Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
Here’s my new CAP column: Think Again: The Tea Party’s Forebears Are a Movement of the Rich I think it’s self explanatory.
I felt forced to spend an enormous amount of time responding to each and every one of Max Blumenthal’s complaints about me, even those having nothing to do with my column or blog posts but were mere personal attacks. I discovered in doing so that he is even more dishonest than I gave originally him credit for (which you’ll see if you’re able to reach the end of this ): Eric Alterman Replies to Max Blumenthal’s Letter
What truly shocks me, however, is how extremist he has now revealed himself to be. When I joked about the “Hamas Book of the Month Club,” I was referring exclusively to his hatred of Israel and his ridiculously one-sided apportionment of blame. (Well, also the Nazi metaphors.) But read to the end of J.J. Goldberg’s column about the controversy and you will see that his beliefs go even further than I dared imagine. He actually wants to expel the Jews from historic Palestine period--that is unless they become Arabs and embrace the culture of their neighbors. My “Hamas” joke is looking less funny every minute. This view, need I point out, is the mirror image of the most lunatic of West Bank settlers. Seriously. How extremist an anti-Zionist do you have to be to make Phil Wess nervous? (Can you imagine? Cue the “crazy” metaphors.)
Alas, read Max Blumenthal's 'Goliath' Is Anti-Israel Book That Makes Even Anti-Zionists Blush and see if you think I exaggerate. Here are his exact words, as reprinted by JJ in response to a question from a member of a University of Pennsylvania audience about the role of Jews in his ideal Middle East.
“There should be a choice placed to the settler-colonial population” (meaning the entire Jewish population of Israel): “Become indigenized,” that is, “you have to be part of the Arab world.” Or else…? “The maintenance and engineering of a non-indigenous demographic population is non-negotiable.”
I had to go over that two or three times just to believe it (as well to make sense of it), but Goldberg put it in context. It is often said that the Palestinians people have been tragically mis-served by their leaders. I fear the same must be said about their cheerleaders.
Also read this: Eric Alterman on Max Blumenthal's anti-Israel book
Then you can read a nine year old blog post I wrote about my Close Encounters of the Lou Reed Kind It’s sort of sweet and sort of horrible.
My Nation column, ‘Dissent’ and the Center for American Progress: Liberalism’s Bullpen, is surprise, surprise, foolishly behind a paywall.
Washington Ex-Senators: Stars of the Big-League Media
by Reed Richardson
There’s an old saying in baseball: pitching wins in October. (Ahem.) You might say the same adage applies to winning over the conventional wisdom in Washington; it’s all about which team can consistently pitch the best message. And despite a rocky start to the month, the pro-business, pro-austerity, pro-defense crowd has once again demonstrated why it dominates the discourse in our nation’s capital. If you want to ensure the Beltway media’s complicity in accommodating the needs and wants of the 1%, there may be no one better to turn to in fostering your agenda than a former U.S. Senator.
Or better yet, two. Consider the Spahn and Sain of these insider pitchmen: former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and two-time former Democratic Senate candidate Erskine Bowles. As co-chairs of the deeply flawed 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which failed initially and was strongly rejected in a subsequent attempt, Simpson and Bowles have nonetheless been transformed into Capitol Hill’s pre-eminent seers on fiscal seriousness. The pair’s ability to reliably redirect the media’s attention whenever it drifts too far afield from implementing a painful, austerity agenda at the expense of seniors and the middle class is a sad truth of modern day Washington.
It was apparent again this past week, when, right on time, Simpson and Bowles popped up on the op-ed pages of the DC insider publication, The Hill, to ladle out more of their tired, pox-on-both-houses shtick. To read their diagnosis of Washington’s problems is to encounter a worldview where unspecified “leaders” must “stop the madness.” That government shutdown? Oh, much like the media, Simpson and Bowles have moved on, no sense wasting any time trying to affix blame or understand the irrational motives of the party that caused it. To them, any crisis, no matter what ignites it, makes now the right time for a grand bargain. They remain convinced that deficits haunt all that we do, though they conveniently omit the fact that the federal deficit is falling fast—probably too fast. Thus, they say the only way to exorcise our fiscal demons is through “pro-growth” policies that cut tax preferences to lower rates while doing things like rolling back Social Security benefits and means-testing Medicare. For all their talk of compromise and shared sacrifice, however, their preferred outcomes betray a pretty clear bias for one side of the political ledger:
“[S]o far, we have done the easy stuff (raising taxes on the wealthy and calling for unspecified cuts in discretionary spending) and we’ve done the stupid stuff (across-the-board cuts under sequestration). Now it’s time to do the tough stuff and the smart stuff: reforming our entitlements and tax code.
“Policymakers should seek to reach agreement on a framework that at a minimum stabilizes the debt as a share of GDP. Reaching such an agreement will require Democrats to accept some structural reforms of entitlements, and will require Republicans to use a portion of revenues that will result from simplifying the tax code for deficit reduction, instead of using all savings to reduce tax rates. But such an agreement is achievable.”
Notice how Simpson and Bowles completely ignore the tough political fight over the fiscal cliff in January by characterizing raising taxes on the wealthy as “easy?” And then they turn around and label the act of giving the GOP most of what it wants, policy-wise, as “smart.” Indeed, in this lopsided deal, Republicans would realize one of their longest-held goals of substantially undermining the country’s social insurance compact, in exchange for slightly smaller tax cuts than they might have wanted. And yet, thanks to Tea Party intransigence, Republicans won’t even take this sweet of a deal. That, three years later, these two are still given op-ed space to push essentially the same unfair compromise they came up with in 2010—despite countless examples of Republican bad faith in negotiating since then—demonstrates just how badly the media wants their faux-centrist message to get out.
But Simpson and Bowles are by no means the only ones acting as stalking horses for the Beltway media’s agenda. During the past month, several former Democratic senators have been generously allotted opportunities to make similar pro-entitlement reform arguments. None other than former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, for instance, took to the pages of uber-insider Politico this week to call for“seizing the moment” on entitlement reform. Incredibly, he too just glides right past the extreme, obstructionist behavior by House Republicans, which tore hundreds of thousands of jobs and more than $12 billion out of our economy last month, to instead call for the president to “put all options on the table” in modernizing Medicare. Trouble is, many of the commonly suggested bipartisan “fixes” for Medicare, like raising the eligibility age to 67 years old, return little real fiscal savings for the toll exacted in quality of life. Symptomatic of his intellectual disingenuousness, Daschle, in his conclusion, literally can’t bring himself to name who’s really to blame for our nation’s budgetary dysfunction, so he employs a generic euphemism to camouflage the GOP’s culpability [italics mine below]:
“The choice is clear. Lawmakers can continue to vote to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act, moving us closer to a repeat of the nightmare we have all just experienced. Or they can change course to reach agreement on something far more constructive, overdue and promising.”
Sounding a note of caution on all this wanton embrace of budget cutting this past Tuesday was another bipartisan pair of former Senators. But lest you think this was in protest to the devastating $5-billion cut to SNAP recipients that goes into effect today, I’d note that the Senators were former Arizona Republican Jon Kyl and former Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, both unabashed defense hawks, and that their co-byline appeared in Politico.
As you might imagine, then, their argument against excessive fiscal austerity was all about preserving $52 billion in military spending due to be cut in the next round of sequestration. By “starving defense” this way, they warn, national security will be harmed. Left unsaid is how well national security has fared by spending $1 trillion on an “embarrassment” of a plane known as the F-35 or $40 billion each on Combat Littoral Ships that, despite their name, are not survivable in a “hostile combat environment.” I guess it fell to these two brave former Senators to publicly speak up for all this military spending; it’s not like the defense industry has thousands of highly-paid lobbyists doing the same thing already. Too bad poor people don’t buy ads in Politico.
But neither Kyl and Lieberman’s gratuitous war-hawking nor Daschle’s case for pre-emptive Democratic capitulation, however, can compare to the editorial efforts of former Democratic Senator from North Dakota, Kent Conrad. Twice in the past three weeks (once in the Washington Post, and once The Hill) Conrad clambered aboard the “fair trade” train of trading short-term revenues for long-term entitlement cuts. In doing so, he embraces a “chained CPI” for Social Security and ominously warns that Medicare will be insolvent by 2026. Of course, in touting the savings from switching to a chained CPI, he omits any talk of the very dire consequences to seniors of changing the cost-of-living formula. In addition, Conrad fails to mention that a predicted date of insolvency has been included in 42 of 45 Medicare reports since 1970 (see page 4), or that a 13-year solvency horizon falls right in the average time window. And then there’s this throwaway line from Conrad’s Post op-ed that he should have been ashamed to put his name to: “Repeal the medical device tax of 2.3 percent, about which no one seems enthusiastic.” That would be the same medical device tax that funds the Affordable Care Act to the tune of $30 billion over 10 years and that House Republicans champion as a way to begin defunding the law. Hey, I know at least one other former Senator who would definitely agree with him: Evan Bayh.
The point of all this, of course, isn’t to call for circumscribing former Senators—particularly centrist Democratic ones— from engaging in policy debates after leaving office. They’re obviously entitled to expressing their opinions (or that of their well-paying employers) however they so choose. What is striking, though, is that what we saw this past month happens all the time. So many of the former elected officials showing up the op-ed pages of the Beltway media coalesce around the same sets of solutions to the same sets of problems. Sure there’s some self-selection going on here, but most of the time the media is actually imprinting its (supposedly non-existent) viewpoints onto what constitutes the boundaries of debate.
In the end, it’s not a coincidence that a press corps blindly calling out for bipartisan compromises routinely promotes the viewpoints of former politicians who share that very same outlook. Today’s highly partisan nature of Washington may have left behind the crude, both-sides-must-give mentality of former Senators like Simpson, Lieberman, Daschle, or Conrad, but there’s one constituency that still embraces this artificially balanced mindset. The press may like to pretend that it’s merely an observer and not an inside-the-Beltway player, in other words, but that’s a fallacy. As long as it is selectively enforcing its own agenda when choosing who gets onto the field of debate, our democracy will continue to be little more than a rigged game.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Dear Mr. Richardson;
Thank you for your article [“How the Media’s Cognitive Biases Distort Obamacare Coverage”] about recent media insanity over a website! Dear god, it's horrifying to witness the same media idiocy repeatedly. [This past Saturday], even MSNBC's "UP" took the bait and spent valuable time discussing the website problems! Who gives a shit!!??!! Government exists to make life better for people. The ACA is good government. Not perfect government.
I recall a few years ago, somebody said that a liberal gets media criticism even for curing cancer, while a conservative gets praise just for spelling cancer correctly. Or the responsibility every black leader seems to bear for anything and everything said or done by 100% of black people. Compared this with the shrill media response when a conservative is asked to address comments from within their own party; even their own office staff! Witness the absolute hysteria over Congressman Alan Grayson 'comparing' the Tea Party to the KKK. The group that runs around with posters of President Obama in a Hitler mustache, amongst many other depictions, is upset about being compared to the Klan?
Final thought (sorry): The Klan is about bullying and intimidating those that disagree with them. That sounds like the Tea Party to me. Often it's fellow Repubs (RINO bashing), but still they are using fear and intimidation to achieve their goals. While liberals self-police over Grayson and Dick Durbin, Tea Partiers get away with killing the economy.
Thanks again. Good luck.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
The below ran originally on April 9, 2003 on MSNBC.com
I like Lou Reed the way most people I know like Lou Reed. I was intrigued and disquieted by “Walk on the Wild Side” in junior high, danced to “Sweet Jane and “Rock and Roll” in high school, and endured dark, devotional period in college which focused on The Blue Mask and Street Hassle. In grad school with lots of time to kill, I looked up his letters to the poet Delmore Schwartz, and made copies for my friends. But Lou has moved on and so have I. I still pick up his new albums sometimes but they almost always disappoint. His last concert at the Beacon Theater, a half-block from my apartment, was so awful I was relieved to go home while he was still onstage. Still, this is New York , so I have a story.
A few years ago I was in the Village Vanguard seeing the pianist Marcus Roberts when a beefy security guard who spoke no English blocked my path out of the men’s room. I was about to assert my God-given right as an American to leave any men’s room whenever I damn pleased, when I noticed the President of the Czech Republic (and a personal hero of mine) Vaclav Havel, leaving the club, trailed by Henry Kissinger and Lou. (What were they talking about before the set? NATO? The Velvets’ reunion? Henry’s fear of an international criminal tribunal?) Henry and Vaclav jumped into a limo, while Lou was stuck behind them in a jeep. I felt his pain, but I said nothing.
A few days later, I was telling this story to my close friend, Frank (not his real name) who lived out of town. He told me of the curse that Lou had cast on his life. I don’t remember all the details, but Frank was the Lou Reed fan to end all Lou Reed fans from the time he attended Columbia as an undergrad for about a decade and a half. That’s when Lou’s curse began to take effect. I forget the details but it was no joke. Frank would always put on one of Lou’s albums to mark the key moments of his life and something would always go horribly wrong. Girls would dump him; his wife had a miscarriage and I forget what else, but it was bad. He never listened to his favorite artist ever again. I tried to think of what life would be like if I felt forced to exile myself from Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. I couldn’t bear it.
A few weeks later I got invited to a benefit party where Lou was going to do a poetry reading at George Plimpton’s house. I told Frank. He asked me please to not even mention Lou ever again, no matter what the circumstances. I apologized. This was serious. Lou came to the reading, and I considered telling him about Frank but it sounded too crazy. Plus, he seemed to be in a really bad mood, even for Lou Reed. He read his songs at an inaudible level, visibly wincing whenever anyone tried to introduce him around. He left within seconds of finishing. Lou is not, apparently, a schmoozer.
The next day Frank called me and asked if I had gotten “the unmentionable one” to lift the curse. “Whaddya mean?” I demanded. “You never told me to do that.” “I know,” he explained, “That’s part of the curse. I’m not allowed to ask.” “Shit,” I thought. I should have realized. I let my buddy down. I hate that.
But America, God bless her, is the land of second chances. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I went to the movies at Lincoln Plaza , twelve blocks from where I live. Walking up Broadway, right by the theater at 63rd street , I saw a woman I thought I recognized eating a late lunch at one of the café tables that rubs up right against the sidewalk. Then I remembered who she was: Laurie Anderson, Lou’s wife. And there he was, sitting across from her, wearing a black T-shirt, per usual.
First I panicked. My cell phone was charging back at home so I couldn’t call Frank and ask him what to do. I walked a few feet to the nearest pay phone which advertised calls for twenty-five cents a minute to anywhere, with a fifty-cent minimum. I had fifty cents, which was my change from the ten-dollar bill I gave the movie lady, and dialed Frank’s cell number, but the phone had lied. The minimum was seventy-five cents, which I didn’t have. So I tried to call him collect, but his cell did not accept collect calls, don’t ask me why. Then I remembered that last time, he said he could not personally ask for the curse to be lifted or else it would not work.
