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Leslie Savan | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Burying Our Heads in Radioactive Sand

Japan is the most nuke-fearing country in the world—Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw to that, and Godzilla is one way they’ve taught their children to never forget. The Japanese take such care in making their skyscrapers, bridges and tunnels earthquake-proof that most of us assumed they’d go even further to protect their nuclear reactors... until those cores started melting down like knots on a fuse after Friday's tsunami.

So if nuclear meltdowns, partial or full, could happen there, they could happen anywhere, and all those pictures of cars and buildings bobbing in ink-black water like disaster-movie props carry a very immediate sense of warning. They're a reminder of just how fragile the whole world is—and how brittle are the mental containment systems we use to assure ourselves that whatever we're doing in the name of our way of life is safe, sane and right.

The enormity of the unfolding catastrophes in Japan is unnerving, but you don't have to be Pat Robertson to get the sense that it’s the exclamation mark at the end of a long and depressing sentence about global uncertainty. Afghanistan, Iraq, the financial collapse, unemployment—our military and economic woes have too often reinforced the power of those who led us into these disasters in the first place. At that point, we can seem as powerless to affect our fate as those three elderly Japanese trapped in a car for days after being washed up in a pile of debris by the tsunami.

Has any of this dampened the right’s enthusiasm for American exceptionalism, for “creating our own reality” as the biggest empire on the block? Not really. Some truths turned out to be inoperative—like, for example, that housing prices would always go up, or that we’d face a “mushroom cloud” if we didn’t send an army against Saddam. That a radioactive cloud is more likely to drift our way on prevailing air currents from nuclear reactors that we designed ourselves (GE designed six and built three of Fukushima’s disintegrating reactors) is so mind-boggling that it’s best dismissed as part of the left’s “agenda.” Which is what Glenn Beck did Monday, insisting that (perfectly rational) talk about Japan’s nuclear disaster is being fomented by none other than George Soros and the Tides Foundation.

These disasters, nuclear and otherwise, are going to happen, again and again, like oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. All around the globe, today’s economic leaders are making multibillion-dollar deals for energy—Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan gasification plants, offshore Nigerian wells—that will inevitably send tons of climate-changing gasses into the atmosphere over the lifetimes of the next several generations (and these deals will take generations to exhaust their value). Nothing will convince the people who have invested in these long-term projects that they could possibly be wrong, that we could, in fact, be living on an Easter Island of a planet spinning in space.

We’ve always had a hard time accepting facts that would stymie our lifestyle. The Easter Islanders did, too: When the disappearing forests were no longer salvageable, they didn’t make canoes to get off the island—they cut the remaining trees to make rollers to transport their giant stone heads, setting them up in supplication to ancestors who could not help them.

Maybe, instead of making massive commitments to safe, green energy projects, we should just erect a giant stone head of David Koch and sacrifice to it.

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Huckabee Replaces N-word With 'Mau-Mau'

For Democrats, and reportedly for the Obama White House, Mike Huckabee has always seemed a deadly combination: A hard-right, anti-gay, antichoice social conservative tempered, it seemed, by a humanity and humor lacking in other potential Republican presidential candidates. He’s hard to pigeonhole as a nut job or an extremist because his personality lacks the prickly rigidity that so often defines the right—Southern Baptist minister that he is, Huckabee nevertheless plays Keith Richards bass riffs like a groupie.

During the last round of GOP presidential primaries, Huckabee was one of only a few contenders who didn’t have a “scheduling conflict” preventing him from attending a PBS debate at the historically black Morgan State University. Meanwhile, his rivals had a field day criticizing the former Arkansas governor for such mortal Republican sins as raising taxes and being mildly tolerant of immigrant children. More recently, Huckabee has dismissed the birther argument and has defended Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign against wingers who insist she’ll sic the hot-dog police on them (though the once obese Huckabee could hardly not defend FLOTUS, given that he’s been preaching the same health advice for years). 

