras, not the show. It’s a good setlist and it’s well played. Billy tones down the shlock and lets his terrific catalogue do the work. The cd comes with a dvd, and the bluray, which I’ve not seen, comes on its own. Read all about it from some Billyophiles, here.

And don’t miss Yep Roc’s re-release, after twenty years out of print of Nick Lowe’s best album, Labor of Lust. It’s a perfect little eighties pop record, not quite as clever as its predecessor, “Jesus of Cool,” but with much stronger and more memorable memories: a real time capsule.

Sadly, the “Rendezvous with French Cinema” is over at the Film Society of Lincoln Center French film. My favorites were Hands Up (A tender, engaging and bracingly militant drama from director Romain Goupil: a story of youth, solidarity and contemporary France, with Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and a terrific cast of children. A Chechen woman named Milana, recalls the story of her near-deportation from France at the age of ten and the plan her young classmates hatched to save her) and Service Entrance, (A stockbroker (the marvelous Fabrice Luchini) lives a peaceful, boring existence in 1960s Paris with his socialite wife (Sandrine Kiberlain)-until some exuberant Spanish maids move in upstairs. With Carmen Maura and Lola Dueñas). I think both will get released here, but I don’t really know that. Now it’s time for New Directors/New Films but I can’t give you much guidance on those. The only one I saw was “Happy, Happy,” which sounds like that Star Trek episode from the first season where Spock falls in love with that blonde girl and when he gets an order from Kirk to return to the ship, says, “I don’t think so…” But in fact… (Anne Sewitsky’s nimble directorial debut represents a rare achievement in independent film: an intelligent, adult comedy that is truly funny. Kaja and Erik are a 30-something couple with a young son, living a rather dull life in the Norwegian countryside). Seeable, but also missable. Make up your own minds, people, the schedule is here.

I think I forgot to recommend the audio version of Allison Pearson’s I Think I Love You. It’s really delightful and also wise, and quite sympathetic to the craziness of young teenagers—which is useful in some households I know—but also even to David Cassidy. If Nick Hornby had a vagina… I can hardly think of higher praise. (Quite well read, too, particularly given the different types of people and ages and time changes…)

And a couple of notes: I saw two Allman shows this week: Saturday night when they played “Live at the Fillmore” in honor of the 40th anniversary of its recording and Tuesday night when they were joined by Steve Earle. Because of Steve, I got to sit on the stage, kitty-corner from Jaimo. The mix was not perfect from where I sat but it was really interesting to see three drummers work together in such syncopated harmony. Also, Warren and Derek are really nice guys, especially Warren who was really nice to my kid a few years ago backstage at a Nancy Pelosi fest and she still remembers. Steve played “Devil’s Right Hand” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” with the band, and it’s amazing that Dylan didn’t write that song for Greg to sing. Closed with “One Way Out” one of the greatest songs of all time, with Robert Randolph playing too. They’ll be there through the 26th.

And last night I went to a premier of The Music Never Stopped. Sappy but really moving and also largely true. And kudos again to my friend Jon Adelstein who, years ago, brought Oliver Sacks to his first Dead show and got this whole ball rolling.

Now here’s Reed:


Yes, it’s that time of year again, when no small percentage of our media coverage becomes obsessed with all things bracket-related.

Coincidentally, the Washington Post unveiled a new website layout this week and, among the changes of note, it now groups its opinion writers and columnists into, if you will, one of two brackets—“left-leaning” or “right-leaning.”

This effort, WaPo managing editor Raju Narisetti says, “makes it easier to find and respond to what interests you.” Over at Gawker, however, they disagree, and fear that this classification system leaves little room for nuance, iconoclasm and free thinking:

“There are also left and right-leaning news feeds and Twitter feeds, to more fully ensure that no one ever be forced to encounter an opinion contrary to one's own. This, at last, is the full realization of the simplistic and rotten Washington journalistic ethos: as long as we have an equal amount of ‘left’ and ‘right,’ we are completely and totally balanced, and insulated from any legitimate criticism. True journalistic perfection. Anyone whose beliefs fall anywhere outside of these boxes is simply not to be taken seriously.”

While I wholly sympathize with most of the above sentiment on the macro scale, I just don’t think this assessment is completely accurate in this particular case. Putting a “right-leaning” label on the columns of Charles Krauthammer’s or a “left-leaning” moniker on those of Harold Meyerson is to simply state the obvious. I submit that no one who reads either or both of them regularly—whether to agree or disagree with the opinions expressed—is going to be put off by this new categorization. And anything that makes it easier to identify—even in the least bit, as is the case here—the ideology behind the opinions being expressed in the media, I’m all for.

However, whereas Gawker’s Nolan is worried that the WaPo’s new policy will further abet the ghettoization of ideas, I’m more concerned that it will foster the misrepresentation of them. That’s because, in establishing their simple, left or right ideological brackets—even with the weaselly “leaning” appellation—the paper was faced with some of the same categorization dilemmas—albeit geographical ones—that confront the NCAA Selection Committee every year.

Indeed, a small part of March Madness’s annual tradition now includes marveling at which schools have been stuck in seemingly randomly placed, ill-fitting brackets and thus have to play games on far-flung courts thousands of miles from home. For example, this year, Duke is inexplicably the No. 1 seed in the West bracket and would play its regional final in Anaheim, while my alma mater, Boston University, was assigned the No. 16 seed in the Southwest and will play its first-round game in Tulsa. (Look out, Kansas!) So, even in a system with dozens of choices, a matchup-based classification system can still turn out to be a fairly blunt and inefficient instrument.

As you might imagine, the somewhat crude nature of this bracketing is only heightened when the available choices are shrunk down to the rigid, either/or Boolean logic that now classifies the WaPo’s opinion writers. While “right-leaning” columnists like Krauthammer, Marc Thiessen, Michael Gerson and George Will rarely stray too far from conservative orthodoxy and so are relatively well-placed, newly minted “left-leaning” pundits like Richard Cohen and Dana Milbank can hardly be counted upon as a consistent repositories of liberal thought, as countless examples prove.