So I did it. Like the ultimate bridge-and-tunnel teenage nudnik, I walked back to the sidewalk café and excused myself, and said, “Mr. Reed, you probably don’t want to hear this whole story but…”
Lou: “Excuse me, I’m trying to have a meal here.”
Me: “Would you just do me a favor and lift the curse on my friend Frank?”
Lou (getting angry): “Listen, I’m trying to have a meal….”
Me: “Just say ‘Sure, I lift the curse on Frank’ and I’m outta here. I promise.”
Lou (exasperated and angry): “Sure. I lift the curse on Frank.”
Me: “Thanks. Bye.”
Is this a great city or what?
Read Alterman’s latest response to Max Blumenthal.
Congratulations to Max Blumenthal. The Nation has, over the decades, published any number of extremely harsh critics of Israel and Zionism. But, as far as I’m aware, never before has anyone defended the analogizing of the behavior of Israeli Jews to that of the war criminals who led Nazi Germany. Such arguments are, unfortunately, consistent with both the quality of Blumenthal’s judgments and the honesty of his journalism.
Blumenthal’s letter is no less dishonest and disingenuous than his dreadful book (a book, I hasten to add that has received virtually no attention in the print media, save in my column). I will answer each and every one of his charges in the order he makes them and then I hope and pray I will finally be done with this mishegas forever.
Blumenthal’s preamble to his charges is, shall we say, confusing. He writes, “These enforcers, recently aided and abetted by Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, have painted critics who do not toe the party line or journalists who report uncomfortable facts as anti-Semitic, self-hating Jews or cheerleaders for terror. Readers of The Nation should recognize this kind of smearing as a form of McCarthyism.” I sure hope they do because I’ve addressed these issues so frequently in this and so many other publications for the past thirty years that it would be fair to call them an obsession. For instance: Here is one recent example from The Nation. Here is one from The International Herald Tribune. Here is one from the Center for American Progress. Here is one from The American Prospect. Here is one from The Daily Beast. Here is one from The Forward. And here is one from Moment, etc., etc. As to Blumenthal’s alleged point, however, I did not call him anti-Semitic, self-hating or a cheerleader for terror. I did not even mention any of these things.* His claim to McCarthyite martyrdom is therefore rather misplaced, to put it mildly.
Blumenthal continues, referring to yours truly, “Playing the enforcer, he [Alterman] is trying to frustrate debate….” Again, I plead confusion. I’m the only person in a print outlet anywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, who has even noticed the existence of Blumenthal’s book, much less debated its contents. Much to my chagrin, I’ve now devoted many thousands of words to it. Am I really the right person for Max Blumenthal to accuse of seeking to “frustrate debate?”
Blumenthal adds that he does not understand why I would concede that his book is “mostly technically accurate” but remain so critical. He is, apparently, unfamiliar with the concept of “context.” It might be technically accurate, for instance, to say that an individual who fatally shoots a crazed killer while said killer is mowing down schoolchildren with an assault-weapon is a “murderer.” But it would also be profoundly misleading, given the context. And this is the problem with Blumenthal’s facts. He tells us only the facts he wishes us to know and withholds crucial ones that undermine his relentlessly anti-Israel narrative. As I mentioned, he tells us that the El Al airline “has been accused” of harboring Mossad spies. He does not give us the context, which is that his accuser had just been fired, had worked for the airline for nineteen years without complaint, and presented no evidence. This is, I’m afraid, typical of a book in which the author presents no understandable explanations for Israel’s actions save the evils of the Zionist mind and the blackness of its heart. Blumenthal takes great offense at my quip that the book could have been a selection of a hypothetical Hamas Book of the Month Club, but my point remains valid. If there was a single rendering of any incident in this anti-Zionist propaganda tract that would upset the rather demanding ideological precepts of Israel’s enemies, I did not catch it. Like a child’s fairy tale, each story he tells has the same repetitive narrative, with Israel, without exception, cast as the Big Bad Wolf.
More in sorrow than in anger, no doubt, Blumenthal concludes that he “cannot say that Alterman’s review is technically accurate.” Well, perhaps, but that’s because I did not write a review and Blumenthal, conveniently, provides no links for his readers to see this. To set him and them straight, I devoted my regular Nation column to his book—at my editors’ specific request—and then followed up with my “Altercation” blog explaining to my readers why I would devote so much space to so shameful a book and adding a few points for which I lacked space in my column. Had I had more room, as in a genuine review, I might have addressed many more of its weaknesses, such as those discussed here and here and here. (No doubt more will arise should anyone else pay the book any notice or the authors above get a chance to read more deeply in the book. Those above have only just begun.)
Failing to note that he was talking about a comment I made in my blog post explaining my initial reluctance to write about his awful book, he writes, “following a bizarre reference to the “friendly relations” he has supposedly enjoyed with my parents since I was “a little boy,” an effort at belittlement that reflects only on the bully, Alterman….” First, note the name calling. Second, note the fact that I pointed this out in the explanation on my blog that I had managed my personal and professional relationship with his parents, Sid and Jackie Blumenthal, for the past thirty years without any open animosity between us. I attribute to these friendly relations the fact that until now, Sid Blumenthal had not seen fit to make me the object of any of the unflattering e-mails he so often sends around to journalists and others—myself included—about individuals of whom he disapproves. Privately, I worried that by telling the truth about his son’s book, I would soon hear of nasty e-mails about me sent by Sid to our mutual friends and professional acquaintances. Call it “bizarre,” if you will, but sadly, that’s just what happened.
Continuing on, Blumenthal’s letter objects to the fact that I noted that he quoted a ridiculous definition of Israel’s alleged “fascism” without challenge or criticism. He says he did not “express approval” of the quote. Well, he did not express disapproval either. He simply quoted it as if it explained the situation. He appears to wish to distance himself from it now, quite understandably, but in that case, what is it doing there? People say all sorts of crazy things all the time and most journalists feel no compunction about quoting them respectfully and at length, and without anyone voicing any contrary views. The fact that he has now quoted others accusing Israel of “fascism,” in his letter to the editor—though here, he does not even bother to define the word—is irrelevant to my point. Look up “fascism” in any remotely respectable academic source and you will find that “a feeling that you have sitting on a bus being afraid to speak Arabic with your Palestinian friends” bears it no relevance.
Regarding his morally disgusting and intellectually indefensible equation of Israeli Jews to Nazis, all Blumenthal can say is “If the titles of these chapters are shocking, it is only because the facts are shocking.” But chapter titles are not “facts,” by any definition of the word—not even Blumenthal-style “facts.” And his are stupid and offensive because their author has purposely chosen them to be so.
Blumenthal goes on to pat himself on the back for a video he apparently made about non-Jewish refugees in Israel and continued, “Alterman, to my knowledge, has yet to speak up against the organized, officially sanctioned campaign of incitement and violence against non-Jewish African refugees in Israel, a population that has been left defenseless after fleeing from genocide and unbearable repression.” Yes, this is true. Here is yet one more injustice in the world against which I have failed to speak up. Add it to the millions of other injustices in the world against which I have also failed to speak up. Sadly, I am haunted by the billions of victims of injustice in every nation on earth saying, “If only Eric Alterman would ‘speak up…” Thanks to Max Blumenthal, I understand the importance of such empty moral posturing and am ready to take action: I hereby denounce “the organized, officially sanctioned campaign of incitement and violence against non-Jewish African refugees in Israel etc, etc. ” together with every other injustice in the world, past, present and future. You’re welcome, everybody.
Back to the book… Regarding the alleged naiveté of Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the progressive daily newspaper Haaretz, Blumenthal again appears to believe that if he can find other people making arguments that strike him as similar to his own, this somehow makes his a true one. I cannot speak to arguments I have not read by authors with whom I am unfamiliar. I do, however, find the level of chutzpah necessary for Max Blumenthal to lecture Aluf Benn—who has covered six Israeli prime ministers from Yitzhak Rabin through Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term, and reported on Israeli-Arab wars and peace negotiations for twenty years—on Netanyahu’s real motivations for absolutely anything to be a sight to behold. (Though to be fair, his lecturing of David Grossman is perhaps even more impressive in this regard.) And I find no less ridiculous Blumenthal’s insistence—again, with no evidence save apparently mental telepathy—that Netanyahu is only pretending to be alarmed about Iran’s nuclear program in order to draw attention away from the occupation. It is, after all, not unheard of for a world leader to find him or herself dealing with more than one problem at one time. Netanyahu can be genuinely concerned about Iran and at the same time, wish to hold onto the West Bank. This is, after all the position of his party, his cabinet, his advisers and, unfortunately, the millions of Israelis who continue to keep him in office. It hardly seems a stretch to assume that he believes it too.
Blumenthal then goes on to object to the fact that I find his description of Berl Katznelson as “Labor Zionism’s chief ideologue” to be “a title that exists exclusively in the author’s imagination.” He writes that in “Katznelson has been described in “almost identical fashion by everyone from Israeli President Shimon Peres to Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld to Israeli writer Amos Oz.” Alas, “almost” is a big word here, (almost as big as “everyone”). If in fact the quotes are accurate, Blumenthal, who does not himself speak Hebrew (!) and whose source notes are almost entirely in English, is citing three Hebrew speakers. None of them used the phrase Blumenthal did, which is a good thing, because, in English at least, which is the language in which Blumenthal seeks to communicate, it makes no sense. Any pronouncement that unironically employs the term “chief ideologue” with regard to a non-hierarchical political philosophical movement is by definition foolishly reductive and literally false. Was Reinhold Niebuhr “the chief ideologue” of American liberalism in the 1950s? Was John Dewey? Was Arthur Schlesinger Jr.? Was Lionel Trilling? Was John Kenneth Galbraith? And once again, Blumenthal ignores the main point of my criticism, which was that Katznelson spoke of conquest as a “complete perversion of the Zionist ideal” exactly the opposite of how Blumenthal sought to portray his views with his selective and non-contextual quotation.
Next up, in response to another criticism of mine, Blumenthal also cites Professor Charles Manekin, who claims that Yeshayahu Leibowitz never published any works of Talmud exegesis. I don’t know why anyone would say such a thing. I have attended lectures on his theology at a local Yeshiva that covered exactly this topic. The online Merriam-Webster definition of “exegesis” reads “EXPOSITION; EXPLANATION; especially an explanation or critical interpretation of a text.” The lengthy entry for Leibowitz in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that “Leibowitz has much to say about the nature of the mitzvoth, particularly as they relate to human values, and based on a basic Talmudic distinction between two forms of religious worship.” Does the above not sound like a “Talmudic exegesis”? It’s almost impossible to be a Jewish theologian or philosopher of Judaism—as Leibowitz undeniably was—without also writing Talmudic exegeses, because the religious teachings with which one must contend derive from the Talmud, which is itself primarily (but not exclusively) a collection of exegeses on the text of the Torah.
As for the Manekin/Blumenthal claim that “almost no Jews outside of Israel knew who Leibowitz was when he was alive,” this is just nonsense. Leibowitz served as editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Hebraica, read by countless Jews all over the world. He died in 1994, but published an English translation of his book, The Faith of Maimonides in 1987 along with a collection of his essays in 1992. Both books were also translated into French. I don’t know why Manekin—who also blogs on behalf of BDS under his nom de plume, “Jerry Haber”— would make so easily disprovable a statement, but I do see a tendency in his writings to offer opinions on matters on which he has literally no knowledge. For instance, in the same blog post to which Blumenthal refers, Manekin/Haber writes, “Alterman, I imagine, spends maybe five minutes a month thinking about Israel. He clearly doesn’t read Haaretz or YNET daily.… he gets his reporting on Israel from the mainstream media.” Here again, I’m afraid, Manekin/Haber is entirely full of shit… and therefore a perfectly appropriate source for Max Blumenthal.
Moreover, regardless of whether one considers Leibowitz a Talmudist, a theologian, a philosopher or biochemist—and he was all of these things—it was misleading of Blumenthal to suggest that Israelis revered him for his extreme political views. He was revered—and rather bravely chosen to receive the Israel Prize—in spite of those views, not because of them.
Regarding Yoram Kaniuk, here Blumenthal has his only legitimate point. His name was misspelled in my blog post owing to a typo. And while Blumenthal did fail to identify the “book” to which he referred as a fictional one, my primary point, I did misread the quote of Kaniuk’s quoted in The Guardian to be that of a Palestinian being quoted in response. My apologies.
Next, Blumenthal goes on to complain at length that I would not debate him when invited to do so. He has repeated this over and over on the Internet, but nowhere does he mention that he never had any reason to believe that I would wish to do so. And why would I? I’ve never met him. I have zero obligation to him. I clearly don’t think very highly either of his work or his character and I have already done more to publicize his awful book than anyone else alive (albeit inadvertently). More to the point, I have never, in the eighteen years I’ve been a columnist and the thirty-one years I’ve been a contributor to this magazine, ever debated any one of the subjects of my columns or blog posts. I am sure not about to start with someone who congratulates himself for comparing Jews to Nazis.
To go on about what a terrible person I am—we are now off the topic of my column and blog post—Blumenthal complains of an infelicitous quote of mine from an MSNBC blog post I wrote back in 2002 when I was blogging every day. I am familiar with it, as it was a favorite of Alexander Cockburn’s as well. Like Cockburn, however, Blumenthal never bothers to inform readers that I withdrew the comment in question a day after I made it, on the basis of improved information. As I wrote eleven years ago: “I think I better apologize for the words ‘tough luck’ at the end of yesterday’s entry. They are inappropriate in a situation where so many innocents, including children, were killed. When I wrote them, I was as yet unaware of the extent of the civilian damage caused by the Israeli missile attack.” Do I even need to add that this information was contained in the same blog post to which Blumenthal linked, but he ignored it in his letter? Once again: technically accurate, but deliberately deceptive.
I have, to this point, answered every one of Blumenthal’s complaints, and fortunately or unfortunately, he saved the worst for last. Blumenthal’s final citation of mine does not even rise to the level of “technical” accuracy. It is demonstrably false, and indeed, one might even safely call it a “lie.” Here, Blumenthal pretends to be shocked by my allegedly “extraordinary declaration that Americans must be willing to endure more 9/11-style terror attacks ‘if that’s the price we have to pay’ to maintain the US-Israeli special relationship.”