His relative flexibility, folksy demeanor, and non-Martian “likeability” drove a media characterization that’s shaped the Huckabee coverage: A small-c, Main Street conservative, Huck may be “too nice” to get the Establishment nod, but as second place on the ticket he could help win over the crucial religious right/Sarah Palin base. This media narrative has proven as durable as “Bush the cowboy” or “McCain the maverick”—at least it did until last week.

That’s when Huckabee, to the surprise of most everyone, started squawking that President Obama grew up in Kenya, where he was influenced by his father’s and grandfathers’ anticolonial Mau-Mauism to despise the British Empire—and, by implication, all white power.

Only after being called out did the Fox News host say he “misspoke” on the growing up in Kenya part (he later claimed he apologized, though that, too, isn’t true). Then he blamed the media for attacking him, and simply relocated the lie from Kenya to Indonesia. “Most of us,” he told far-right radio talker Bryan Fischer, “grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas.” (Of course, Obama was born and grew up primarily in Hawaii, spending only the years between ages 6 and 10 in Indonesia—where, by the way, there were Rotary Clubs and he was a Cub Scout. In fact, according to the Boy Scouts of America, “The BSA is the second-largest Scouting organization in the world. The largest is in Indonesia.”)

Huckabee even managed to trash his relatively decent stand on Obama’s birthplace. “What I have never done,” he said,“is taken the position that Obama was born in Kenya or Indonesia or anywhere other than Hawaii, where he claims to have been born.” That little “claims” is of a weasely piece with John Boehner, who says he “believes” that Obama is an American-born Christian because he takes the president “at his word.”

To be an electable Republican today you don’t have to be racist, you just have to convince racists that you’re not going to make them feel uncomfortable. You have to genuflect, speak ambiguously, and hope that independent voters forget all that by the general election.

It’s at times like these that you can really appreciate Chris Matthews’s doggedness at exposing dog whistles, as he did all last week, particularly in Wednesday’s segment, called “The lie that won’t die.” “It’s one thing to be a rube. It’s another one to pretend you’re a rube, and playing to the rubes,” Matthews said of Huckabee. “This isn’t about ideology—it’s about bearing false witness. It’s in the Bible, check it out, Huckabee.”

All this garbage started last year with Dinesh D’Souza’s repulsive headliner for Forbes, which maintained that Obama’s “anti-business” policies could be explained only by his “Kenyan anti-colonialism.” That other presidential flirt, Newt Gingrich, had hailed this nonsense as the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama" and “the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.” “What if he is so outside our comprehension" that he can be understood “only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior?” (The media long ago should have retired its characterization of Gingrich as an “intellect,” but, remarkably, you still hear it.)  

But here’s a simpler theory: The right spews this bizarre “anticolonial” claptrap because it gives them a chance to say “Mau Mau,” which conjures a more fearsome threat than the N-word itself.

Is Huckabee trying to prove he can be a good hatchetman as a Veep candidate, or is he just letting his freak flag fly? It’s hard to say—or anyway, harder to say than “Mau Mau.”

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Camels and Puppies and Unions, Oh My

Last night Stephen Colbert did a funny bit on how Tea Partiers should act like “union goons” and do horrible things to puppies in order to turn the public against pro-union protesters in Wisconsin. Colbert was inspired not by Gov. Scott Walker (who told a fake David Koch that he didn’t plant troublemakers in the protests only because it might backfire politically), but by the non-fake former head of the Tea Party Express, who expressly advised people to fake it as “greedy and goonish” union stereotypes. So, after donning a “Union Goon” baseball cap and a “bada-bing-bada-cheddar-cheese” attitude, Colbert pretends to shove a live puppie into a wood chipper. The audience shrieks, but at the end Stephen holds up the intact doggie and says, “By the way, no animals were hurt in the crushing of these unions.”