As a result, what the Post ends up with is anything but the “completely and totally balanced” opinion page that Gawker laments above. Instead, what you get is what the paper’s opinion page has long suffered from—a platform where an abudance of entrenched right-wingers line up against one or two honest-to-goodness liberals plus a few ill-fitting others. That supposed “nuance,” “inconoclasm” and “free thinking” that Gawker so desperately longs for? Well, Milbank, Cohen and others like them are often straining to provide it through the delivery of equal opportunity criticism and an all too often slavishly centrist, a-pox-on-both-your-houses point of view.

But unless there’s a mechanism where a “left-leaning” pundit could have one of their individual columns “declassified” or even re-branded as “right-leaning” should its point of view wander (and vice versa for “right-leaning" pundits), then the not-so-reliably liberal ideas of Milbank, Cohen, et. al., are being unfairly pigeonholed. And by unfair, I not only mean to them personally, but to the liberal viewpoint they purport to represent as well. The danger being that their not-so-reliably liberal opinions soon take on the same time-honored “even the liberal…” debate-shifting role long associated with not-so-reliably liberal magazine The New Republic.

In a way, Gawker’s Nolan is right, perhaps just not in the way he thinks he is. The Washington Post’s new opinion-page classification system is symbolic of a significant problem currently confronting the media, in general, and the Beltway press, in particular. But the flawed nature of the Post’s new opinion-page “brackets” aren’t due to the fact that they will actually allow the paper to achieve any kind of artificially-enforced ideological balance or prevent it from taking seriously anyone whose opinions fall outside a neat, left-right paradigm. No, the problem stems from the fact that because of its pre-existing rightward tilt of its stable of columnists and its new, imprecise left/right classifications, the Washington Post’s opinion page will portray itself having taken a real step toward transparency and fairness when, in actuality, its crude partisan taxonomy will enable the distortion of the latter without really much of a commitment to the former.

A better solution for the Post’s opinion page would have been to opt for more individualized disclosure, instead of settling for the crude “leaning” monikers it employs, and by that I mean real, pertinent disclosure. Like the permanent coupling of a pundit bio with each column, divulging, for example, their education, work history, organizational relationships, personal political beliefs and possibly even their recent voting record, which in the “left-leaning” Milbank’s case, would include the fact that he voted for Republicans in the past three presidential elections. Or maybe include a sidebar that also includes each pundit’s public stances on various policy topics, which in Cohen’s case, could include his not-so-liberal positions on torture, affirmative action, abortion, the case for the war in Iraq, etc. All of this is information that, as a reader looking to suss out the motivations behind a columnist’s opinions, I’d want to know. What’s more, it would help to obviate the danger of policy debates becoming surreptitiously lopsided under the fig leaf of equal “left-” and “right-leaning” airtime and/or editorial space.

In other words, some type of initial bracket-setting is necessary to set the conditions for competition, whether it’s in the NCAA tournament or in the marketplace of ideas, and so in that respect I applaud the Post's tentative first step. Still, the Post, the press in general, as well as the public should keep in mind that it is exactly that, a first step in a longer, never-ending process, one that the health of our democracy depends upon.

The mail:
Michael Green
Las Vegas, NV
So much to discuss!

First, to NPR, and to a point that some may be missing—but not to my wife, who has spent decades in development and fund-raising. When you are in that line of work, you do not (repeat, not) ever (repeat, ever) discuss politics with a potential donor—and if the donor wants to discuss it, know how to parry and bump off. Also, a friend of mine who has done a lot of political work for lefty groups made the equally important point: when you have right-wing nuts out there like these people, you do not give them ammunition. If you want to discuss your political views with someone, make sure it's someone you know really well. Two strikes here. Throw in how badly she botched the deserved firing of Juan Williams, and strike three for NPR CEO Vivian Schiller.

Now to David Broder. Any man's death diminishes me. I couldn't help but recall how Broder decided he didn't like Harry Reid, thought he was incompetent, said so and made up news about him—namely, that Democrats would oust him as their Senate leader. When they responded by unanimously signing a letter to the editor supporting Reid, Broder's reply was snotty and dismissive of their honesty. High priest of journalism? Maybe at one time. In the end, though, I was thinking of John Stacks's biography of James Reston in which he quotes some Reston admirers, especially Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, saying that he stayed too long in the column-writing game. So did Broder, and while his death diminishes me, the last years of his work diminished himself.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Money, Talking

I’ve got a new Think Again called “Follow the Money” here.

My Nation column is called “Wisconsin: The Conservative Class War, Part III” here. (Part I is here and Part II is here)

David Broder passed away this week. I interviewed him once over twenty years ago for my first book, and have written about him quite a bit since. I am not one to comment on Broder the man based on a single one-hour conversation. But here are some of my assessments about his work and his influence. I link to them here for the sake of the public record.

Jerry Ceppos—dean of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism and Advanced Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno and a former VP of Knight—was troubled by the last of these columns and got in touch with me about it. He gives a fair summary of our exchange here.

Now here’s Reed:

Journalism’s Omerta

If you have the time and aren’t completely saturated by the coverage of the hidden-camera NPR fundraising fiasco, I recommend checking out NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard’s Washington Post webchat. It presents a near-perfect distillation of the current conventional wisdom about modern media ethics and its obsession with hiding reporters’ personal beliefs. Indeed, read through Shepard’s answers to the online questions and it becomes evident that her real beef with NPR executive Ron Schiller is his violation of this supposed code of journalistic omerta, so much so that she revisits the point three separate times:

“Who blabs to total strangers in public about their personal biases?” […]

“That is what baffles me most. When you first meet a complete stranger do you share your personal feelings about conservatives, liberals, politics? UNBELIEVABLE.” […]

“I still can’t believe you would divulge so much to a stranger. That’s what I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around.”