That would be extraordinary if I had said it, but I did not. Check the link that Blumenthal, himself, provides and you’ll find an article by the fanatical anti-Zionist and Blumenthal booster, Philip Weiss, in which he reports on 2011 panel discussion in which I participated at the 92nd Street Y. (My words are often big news for Weiss’s website, though its accuracy can be iffy at best.) The article contains both a video of the panel as well as an apparent partial transcript. (I cannot vouch for the latter’s accuracy.) The issue in question was the extremely sensitive one of dual loyalty of some American Jews to both Israel and the United States. In it, I admit to my own conflicted feelings and explain that while I, personally, as a pro-Zionist American Jew, would be willing under certain circumstances to accept such attacks as the price of American support for Israel—indeed, this is yet another argument for Israel to compromise with the Palestinians and allow a peaceful Palestinian state to be built alongside Israel in order to reduce or perhaps even eliminate this threat—I hardly think it appropriate to pretend that there is no price for America’s support for Israel. Nor do I think that the interests of America and Israel are identical, as so many neoconservatives and members of the “pro-Israel community” so frequently insist. In other words, in the quote in question, I was quite clearly speaking for myself personally as a Jew who cares deeply about Israel before a Jewish audience attending a conversation about Israel at a Jewish institution. I was not even attempting to speak for “Americans” as Blumenthal pretends, because more than 99 percent of them are not, like yours truly, Jews who happen to care deeply about the fate of Israel. Employing only the second half of my quote (and none of its context, surprise, surprise), Blumenthal substituted the words “Americans must” for my words, “I’m willing,” to deceive the reader into believing I made the exact opposite argument of the one I made.
Literally nothing this fellow writes can be taken at face value. He shames all of us with his presence in our magazine.
* If Blumenthal wishes to categorize Hamas as a group of “terrorists,” as his letter implies, this would be a shock to the readers of his book. I think they are, unfortunately, the legitimate leadership of the Palestinians in Gaza, however distasteful one may find their ideology and methods.
* * *
Max Blumenthal responds to Alterman’s initial criticism of Goliath.
My new Think Again column is called 10 Years of False Equivalence and Still Going Strong. It’s a reflection on the ten years since the Center for American Progress was founded and the ten years (and one day) that I have been writing that column, and it focuses on (guess what,) false equivalence in the MSM between the radicalized Republican Party and the hyper-moderate Democrats, and the harm this inability to draw so obvious a distinction continues to do to truth, justice and the American way.
I also felt compelled to write an exceptionally long blog post in response to the campaign of vilification directed towards yours truly inspired by Max Blumenthal in retaliation for my column on his terrible book. It’s called “Despicable Me” and it appeared in this space on Wednesday. I will, as is noted at the end of that magnum opus, respond to Blumenthal’s complaints in the letters to the editor column of the magazine whenever his letter is slated to run. So far, I’ve not seen anything in my that requires correction. Check that, what requires correction, at least in the future, is my judgment in agreeing to write about such a book in the first place. Any work in which the author begins—literally in the table of contents—by equating Jewish Israelis with Nazis deserves to be ignored at best. This has been the reaction to this book of literally every since print publication in America save The Nation insofar as I am aware. It should have also been mine, my editors’ request that I write about it notwithstanding. (In the meantime, check out these recent examinations of the veracity of the book by Avi Meyer here and here, as well as third post on the book, here. Remember, “facts” vs. Truth....)
I was not so crazy about the pacing of the show put on at Cipriani Wall Street in support of Little Kids Rock’s annual “Big Man of the Year” Award. Jake Clemons spoke and played a bit. Brian Wilson did a few songs, as did Elvis Costello (who is everywhere of late), with last year’s winner, Steve van Zandt sitting in for almost all of it. Then there was lots and lots of talking and an auction, etc, before Bill Medley made a rare appearance on followed by this year’s award winner, Darlene Love. You can read all about it on Backstreets, but I’d rather you went to the Little Kids’ Website and gave them some scratch. Music in the public schools is a terrific cause and it’s one (of many) where we are failing our children.
Eagle Rock has put out a terrific bluray of a Stan Getz performance at Montreux in 1972 with a Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams, and Airto Moreira backing him up on songs from the then-just released “Captain Marvel” album. It marks Getz’s transition into fusion as well as the gestation of the most exciting version of Corea and Clarke’s “Return to Forever.” I’m also pleased with the release of Bryan Ferry’s Live In Lyon on Blu-ray filmed during his Olympia tour on July 25, 2011 at the ancient Roman amphitheatre in Lyon, France as part of the Nuits de Fourviere Festival. It covers bits and pieces from Ferry’s 40-year career, including Roxy stuff, like “Slave To Love,” “Oh Yeah!,” “Let’s Stick Together,” “Love Is The Drug,” “Don’t Stop The Dance,” “Avalon,” and some great covers from his solo career, “Like A Hurricane,” “Jealous Guy,” and “My Only Love,” etc. He’s very much an underrated singer and if you’ve spent any time with the Roxy Music box of last year, this will be a real treat. Eagle Rock has also released Live In Athens 1987 by Peter Gabriel on a two Blu-ray package, it’s got a complete Youssou N’Dour opening set plus the Gabriel show, plus a disc of Gabriel videos. The show was filmed in the hillside open-air theatre at Lycabettus overlooking Athens as the “So” tour came to an end.I think Gabriel’s OK, and hoped to like him more after watching this, but I don’t. It reminds me of why I hated music in the eighties. But if you like Gabriel and N’Dour, then you’ll like this
Columbia Legacy gave us two lovely new Bing Crosby cds last week: Bing Sings The Johnny Mercer Songbook’ and ‘Le Bing: Song Hits of Paris – 60th Anniversary Deluxe. The Mercer cd spans more than two decades, starting with a rare 1934 radio performance of "P.S. I Love You." Le Bing was originally released in 1953; it’s got 23 tracks – 12 never before released – including rare studio outtakes and several English language bonus tracks, including a pair of Cole Porter favorites, "I Love Paris" and "Allez Vous En (Go Away.)"
Oh and hey, The 2013 Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit Concert—the 27th of them—will be webcast this Saturday, with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Queens Of the Stone Age, Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Jack Johnson, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Fun, Heart and Jenny Lewis.Click here or here to watch it. Also, premiering on Tuesday, November 5, 2013, 9-11 p.m. (ET) on PBS is the new documentary "American Masters: Jimi Hendrix - Hear My Train A Comin'" which will be available same day from Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings on DVD & Blu-ray together with "Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival" CD & vinyl set all of which is part of a year-long celebration around Hendrix's 70th birthday year You can watch a trailer here. The doc is pretty well done. You don’t get much of Hendrix the person anywhere else, save perhaps biographies I’ve not read. That said, there’s too many talking heads and not quite enough music.
So, at dinner the other night, I interviewed a savvy 15 year old Bronx Science sophomore about the artistic merit she and her friends found in The Twilight series, now out in a bluray box set with a bunch of extras. She tells me that the acting is pretty good and the story—which involves vampires vs. werewolves and their families and has a lot of heavy breathing at first but then everybody ends up happy (literally) forever with the birth of a baby vampire to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson with werewolf Taylor Lautner hanging around as a kind of fun uncle. I guess the extras are what will make this a must for fans and there are a million of them. Read all about them on Amazon. (For some reason, the bluray is cheaper than the DVD, so snap it up, Twilight fans!)
How the Media's Cognitive Biases Distort Obamacare Coverage
by Reed Richardson
The establishment media consensus is settled: Obama is in real trouble. All across Washington, the press has excoriated the administration for a lack of preparation heading into October, and grown angry that the president isn’t demonstrating enough personal contrition. Pundits have claimed his mismanagement of this critical public health rollout even threatens to undermine the future of his signature healthcare reform policy. Some are calling the issue “Obama’s Katrina.” There are even suggestions that this could sink the president’s chances for re-election in 2012.
Wait, what’s this about re-election?
I apologize. I engaged in a bit of a rhetorical trick. What I summarized above was what Sunday morning news hosts, Beltway horserace handicappers, and right-wing op-ed pages were saying almost exactly four years ago about Obama’s handling of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. (Oh, you’d forgotten all about that, had you?) But my point here is that (almost) all of these very same themes could have been ripped from today’s headlines. So, to take a trip back to 2009 is to offer some much needed perspective on the overheated press freakout currently driving the coverage of the Healthcare.gov roll-out. And it should serve as a powerful reminder that everyone—political journalists and pundits included—are susceptible to cognitive biases that skew our sense of proportion and blind us to reality.
Much more so than any ideological leanings, these cognitive biases are what have significantly affected the press’s coverage of Obamacare. For example, as new details emerge about the law, they are routinely manipulated to fit pre-existing or familiar partisan narratives—thus Healthcare.gov’s technical problems are ominously portrayed by critics as symbolic of “an intellectual crisis for modern liberalism.” Or having landed on one metric for analyzing the new website’s success, the press digs in, though it may not be the best reflection of reality—hence low enrollment numbers are seen as evidence of the site’s continued failure rather than a perfectly predictable example of consumer behavior. And sometimes the media leans so heavily on the recent past that it becomes stubbornly resistant to the idea that the tomorrow can look any different— hence news about the website’s ongoing improvements struggles to break through the lazy “website-is-a-disaster” meme. Throw these subjective tendencies into an overheated political environment like the nation’s capital, mix well with a lack of historical perspective, and—voila—you have a recipe for D.C. conventional wisdom that is strikingly unmoored from what matters to the public in the long-term.
So let’s be clear, a problematic first few weeks (or even months) for the Healthcare.gov website, while regrettable, pales in comparison to the millions of Americans who will gain access to affordable health care. Recall that even the gold standard of government-run programs, Social Security, was so plagued with start-up issues that an outside consultant recommended the whole thing be scrapped. And it should not have to be said—I will, however, just for Ron Fournier’s sake—but there exists no amount of lines of code in the universe that, having been rewritten, will ever, ever, EVER come close to the disaster that was George Bush’s misleading and mishandling of the Iraq War.
This is not to say there aren’t legitimate criticisms to be leveled at the White House for the very real flaws plaguing this crucial healthcare tool. Undoubtedly, there are, and advocates of transparency and efficient government should be willing to make these arguments in good faith. Perhaps the most compelling of these has been Norm Ornstein’s broad, technocratic critique of the administration. But, unlike most of his Beltway peers, Ornstein takes pains not to conflate a failure in execution with a failure of ideology. Unfortunately, this kind of measured approach on the causes and consequences of the Healthcare.gov website’s failures is increasingly drowned out by hyperbole and selective memory.
Take, for instance, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. In hyping the importance of the federal exchange roll-out (and, to some extent, justifying his own critical coverage of its flaws), he's been guilty of inexcusably flushing a whole host of Affordable Care Act benefits—no denials for pre-existing conditions, lifting of annual and lifetime benefit caps, medical premium rebates, and parent-child coverage up to age 26—down the memory hole. That someone who runs the Post’s Wonkblog would fall victim to this kind of crude policy misdiagnosis is disturbing, to say the least.
But this is the same kind of overblown rhetoric and missing context that colored the coverage of the H1N1 outbreak four years ago. Instead of failure to load pages, in 2009 it was the delayed production of a viable H1N1 vaccine that touched off the firestorm of criticism aimed at the administration. Much like today, contextual reporting back then was often buried underneath an avalanche of political talking points about the issue being “Obama’s Katrina.” As a result, few in the public realized that the vaccine delays were the result of unexpected production problems at the private company contracted to make the H1N1 vaccines. (Hmm, federal contractors not living up to their promises, why does that sound familiar?) Indeed, to revisit the media’s Cassandra-like coverage from four years ago is to experience the flu outbreak as merely a series well-meaning, but bungled efforts. But a comprehensive 121-page, internal HHS after-action report on the pandemic tells a much more nuanced, real-world tale of starts, stops, and workarounds, concluding, in the end, that the government’s overall response was “successful.” If only the press kept the same balanced perspective as the man in charge of the flu outbreak, who in the midst of the pandemic in 2009, told the Washington Post:
"There's little doubt we're going to vaccinate people," said Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, "Who and when and exactly how, we have to figure out."
This disconnect between the what the media portrays as the latest crisis or disaster and what the public really cares about is why our democracy keeps misfiring. That’s why the outcry over the federal exchange website not working perfectly right off the bat, while a valid process criticism, also misses the larger point of the policy. Yes, the government having to scramble to get the Healthcare.gov portal working properly may be a failure in the near term. But, in the long run, when the technical problems are all solved (and they will be), health insurance will have become accessible and affordable for millions of Americans for the first time. And that, far more than any webpages that didn’t load or data that got corrupted, will end up being the real story of Obamacare. Tragically, that’s also the story that the media's own biases seemingly won't let it tell, once again.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Thanks for your great analysis of the shortcomings of the media's "Shutdown Showdown in DC" (ominous theme music). Yes, the media contributes to the unending sequence of governance "crises" that somehow keep coming up—and they wouldn't want it any other way.
When a crisis is going on, all eyes are glued to the screen, or listening to the radio, or hitting the websites, or buying newspapers. With an increased audience, advertisers can be made to pay you more! End of story.
So there is no financial incentive to do good journalism or to uphold the media's civic responsibilities. Governing by crisis boosts the bottom line. Sure, the staff and reporters are real people who have to live in this dysfunctional world, which their employer helps the Republican Party to create—but they don't run the show. The moneymen do. Why should they do the responsible thing, when it would kill the golden goose?
Thanks again for your great column. It has a lot of excellent arguments that I will send to NPR and PBS. (Along with a check—it's pledge season, after all.)
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
It is with extreme reluctance that I return, yet again, to the topic of Max Blumenthal’s awful book on Israel (and here). I do so not because I believe anything more needs to be said about the book itself, nor are there any corrections to be made in my column (though perhaps this will change). Rather, I feel compelled because Blumenthal and his allies have seen fit to launch a campaign of character assassination against me as a result of my criticisms of the book. (I did not criticize Blumenthal personally. Indeed, I have never met him and have nothing to say about him as a person.) But I do think his book is a perfect example of how not to do journalism. Indeed, if I were still teaching how-to journalism, I would use it as a how-not-to prop.
The most important responsibility any journalist has is to provide a proper context for readers to understand the basic truths of any given story. Truth is different from “facts.” Facts can easily mislead if presented in a purposely (or even accidentally) distorted context. This is what I meant when I said Blumenthal’s attacks on Israel were mostly “technically accurate,” while at the same time “deliberately deceptive.” To describe Israeli actions in the absence of any discussion of the behavior of its enemies and the threats these enemies pose to its citizens is both intellectually indefensible and constitutes prima facie evidence of bad faith. So, too, is the tactic of hiding behind the passive voice in order to hide key information from the reader.
Overall, a reader with no previous knowledge who sought to understand the motivation of Jewish Israelis for their decisions would have no choice but to conclude from Blumenthal’s account that there is just something about these nasty Israeli Jews that leads them to act like big meanies. The behavior of the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Lebanese, the Iranians—or groups inside these countries such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Ba’ath Party, the Muslim Brotherhood etc.—do not figure at all in Blumenthal’s analysis. Jewish Israelis act out of malevolent intent, often imputed to them by Blumenthal via apparently telepathic powers. But I literally could not find a single significant criticism of any Palestinian, or even any Arab, anywhere in Blumenthal’s seventy-three nastily named chapters. (Hence my “Hamas Book of the Month Club quip.)