It was a great bit, but it also seemed to be a (sly? apologetic?) comment on how, for the previous night’s Daily Show, one very large animal was hurt in the spoofing of these unions.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s what happened: The Daily Show brought a camel to Madison to help John Oliver poke fun at people who’ve compared the protests in Wisconsin to those in Egypt. Any such parallels, Stewart has been insisting all week, are indulgent and exaggerated.

The only problem was Stewart’s indulgent use of a camel to make such an exaggerated point. Not used to the cold, slushy streets, the camel slipped and was hurt in the process. Even less funny was Oliver telling a blogger who was recording the scene to stop taping; Oliver even momentarily blocked the guy’s camera.

Stewart’s too-clever-by-half stunt has been criticized by PETA, his fans and others. But he didn’t mention the incident the night the skit ran (sans camel), or last night. If he ignores it again tonight, that will leave only Colbert’s enigmatic puppy statement to clean up after Stewart’s stupid animal trick.

And in related events, Greg Sargent finds that none of the networks have so far booked a single labor official for this Sunday's talk shows—even though self-crowned anti-union king Chris Christie will appear on CBS’s Face the Nation. Getting labor to appear regularly, or even occasionally, on corporate TV’s coverage of labor conflicts may be like passing a camel through the eye of a needle.

NBC has announced that AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka will be part of a Meet the Press roundtable.

What Would a Liberal Glenn Beck Do?

If I were Glenn Beck, right about now I’d be chalking in the lines linking these recent, startling events:

--The Wisconsin governor tries to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Ohio, Tennessee, other states follow suit.

--The New Jersey governor cuts police forces, school budgets, much more; saves special animus for teachers, even tells students Ms. Frizzle hates their guts.

--A pro-business Missouri state senator wants to repeal the ban on child labor, calls it “archaic.”

On the surface it looks like these politicians, Republicans all, are simply trying to demolish workers’, women’s, and whippersnappers’ rights. That’s what they want you to think. But—and this may shock you: Are they actually saying that we don’t need New Jersey teachers or Wisconsin nurses because they can be replaced by Missouri children—and at little or no salary?

I admit, I found that hard to believe myself. But then I saw this headline:

Huckabee Compares Abortion To Slavery.” That’s when I got it: they believe that abortion is slavery, but child slavery is not!   

Now, all their job-killing, union-busting budget bills make sense, a terrible, terrible sense: With the majority of American adults unemployed and uninsured, and with every able-bodied child under 14 working at slave wages, Social Security and tax revenues will plummet, more safety-net spending will “have to be” cut, and the right will have finally accomplished its decades-long dream of starving the beast and destroying the Nanny State. Nannies, of course, will also be out of work, as their former wards will be sweeping streets or, for those deputized as the new sheriffs in town, rounding up women seeking abortions.

I know, this sounds crazy. Yeah, whoo-hubba-hubba-boing, all us craaaazzzy liberals, seeing anti-worker, anti-woman conspiracies behind every anti-worker, anti-woman attack. The lamestream media can call me crazy all they want, but they cannot make the truth shut-up!

OK, I’m running out of chalk connecting these dots, so I’ll say this plainly: The Koch brothers and the underage public-employee sector are orchestrating the coming insurrection together. You’d think they’d be the last two groups to be in cahoots, I know. But the Koch’s have lured the kids with a plan code-named “4 billion acres and not a school.” The idea is to establish nothing less than a Cali(fornia)-fate across America.

This map tells you everything you need to know about the future:

Texas will control South Dakota, the southern half of Montana, part of Nevada, Oregon, maybe Alaska and God only knows what else. And Georgia—see the big star there?—will control Iowa, all of the former upper Midwestern progressive bloc, plus maybe New Jersey, Florida and any other state that refuses federal money for high-speed rail. I'm not really sure.

I realize this sounds preposterous. But preposterous happens. (Four words: George Bush, Sarah Palin.) So I urge you: be aware of signal events, like a Mississippi governor running for president who won’t denounce license plates honoring the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. And take precautions: store seeds, and convert the monies you receive from your old Nanny State breast-pump tax deductions into the new South Carolina currency. Why? you ask.