Just to emphasize: what Shepard finds baffling and unbelievable is that Schiller and his fundraising colleague, Betsy Liley—who, it should be pointed out are neither journalists nor did they work in any news capacity at NPR—shared like-minded personal political opinions with people they might want to solicit for a large cash donation during a business lunch. Stephen Glass or Judith Miller, they ain’t. Granted, Schiller was certainly guilty of making broad stereotypes about Tea Party members and asserting that certain media outlets employ a “Zionist” editorial outlook and they both let a lot of prejudicial banter wash over them unchallenged. But whatever your feelings of the pair’s smarmy behavior and viewpoints, their sins here were venial rather than cardinal ones, as what they notably did not do was offer the phony Muslim group some kind of unethical or illegal quid pro quo, like a promise that the $5 million donation would guarantee favorable coverage or equate to special access.

Now, Shepard does say that Schiller’s particular ideological slant wasn’t what got him into trouble: “Certainly he wasn’t fired for harboring negative views about conservatives. it was the unprofessional manner that cost him his job [sic].” OK, but it’s clear Shepard’s outrage is grounded upon more than just the fact that he lacked the sufficient fundraising due diligence to see through these charlatans. (And, to be fair, it’s worth pointing out that after the meeting, NPR did not further pursue the donation.)

Instead, her obvious anger stems from a larger, journalistic ethic that currently says the revelation of any kind of personal bias, ipso facto, renders your reportage and, by extension, your network biased as well. You can hate conservatives or liberals, in other words, but you just can’t say it out loud. But really it’s not the verbalizing of these personal biases that bothers adherents of objective journalism; it’s the mere presence of it. Listen to Shepard’s definition of how most journalists must overcome this challenge:

“I happen to think that many journalists tend toward liberal thinking, but then known that [sic]. They go out of their way to compensate, to reach out to those with opposing views, to be professional in making sure everyone gets heard. They do not have an agenda, at least MSM reporters do not…”

I would have an easier time believing Shepard’s conclusion here if she hadn’t just described quite clearly in her previous sentence an agenda she claims does not exist. That she and other journalism heavyweights are comfortable defining as “professional” MSM reporters who “go out of their way to compensate” for their “liberal thinking” is to precisely encourage the kind of climate where artificially balanced, horse-race stories run rampant in our democracy.

Rather than foster an ethic of transparency among the media that would better allow honest, fair reportage to be held accountable by the public, what the public now gets instead is an increasingly timid and defensive press corps that is committed to concealing its internal biases and churning out “view from nowhere” stories, as NYU professor Jay Rosen calls them. But in a world where the realm of what’s private or personal is circumscribed within a smaller and smaller space, to expect increasingly savvy readers to be satisfied with a simple masthead and byline is to deny them the tools necessary to properly value the news they’re receiving. As we saw this week, inevitably these walls of objectivity will crack open a bit and reveal that what’s going on inside isn’t as pure and chaste as the press would like everyone to believe. A more open dialogue with the public would help restore its trust in the press, but silence, I’m afraid only makes it worse.

The Mail:
Ed Tracey
Lebanon, New Hampshire
Professor, here’s a breath of fresh air. Citizens of Nacka, Sweden—near Stockholm—are pursuing a unique project bringing Lutherans, Catholics and Muslims together under a single roof. The plan involves renovations to the current building owned by the Church of Sweden (but which also rents space to the Catholic Church) and upon completion a mosque will be built on land adjacent to the current structure (and will be connected by a communal foyer).

Given that the southern Swedish city of Malmö has seen a rise in anti-Semitism—perhaps provisions could be made in Nacka for a temple, and complete an interfaith grand slam?

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Then They Came for the Pensions

I’ve got a new Think Again called “Where’s the Real Newt?” here.

And I did a piece on the new, fun, spate of celebrity anti-Semitism for the Daily Beast here.


This week is the beginning of the annual “Rendezvous With French Cinema” at the Film Society at Lincoln Center. It’s a great schedule, from what I’ve seen so far. The schedule is here. My favorite film so far, is (by far) Hands Up, directed by Romain Goupil, about a group of young French school children who protect their Chechen friend from deportation. It moved me to tears. Antony Cordier’s Happy Few is amazingly erotic and also intelligent, and I liked Claude LeLouche’s touching look back at his career, What Love May Bring.

A few years ago, the society writer and critic Rex Reed was arrested in Tower Records on the Upper West Side (now defunct) with a few cds in his pocket. Of the two possibilities, that Reed was a petty thief, or as he said, he planned to pay for them and forgot, most people, including myself, believed Reed’s story. He forgot. Like most of us, Reed, born in 1938, does not have the memory he once had.

I thought about Reed’s memory loss when I read his foolish, snobbish review of Maude Maggart’s new show at the Oak Room at the Algonguin.

I wasn’t going to go to the show this year, owing to time constraints, but Reed’s review pissed me off. I wondered if maybe something had gone wrong this time, though, fortunately, the far more perspicacious Stephen Holden could have taught the fading Mr. Reed a few things with his much more sensitive and intelligent review in the Times. Maude had her hair up and she was a little less scholarly than usual—though the songs required a lot of research; they cover literally a hundred years of composition. Anyway, she sounded as wonderful as ever; the word “ethereal” was invented for this woman, for her voice, for her looks and for her intelligence and charm. Read all about her here and go see her sometime at the Algonguin if you can afford it. She’ll be there through next weekend.

Raul Malo appears to be on a never-ending tour on behalf of his self-produced, home-studio-ed Tex-o-centric new album Sinners & Saints on Fantasy Records. He did three sold-out shows at City Winery. The Texafied sound came from Malo’s decision to bring the songs he recorded to Ray Benson’s Bismeaux Studios and finished the record with Augie Meyers on the Vox Continental organ and guitarist Shawn Sahm, (son of Sir Douglas) and background vocals by The Trishas (Savannah Welch, Kelley Mickwee, Liz Foster and Jamie Wilson). Thing is, Malo’s voice is pretty much unsurpassed in contemporary music. There’s not a richer, more beautiful instrument anywhere when he’s focused. Sometimes he just likes to have fun. This was one of those nights and Malo sang a bunch of songs which I knew the lyrics to better than he did. (Hey Raul: The second verse goes: “I smoke old stogies I have found. Short, but not too big around….”) And nobody was complaining, except the guy at the bar from “the west Texas town of El Paso” whose feelings got a little hurt. I’ve been lucky enough to see Raul three times this year, but this time, the revelation of the shows at City Winery was hotshot accordionist Michael Guerra, who was frequently showcased throughout the show and gave it a spirit of virtuosity that was new to Malo’s post-Mavericks’ career. Anyway, he did a more spirited version of “Gunatanamera” the night I saw him with his mom there, at the beach this summer, but you really can’t have a bad time at a Raul Malo show and I sure didn’t.