The “big meanie” hypothesis is, sadly, the foundation upon which all of Blumenthal’s reporting rests. And despite cries of “censorship,” it is also, I imagine, the explanation as to why the book has been so resoundingly ignored in the media. Many critical books about Israel are published and reviewed these days. Patrick Tyler’s recent book received a great deal of attention, and I have no doubt that John Judis’s harsh rendering of Israel’s founding and the role of the US government in its early development will do so as well. Both are books with a strong, critical point of view of Israeli behavior rather than a pro-Zionist point of view. Both books, however, were written by authors who recognized the fact that that to tell just one side of an extremely complex and multifaceted story can be worse than telling none at all. Blumenthal’s book is so patently anti-Israel in its orientation that it will excite and delight those already in the extreme anti-Zionist camp but prove anathema to anyone who does not already share his animus toward Jewish Israelis. Some people refer to this kind of thing as “intellectual masturbation” but I think this is unfair. Masturbation does no harm; the same can’t be said of deliberately distorted journalism.
The response to the criticisms in my column by Blumenthal and his allies in the anti-Zionist camp has proven extremely personal in nature and vituperative in character. Rather than engage in a tit-for-tat, I will do what I have felt forced to do in the past when attacked by the so-called “pro-Israel” camp: that is, explain my own political development as it relates to the issue. I do so not to because I expect it will convince my critics of anything, but simply to create a record against which present and future distortions of my work may be fairly judged.
My very first appearance in the mainstream media occurred in the autumn of 1982, when I published a letter to the editor of The Washington Post regarding the then-recent massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps in so-called “Sabra” and “Shatilla,” following the June 6, 1982, Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It was rather long, but the gist of it read: “The gradual erosion of the moral foundations of the Jewish state, which has understandably taken place under [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, could not have occurred without the cowardly acquiescence of the Jewish leadership of this country. The Lebanese invasion and the recent tragedies in Beirut are merely the logical outgrowth of a bankrupt policy.” A few years later, after attending graduate school, I researched and wrote one of the earliest exposés of the bullying tactics of AIPAC to appear in the mainstream media; this time in the now-defunct Regardie’s magazine.
My next major foray into the issue took place during the first intifada. I travelled to the West Bank to tell the story of an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy who had been murdered by an Israeli settler and the Israeli Defense Force, respectively, in the West Bank village of Beita. The article was commissioned by Vanity Fair but was rejected, and ran instead in the now-defunct Present Tense, which was then published by the American Jewish Committee in penance for its publication of Commentary. I had to sneak into Beita with Palestinian guides to do the story, which exploded the official Israeli explanation of both killings. The name of the teenage Israeli settler girl appeared in literally hundreds of stories—she was the first Israeli to be killed in the intifada, but my story was, I believe, the only one anywhere to correctly name the young Palestinian boy.
I’ve written nine books and many thousands of articles, columns and blog posts in the ensuing decades, and not all of them have been gems. When I was blogging every day for MSNBC and later for Media Matters, I wrote a few things I should probably have said differently, and would have done so had I taken more time with my words. That’s one reason I no longer do it. But overall, I’m proud of my record. And while I did experience considerable sniping over the years from the likes of the late Alexander Cockburn and a few of his acolytes, the vast majority of the attacks on my articles dealing with the Middle East have come from neoconservatives and the so-called “pro-Israel” community who attempted to portray my criticism of Israel as beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse and to silence them as a result.
A few examples:
In 2002, in a column that continues to cause me tsuris until this day, I grew frustrated with how weak a voice Palestinians enjoyed in the mainstream media, and wrote a piece for MSNBC in which I noted, “In most of the world, it is the Palestinian narrative of a dispossessed people that dominates,” but in the US it was Israel’s.” One reason I offered for this was the “pro-Israel “domination of the punditocracy, with approximately seventy members—and I named them—who could be “could be counted upon to support Israeli reflexively and without qualification.” “The value of this legion to the Jewish state,” I added, was literally incalculable, but it certainly prevented the Palestinians from having their voices heard and their case put before the public. A United Press International column wrote at the time, “Alterman’s list feeds into the racist paranoia that the media is controlled by the Jews. Lists such as the one he has assembled are of little value except to extremists looking to prove a point.” Andrew Sullivan went a bit further. He compared my column, I kid you not, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and I still see it turning up as a reference on the websites of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, as well as garden-variety Israel-haters and anti-Zionists. But what it said was true.
Three years later, in 2005, and also on MSNBC, I wrote critically of those pundits who objected to Israeli Arabs’ and West Bank Palestinians’ refusal to honor Israel’s observance of the Holocaust. “I’m a Jew,” I wrote, “but I don’t expect Arabs to pay tribute to my people’s suffering while Jews, in the form of Israel and its supporters—and in this I include myself—are causing much of theirs.” “The Palestinians have also suffered because of the Holocaust,” I added. “They lost their homeland as the world—in the form of the United Nations—reacted to European crimes by awarding half of Palestine to the Zionists… . To ask Arabs to participate in a ceremony that does not recognize their own suffering but implicitly endorses the view that caused their catastrophe is morally idiotic.”
This resulted in a Boston Globe column by a woman named Cathy Young, who wrote, “Call it self-hatred or something less psychoanalytic; the bottom line is, this is the kind of rhetoric that, coming from a non-Jew, would be clearly seen as anti-Semitic.” Young even accused me of blaming “long-dead Holocaust victims” for Palestinian misery and arguing that “every Muslim is justified in viewing every Jew as the enemy.” (In fact, the item in question spoke of Arabs, not “Muslims.”) She concluded: “We live at a time when anti-Semitic rhetoric is creeping into the respectable mainstream: on the left, in the form of Israel-bashing… I’m not sure whether such rhetoric is any more reprehensible when it comes from Jews. But it is certainly no better.”
This was a particularly tasteless attack, but it consistent with much of what I have seen written by members of the so-called “pro-Israel community” in order to delegitimize my views. Just two years ago, in 2011, ex-AIPAC flack Josh Block, told Politico, referring to a column I published on Americanprogress.org, where I have been a columnist for exactly ten years today, “Either they can allow people to say borderline anti-Semitic stuff’—a reference to what he described as conspiracy theorizing in the Alterman column—‘and to say things that are antithetical to the fundamental values of the Democratic party, or they can fire them and stop it.’” (I was not asked by Politico to respond to this characterization, by the way, when the article was published.) Block, who has since been named head of The Israel Project, was referring to a column in which I argued that members of the Israel lobby, on behalf of Bibi Netanyahu, had been advocating an American attack on Iran. When The Forward, where I was also a columnist at the time, did not allow me to respond to this smear in a timely fashion—and without the interference of my editor there—I resigned my position.
I could point to any number of such incidents over the past thirty years; incidents that are in many respects the mirror image of the one inspired by my column on Blumenthal’s book. I suppose the major difference between the attacks of the conservatives who fund and control the professional Jewish organizations and those of Blumenthal and company is that the while the former have the money and power to interfere with my career and undermine my ability to earn my living as a writer and a scholar, the latter have only Twitter accounts.
And speaking of which, I have been unable to keep up with the all of attacks on Twitter, and see no reason even to try, given the quality of the insights that have come my way. But I would like to respond to two of Mr. Blumenthal’s that have been forwarded to me by friends with more patience than I.
First, before almost anyone, including myself, had even seen the column in the magazine, Mr. Blumenthal expressed apparent shock and anger that I had declined an invitation to debate him on Bloggingheads.tv. Keep in mind that I have never debated any subject of a Nation column that I’ve published in the eighteen years I’ve been doing this. The magazine pays me to write a column, not to debate its subjects. Blumenthal also had no reason to believe that I’d want to appear on Bloggingheads for any reason. I’ve not done so in four and a half years, since March 2009. I did two shows in 2008; one to plug my own book, and one to give my late friend, Christopher Hitchens, a chance to explain why everything he had ever said about the Iraq War had turned out to be wrong. Before that, the last time I appeared was June of 2007. I don’t begrudge Blumenthal his attempts to gin up attention for a book that is being (appropriately) ignored, but I wish he’d do it less hysterically and more honestly.
Similarly, I have also seen myself repeatedly accused of defending Bibi Netanyahu as “sensible and sincere” without any attached qualification. This is due to the paragraph in my column where I note that I find it odd that Blumenthal would condescendingly treat the editor of Haaretz as naïve because he believes that Netanyahu’s advocacy of an attack on Iran to be genuine. I find this bizarre. It would not be easy to find a columnist who has shown less sympathy for Bibi Netanyahu, particularly with regard to his refusal to negotiate fairly and honestly with the Palestinians. I see, via Google, that I wrote a piece for The Daily Beast in June of 2009 titled “Bibi’s Bait and Switch.” It is just one of many. Moreover, I imagine I set a world record for criticism of The New Republic under Martin Peretz on this, and pretty much every issue relating to Israel and the Palestinians. Most intelligent people are capable of understanding that it is possible for Netanyahu to wish to ignore legitimate Palestinian demands and simultaneously, to enable an attack on Iran. One hardly need negate the other. I don’t understand why it’s such a problem for Mr. Blumenthal and friends.
Moreover, I have been frequently accused by Blumenthal boosters of instructing the Palestinians and their supporters how to behave. Well, perhaps I am guilty of this. But I won’t pretend that I do so because I hold some special concern in my heart for Palestinians, any more than I do the Kurds, or Cubans or Canadians, Cantonese, Khazars, Kazakhs, etc. Of course I care about all God’s children, etc, but the intensity of my interest with the issue derives from a combination of my own country’s responsibility in the region as well as my profound emotional and intellectual attachments as a Jew. To the degree I address myself to supporters of the Palestinian cause, I do so because I would very much like to see Israel end its ruinous occupation and live alongside a Palestinian state with peace and dignity for both sides, and I fear that the Palestinian leadership, both today and in the past, has helped to make this much harder to do than it had to be. Were both nations to compromise—the Israelis, more than the Palestinians, of course, as they are the occupying power—the historic Zionist project might right itself from the wrong turn it took in 1967. In addition, the United States would be able to end its costly and counterproductive participation in Israel’s continued oppression and occupation of the Palestinian people, which causes so much hatred toward us around the world and no doubt helps to inspire countless terrorist acts against innocent individuals in both nations.
Unfortunately, as I have argued at length here and here, I feel pretty confident that the BDS strategy will accomplish exactly the opposite—to harden Israeli opposition to the kinds of concessions necessary to build trust between both sides and provide the basis for taking the necessary risks for peace. In this respect it reminds me of Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign. There’s no remotely practical theory of success, merely the insistence that one’s conscience should dictate one’s political actions, irrespective of results. I find such behavior deeply irresponsible, as it abandons the victims of injustice to salve the feelings of those who profess to care their welfare. And just as Ralph Nader and company helped to saddle the world with George Bush, Dick Cheney and the invasion of Iraq, among so many other awful things, I see BDS undermining the very people in Israel—academics and cultural figures primarily—who are doing the most to fight the occupation and advocate for a modicum of justice for those under oppression.
I wouldn’t expect anyone in a position of authority on the Palestinian side to care what I think. (Nor do I expect the personal attacks on me to stop any time soon, just as they continue from the days of Nader’s politically suicidal campaign, now thirteen years ago.) But leaving me out of it for a moment, I would be awfully interested in hearing what Blumenthal and his allies in the BDS movement believe they are likely to accomplish with their insistence that Israel simply stop doing what it’s doing when they cannot bring themselves even to recognize the reasons it does so. In the absence of that recognition—the continuation, in other words, of the “big meanie” critique—lies the continued misery of the Palestinian people and a great deal of unnecessary death and suffering for all concerned.
Finally, and I do hope I mean that since I’m writing this damn thing for free, I’ve returned over and over in my Nation columns and elsewhere to the topic of “Jewish McCarthyism”—that is the desire to shut down honest debate over Israel with accusations of anti-Semitism by neocons and other partisans of Israeli intransigence vis-à-vis the Palestinians. (I first addressed it in The Nation twenty-two years ago, in 1991, during the first Iraq war in an article called “Semites and Anti-Semites.”) The personal attacks leveled by Blumenthal boosters and BDS partisans over disagreements with my work do not fall into the same category, exactly, but they do serve the same purpose. If my editors came to me again and asked me to devote my column to Blumenthal’s book, knowing what I know now, I would tell them, “No, thanks.” Why invite such personal abuse into one’s life, especially to address the flaws in a book that is not likely to convince anyone of anything anyway? On the basis of such examples, I imagine that critics of both of BDS and Israeli hardliners will decide to choose other topics for debate and discussion as well. So maazel tov to them on that, at least.
Now let’s go Sox!
* * *
P.S. I understand that Max’s father, Sid Blumenthal, loves his son and would not enjoy seeing his work so severely criticized. Naturally, I don’t blame him for this, I’m a father myself. Even so, I was disappointed to see Sid sending around scurrilous attacks on yours truly to our mutual friends, just as I thought it a mistake when he did the same thing to Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. Though to be honest, I don’t mind the company…
Editor's note: Eric Alterman will respond to Max Blumenthal's most recent post in the Letters to the Editor section of a forthcoming issue of The Nation.
Correction: This blog post contained an error in a quote from novelist Yoram Kaniuk, which was wrongly attributed to a Palestinian. The quote, which should have read, "Our entire existence in this Arab region was justified and is still justified, by our suffering; by Jewish violinists in the camps," was rendered as, “Our enemy’s existence in this Arab region was justified and is still justified by our suffering by Jewish violinists in the camps.” Also, regarding the incident in which an Israeli municipality shut down a Haifa café, Blumenthal wrote that the municipality "officially sanctioned the mob campaign," not “a mob campaign,” as was reported here. We apologize for the errors.
My new Think Again column is called “Heads, the Tea Party Wins; Tails, the Tea Party Wins.”
Here, unfortunately (and foolishly in my view) behind a paywall for now, is my Nation column, The “I Hate Israel Handbook.” A few words of explanation and clarification if I may:
When I was asked to do my column about Max Blumenthal’s book, Goliath, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I like to be a team player. But on the other, whenever I criticize BDS types, I apparently invite an avalanche of personal invective from its fans. (This happens when I criticize neocons on Israel as well, but to be honest, the BDS types appear to have more time on their hands for this kind of thing.) Second, I’ve known the author’s parents since he was a little boy, and whatever the quality of the book, I expected that my honest views of it might threaten three decades of friendly relations.
What tipped my decision was when I was informed that The Nation magazine would be publishing an excerpt. I don’t feel personally implicated by what Nation Books publishes—it does not reflect on me in the eyes of anyone I know—but the magazine is different. I’ve been writing here for more than thirty years and regularly as a columnist for nearly twenty. Hence I feel a deep sense of both loyalty and personal and professional identification. I don’t want people to have the impression that the reflexive anti-Zionism of some of its contributors is its only voice on the issue— one that is as important to me as any.