Because—and I hate to tell you this—the South will rise again, but this time as far north as Wisconsin.

Egypt Leaves the Right Crazed and Confused

The uprising against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt has left the US right wing confused and grasping for talking points: Unlike most political events, the crisis in Egypt can’t be neatly hung on one of their us-versus-them frames. Not knowing what side to take, unable to easily tell the good guys from the bad, they’ve been suddenly thrown from the comfort of certitude into a slush of self-doubt.

Should they side with Mubarak or the Egyptian people? Should the demonstrations be labeled jihadist, commie or Tea Party East? Should they attack Obama for not standing by Murbarak and “losing Egypt” (Dick Morris), or for not calling for his ouster loudly enough (Fox News contributor Ralph Peters)?  

Let’s acknowledge that most of us are confused on Egypt: no one knows what will happen when Mubarak is gone, or how it will affect Israel, the region and the world. But if you’ve always shouted “USA is number one!” (and “Israel is number one-A!”), and you’ve tolerated talk of “Second Amendment remedies” against our own “tyranny” (led by a secret Muslim, no less), the cognitive dissonance has got to hurt your brain.

During Iran’s Green Revolution, less than two years ago, Republicans were livid that Obama wouldn’t intervene on the demonstrators’ behalf to overthrow the Iranian government (even to the point of demanding military action, though anybody with any sense realized that an incursion would have united all Iranians against the United States). Their line back then was 110 percent pro-democracy: "In the cause of freedom America cannot be neutral," Rep. Mike Pence essayed. Obama was a "cream puff," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher; he’s “timid,” added old “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” John McCain. Charles Krauthammer was boiling over: “The president is taking a hands-off attitude instead of standing, as Reagan did in the Polish uprising of 1980, and say we stand with the people in the street who believe in democracy.... it is a disgrace that the United States is not stating it as simply and honestly as that.”

Today? The GOP is all over the map: Krauthammer is griping that Obama has stated his support for the people too honestly. “It looks as if it was our decision, our pressure, and I’m not sure that we want a direct connection between our President and Egypt.” Not a word on Egypt from Pence or Rohrabacher; McCain, along with speaker John Boehner and minority leader Mitch McConnell, has decided to go along with Obama’s cautious approach.

Then there are those like Ann Coulter, who are torn—Murbarak is awful, Coulter said on Hannity (at 3:30), though “nothing good has ever come from riots like this in the streets”—but who deal with their cog dis by finding one consistent bad guy. “Contrast,” she said, Obama’s “response to this uprising to the uprising in Iran, when poor Neda was being shot and Obama was out getting ice cream, saying, ‘Oh, we don’t want to say anything.’ Well, as soon as this mob gathers, you see.... the Obama administration releasing secret information, they support the protesters, we support the protesters. Oh, couldn’t do that when the Iranian students were out on the street.” (Making her commentary even flimsier, Coulter went on to say Cairo isn’t Tiananmen or Tehran because no women are participating—even as the video running showed that to be completely wrong.)

You must also blame the president if you’re running for the Republican nomination. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee called Fox & Friends from Israel, where he was meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and, as Think Progress put it, “joining a ceremony for a newly built illegal Israeli settlement.” Huck reported “real shock and surprise down to the average, on-the-street Israeli citizen at how quickly the Obama administration abandoned a 30-year ally and a long-standing friend to peace and stability, President Mubarak.”  

The most intriguing confusion, though, must be that addling the Tea Party crowd, for whom Muslims are generally a very dangerous “them.” And yet some TPers can’t help but identify with these Muslim protesters, filling Tahrir Square like so many anti-tax rebels tail-gating for Glenn Beck on the Mall. On Fox News a few days ago, a middle-aged man at a tea party gathering in Chicago cheerfully asserted, “We need to do what they’re doing in Egypt!”