Sony Legacy has done a nice new re-release of a Legacy Edition of Elvis’s first album of all-new material following his release from the Army, Elvis Is Back! It might be his best single album, though of course without the historical significance of his mid-fifties stuff. He sounds great, his voice is mature and the arrangements are solid without being schmaltzy. It is released in this edition combined with his next (secular) album Something For Everybody which is not quite as good, but still pretty damn good. The guy had a few good years left in him and this is the best of them. Nice packaging too.

I have also been listening to the Nonesuch re-release of Nixon in China. John Adams, who wrote the music, called it "part epic, part satire, part parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues." I am a philistine as regards opera, but this one is both serious and fun, and I love what he does with Henry Kissinger. Anyway, I’m no one to judge but the Boston Globe called the Grammy-winning 1987 work "a milestone in American operatic history." This first recording, featuring the original cast, says Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed, "has an eloquence not since matched, with terrific packaging" and some really useful liner notes.

Also on Nonesuch is Brad Mehldau's second collection of live solo recordings, following Live In Toyko, called Live in Marciac, a two CD/one DVD set. There’s no doubt of Mehldau’s talent both as a composer and a pianist, but two CDs is a lot of solo piano by pretty much anyone but Art Tatum. I want to hear these songs with a band, but maybe you’re better than I am, and will be able to appreciate this, over my head as it may be. It’s a great set list though.

And speaking of great setlists, the superman, Jack White has done a fine job in his effort to give the world another look at the rock pioneer, Wanda Jackson, who recently turned 73. The songs include "Rip It Up,” "Nervous Breakdown,” "Shakin' All Over" and Jimmie Rodgers' "Yodel #6." It’s a really good album and a nice thing to have after all these years.

Now here’s Reed:
Then They Came for the Pensions…

First off, it being March and the season of Spring Training, indulge me while I list reason #4,873 of why it's so easy to hate the New York Yankees—Hank Steinbrenner opining on the tragic burden befalling major market teams:

“‘At some point, if you don't want to worry about teams in minor markets, don't put teams in minor markets, or don't leave teams in minor markets if they're truly minor,’ Steinbrenner said. ‘Socialism, communism, whatever you want to call it, is never the answer.’”

Right. Billionaires in New York sharing revenue with multi-millionaires in Kansas City is “socialism, communism.” In the interest of fairness, I will acknowledge that John Henry, owner of my beloved Red Sox, also comes across in that ESPN article as a whiny, spoiled ass when it comes to sharing his team’s enormous wealth.

But then again, the management of any major corporation can be counted on to basically consider the sharing of any of its revenue as tantamount to highway robbery, so why should the owners of a major sports franchise be any different? Heck, just last week, with the imminent NFL lockout looming, Mark Murphy, the head of the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers trotted out an argument to the New York Times that was little more than a repackaged version of longstanding conservative talking points about the evils of welfare and unemployment insurance:

“You know, right now our current players if they’re vested, and you vest if you play three or more seasons, you get health insurance coverage for five years, which is great. But I look at it, too, and the transition for players from playing in the NFL to finding another career and establishing themselves is very difficult, and I really wonder, sometimes, if we do too much for the players. They’ve got severance pay and a 401(k) plan…And so I’m a little worried that if we do too much for players in terms of compensation after their career’s end, and health insurance—it’s not all bad to have an incentive to get a job.”

The paternalistic tone here is striking and all too familiar. “Severance, a retirement plan, and five whole years of health insurance, hmmm, maybe that’s too good for you, son." Something tells me, though, that a lot of former players might wholeheartedly disagree that their retirement package and the guarantee of health insurance coverage only until their early 30s constitutes anything close to “great." Especially when they see numerous examples of legendary veterans dying penniless and wracked with health problems for decades. But the NFL’s more subtle approach to undermining its union members’ benefits is just a more PR-savvy tactic in a larger, conservative strategy that seeks to erode the power of labor.

First step: Demagogue union employees—whether it’s teachers or tight ends—as overpaid good-for-nothings. Next, work to dismantle the union’s future efficacy by gutting its organizing and bargaining power. And then go after the pensions and healthcare packages, again using the cover of budget shortfalls as an excuse to renege on benefits contracts and funding obligations.

For a near perfect distillation of this multi-pronged approach, consider former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who increasingly appears to believe that his path to the GOP presidential nomination requires that he be willing to do or say anything to appease the Tea Party crowd. (And not for nothing, Tim, but if you’re going to heap encomiums on the rump minority of this country that despises any and everything related to President Obama, perhaps it’s best not to use as the title of that video said president’s Inauguration theme.)

Last week, I noted that the all-but-declared Republican presidential candidate, in a fit of histrionics on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, had recently labeled the rise of public unions a “silent coup.” But in that same essay, Pawlenty went further with his austere prescription for America, which essentially amounts to more “freedom” and less of everything else—less government, less taxes for rich people, less pay for workers, fewer regulations, fewer rights for unions and, whaddya know, fewer pensions for retirees:

“We need to end defined-benefit retirement plans for government employees. Defined-benefit systems have created a financial albatross for taxpayers. The private sector dropped them years ago in favor of the clarity and predictability of defined-contribution models such as 401(k) plans. This change alone can save taxpayers trillions of dollars.”

Clarity and predictability for whom? Well, that this paragraph appeared on the Journal’s op-ed page should make the answer obvious. Ask any private sector employee—especially those nearing retirement age—how they felt watching their 401(k)s evaporate before their very eyes during the recent Wall Street-created financial crisis and I’m guessing the words ‘clarity’ and predictability’ won’t readily come to their mind.