The complication arose when I finally received the book. I expected to disagree with its analysis. I did not expect it to be remotely as awful as it is. Had the magazine not published its excerpt, it would have been easy to ignore. It is no exaggeration to say that this book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club (if it existed) without a single word change once it’s translated into Arabic. (Though to be fair, Blumenthal should probably add some anti-female, anti-gay arguments for that.) Goliath is a propaganda tract, not an argument as it does not even consider alternative explanations for the anti-Israel conclusions it reaches on every page. Its implicit equation of Israel with Nazis is also particularly distasteful to any fair-minded individual. And its larding of virtually every sentence with pointless adjectives designed to demonstrate the author’s distaste for his subject is as amateurish as it is ineffective. As I said, arguments this simplistic and one-sided do the Palestinians no good. There will be no Palestinian state unless Israel agrees to it. And if these are the views of the people with whom Israelis of good will are expected to agree, well, you can hardly blame them for not trusting them.
Here are a few points about the book I did not have a chance to make in column:
1) Here, I kid you not, is the definition Blumenthal quotes of the substance of Israel's "fascism":
What it really is, is a feeling that you have sitting on a bus being afraid to speak Arabic with your Palestinian friends. It’s a feeling when you are sitting there having dinner—what you feel when you’re alive here. It’s the essence of what this society is. And the closer we get to the brink—and everyone is feeling that we’re getting to the breaking point—the worse it gets.
Yep, that’s “fascism” alright. You can look it up.
2) Here is his argument in favor of the Arabs' right to discriminate against Jewish Israelis: When a Haifa café is told by the municipality that it has no right to discriminate against Israeli soldiers in uniform by refusing to serve them, Blumenthal tells us it was “officially sanction[ing] a mob campaign” against it.
3) Blumenthal describes Yoram Kniuk’s book about a Jewish violinist who forced to play for a concentration camp commander and then quotes a Palestinian saying “Our enemy’s existence in this Arab region was justified and is still justified by our suffering by Jewish violinists in the camps.” Nowhere does he mention that Kniuk was a novelist. He wrote, um, fiction.
4) He nastily and condescendingly mocks Time editor Rick Stengel for "marketing" Bibi Netanyahu as a "potential peacemaker." Isn't Netanyahu obviously a "potential peacemaker"? Isn't every war-maker a potential peacemaker? Wasn't Begin before he ended Israel’s occupation of Sinai and signed a peace agreement with Egypt? Wasn't Sharon before he ended Israel’s occupation of Lebanon? Wasn't Nixon before he went to China? Blumenthal is also apparently capable of reading Stengel’s mind, even when he’s not present: ("Rick Stengel arrived at his doorstep eager to relay a heavy dose of Bibi-think to the American public.")
Believe me, I could go on...
1) The Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club
2) The 51st New York Film Festival and the 21st Hamptons International Film Festival
3) Old/New Releases from “Real Gone” music...
Last weekend I finally got the chance to see the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. I was really excited. It was their first tour of the US since 2003, when I didn’t get to see them. Recall that the Buena Vista Social Club album introduced these musicians to the world in 1997, it won a Grammy, inspired a great documentary, and showed the world a vibrant Cuban music scene that had remain hidden under Castro’s iron curtain and the US’s foolish embargo of the island.
Now the thirteen member Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club is carrying on the legacy of founding-generation with vocalist Omara Portuondo, trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, laúd player Barbarito Torres, guitarist-vocalist Eliades Ochoa, and trombonist- vocalist Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos, joined by new members, including vocalists Carlos Calunga and pianist Rolando Luna. I don’t speak Spanish, so I didn’t understand much of what was said or sung. But boy did these guys swing. I did miss Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba who were so great in that documentary, but the music was cool and warm and the same time. The “House of Swing” swung for hours (with no intermission.)
The New York Film Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival always take place around the same time. Sometimes they show the same movies. But also different ones. I find it hard to enjoy more than one movie in a day, so I often end up seeing only parts of lots of movies, walking out after about twenty minutes and giving the next one a try. Among my favorites of the past week were:
* Inside Llewyn Davis (NYFF) This Coen brothers feature about the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folkie scene is great in every way except its story stinks. It is beautifully filmed, acted and the music is surprisingly well done. Terrific cast and the dialogue is excellent, too. It’s just... who cares? Great soundtrack, though. Pick it up.
* Only Lovers Left Alive (NYFF), a really hip and spooky vampire movie directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Tom Hiddelston and Tilda Swinton with Mia Wasikowska as the crazy, destructive and self-destructive little vampire sister and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe, who apparently wrote “Hamlet.”
* Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adèle) (NYFF and HIFF) This film, which has already caused an international sensation, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche starring Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos as “Adele,” who begins the film as a high school junior who falls in love with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired college student. They soon ignite a complicated and passionate love affair with the most explicit, erotic and realistic sex scenes I can ever remember seeing in a movie. It’s three hours long but it more than pays off. I’m hoping Kechiche makes good on his implicit promise to follow Adele for the rest of her life, like Truffaut. BITWC won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year.
* Her (NYFF and HIFF)Written and directed by Spike Jonze, Her is set in Los Angeles in the near future, and follows Theodore who falls in love with his IT system, who names herself “Samantha,” who is voiced by the incredibly sexily-voiced Scarlett Johansson. It might be deep, it might be frivolous. I’m not sure. But it is entertaining.
* The Past (Le Passe) (HIFF) A new drama from Asghar Farhadi, the writer/director of the brilliant A Separation, the 2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film (beating out the almost-but-not-quite-as-good Israeli film, Footnote). This movie takes place in France, among Iranians, is a great deal more complicated plotwise than A Separation, but holds together just as well. Terrific performances from Bérénice Bejo, playing the wife and also Pauline Burlet, who plays her beautiful daughter. Farhadi is one of the world’s greatest film-makers; interesting that Iran’s two world-class auteurs have felt compelled to make movies abroad, this one in France, and Abbas Kiarostami’s latest, in Japan.
* Philomena (HIFF) on the audience award in the Hamptons. It’s one of those cute Irish movies that win awards, about a woman, who, in 1950s Ireland, is shamed into giving up her child for adoption as an unmarried mother. Stephen Frears films the story adapted from the book by Martin Sixsmith. It stars Dame Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan, who co-wrote it as Sixsmith. Everything about it is lovely.
Also, at the Hamptons, I really enjoyed the ESPN documentary about Jimmy Connors and the 1991 US Open at Forest Hills. What a great story— well told and all the better for not having a story-book ending. It’s part of the 30/30 series to which I guess I should pay more attention.
I only recently discovered “Real Gone” records, and believe me, their re-releases are just that. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the reggae Dead collection Fire on the Mountain, and the Jefferson Starship live album, and now they are educating me about the late Patti Page who passed away on New Year's Day of this year. Did you know that she was apparently the best-selling female artist of the '50s? I sure didn’t. After that, she joined Columbia during the '60s and Real Gone has released a 2-CD set, The Complete Columbia Singles 1962-1970, which includes all 50 single sides, and From Nashville to L.A.—Lost Columbia Masters 1963-1969, which has 24 previously unreleased country style tracks. Both are annotated by long-time Page friend and fan Alan Eichler, and include plenty of photos supplied by the Page estate, with remastering by Vic Anesini at Sony's own Battery Studios.
In a similar vein, there’s a new Real Gone country album by Perry Como produced by Chet Atkins in 1975. It’s called Just Out of Reach—Rarities from Nashville, produced by Chet Atkins, and has 23-tracks plus six unreleased outtakes from the album sessions for Just Out of Reach and Como's 1973 album And I Love You So, five non-LP singles new to CD, and Spanish language versions of Perry's hit recordings of ''And I Love You So'' and ''I Want To Give.
In an entirely different vein, Real Gone has also released Dick's Picks Vol. 21—Richmond, Virginia 11/1/85. I think they are doing all of Dick’s Picks, though I’m not sure. Anyway, this is the only show you with an official release from the 1985 tour, of which I saw many shows, but remember none. Highlights include ''Stagger Lee,'' ''Comes a Time'' and Dylan's ''She Belongs to Me'' and Bobby’s Wrave-up on ''Gloria.'' Other rarities include ''Lost Sailor'' and ''Saint of Circumstance'. The third cd adds nearly 40 minutes of bonus material from a September 2, 1980 show at the Community War Memorial in Rochester, NY, which I also attended with an excellent ''Iko Iko''/''Morning Dew''/''Sugar Magnolia.'' Brent-period Dead is not the best Dead, but it ain’t bad.
How the Media Keeps Enabling Government-by-Crisis
by Reed Richardson
Our democracy is adrift and broken. Constantly careening from one traumatic episode to another, our nation’s government is locked in kind of a perpetual fugue state. No sooner does it scramble to avoid one self-inflicted catastrophe before another appears on the horizon. Each short-term, ad-hocn solution only feeds a longer-term, systemic problem. What passes for success in this new normal is a shockingly uncritical mindset, one that is either unable or unwilling to learn from each painful lesson. Huzzah, the latest crisis is over…so how long till the next one?
The architects of this government-by-crisis are by no means a mystery. Yesterday, after our country’s latest temporary reprieve from implacable dysfunction and economic calamity, longtime congressional scholar Norm Ornstein once again identified the stark, anti-government nihilism blossoming within the modern Republican Party:
“[It] represents a phenomenon that is not new but is really awful: the radicalization of so many lawmakers who don’t want limited, but good, government but instead want to blow the whole thing up. They may know not what they do, but sadly, they have the weapons to do it.”
The stable functioning of our democracy faces no less than an existential threat from this saboteur caucus, in other words. Yet a steady diet of the news out of Washington the past few weeks would have uncovered very little in the way of Ornstein’s frank, ominous analysis in the coverage of the shutdown and debt ceiling crises. That’s no accident. Though political journalism is now more nimble than ever mechanically, analytically, it is has ossified, and is now increasingly ill-equipped to honestly assess the anti-political winds blowing through the GOP. This failure goes beyond mere false equivalence, however.
One of the media’s more pernicious conventions is to compartmentalize process and policy. But not routinely drawing a bright line between the actions of lawmakers inside Washington and the consequences to the rest of us outside of it only serves to further disconnect the public from its government. To see how this bifurcation of coverage played out in the latest crisis, merely take a look at the three, above-the-fold articles on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times.
The Times’ “day-one story”—to use a journalism term—delves deep into the mechanics of how Wednesday’s vote unsnarled the twin, Republican-manufactured emergencies. But it notably neglects explaining the stakes involved—why restarting the government and raising the debt ceiling mattered. So, this straight news story includes only one mention of the real-world costs of the shutdown. Even worse, this one passage’s blithely dismissive language about furloughed government employees—“the legislative deal meant an abrupt end to their forced vacation”—suggests Wednesday’s resolution put an end to an unexpected holiday.
By contrast, the Times’ second news story did examine, in detail, the significant economic impact that shutting down the government and flirting with default had on the country. And yet, this time, a whole lot of context about how we got here was missing. Only a throwaway line about “the intransigence of House Republicans” offered any clue as to who was behind the U.S. flushing away $12 to $24 billion, 0.5% of fourth-quarter growth, and 900,000 jobs.
Perhaps in the paper’s third item, its “news analysis,” readers would finally be treated to a full analysis of what Republicans got and what they wrought.? Nope. Instead, the author makes zero mention of the jobs lost, paychecks missed, and national debt increased, all so House Tea Partiers could vote against the same bill they would have voted against three weeks ago. And though the Times does an adequate job of homing in on the rank incompetence by the Congressional GOP’s leadership, it nonetheless buys into the spin that somehow things will be different in three months when the next scheduled set of deadlines arrive. How else to explain the story’s optimism for yet another gang of irrelevant, centrist Senators, who it credulously says are “looking to make an impact on the fiscal battles ahead.” Have we already forgotten that this legislative hijacking was perpetrated by Speaker John Boehner and a hard-right cabal of Tea Party House conservatives? Did we not all witness the House’s stubborn refusal to pass a clean CR and raise the debt ceiling even when most Senate Republicans came out in favor of them?
Now, this is a bit unfair to the Times. After all, its combined, front-page coverage did represent a fairly comprehensive take on causes and effects of our latest crisis. Moreover, the also paper fired off a blistering editorial yesterday that quite effectively tied the irresponsibility of Republicans in DC to the resulting pain felt by Americans nationwide. Nevertheless, when even the New York Times feels it necessary to pigeonhole its reportage in this way, it sends a signal that straight news isn’t the preferred platform for speaking truth to power. It also speaks volumes about the mindset of the broader establishment media, which rarely bothers to look beyond the Beltway in order to hold leaders in Washington accountable.
Not surprisingly, a press corps that pulls its punches in the news pages only ends up rewarding rather than punishing bad-faith actors who thrive on manipulating crisis for their own personal gain. This latest crisis was a perfect example. Thus, a demagogue like Sen. Ted Curz, who is willing to brazenly mislead his followers and engage in the world’s longest fundraising speech, was nonetheless accorded the attention he craved from the mainstream media. Thus, Republicans in Congress can attack Democrats for fomenting economic uncertainty, stifling small business growth, driving up the deficit, and refusing to negotiate, when, ironically, it was their reckless legislative fantasies that brought about these very outcomes.
Oh sure, a lot of attention was paid by pundits to the damage done in the public’s eye to the Republican Party’s brand. These analyses lack bite, though, because they rely so heavily on outsourcing outrage to the public via polling, which, by its nature, is an fickle, ephemeral construct (what’s “true” today might not be “true” tomorrow). Polling’s transitory quality has become almost addictive to the press, however, precisely because it frees it from the fear of bias accusations and relieves it of the burden of offering more historical, evidence-based assessments of political behavior. But to forego the latter in favor of the former is to denude the press of its power to affect change.
For example, wouldn’t the public have been better served if, in September, the DC press corps had repeatedly reminded readers that shutting down the government and threatening to default on our debt payments are demonstrably bad things that hurt lots of innocent people and anyone suggesting to do so is wrong? What if it had invoked historical antecedents like the 1995–96 Gingrich-led shutdown and the 2011 GOP-forced debt-limit crisis not just to compare poll numbers. Why couldn’t the media have attempted to stave off the crisis altogether by placing the latest round of Republican brinksmanship in the context of a long-term narrative about the party’s growing radicalism. Of course, it’s doubtful anything or anyone could have convinced the House Know Nothings to abandon their pointless crusade, but, alas, we will never know. But it’s telling that, even in the aftermath, the media continues to adhere to vague platitudes about general dysfunction and studiously avoid any robust examination of the damage done to the public by the Republican Party’s ideology.
Over time, this lack of past and future perspective has fueled an abundance of instantly consumable, empty-calorie editorial content. So, rather than figure out why our government keeps suffering through one crisis after another, each showdown post-mortem is more likely to get a superficial tallying up of “Winners and Losers.” (Care to guess the 310-million people the media almost always overlooks as the ultimate “Losers” of these crises?) But these worthless lists are forgotten as soon as they’re made and propagate the worst kind of journalistic faux-accountability—have you ever heard a pundit call out a politician because he or she was a “Loser” of the last crisis? Yeah, me neither.