But if you really want to see how Egypt has unhinged the right, Beck is the man to watch. On the one hand, he’s seen the light: Bush had it wrong when he claimed 9/11 terrorists hated our freedom. “They don’t hate our freedom. They envy our freedom,” Beck told Bill O’Reilly. On the other hand, the Egyptian uprising "is not about freedom. It is being orchestrated by the Marxist Communists and primarily also the Muslim Brotherhood." 

On the other other hand (Glenn needs a lot of hands for this one), "We have to stand for something. [Mubarak] is torturing people with our money!" Yet, he says, if the Mubarak government falls, it could lead to “a caliphate” that would invade Europe and make the Mediterranean Sea an Islamic lake.

Wait, there’s more: a giant game of “Risk” spreading across the blackboard. “China,” he says excitedly, “will control Asia, the southern half of Africa, part of the Middle East, Australia, maybe New Zealand, and God only knows what else. And Russia, which will control all of the old former Soviet Union bloc, plus maybe the Netherlands. I'm not really sure.”

But do be sure of this, Americans: "This is not about Egypt,” he warns. “This is about your hometown and your lifestyle."

The conspiracy theories that hold all this together are so complex, Beck says, it’s going to take several days, maybe weeks, to explain. So you’re going to have to watch a lot of his show, and a lot of ads for gold.

 
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Mingling but No Tingling at State of the Union

All day before the State of the Union address, the media and tout DC were giddy about “the prom": Who's going to be whose prom date? Who's going to be prom queen and king? (Most bets were on good lookers Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. John Thune rather than, say, party planners Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Tom Coburn.) Dems paired up with GOPs in order to mingle the seating, a modest nod toward greater civility in wake of the shootings of Rep. Gabby Giffords (her chair standing empty on the floor) and eighteen others in Tucson. Even the Republican most likely to pull off a prom-night Carrie, South Carolina Rep. Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson, reportedly agreed to be restrained by sitting between two female Democrats.

But Mitch McConnell, the ol' sourpuss, wasn't having any of it. This new-fangled fraternization, he gallantly proffered, was not in the president's interest: "I think from the president's point of view, it ends up being distracting, because cameras may be, for example, on.... ‘Who's sitting with who? My goodness there's Sen. Gillibrand sitting with Senator Thune!' " Mitch sat out the speech with Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) like a pair of irritated chaperones.

But the partisan contrast was visible anyway, in the tripartite tableau of Biden, Obama and Boehner (or BOB). It wasn't just that Boehner refused to applaud every time Biden did, it was the extreme difference in their faces. From the start, when Obama introduced the speaker as the guy who began by sweeping the floor of his father's bar, it looked like Boehner's face—his quivering mouth, his eyes filled with tears, maybe the bulging cheek of a stifled belch—was going to steal the show. He was a Picasso, each of his face's planes moving in a different direction. If Boehner were an actor trying to express unbearable stress, say the Humphrey Bogart role in The Caine Mutiny, he couldn't have done a better job.

By comparison, Biden’s face was calm and steady, a smiley rock sitting in sunshine. But then, you had to ask yourself, which of these men has a crazy caucus to manage? It’s as if the speaker were absorbing all the tension that the party below had cast off for the night.

Even if poor Boehner almost ran away with the show, the much-vaunted mingling had a huge effect: It made support for Obama look unanimous. Because the pols who remained silent weren't heard, and those who remained seated in a standing crowd weren't seen, whenever only the Democrats gave a standing ovation, it seemed as if the whole room was rising to cheer the president.

His speech, too, seemed mingled, without highs and lows, mixed so thoroughly that it was flat. Optimistic but flat.

Maybe I feel that way because the White House had forgotten to lower expectations. Howard Dean read the speech beforehand and said, “I’m jubilant about what the president is going to say.”

Still, Republicans have little in the speech to complain about. As Lawrence O’Donnell said, “Republicans should be pleased—it said nothing.”

Most glaringly, it said nothing about gun control. Before the speech, O’Donnell asked, Why not even one paragraph on gun control? Chris Matthews divulged that Obama didn’t want to step on his “competitiveness” message with something so controversial, but that a separate speech on gun control is coming up.