Of course, that 401(k)s would be increasingly attractive to conservative politicians (and the retirement plan of choice for NFL management) shouldn’t come as a surprise, I guess, since these plans, as their defining feature, shift all the financial risk onto the individual retiree. But as Notre Dame economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci noted in an insightful American Prospect article on Monday, 401(k)s have basically failed as a viable retirement option because they’re woefully underfunded:

"In 2009, the account balance for the average-income household with a 401(k) plan was only about $67,000. Even the oldest workers in the highest-earning households, of $100,000 annual income and over, have on average only about $173,000, which yields a lifetime monthly income of just $500.”

Simply put, a retirement income of $500 a month means living in abject poverty. Even if you add in the average monthly payout of Social Security, which was $1,076 as of this past January, the combined total would still mean that most senior citizens in this country will struggle to survive. And right here it’s important to remember that if George Bush had gotten his way back in 2005, the retirement prospects for millions of Americans would be even bleaker, as all those partially privatized Social Security accounts he was so keen to let the market handle would have cratered during the past few years' economic recession, leaving many with almost no social safety net whatsoever.

But that is precisely the point. The current conservative campaign to turn the American middle class upon itself won’t stop with just smiting public employee unions, taking away their bargaining power and depriving them of their promised retirement benefits and pensions. There is a larger prize in their sights, one that, if you strip away the first sentence in Pawlenty’s aforementioned quote becomes evident. It’s the prospect of dismantling the one entitlement that not just union employees but all Americans enjoy, Social Security.

The good people of Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere are now paying the price for their states’ rightward turn at the ballot box last November. And though many are now suffering from a serious case of buyer’s remorse, unfortunately it may be too late to forestall the anti-union legislation underway in many of those states. But their inspiring and invigorating defense is nonetheless well worth the fight and should serve as a powerful reminder of what’s at stake for the next election, in 2012. We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

The Mail:
Mike Dickenson
Bluff City, TN

The people who said that the election of 2004 was the most important of our lifetime were right. It wasn't because of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was because that president decided the make up of the Supreme Court for at least a decade. The SC allowed the Koch brothers to buy the last election by changing the election laws. If people don't wake up and start voting, they're going to get the government they deserve. I wonder if the local movie house or department store will feel the affects more when the teachers take a 15% pay cut instead of the the super rich getting taxed more. When Obama was talking about letting the Bush tax cuts expire, all of the news reports said it was class warfare. Well everyone had better wake up because the class warfare has been going on for a long time and too many people don't recognize it.

Dear Eric,

Today I read "Bush spokesman David Sherzer said Friday that Bush doesn't want to share a forum with someone who has 'willfully and repeatedly done great harm to the interests of the United States,'" as to the former president's decision to cancel his Denver visit. Mr. Bush did not wish to share a forum with Julian Assange. It appears, in my view, with the amount Mr. Bush and his cronies did to harm the interests of the United States he joins the great Groucho Marx in refusing "to join any club that would have me as a member." Just sayin'.

Joe Coen
Houston, TX
Dr. A,

Hello from the second largest crab-pot of this great nation otherwise known as Texas. See any protests under Austin’s pink granite dome, lately? No? Not a one? Reed is spot on. If you want to see the future, take a close look at us. What’s wrong in Wisconsin is the same thing wrong in Kansas and here. Things are going to get a whole lot worse before they start to get even a little bit better. In Texas, sales taxes and property taxes are the main sources of revenue as there is no state income tax. State workers cannot collectively bargain here either. Yet, the state is still facing a $27 billion dollar shortfall. This shortfall can be primarily attributed to the no-tax increase under no circumstance whatsoever Republicans placing a cap on property taxes two years ago. As a result, under Rick Perry and the Republicans, Texas is now 4th in the nation in the hunger rate for people over 50, has the 8th highest poverty rate in the country at 15.8%. (US Census Bureau), and ranks 35th in the country in ACT scores. To make matters worse, check out the remarks Perry gave at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Houston last month about the impact of the state’s deficit on public schooling. Perry thinks the best bet for parents is to pull their kids from public school and enroll them in conservative Christian schools. He’s concerned that magnet school programs like the one in Houston are becoming “hotbeds for liberalism” because they celebrate Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage month, Asian-Pacific Heritage Month and have enrichment programs like music, art and math Olympiad. He doesn’t think that high schools should teach courses like economics, physics, chemistry, biology and calculus because not everyone goes to college and oil field workers don’t need to know calculus to do their jobs. He has no problem replacing language arts and literature courses with bible study and flat out says that his goal is to establish fundamentalist Christian schools that are an affordable alternative to public schools. It’s not just collective bargaining the right wingers want to eliminate, it’s public schooling, period. And worse, massive cuts are coming to state health services, too. Perry has yet to weigh in on whether doctors need to know economics, physics, chemistry, biology or calculus to treat all of our oil field workers. Texas gave the nation the worst president in US history in the simian-like form of Bush the Younger. You ain’t seen nuthin’, yet. Even though he did a nationwide book tour after his latest electoral triumph, Perry has said that he has no presidential ambitions. Don’t believe a word of it. Perry spouts the same kind of rhetorical nonsense as Sarah Palin and the rest of the No-Brainy Bunch wanting to loot the country, but he has better hair, more staying power, wealthier cronies and Karl Rove. Dr. A, if you ever need a jolt to stay awake at night writing your latest and coffee isn’t doing the trick, think about a Palin/Perry ticket.

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

Like this Blog Post? Read it on the Nation's free iPhone App, NationNow.

What's the Matter With Wisconsin?

My Think Again column this week is called “The Contours and Context of the Conservative Class War in Wisconsin” and you can find it here

Now here’s Reed: 

America’s Crab-pot Mentality

Last Saturday, as tens of thousands of public employees rallied at the Wisconsin state capitol in what is now a continuing series of impressive protests against Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to strip them of their collective bargaining rights, a few thousand counter-protesters also showed up to make their voices heard. In the latters’ eyes, the unions’ ongoing occupation of the capitol and state Senate Democrats’ refusal to allow the Wisconsin legislature a voting quorum are not so much an impressive exercise of First Amendments rights as they are a repulsive symptom of a privileged class run amok. And despite the fact that many of these counter-protesters had ridden to Madison on buses organized and paid for by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, they nonetheless stood in the cold, and without any apparent trace of irony, generally accused the public employees across from them of being conceited, un-American money-grubbers.