This is a critical point. Stripped of any reportorial continuity, each crisis simply gets treated as sui generis. Divorced from a broader narrative, ongoing dysfunction begins to seem endemic to government itself. Neither is true. Debt limit threats, government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, sequester cuts: all of these are merely different varietals of the same, poisoned austerity fruit. Likewise, these crises do not naturally spring from, but are in fact artificially inflicted upon Washington, D.C.—and by extension, the country—by a Republican Party intent on delegitimizing every aspect of our federal government.
That’s why disingenuously placing the sole onus of ending this vicious cycle on President Obama amounts to media malpractice. It is a willfully naïve misunderstanding of our nation’s recent political history and the logic therein is not only contradictory, it’s counterproductive. And that’s the big lesson those in the Beltway must grasp if we’re to ever to break out of government-by-crisis in Washington: As long as the press refuses to learn from its own first draft of history, the rest of us will be doomed to repeat it.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
I have a theory all liberal journalists are a bunch of pussies who couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag and wouldn't know how to act like a real man to save their feminine lives. To test that, I offer a challenge. I will fight YOU 1 on 1. If you win, I'll do anything you want within the confines of the law. As far as me winning, busting your face up and whatever comes to mind at the time is reward enough for me.
Dear Mr. Alterman:
It is with great interest that I read your latest column for The Center for American Progress regarding the Pew Research Poll of American Jews. I was one of the persons interviewed and my opinions were in the majority of those polled.
I was saddened (but not surprised) by the reaction of the major Jewish organizations to the results of the poll. I thought of the line from Casablanca when Rick is asked why in the world he came to the city and he answered: "I came for the waters". When told that Casablanca is in the middle of a desert, the character stated: "I guess I was misinformed".
We Jewish leftists (and liberal/leftists in general) like to imagine that those on the right who are actually misinformed by the media will come to see our viewpoint as being correct if only they would allow themselves to be educated as to the facts.
Unfortunately, too many of us are self-delusional in still believing that those who willfully remain in the "desert" will ever allow themselves to enter an "oasis" of facts and intellectual honesty. Some choose to remain "thirsty" regardless of the circumstances behind their ignorance.
Keep up the struggle against "thirst".
No reply needed here, but I just want to say THANK YOU for this article [“Saving Face: Falsely Balanced Accountability is the New False Equivalence”]. You are so right and, to an extent, I blame the President for this 'forget the past transgressions let's just look ahead' mantra (e.g. Wall Street and Bush Administration offenders). Just looking ahead sounds very noble, but it is a deceitful and cowardly way of dealing with wrong-doing, lies and duplicity, and America has not been well-served by this attitude.
Further, the MSM (including NPR) seems determined to give voice to the Tea Party/Republican point of view many times more than that of the progressives/liberals (whether Democrat or something else). This is shameful and a violation of the trust we—ordinary citizens—place in our journalists and news organizations.
I hope your point—if not your article—gains traction. I am sick to death, so to speak, of what is happening politically. And, since the MSM seems unable to rise to the task of pointing out the obvious false equivalences, I (and probably many others) must rely on the "comments" of online articles. A truly sad and deplorable state of affairs.
Thank you again for your article, and please keep up the drumbeat.
Well done, Reed well done! I happen to catch parts of Morning Joe and most mornings once he starts to bloviate equivalency I have to relax my jaw and switch stations…it is disappointing. Plus they all avoid the obvious third rail which is just why do they hate Obama so much and is that the reason everything the man does is resisted. Comments all over the web beat him up and I am yet to see where all this animus is justified...he has been effectively blocked in almost all of his efforts but they still blame anything broken on him.
Recently I have been following all this jaw-jacking about how broken the ACA systems are (which is also blamed on POTUS). Well, I am a systems engineer for a large corp and I know Everyone who works on systems in the government are not necessarily Obama ditto heads. It would not take too much effort for a network engineer to bug a few strategic server links to cascade a code error systemwide. Not saying that is what is happening but one zealot tea partier/conservative in the right spot "could" cause as many glitches as needed to slow things down...not even contemplated by the media at large, but in the current, hate-filled blow-’em-up anything-harmful environment now...who says it couldn't happen?
I have to marvel at many comments and talking news heads, who always know more about what a president should do than the president. Are they really that astute or are they just showing their bias with ah-ha moments that are totally artificial. The Repubs attack, name call, obstruct and insult and yet all we hear is Obama should this Obama should that on and on and on...it is infuriating as the real issues and source of the stagnation is obvious or at least should be.
Anyway, thank you and Eric for putting that info out there! Glad I subscribed to The Nation seems like they are truly trying to bring us all the news that is fit to print in an eyes open/no fear format!
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
John Boehner, accompanied by Mitch McConnell and other Congressional Republicans. (AP Photo/ Susan Walsh).
My new Think Again column is called “Who Speaks for the Jews?” and it deals with the results of the Pew survey and the dovishness/liberal-ness of American Jews, relative to their putative representatives.
My Nation column, Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts… is now (finally) unpaywalled. Continue to expect a not-so newsy press column as long as the editors continue to paywall it.
Now here’s Reed:
Saving Face: Falsely Balanced Accountability is the New False Equivalence
by Reed Richardson
Mark it down, the cartoonish antics of Republicans in Congress during the past few weeks have finally achieved what media critics have been trying to do for years—get a majority of the DC press corps to openly confront their falsely balanced coverage of a major policy dispute in Washington. It has been, by no means, easy. It’s taken outrageously divorced-from-reality demands about defunding Obamacare, irresponsible talk of default and the prospect of self-inflicted economic calamity, and poll after poll after poll
I believe it would be false equivalence to say Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the government shutdown and the possibility of a debt default. Republicans engineered the shutdown to protest a three-year-old health care law, knowing their defund-or-delay demands were unattainable.
But hold off on those Hosannas. For, whatever the public discourse has gained by this more honest and fair coverage of singular Republican intransigence, it’s not been matched in the press by concomitant demands for accountability from the GOP. This is perhaps not surprising. Decades of the media exercising just one set of journalistic muscles has left its others atrophied and increasingly incapable of rising to the task of speaking truth to power.
As a result, watching news coverage of the government shutdown reveals Capitol Hill reporters visibly struggling with how to “objectively” frame the obvious legislative misconduct of just one political party. Likewise, perusing a steady stream of op-eds about the debt-ceiling impasse demonstrates that most pundits literally have no concept of how to direct rhetorical outrage at or publicly apportion shame to just one ideology anymore. Thus, we’ve arrived at a surreal moment where the D.C. media’s conventional wisdom has moved past one version of false equivalence only to latch onto another—one that now doesn’t care who’s right or who’s wrong. Or, put another way: Yes, the Republicans are mostly to blame for getting us into this crisis, but all that matters now is holding both sides accountable for getting us out of it.
To execute this bit of legerdemain, however, the media has adopted a couple of subtle, intellectual cheats. First, it stubbornly clings to a blinkered, forward-only-looking mindset. This lets pundits float what sound like eminently sensible compromises while conveniently ignoring how they sharply conflict with the bankrupt motives and obstinate conduct of Congressional Republicans up till now. Thus, it is Senate Democrats who can be chastised in the press for not negotiating, even though Republicans have rebuffed their budget conference offer 21 times and passing a “clean” Continuing Resolution already represents a compromise by Democrats since it re-establishes sequester-level spending.
Second, and more disturbingly, the press has essentially accepted the House Republicans’ refusal to govern as a kind of unalterable, a priori condition, rather than a shameless failure by Speaker Boehner to prevent a rump minority from taking over his caucus. And by absolving the Republicans of any agency over their own extreme behavior, the press can then effectively spread the responsibility for fixing it to everyone in Washington, most especially President Obama. Indeed, the notion that it is now somehow the president’s duty to both extract concessions from Democrats and rescue Republicans from themselves is spreading like wildfire within the Beltway. And nowhere is this contrived idea more popular than over at the Washington Post.
Whether it’s Steven Pearlstein or David Ignatius or Matt Miller or Ruth Marcus or the paper’s “On Leadership” columnist, the Post repeatedly drums out the beat that, while the Republicans are to blame, the president must nevertheless give up something so the GOP House leadership can “save face” amongst its members. Even the paper’s reliably right-wing hack, Jen Rubin, acknowledges that Republican “stupidity” and “unreasonableness” are the culprits behind the crisis, yet she too argues that Democrats just need to “save the country” by giving in.
That’s right, according to Jen Rubin’s blatantly disingenuous logic, getting Democrats to cave in exchange for something as simple as keeping the government’s lights on and paying its bills on time will surely convince Republicans to never hold the country hostage again. Sure, and if you believe that, I have a closed-down WW II Memorial to sell you.
The reality is that the Beltway media has come around to embrace the idea that Obama must compromise with Republicans because Republicans have come around to embrace the pet policies of the Beltway media. It’s no coincidence that Paul Ryan’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week, which notably makes no mention of Obamacare, got such a warm welcome from the likes of the Washington Post editorial board. That’s because Ryan zeroed in on the same-old conservatives shibboleths that the DC conventional wisdom obsesses over as well. To the media establishment, it doesn’t matter how egregious the conduct that prompts them, the time is always right for “serious” discussions of “grand bargains” on things like deficit spending and entitlement reform. But don’t bother trying to recall the last time, with Democrats threatening to force a global economic meltdown, the press pleaded with the GOP to compromise on liberal policy goals like immigration reform, a carbon tax, or ENDA—it ain’t ever happened.
OK, so there’s no need to start writing eulogies for the Beltway media’s false equivalency just yet. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to note that even when the press thinks it isn’t falling victim to false equivalency, it still is. And even when it thinks it is demanding a fair amount of accountability from those in Washington, it still ain’t. Perhaps it’s expecting too much from the press for it to quickly overcome institutional norms that for so long have equated blaming both sides with fair coverage. But sadly, when one party is willing to routinely hold the very foundations of our government for ransom, we can’t really afford to wait around until it does.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
John Boehner, accompanied by Mitch McConnel and other House and Senate Republicans, on the steps of the Capitol. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
My new Think Again column is called “According to Politico, Ted Cruz Is the Same As Wendy Davis, ‘More or Less’" It’s about yet another egregious case of false equivalence or “On the One-Handism…”
My Nation column is called “Marshall Berman: All That Is Solid Melts…” but don’t you DARE try and read it if you don’t have a subscription. Yes, The Nation puts its press column behind a paywall so the press can’t read it until the paywall is lifted. To be honest, this column will be just as good (or lousy) a few days from now, whenever the wall is lifted, but that’s only because I avoided any actual news—which, alas, appears to me to be the only sensible way to write a press column that is purposely delayed from those at whose work it is primarily aimed.
Before going away this weekend, I saw a New York Film Festival screening of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the new Coen Brothers movie. I kind of hated it. It’s a well made movie and the music is first rate but the Mr. Davis is so unreservedly unlikeable and unlucky that I didn’t feel getting depressed about his life was worthwhile. He’s a smug, self-righteous and selfish jerk. I’m glad he got the crap kicked out of him for being so rude to that nice lady from Arkansas. I wish Justin Timerberlake had kicked his ass as well.
So I came in from the beach Sunday night with a little trepidation to see the concert in honor of the film at Town Hall, which featured many of the artists on the excellent soundtrack and even more who are not. In order to be able to enjoy the concert without the hassle of taking notes, I looked around to see if any aspiring young journalists who could use a break might take over the job for me. I saw New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson there, but she did strike me as being fully up to the task. (Nor David Carr, Times media columnist, whose work by the way, is never behind a paywall.) Rolling Stone had David Browne, author of a fine book on music in the year 1970, but again, my standards were not yet met. As I scanned the audience I saw Susan Morrison, who has about twenty jobs at The New Yorker, but while her career might need a break, I don’t think she’s ready for Altercation. So who got the job, you ask? I finally settled on this kid who said his name was “Remnick” or something. I didn’t catch his first name.
He didn’t do a bad job. (I told him it would be ok if he put up his review here, because you know, no paywall.) He got the facts right. (Maybe they gave him some help with that.) The “big-name performers (Elvis Costello [representing Justin Timberlake], Keb Mo, Jack White, Patti Smith, Marcus Mumford) all performing at their earnest best; a folk icon, Joan Baez, proving that a voice challenged by time does little to diminish her presence and spirit; and some folk-music wizards––the Punch Brothers (led by the mandolin genius Chris Thile), the Avett Brothers, and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings––who formed the backbone of the night. “
He also nailed two of the highlights. “Rhiannon Giddens, and Lake Street Division.” Giddens did this amazing thing in Gaelic. and “Lake Street Dive, a quartet, led by an amazing young singer, Rachel Price, won’t be getting some air-time soon. Here they are playing “I Want You Back,” on the street––Amy Winehouse by way of Michael Jackson, but totally new: And here is the song they did last night, “You Go Down Smooth,” as they performed it in the studios of WFUV, a radio station that is a kind of salvation for folk music, old and new, and broadly defined. .” Ok that’s enough kid. Here is an even funnier one I found myself. They remind me of the late, lamented Washington Squares.
I bought LSD (hey, wait a minute) cd the next day. They were apparently terrific. Being so young and inexperienced a reporter, this Remnick kid apparently did not pick up on the other big highlight of the evening. So here’s David Browne stepping in: “At New York City's Town Hall on Sunday night, Patti Smith had the best line of the night. Glancing at a chorus line of musicians behind her, Smith admitted, "I don't even know who they are, half of them." The audience laughed, and Smith courteously added, "But I'm pleased to see them." With that, Smith and her semi-mystery guests – which included her son Jackson and members of the Avett Brothers and the progressive bluegrass band the Punch Brothers – launched into a stomping, hootenanny makeover of her modern-day empowerment song, "People Have the Power." She was joined by the still beautiful and beautifully voiced Joan Baez and boy was that great. Two stars, two eras, two icons of my misspent yout, two entirely different expressions of female power and artistry, coming together out of mutual respect and affection. I cud doy…
The next night (or so) I got to take in yet another great David Bromberg show—a release party for his new cd at City Winery. The album is called ‘Only Slightly Mad.’ Produced by multi-Grammy-winner Larry Campbell and recorded at Levon Helm's barn in Woodstock, New York, I gotta say, it’s a new album but I feel like I’ve been listening to it for thirty years. Since returning from semi-retirement/violin making, which I don’t think really lasted that long, Bromberg has shown his versatility as a bluegrass picker and with a fine album of solo guitar accompanying his increasingly expressive baritone. But what he does best is everything at once; kind of like a one person Allman Brothers Band (so long as he has a band.) This album is a kind of ur-David Bromberg album, hailing back to the days of “How Late’ll Ya Play “Til” with the long riff about when he will take back the woman who left him standing in for the classic “I Will Not Be Your Fool.” Like the mighty ABB, David is as a dependable as anyone/anything these days, well except them and Bruce. But he also a lot of fun. During "Drivin' Wheel,"for instance, he parked his wife Nancy and a few other vocalists by the bar—they had not been onstage yet—and they surprised the crowd with a pretty hip call and response. The songs on the albums compete with one another for classic classification and the musicianship is, as always, quietly awe-inspiring.