The Republicans had not one, but two chances to grab back the spotlight. The best you could say about Paul Ryan, who presented the official GOP reply, is that he was no Bobby Jindal.

Even better, Michelle Bachmann, who gave the Tea Party reply, was not crazy Michelle Bachmann. She did look a bit weird, wearing too much make-up and not looking directly into the camera (could she have been reading, gasp!, a Teleprompter? UPDATE: Turned out, she was looking at the wrong camera). But she did talk directly to her base, with highs and lows in her voice, which made her fabrications (like the 16,000 new IRS agents who are going to enforce the heathcare law) sound just fine to those eager to believe whatever she had to say.

But the big winner on the right was the Tea Party Express. CNN lent it legitimacy by plugging Bachmann’s address with one of their huge electronic billboards that counted down three minutes, two minutes, one minute until the “Tea Party Response.” (Somehow I can’t see CNN announcing, three minutes, two minutes, one minute to “The MoveOn Response.”)

It’s not clear why CNN, and not MSNBC or Fox, ran Bachmann’s address on TV. (The only other place to see it live was on the TPX website.) It must be part of the deal in which CNN and the Tea Party Express have hooked up to co-sponsor a Republican primary debate later this year.

Let’s guess who will benefit the most from that mingling.

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Mingling, But No Tingling at Obama’s SOTU

 

 
 
 
 
All day before the State of the Union address, the media and toute de DC were giddy about "the prom": Who's going to be whose prom date? Who's going to be prom queen and king? (Most bets were on  good lookers Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. John Thune rather than, say, party planners Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Tom Coburn.) Dems paired up with GOPs in order to mingle the seating, a modest nod toward greater civility in wake of the shootings of Rep. Gabby Giffords (her chair standing empty on the floor) and 18 others in Tucson. Even the Republican most likely to pull off a prom-night Carrie, South Carolina Rep. Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson, reportedly agreed to be restrained by sitting between two female Democrats.  
 
But Mitch McConnell, the ol' sourpuss, wasn't having any of it. This new-fangled fraternization, he gallantly proffered, was not in the president's interest: "I think from the president's point of view, it ends up being distracting, because cameras may be, for example, on.... 'Who's sitting with who? My goodness there's Sen. Gillibrand sitting with Senator Thune!'" Mitch sat out the speech with Sen. John Kyl [R-AZ] like a pair of irritated chaperones.
 
But the partisan contrast was visible anyway, in the tripartite tableau of Biden, Obama, and Boehner (which I came to see as BOB). It wasn't just that Boehner refused to applaud every time Biden did, it was the extreme difference in their faces. From the start, when Obama introduced the Speaker as the guy who began by sweeping the floor of his father's bar, it looked like Boehner's face--his quivering mouth, his eyes filled with tears, maybe the bulging cheek of a stifled belch--was going to steal the show. He was a Picasso, each of his face's planes moving in a different direction. If Boehner were an actor trying to express unbearable stress, say the Humphrey Bogart role in The Caine Mutiny, he couldn't have done a better job.
 
By comparison, Biden’s face was calm and steady, a smiley rock sitting in sunshine. But then, you had to ask yourself, which of these men has to a crazy caucus to manage? It’s as the Speaker were absorbing all the tension that the party below had cast off for the night.
 
Even if poor Boehner almost stole the show, the much-vaunted mingling had a huge effect: It made support for Obama look unanimous. Because people who remain silent won’t be heard, when only Democrats applauded, it sounded as if the whole room applauded. And because people sitting won’t be seen in a standing crowd, when only Democrats stood, it looked as if the whole room was standing to cheer the president.
 
His speech, too, seemed mingled, without highs and lows, mixed so thoroughly that it was flat. Optimistic but flat.
 
Maybe I feel that way because the White House had forgotten to lower expectations. Howard Dean read the speech beforehand and said, “I’m jubilant about what the president is going to say.”
 