This paragraph from the NY Times article on last Saturday’s dueling protests in Madison pretty much sums up the political moment this country is having right now:

“‘You don’t care about this country! Shame on you, you’re selfish,’ one supporter of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal told union supporters, wagging his finger as he spoke. Moments later, a union supporter addressed the other side: ‘What’s wrong with you people?’"

I believe this question isn’t merely rhetorical, but a legitimate one worthy of understanding. Indeed, it’s worth understanding just exactly how our country has arrived at a place where poor and middle-class folks willingly engage in internecine class warfare against one another, with one side essentially acting as a cat’s paw for mega-wealthy conservatives intent on undermining every worker protection in existence.

For a helpful illustration of this behavior, consider the crab pot analogy. Place one crab in an open pot (or trap) and it can usually climb its way up and out with ease. But if you add a second crab or even a few more, no crabs will escape. Why? Because as soon as one crab starts to achieve some success in getting out, the others will pull it back down into the pot in a desperate competitive display of every crab for itself. In other words, by viewing survival as a zero-sum experience—where one’s success (or smaller amount of sacrifice) is seen as an unfair punishment for everyone else—these crabs act in a way that ensures that they all perish.

Of course, crabs behave this way because it’s in their nature, we humans don’t have such a convenient excuse. Thomas Frank in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, addressed what he saw as a broad swath of that state’s citizens succumbing to populist, conservative messaging in direct contrast to their best interests. (His conclusions, it should be noted, weren’t without their flaws.) But I see what’s going on now as something different than what he explored—rather than a choice by some in the middle-class to willingly choose self-inflicted wounds, it’s a desire to see others suffer to the same degree. So, what’s driving this zeal for middle-class economic Schadenfreude?

Well, the media for one. Mainstream press coverage and Beltway conventional wisdom have been led by the nose to cover these public employee union stories through a narrow, either-or prism. Rarely, if ever, do you read an article or see a broadcast that provides greater context or digs into the real causes of the proliferating budget deficits that plague statehouses across the country. You just don’t hear about how an unraveling housing market, high unemployment and reckless Wall Street bond bets, rather than public-employee union activity, are much better predictors of which state’s revenues are now in the red. Nor do you get much of a sense that the new cohort of GOP governors are exacerbating their imbalanced budgets with counterproductive measures like slashing corporate tax rates.

Unfortunately, those stories that do attempt a contextual breakdown, by comparing pubic and private employee compensation, are riven with poor data choices and, as analytical tools, do more to misinform than anything. Consider the prime talking-point statistic cited by GOP politicians around the country, courtesy of USA Today:

“At a time when workers' pay and benefits have stagnated, federal employees' average compensation has grown to more than double what private sector workers earn.” USA Today, August 10, 2010

This notion that public employees are basking in a bounty of benefits while the rest of the middle-class in this country is simultaneously struggling is the fuel that fires much of the public sector union resentment. Sure, this aforementioned story does add in some disagreement with the statistical analysis—only in the form of union representative’s protesting, however—and subtle caveats like “The analysis did not consider differences in experience and education.” But what’s dismissed in the story as minor quibbling is really the pointing out of a major analytical flaw, one that is ripe for broad brush misinterpretation and political grandstanding.

In fact, if you start to correct for important salary and benefit impactors—like experience and education and others—the statistics tell a very different tale. For example, in the current case of Wisconsin’s local and state workers, an Economic Policy Institute study found that public employees enjoyed a 5% wage and benefits penalty when compared to their private sector counterparts. And even when the mainstream press does offer an appropriate contextual comparison, as the New York Times did this past Tuesday concerning public vs. private worker salaries in Ohio, it’s buried deep within the story, in this case in the 28th paragraph of a 31-paragraph story. (Incidentally, that article noted that even though state public employees enjoy a 20% higher median salary than private sector workers, when you compare those who are college graduates, “public workers make less than the private sector.”)

Nevertheless, conservative commentators and politicians have seized hold of the “public employees are overpaid” meme and run with it, doing what it is that they do best, unfortunately.

David Brooks, New York Times—public employee unions can’t be trusted to be as ineffective as private sector unions so they need to be weakened:

“In Wisconsin and elsewhere, state-union relations are structurally out of whack...Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.”

Michael Goodwin, Fox News—talking about the “entitlement culture” and how tough it is for today’s high-earning taxpayers, who are suffering under the lowest tax burden in decades, to pay for public employees’ salaries:

“From that willful ignorance, it's perfectly acceptable to demand pay without work, or, almost as insidious, pay and pensions that dwarf those of your neighbors who foot the bill.”

Tim Pawlenty, former GOP governor of Minnesota and budding Tea Party darling—on how the public sector unions are some kind of predatory fifth column readying to overthrow the Republic:

“The rise of government unions has been like a silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians and fueled by campaign contributions…Government employees today are among the most protected, well-paid employees in the country. Ironically, public-sector unions have become the exploiters, and working families once again need someone to stand up for them.”

Newt Gingrich, former, future and forever potential GOP presidential candidate—sounding very reasonable but, of course, getting everything completely backwards when it comes to the Wisconsin labor dispute:

“In Madison, Wisconsin, we are witnessing a profound struggle between the right of the people to govern themselves and the power of entrenched, selfish interests to stop reforms and defy the will of the people.”