Oh and in addition to the New York Film Festival, on now, I wanted to plug the Hamptons International Film Festival which will be next weekend and is always a lot of fun. The press release tells me that it was “founded in 1993 to celebrate independent film – long, short, fiction and documentary – and to introduce a unique, varied spectrum of international films and filmmakers to the public. The Festival is committed to exhibiting films that express fresh voices and differing global perspectives, with the hope that these programs will enlighten audiences, provide invaluable exposure for filmmakers and present inspired entertainment for all. Taking place among the charming seaside historic villages of Long Island’s east end, the Hamptons International Film Festival’s intimate, informal atmosphere makes the festival an ideal destination for cinephiles. I’ll be back with reports on some of the films when it’s over.
Your A-to-Z Beltway Glossary to the Government Shutdown
by Reed Richardson
Since the next two weeks promises to be an unnecessary, yet non-stop roller coaster ride of breathless backroom scheming and superficial process reporting that mostly ignores the fundamental issues at hand, I humbly offer up a this guide to translating the often impenetrable Beltway machinations into plain English.
apology noun. Pronounced /hip-ˈok-rəh-see/
1. Considered a pejorative term by conservatives, possibly of French origin, this term is under no circumstances to be invoked no matter how much damage the GOP-driven government shutdown does to the economy and lives of Americans outside of Washington.
2. What should be shamed out of other people, preferably liberals or government workers, who bear no responsibility for the shutdown.
Example: a member of a Republican party that broadly dismisses the impact of a federal gov't shutdown publicly browbeats an apology out of an innocent park ranger who is merely complying with the GOP’s grand strategy.
Disambiguation: Not to be confused with the popular right-wing “non-apology apology.”
Benghazi proper noun. Pronounced /ˈlay-təst ˈout-rag/
2. Conditioned response term Republicans in Washington use to signal the next phony Presidential scandal their base should be outraged about and the political press should be distracted by.
Example that demonstrates both in a news headline: “More personnel sent to WWII Memorial than Benghazi.”
Antecedents: Fast & Furious, IRS-gate, Solyndra, Apology Tour, Acorn, New Black Panther Party, No Birth Certificate, et al.
compromise noun. Pronounced /ˈDim-oh-cratz cayv/
1. What seven of 10 Tea Party Republicans oppose when it comes to the federal government shutdown, in contrast to 57 percent of Americans overall.
2. A good faith gesture that the press inevitably expects Democrats or the President to undertake just to prove that they are not as irrational or intransigent as Republicans.
For reference as to how this function in Washington politics, see this syllogism.
debt ceiling noun. Pronounced /ˈpay-eng owr bilz/
1. Yet another routine mechanism in the functioning of our federal government that has been hijacked by extremist Republicans who are willing to risk broad national and global consequences in service of their narrow ideological goals.
2. Popular way for slow-witted media members to demonstrate their innumeracy about the deficit and facility for misleading the public through bad analogies.
See egotistical below.
egotistical adjective. Pronounced /waaaaaaaaah/
1. Operative word to describe House Republicans’ self-aggrandizing hubris in threatening to not raise the debt ceiling by Oct. 17.
Example: “‘We’re not going to be disrespected,’ conservative Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., added. ‘We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.’”
false equivalence noun. Pronounced /both sidz to blaym/s
1. Fundamental intellectual error embedded in much of the press’s coverage of the government shutdown.
2. Mistaken mindset not being made by the American public.
3. Term that can elicit a tetchy backlash from pundits who get called out for indulging in it during government shutdown debate.
gaffe noun. Pronounced /ˈtop ˈsto-ree/
1. A favorite type of process story among the Washington press corps.
2. Of little impact in the real world, safe to ignore 95% of the time.
3. Usually based on a willful or lazy misunderstanding of a politician’s remarks that misses the deeper context of a debate.
Example: Compare the media firestorm between Sen. Harry Reid elaborating on Sen. Charles Schumer’s objections to pitting one part of the government against another for funding: “Why would we want to do that?” versus the press’s abject silence over GOP Rep. Tom Cole’s almost identical remarks the very same day about the prospect of a quick bipartisan passage of clean CR that would end the government shutdown: “Why in the world would we do that?”
Grand Bargain proper noun. Pronounced /ˈGil-dəd aj/
1. Polite term used among Washington insiders to openly discuss gutting the federal government’s social safety net.
2. The irresistible, Holy Grail of centrist Beltway pundits.
3. Next gambit for Republicans to try to sucker Democrats into taking part-ownership of the GOP’s increasingly unpopular government shutdown.
4. Unnecessary solution to a problem that is decades away and becoming less critical as time goes on.
Common euphemism for: tax cuts for rich, means-testing, raising the eligibility age, self-defeating austerity.
Hastert Rule proper noun. Pronounced /my-ˈnor-ə-tee ruul/
1. Procedural constraint named for former Republican House Speaker Denny Hastert, who, legend has it, refused to bring bills to House floor that didn’t enjoy majority support within his party.
2. Shameless House leadership excuse readily swallowed by today’s Beltway media as to why a "clean" CR that enjoys broad bipartisan support doesn’t get brought up for a vote immediately.
3. A standard that does not even apply to the "clean" CR, based on the whip counts of the House Republicans who would ultimately vote in favor of it.
4. Something that even its namesake says “has never really existed.”
John Boehner proper noun. Pronounced /ˈdəd man ˈwok-eng/
1. Titular leader of the House Republican Caucus (cf. Ted Cruz).
2. Someone who the press must recognize cannot exert any actual leverage over Democrats in negotiations on the debt ceiling.
3. Someone who the press must recognize cannot exert any actual leverage over extremely conservative House Republicans on the government shutdown.
4. Someone who also enjoys bipartisan support as Worst Speaker Ever.
Keystone XL proper noun. Pronounced /ˈrəd ˈhare-eng /
1. Controversial pipeline included in a ridiculous right-wing wish list that Republicans have floated—among them defunding the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, rolling back environmental regulations, and limiting medical malpractice lawsuits—as potential rewards for not fecklessly wrecking the global economy.
2. Signal that any news story that seriously includes this term at part of the negotiations has bought into GOP spin.
Iemmings noun. Pronounced /ˈTee ˈPar-tee ˈCauk-əss/
1. GOP House colleague’s nickname for extreme House conservatives who are unwilling to accept the reality of Obamacare and, therefore, fund the federal government.
2. Caucus that aforementioned GOP House colleague subsequently joined just hours after his “lemmings” comments, when he too voted to include a delay to Obamacare as part of a Continuing Resolution.
Caution: Using it to describe House Republicans is now widely considered an insult to actual lemmings.
lead transitive verb. Pronounced /ˈleed/ variant /ˈleed-eng/
1. When any U.S. President bombs a foreign country without Congressional approval.
2. What President Obama has failed to do whenever Republicans choose to indulge a rump minority within their party who refuse any compromise.
3. Handy, catch-all criticism deployed by media pundits that allows them to avoid uncomfortable value judgments about the unprecedented intransigence of Congressional Republicans.
Moderate House Republicans proper noun. Pronounced /ˈwərth-les/
1. Mythical Congressional caucus that claims to be fed up with recalcitrant Tea Party extremists.
2. Rumored to number as many as 25 in the House, yet rarely, if ever, seen during roll call votes.
3. Favorite source of Beltway journalists during shutdown coverage.
3. Soon to be defense or business lobbyists.
Real-world synonyms: free lunch, unicorn, smart take from Fox News.
negotiating verb. Pronounced /nee-ˈgosh-ee-ate-eng/
1. The Washington political process by which Republicans stake out a position and then proceed to ask for more while Democrats are expected to continually accept less while chasing the GOP’s increasingly excessive demands, lest they get equal blame from the media for not compromising.
2. What the media must understand the purely obstructionist and merely politically craven elements of the Republican Party are doing, which is the root cause of the government shutdown and, until it is resolved, renders moot any broader debate between Republicans and Democrats.
Obamacare proper noun. Pronounced /nät ˈseen-gəl pay-ər/ (liberals); variant /ˈso-shul-izm/ (conservatives)
1. Political shorthand term for President Obama’s signature healthcare reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
2. Not a job-killer, or any of 14 other myths about the law.
3. A potential life-saving policy for millions of uninsured and insured Americans.
4. A policy so heinous to Congressional Republicans that, as of Tuesday, they shut down the federal government to try to stop it.
5. A policy so heinous to Congressional Republicans that, as of Wednesday, they had pretty much abandoned trying to stop it.
Disambiguation: Not to be confused with chimerical jargon like “Repeal and Replace.”
President Obama proper noun. Pronounced /diss-ə-ˈpoynt-mənt/ (liberals) /ˈKin-yən Yu-ˈsərp-ər/ (conservatives)
1. Our nation’s chief executive whose very presence in the White House, despite two convincing presidential election victories, is still considered illegitimate by roughly half of Republicans.
2. Someone so relentlessly and inaccurately demonized by Republicans that the quite popular policy provisions of the Affordable Care Act lose their luster when his name is attached to them.
real America noun. Pronounced /ˈray-sysm/
1. Dog-whistle term used by a subset of Republicans to stoke prejudices and fuel the fear of Obamacare as well as the need for a government shutdown.
See also xenophobia.
sequestration noun. Pronounced /see-kwə-ˈstra-shən/
1. An indiscriminate, self-defeating cost-cutting measure adopted during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis that, for 2014, would fund the federal discretionary budget at $217 billion below the President’s plan.
2. “The first significant Tea Party victory,” according to House reactionary Rep. Tim Huelskamp in February 2013.
3. A spending level Democrats have effectively accepted in their calls for a “clean” Continuing Resolution to end the shutdown.
4. A budget reality willfully ignored by Republicans and most of the establishment media during the shutdown crisis.
Beltway antonyms: compromise, concession.
slimdown noun. Pronounced /prop-ə-ˈgan-də/
1. Absurdly transparent term that Fox News is using to replace the word “shutdown” in all its news coverage, to better sell the Republican Party’s unpopular message to its viewers.
See also death panels, government takeover of health care, homicide bomber, death tax, personalized Social Security accounts.
Ted Cruz proper noun. Pronounced /nar-sys-ˈsyst-ik jərk/
1. Junior senator from Texas.
3. Wants to defund Affordable Care Act.
5. Former Harvard Law student, current 2016 GOP Presidential candidate, and future talk radio star or president of right-wing thinktank.
Referenced in a sentence: “[Ted] Cruz said he would deliver the votes and he didn’t deliver any Democratic votes. He pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away.”
tone noun. Pronounced /ˈup-it-ee/
1. Often presented as the primary stumbling block to political comity, as if President Obama hasn’t done enough to assuage the aggrieved feelings of those in the minority who routinely blame him for single-handedly ruining the country.
2. A facile, superficial obsession among Beltway pundits who continually insist it matters as much, if not more than, the President’s actual policy arguments.
Example: “The Republican Party engineered this stalemate and is likely to shoulder most of the blame. That is, unless the Democratic Party matches the GOP on pettiness, stubbornness, and demagoguery.
Synonyms include: process, theatrics, optics, messaging.
wrong noun. Pronounced /whət-ˈevz/
1. Opposite of right, this otherwise unenviable intellectual position matters little in the Washington political context as long as one can maintain messaging discipline and legislative continuity.
2. An often obvious, yet frighteningly rare conclusion that objective reporters and learned op-ed columnists are professionally discouraged from drawing about the political issues they purport to have expertise on.
Beltway synonyms: critics say, some argue, we’ll have to leave it there.
xenophobia noun. Pronounced /keep owt/
1. Another reason the right-wing opposes the Affordable Care Act and is willing to shut down the government, because a popular myth—propagated by Republican Congressmen—is that the law somehow provides healthcare coverage for illegal immigrants.
zero-sum adjective. Pronounced /O-ˈbah-mah məst luz/
1. A spiteful, scorched-earth political outlook that has colored the Republican Party since President Obama's very first day in the White House and something that, to this day, the Beltway media is loath to openly acknowledge no matter how much evidence of it.
2. Defining legislative success in our democracy not by what one’s side can achieve through rallying a majority, but by what one's side can prevent the opposition from achieving by exploiting “a minority within a minority.”
Real-world synonyms: sabotaging governance, post-policy nihilism, Obama Derangement Syndrome.
Contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.
Editors note:To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Bill de Blasio and his family protest the shutdown of the Long Island College Hospital and Interfaith Hospital (Bill de Blasio/Flickr)
My new Think Again is called “Bill de Blasio, ‘Sandalista’.” Its opening line is “Did Bill de Blasio force his friends to say “Neek-a-ro-wha” once upon a time?”
And the paywall--that’s right a paywall on a press column so the press won’t read it--on my last week’s --um, what was that Elvis line again? Oh yeah. “Yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers.”--column, is here Frank Bruni, the Plutocrats’ Pundit
One thing: I’ve felt a little guilty for having my corporate bank account at HSBC for the past year because, as you may know, they were the favored bank of terrorists and drug launderers; they enjoyed this status knowing just what they were doing, and got away with it, because the courts decided they were too big to be forced to follow the law. I also hated the fact that their machines sucked and I could not ever deposit a check unless the bank was open.
Well, they finally got new machines, but guess what? Yesterday, after 14 years as a customer, I got a letter telling me that they were firing me as a customer. Got that? Drug runners, murderers, terrorists, and of course money launderers are totally cool with HSBC USA but writers, well, forget it. They didn’t even give me a reason. I know that this is what people call a “white person’s problem,” but it is also an example of why we should have sent these SOBs to jail.
One last thing: I was sick on Monday and I think I experienced my best day of TV ever.
1) Foyle’s War
2) The second to last Breaking Bad. (Meanwhile watch this.)
3) Ray Donovan from the night before: a much under-rated show with a terrific cast, but I guess James Woods won’t be coming back. (Funny, this show has two great right-wing jerks playing great roles: Woods and of course, the politically horrible, Jon Voight.)
4) A “Boardwalk Empire.”
5) One episode of silly “Web Therapy”--the one with “Fiona, Don’t Hit Me in the Face”, fun, silly show.
6) The final two episodes of “Prisoners of War.” Do you guys know about POW? It’s the Israeli show that inspired “Homeland.” And it’s way better. It’s one of the best things ever. You can only watch it on Hulu Plus, of which I got a month for free. Maybe you can too. I see it also has the entire Criterion Collection there too. Makes it worth it, once you start paying.
So I guess what people are saying about TV being the richest art form of our times, well, I hate myself, but it’s true.
I listened to a couple of books I want to recommend this week. One was the new Jonathan Lethem--who, together with Franzen--is I think the best thing we have going, right now. It’s called Dissident Gardens and you can see a video conversation with Lethem about its reviews here and you can read reviews of the audio, read by Mark Bramhall, here. Warning: I hated the ending. Also, there’s too much about bowel movements (but anything at all is too much).
It’s not on the same level, but still insightful and enjoyable is the short story collection by Tom Perrotta--bard of the suburbs--called “Nine Inches.” It’s not that nine inches you pervert. Then again, it’s not that far away from it, either. It’s a great audio book because with short stories, you’re never in the middle of anything and forgetting where you were. It’s on Macmillan Audio and read by William Dufris.
So I don’t know what being 83 is all about, but if I can do anything if and when I’m ever that age, I will want to do something as well as the great Ahmad Jamal writes and most especially plays. His new album, “Saturday Morning” is a follow-up to last year’s great “Blue Moon,” and lucky yours truly, I got to see his fine band-- Reginald Veal on bass, Herlin Riley on drums and Manolo Badrena on percussion-- play most of it at Rose Hall last weekend for the show’s first set. For the second set, the band was joined by the Wynton and the rest of the rest of the Jazz@LC orchestra for new arrangements of Ahmad classics. Highlights included “Baalbek,” arranged by alto saxophonist Sherman Irby, and “Manhattan Reflections” arranged by trumpeter Marcus Printup, and finally saxophonist Ted Nash’s version of “Kaleidoscope.” you can check out the rest of the season here, and find Mr. Jamal’s beautiful last two albums anywhere fine music is sold.
I am also enjoying the nice new package from the Dead. Apparently, on August 27, 1972, just back from “Europe, ’72, they did a show with the newish line-up which included Keith and Donna, but not Mickey Hart, who was busy being bummed out about his dad stealing all the band’s money and of course, Three cds and a DVD, “Sunshine Daydream” has a great set, and a lot of naked people dancing and complaining from the band stand about the heat. It was a trip for the Merry Pranksters and benefit for the Kesey family’s Springfield Creamery--which implies, at least to me, a lot of acid being consumed, and has historically been considered the most-requested live show in Grateful Dead history.
Setlist includes: "Sugaree, " "Deal, " "Black-Throated Wind, " "Greatest Story Ever Told, " "Bird Song" and a "Dark Star" that runs a wonderful 30 minutes. 3 CD/1 DVD Concert film with all-new stereo and 5.1 audio mixes mixed and mastered to HDCD from the original 16-track tapes. It’s called “Sunshine Daydream”
Speaking of acid trips, Real Gone Music has released a show I went to but did not take acid at--I never actually have taken acid, for those of you keeping score at home, of the Jefferson Starship: Live in Central Park NYC May 12,1975 (2 CD Set). 100,000 in Central Park, many of them in trees. It was broadcast by unless you were a tree, not much (a constant theme of the concert is WNEW-FM, which had to pay for the repairs to the park. It preceded the release of Red Octopus, and so the material is as much “Airplane” as “Starship,” and the sound quality is high-level bootleg, ie radio rebroadcast. The line-up is Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Marty Balin, David Freiberg, Craig Chaquico, Pete Sears, John Barbata and Papa John Creach. I’m also enjoying Real Gone’s release of “Fire On The Mountain: Reggae Celebrates The Grateful Dead Vols. 1 & 2.” Both versions have been out of print for a while and it’s perhaps not surprising but certainly gratifying how much sense it appears to make when you listen. Performers include "Toots" Hibbert, Culture, Joe Higgs, Steel Pulse, Mighty Diamonds, Judy Mowatt, Dennis Brown, Michael Rose, Ras Michael, Gregory Isaacs and many, many others dong the Dead.
Finally, I’m excited about the fact that I’ll be going to the first annual fundraiser event on October 6 at En Japanese Brasserie in Manhattan to support Carlos Santana and The Friends of the Coltrane Home for a benefit that they are doing to pay for the pressing restoration needs of the historic home in Dix Hills, Long Island, of jazz legend John Coltrane and his wife, Alice Coltrane. Coltrane composed A Love Supreme there and 2014 is its 50th anniversary. The event will include my close personal friend Brother Cornel and also Ashley Kahn, who wrote the book, "A Love Supreme" ably edited by the estimable Rick Kot. Ravi Coltrane and his quartet will play and I’m guessing so will a lot of other great players. Tickets are $200 and are fully tax-deductible at http://coltranehome.eventbrite.com.
I really liked the article ["How the Media's Process Obsession Stifles Liberalism and Undermines our Democracy"], both in terms of style—persuasive, critical, analytical—but also the meat of it about "process."
There is an old debate in law school, which I attended, about procedural due process and substantive due process—you likely know about it. Your article reminded me of that distinction, and the something struck me.
The political system's process has become so dysfunctional that the smallest of processes are themselves of high strategic value. Sen. Ted Cruz can threaten to shut down the government just by talking. Of course, that Cruz procedure can only be effective in a network of coincidental prior procedures that have been already executed to aligning the public calendar with the private agendas of various factions of government. In other words, the GOP House has put Cruz in that position to use his filibuster to achieve collateral political goals.
Journalism, in this context, can't help but focus on proceduralism—hell, the number of emails daily I receive asking me for $3 to defeat Cucinelli or $3 to stop the defunding of Obamacare, you'd think telecommunications and banking and politics are all destined to merge into one seamless code of efficient virtual political gestures.
It is not as if grand themes about freedom and the common welfare and domestic tranquility will substitute for substantive journalism, whatever that could mean in this day and age.
It may very well be the case that politics can only be disrupted in a context where economics merges political communication into a limited, narrow domain of cultural practice. It may become the case that political disruption—especially in our journalism (I'm thinking of Hunter S. Thompson)—serves to identify what the future calls "progressivism", and their future views on history, or today's progressivism, will make talk about the Constitution itself, procedures and platitudes, all seem a little quaint and more likely just plain irrelevant.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Chris Hayes takes on the debt ceiling debate.
Frank Bruni. (AP Photo)
My Nation column is called “Frank Bruni, the Plutocrats’ Pundit.” But happily for Mr. Bruni, and unhappily for everyone else who might like to read it but is not a subscriber to The Nation, under a new and in my view, deeply misguided new Nation policy, it is presently behind a paywall. Personally, while I am philosophically pro-paywall, I do not understand the logic of having a press column hidden from the rest of the press—along with everyone else save subscribers—but of course such decisions are made well above my paygrade.
I had a lot of music and theater to review this week, but I’m in a bad mood about the above, so here’s Reed:
Well, no, not quite yet. I do want to give props to the Playwrights Horizons Theater Company, together with the Wooly Mamouth in Washington, together with author Anne Washburn, composer Michael Friedman and director Steve Cosson, for their insanely audacious “Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play,” which manages to combine The Simpsons, Cape Fear (both versions), the apocalypse, Gilbert and Sullivan and Grease into one unholy mess. Well, it’s a lot more than a mess. Much of it is brilliant. All of it is over the top. The Times’s rave is here. Mr. Brantley is apparently a lot smarter than I am, or a much bigger fan of Messrs. G and S, and so enjoyed the third act far more than I did. But the first two were brilliant.
How the Media’s Process Obsession Stifles Liberalism and Undermines our Democracy
by Reed Richardson
In our democracy, where we depend upon a free exchange of ideas and information, definitions matter. They act as an invaluable cognitive tool to help frame the polity’s thinking about issues in a broader context. When done right, they can also enable a better understanding of a complex problem confronting our country and help guide public debate toward a range of practical solutions. Settle for an imprecise or lazy description, however, and an important issue can be quickly hijacked by demagogues or bogged down in mindless minutiae. And since journalism remains our primary mechanism for dialogue between the governing and the governed, it’s incumbent upon those who practice it to think closely about how they define the issues and the context that follows.
Unfortunately, many journalists seem incapable of this nuance, even when it concerns thinking about their own profession. In a media environment increasingly unmoored from the clear-cut organizational cues of the past century, too many still cling to a clubby mindset that attaches journalistic authority to the actor, not the action. Not surprisingly, Congress has absorbed this same rigid viewpoint into its debate over a (flawed) federal media shield law. But fixating on who is a journalist, rather than what journalism is, is to miss the point. Even more importantly, the policy outcome of this narrow-mindedness could actually end up harming the robust, independent journalism that Congress ostensibly seeks to protect. Here again, definitions matter.
Still, as much as it is anathema to the First Amendment to have the government in the position of certifying who is or isn’t a journalist, we’re in pretty rarefied air here. The public, no doubt, couldn’t care less. And to be fair, they’re probably right, particularly when there’s a much larger problem plaguing journalism, one that has much more direct impact on the quality of the public’s day-to-day lives. And at the core of this problem lies another incorrect definition.
Media critics, whether professional or unpaid (or, like me, both), have long used short-hand terms like “mainstream media,” or “establishment media,” or “Beltway media” when translating individual critiques across a broader group. I’ve never really liked any of these terms and neither, it seems, do conservatives, who have their own vernacular, from the worn-out trope of the “lib-rul media” to the wet spaghetti-like wit of Sarah Palin’s “lamestream media” to Rush Limbaugh’s bombastic “drive-by media.” But except for Limbaugh’s not-so-subtly racially loaded term, all of the others fall into the same logical trap as the media shield law—they focus on the who, not the what. Mis-defining the phenomenon in this way, in effect, marginalizes and masks the critique, as it doesn’t encourage a deeper look into the faulty behavior at issue. If you think about the what of journalism first, though, you’ll find a universal thread woven throughout the credulous and irrelevant reporting and piss-poor punditry one encounters these days—it’s all about process.
In other words, it’s not the mainstream media doing a disservice to our democracy; it’s the process media. To be clear, when I refer to the process media, I’m not talking about “process journalism,” the iterative, publish-first-edit-later online news approach advocated by new media folks like Jeff Jarvis. Theirs is more of a technical, inward-looking term that refers to journalism as process. Mine is a more intellectual, outward-looking term of journalism about process. While distinct, these two phenomena are not unrelated. Process journalism’s ethos of constantly pushing content, often across multiple online channels and social media platforms, has created an almost infinite marketplace for news. While this has had the salutary effect of democratizing the news in our democracy, it has also had the unfortunate side effect of inflating what constitutes news. Thus, no campaign trail tidbit or catty Senate cloakroom comment is now too insignificant or irrelevant to publish.
Thus, process media stands as a definition better suited to the egalitarian realities of today’s press coverage. No doubt, the reporters and the editors and—Lord knows—the pundits at the New York Times routinely suffer from an obsession with the political process. But to lump everything everyone does for the Times into the same critical bin is unfair to the substantive, world-class reporting and writing it produces everyday. By the same token, the listicle-loving, Twitter-mad website BuzzFeed might ordinarily escape the scrutiny of press watchdogs, but that too constitutes an injustice. There is perhaps no beat more process infested than a presidential campaign, and as the feckless press coverage of 2012 demonstrated, a tidal wave of process Tweets from BuzzFeed can now drown out real policy discussion just as easily as a muddle-headed Times columnist’s op-ed.
That modern journalism—and political journalism, in particular—has gravitated toward a process-first, meta-news model is perhaps not surprising. After all, journalism itself is a never-ending activity in striving toward an always elusive goal, as it says right in the first tenet of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Principles of Journalism: “‘[J]ournalistic truth’ is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.” [italics mine]. As a result, the Washington press corps might naturally come to judge granular snapshots of Capitol Hill ephemera and presidential credibility as more worthy than long-gestating stories about the real-world impact of Congressional obstruction or foreign policy negotiations.
The allure of the process-media mindset is undoubtedly strong, as it handily reinforces a kind of unthinking objectivity on the coverage. For instance, if I’m just content to report dueling talking points between House Republicans and Obama on a topic like funding the government, without any adding any broader context about how a shutdown might harm the country and cost thousands of people their jobs, I can avoid being criticized as favoring a specific policy outcome or of being biased toward the president. (Or I might also say debunking Republican myths about Obamacare isn’t my job either.) Of course, a free-thinking, reality-based press corps should be courageous enough to say economic hara-kiri isn’t in our democracy’s best interests, but this calculus doesn’t add up within the process media world.
In fact, rather than offering a safe harbor of objectivity, this process-media mindset actually brings with it a number of deeply-rooted biases. The first of these is an inherent passivity and predisposition for the status quo. Forgive my pedantry, but process media coverage—as opposed to enterprise or advocacy journalism—needs, well, a process to cover. It’s simply not in the process media’s DNA to champion an unpopular or overlooked issue on its own. Instead, it prefers topics already endorsed by the DC conventional wisdom.
As a result, process-obsessed media pundits on Sunday morning news shows freely agitate for unnecessary austerity measures like deficit reduction and entitlement reform—long-time talking points for Republicans in Washington. And yet they mostly ignore legitimate crises like climate change and gun violence—both of which, sad to say, have mostly been abandoned by both parties. (If you want proof of the short and selective attention span of the process media, check out this chart of gun control coverage over the past year.) A press corps that is always reacting, however, will have a much harder time holding accountable those politicians that it relies upon to make news.
But while the process media is itself reactive, its most elemental prejudice in those it covers is toward action—confrontation over compromise. Doing something—anything!—boldly, draws more attention and praise from the process media, no matter how foolhardy or counter-productive the end result. Thus, it literally took years before the process media felt comfortable offering up even the mildest critiques of President George W. Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq. But when Obama wisely backtracked from his original, horribly ill-conceived plan for unilateral military airstrikes in Syria, the process-media poobahs wasted no time in pouring their derision over him. As this Washington Post op-ed ably demonstrates, however, their anger wasn’t directed at the substance of his policy decision—of which, Greg Sargent notes, there was almost no discussion—just the circuitous process by which he made it. Likewise, after the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard earlier this week, one could find another Post pundit bravely wallowing in the process without ever taking a stand on the actual issue of gun control.
Over time, this misguided fascination with the micro- and the meta- of news has a pernicious cumulative effect on both politicians and the public. Thanks to this process bias, the ostensibly objective press slowly but surely signals its subjective preference for one set of policy choices, as defined through the positive or negative feedback loop of its coverage. Thus, shock-and-awe military strikes routinely draw more favorable press treatment than slow-motion diplomacy. Obstruction enjoys the press’s tacit approval, though it claims to favor negotiation. Grandstanding pays off more than legislating. Insiders matter more than outsiders. Powerful over the powerless.
It is worth pointing out that all of these biases tend to tilt against policy solutions favored by liberals. In fact, when viewed through this process media frame, one can easily see how a press corps mostly populated by individuals with socially liberal views could nonetheless be co-opted into facilitating a broad-based conservative policy agenda for the past thirty years. But just as it isn’t in our nation’s long-term interests for one of its two main political parties to willfully abandon its role in governance to embrace spiteful self-destruction, neither is it healthy when our press corps abdicates its constitutional duty to enrich the discourse by obsessing over trivial palace intrigue.
To be sure, our republic will always be a work in progress, as the Framers acknowledged in the very first line of our government’s founding blueprint. But recall that immediately following the humble talk of forming “a more perfect Union,” the Constitution lifts its gaze beyond the day-to-day machinations of government to clearly articulate broad principles—Justice, domestic Tranquility, common defense, general Welfare, and the Blessings of Liberty—that still define success for our country and its citizens 226 years later. It’s long past time our press corps relearn why these definitions still matter.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.