The subtext in all of this is pretty clear when you, respectively, strip away the distinctions without a difference about public vs. private sector unions (Brooks, a myth that Ezra Klein dispenses with here), allusions to old conservative canards about Cadillac-driving welfare mothers (Goodwin), intimations of socialism and unearned job security (Pawlenty), and outright repudiation of public workers as full citizens in our democracy (Gingrich). What’s eating at them and the followers is that public-sector unions have been exercising their political and economic clout and doing a somewhat good job of it. Of course, in reality, many public workers have already had to swallow pay cuts and watch their benefits erode over the past few years, a compromise the teachers and public workers in Wisconsin are willing to accept provided their future organizing rights aren’t gutted in the bargain. And relatively speaking, these unions have maintained some enduring strength as compared to their private sector counterparts—unionized or not—who have seen their real wages stagnate for nearly three decades while average CEO pay has skyrocketed and pay inequity in this country approaches an all-time high, as these eye-opening charts over at Mother Jones show pretty clearly.

So what to do? Why, the answer is temptingly simple if you’re a disgruntled American stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. Make these unions victims of their own success and, in a bit of political jiujitsu, use their ability to secure relatively modest salary and benefit packages for their members as the primary argument against them. Let’s pull these uppity public employees back down into the unprotected labor pool with the rest of us, whose wages and job security rest in the hands of cold-hearted corporate managers and fickle shareholders. That’ll get the economy cooking again, right? And, if it doesn’t, well, at least the well-off in this country will continue to enjoy a nice life, feasting off all of us poor crabs who ensured we got cooked in the process.

The Mail
Mark Paul
Highland Park, IL

One thing to add to Reed's admirable summary of the prospective NFL lockout is this: despite the owners' claim that they are dedicated to growth of anything more than their own accounts, the NFL is the only league that doesn't have a franchise in the nation's second largest media market. The Rams left for St. Louis after the 1994 season.

To their credit, the Los Angeles municipal authorities have declined to use scarce taxpayer funds to fund a stadium, and there the matter rests.

Paul Minkoff
Rochester, NY

Interesting stuff.

Would have welcomed some data that compares the income and whiteness of the NFL owners vs the players. Richardson has the same scent as the Koch Brothers—did he attend their recent bash in the desert? What if any connection do you see between Richarson's position and the subsequent vertical drop in his team's performance the last 2 years, and I think the loss of their widely respected head coach? Could it be that good ole Jerry is maneuvering to receive a bailout of some kind? Afterall, it turned out well for GM, unless you are like me, a devotee of the 1990s Saturn SL2s.


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

Like this Blog Post? Read it on the Nation's free iPhone App, NationNow.

Walkouts, Payouts and Lockouts

My new Think Again column takes pity on those poor, underappreciated folk in the tea party, about whom so many in the media are so vicious and hurtful and it’s here.

My Nation column is called “Ronald Reagan Superstar.” You can guess what that’s about. It’s here

And my Daily Beast column this week was about Obama’s awful budget, and that’s here

And here's a video of my appearance on Busboys and Poets, broadcast on CSPAN's Book TV last week

But now here’s Reed:

Walkouts, Payouts, and Lockouts: Why the NFL’s labor dispute should matter to you

Imagine you are a union member at a workplace that had defied the dire economic straits of recent years and instead seen its annual revenue rise by nearly 50 percent in the past five years. Now, imagine if the owners of that successful entity presented you with the following choice: Either sign a new contract that essentially requires accepting a decrease in your share of revenue and an increase in your workload at your (physically ruinous) job or risk being shut out of work and replaced. Oh, and did I forget to mention the part about how the media will do such a poor job of accurately explaining the situation that most of the public will think you went on strike and thus brand you a greedy bastard?

In a nutshell, that’s where the NFL’s labor negotiations stand right now as the owners and players’ union head into the final two weeks of the current collective bargaining agreement. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, one of the few sportswriters who hasn’t succumbed to the league’s wooing and carefully constructed talking points, summed it up better than I could yesterday:

“[The owners] believe they are entitled to make money every year, even in the midst of disastrous recessions. They think they are owed a living…The core issue is this: Owners resent the fact that a lot of [fans’] money is going into the pockets of players, instead of into their own.”

How much is “a lot” of money, according to the owners? Well, last year, players took home around 53% of the league’s $9.3 billion in annual revenue, leaving the owners with a measly 47% of the cut. Doesn’t seem so unfair to me, especially since the players are the ones, you know, actually playing the games and risking injury.

So what’s behind the owners trying to drive such a hard bargain? Well, total player compensation has doubled since 2003 and, despite a roughly corresponding rise in league revenue, that just doesn’t sit right with management, as Jenkins pointed out. And when she says they “resent” it, she’s being a bit kind.

In fact, last March, at a private league meeting, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson (no relation!) blasted the terms of the current CBA, despite the fact that, just four years earlier, it had won the owners’ approval in a lopsided vote of 30–2. Regardless, Richardson reportedly drew raucous applause from the assembled owners when he let loose an aggrieved rant that had him sounding more like a laid off Tea Partier waving a Gadsden flag than the owner of an NFL franchise that is estimated by Forbes to be worth a cool billion dollars.

“We signed a shitty deal last time and we’re going to stick together and take back our league and fucking do something about it.”

That’s right, Richardson and the other NFL owners are now suggesting that they were somehow duped by the NFLPA, which has a longstanding reputation as the worst, most ineffective players’ union in professional sports. (Despite it being the most violent of professional team sports, where the average playing career barely lasts three seasons, pro football continues to be the only one without guaranteed contracts.) If only Richardson and his innocent billionaire buddies had had the means to hire a few lawyers so they could negotiate a better deal from those scheming players!

This retroactive contract outrage was also working full tilt this week, after GM announced it would be giving $400 million in bonus payouts to its executives and hourly workers after its “dramatic turnaround” had resulted in significant profits. Right on cue, Fox News turned on the indignation spigot. Here’s a telling back-and-forth between America’s Newsroom co-host Martha MacCallum and Fox Business host Eric Bolling:

MACCALLUM: What really steamed me, is that it turns out, surprise, surprise, GM and Chrysler are about to head into union negotiations, okay? And during the whole thing, during the whole bailout, the, you know, everyone, the whole country said, ‘Well, you’ve got to give something back, too, right?’ So they got all the union folks to say, ‘Well, we’ll give back this, we’ll give back that.’ Now they're saying, ‘Well, we want it back,’ right?

BOLLING: Here's what they gave back. They gave back an hourly wage, their wages were here and there's much controversy on what they actually started at. They reduced their hourly wage, now they're going back into negotiation in September, I will guarantee you they're going to want that higher wage. In the meantime, Martha, the UAW, on this deal, on the GM deal alone, not the Chrysler deal, has $4.3 billion of our money that they didn't have before, because they were given ownership of GM. Given ownership.

The nerve! Union employees that took a pay cut to help their employer two years ago now want that “higher wage” restored since the company is profitable again. Don’t they know that’s not how capitalism works? And not for nothing, but I don’t remember a long line of interested investors standing behind the UAW in 2009, wanting to be “given ownership” of a car company that many were saying had no chance of surviving. Again, I guess taking a big risk and then expecting to enjoy a big reward when it pays off only applies to owners not labor.

The NFL owners, it appears, aren’t about to make a similar mistake—the extra $1 billion a year they want for themselves in the new CBA would largely be devoted to building massive, new profit centers stadiums, kind of like the one Richardson is now agitating for in Charlotte. These new facilities are ostensibly about hosting football games, but in reality they are more like giant outdoor casinos, cleverly designed to separate fans from their money at almost every turn, whether through public funding of their construction, the selling of personal seat licenses or exorbitant parking, ticket and concession prices. And if you think NFL owners are above shamelessly milking this “build it and they will come (and pay)” scheme for all it’s worth, I would point out that Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers’ current home, which Richardson is so keen to replace, opened way back in 1996.

OK, you might argue, but why should I really care about a contract dispute between millionaires and billionaires when real middle-class labor battles, like the inspiring public sector protests and teacher walkouts happening in Wisconsin, are brewing elsewhere around the country? First of all, to pick a nit, most NFL players aren’t actually millionaires—the median salary in 2010 stood at just under $800,000. Of course, that's enough to pay a dozen good teachers (and I ought to know, my wife is one of them), but it’s not just players that will be affected if the owners execute a lockout. According to a union estimate, an NFL work stoppage lasting through 2011 could cost each NFL city $140 million in lost revenue and result in the loss of thousands of good-paying middle-class jobs.

But beyond that micro-economic impact is a larger, cultural one. Right or wrong, for many Americans, the current NFL labor dispute represents another, highly visible symbol of the battle between employers and employees, management and union. And it’s importance arises from the fact that the current dispute very clearly demonstrates that even when a business is experiencing unsurpassed popularity and enjoying lucrative profits, that company’s ownership still cannot be expected to share those spoils with its employees without the force of collective bargaining power.

Indeed, the NFL’s increasingly belligerent negotiating tactics, following hard on the heels of what was a wildly successful Super Bowl, in a way, also gives the lie to all the talk of sacrifice being spouted by so many Republican elected officials nowadays. People like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (who seems to fancy himself a modern day Orville Faubus) and Ohio Governor John Kasich try to cloak their draconian public sector layoffs and anti-union legislation as necessary measures to survive these troubled times, but that’s just a convenient excuse. In reality, their fondness for hollowing out collective bargaining power and assaulting real wages isn’t born out of dire circumstances. Instead, these policy choices spring forth from the same old-fashioned conservative mindset that fueled the rise of the Robber Barons more than a century ago and that propels their modern day counterparts in the NFL today—squeezing labor in every way possible, in good times and in bad.

The Mail:
From my old friend and one-time professor, Richard Polenberg:
I’m writing to let you know that I’ll be returning to Slope Radio this semester, and that a video I’ve just done of early Dylan songs will soon be available on Cornell’s cybertower website.

In the video, “Bob Dylan and the Sixties: the Cold War and Civil Rights,” I talk about Dylan in the years 1962 and 1963, and the songs he wrote about racial and economic injustice and the danger of nuclear war. Some songs dealt with highly visible issues that were front-page news at the time, others with problems that were less evident but no less real, such as poverty, violence, and the cruelty of the prison system. I sing and play several of Dylan’s songs – “The Ballad of Donald White,” “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “Masters of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “The Times They Are A-Changing”—accompanied by my son, Michael, who plays mandolin, guitar and twelve-string guitar. My good friend, Annie Burns, joins in on a few of the songs.

The video will be available at http://cybertower.cornell.edu.

My web-based Slope Radio program, “Key to the Highway,” will be broadcast on Wednesdays from 7 to 8 pm, but the shows are archived so you can hear them whenever you wish. All 48 past programs are also available.

You can log on at http://slopemedia.org/radio and click on Key to the Highway. No username or password is necessary.

2011’s first program, “Betty and Dupree,” will be broadcast on February 16. It tells the tale of Frank Dupree, a 19 year old youth who promised his girlfriend, Betty Andrews, a present; so he stole a diamond ring from a store in Atlanta, Georgia, and murdered a detective in the course of the robbery. He was eventually apprehended, tried, convicted and hanged in 1922. I’ll play many of the songs written about the event, from the earliest, recorded in 1930, to one done by The Grateful Dead.

The next program is devoted to Blind Willie McTell (1903-1959), the subject of a superb new biography by Michael Gray. His 1928 recording of “Statesboro Blues” has been covered by Taj Mahal and countless others. I’ll play some of McTell’s recordings made during the 1930s, and a few of the songs and stories that John and Ruby Lomax recorded in an Atlanta hotel when they chanced to meet him in November 1940.

The third program, “Delia’s Gone,” is about 14-year old Delia Green, murdered by her 16-year old boyfriend Moses Houston in Savannah, Georgia on Christmas eve in 1900. I’ll play many versions of the song, from the earliest, recorded in 1923, to the most recent, cut in 2010, and Bob Dylan’s unbelievably great version on his 1993 album “World Gone Wrong.”

I plan to devote other shows to Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hank Williams, and Bob Marley, to the song “Duncan and Brady,” to the music written about the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and to the Lomax-Seeger-Guthrie collection called “Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People,” and -- well, I’m not sure what else, so if you have any suggestions I’d welcome them.

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

Like this Blog Post? Read it on the Nation's free iPhone App, NationNow.
Syndicate content