Still, Republicans have little in the speech to complain about.   As Lawrence O’Donnell said, “Republicans should be pleased--it said nothing.”
 
Most glaringly, it said nothing about gun control. Before the speech, O’Donnell asked, Why not even one paragraph on gun control? Chris Matthews divulged that Obama didn’t want to step on his “competitiveness” message with something so controversial, but that a separate speech on gun control is coming up.
 
The Republicans had not one, but two chances to grab back the spotlight. The best you could say about Paul Ryan, who presented the official GOP reply, is that he was no Bobby Jindal.
 
Even better, Michelle Bachmann, who gave the Tea Party reply, was not crazy Michelle Bachmann. She did look a bit weird, like she was wearing too much make-up and not looking directly into the camera (could she have been reading, gasp!, a Teleprompter?!). But she did talk directly to her base, with highs and lows in her voice, which made her fabrications (like the 16,000 new IRS agents who are going to enforce the heath care law) sound just fine to those eager to believe whatever she had to say.
 
But the big winner on the right was the Tea Party Express. CNN lent it legitimacy by plugging Bachmann’s address with one of their huge electronic billboards that counted down four minutes, two minutes, one minute until the “Tea Party Response.” (Somehow I can’t see CNN announcing, three minutes, two minutes, one minute to “The MoveOn Response.”)
 
It’s not clear why CNN, and not MSNBC or Fox, ran Bachmann’s address on TV. (The only other place to see it live was on the TPX website.) It must be part of the deal in which CNN and the Tea Party Express have hooked up to co-sponsor a Republican primary debate later this year.
 
Let’s guess who will benefit the most from that mingling.
 
 
 
 

Should the Media Go Palin-Free in February?

This week has seen an extraordinary backlash to Sarah Palin. I'm not talking about her sinking poll numbers—I'm talking about the number of journalists who've declared that they're sick of covering her, some even pledging to no longer mention her name. Palin's every tweet and video are not news, the beef goes; she's no longer a public official, and treating her like one just encourages her to spout off more. "Go write about something else instead," New York Times columnist Ross Douthat advised other journos on Sunday. In today's Washington Post, Dana Milbank called on others in the news media to repeat after him: "I hereby pledge that, beginning on Feb 1, 2011, I will not mention Sarah Palin—in print, online or on television—for one month."

The movement to de-Palinize the news has, not surprisingly, created its own backlash. When Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski complained earlier this week, "At what point do we just ignore [Palin]?" staunch supporter of the former half-term Alaskan governor Stephen Colbert told her to buck up:

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Mika Brzezinski Experiences Palin Fatigue
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

Too late, Stephen—the urge to ignore Palin has spread far beyond journalists who publicly sip Starbucks coffee. Excessive Palin posting is an industry-wide addiction that needs its own 12-step program, writes Milbank, who admits to penning forty-two columns on Palin since 2008 (O'Reilly, he figures, has mentioned her on 664 shows; Olbermann, on 345, and so on.)

"[W]e are up against a powerful compulsion," he writes, and the addictive substance is obvious: "Though Palin was no longer a candidate, or even a public official, we in the press discovered that the mere mention of her name could vault our stories onto the most-viewed list."

Meanwhile, some readers are swearing off websites that won't swear off Palin. This week a longtime reader wrote to TPM, "I am so sorry to leave you. I have really enjoyed our time together, but… I can't read about her anymore."

The journalistic urge to go anorexic on Palin began long before Tucson. "This is it," Times columnist Charles Blow wrote on December 3 of last year. "This is the last time I'm going to write the name Sarah Palin until she does something truly newsworthy." (A cursory search shows he's kept his vow.)

But as someone who writes about political media, I wouldn't dream of not mentioning Palin. It'd be like not mentioning Fox News; for better or worse, Sarah Palin is a channel unto herself. By averting your eyes, you'd be missing out on what's going on in America and would be less able to deal with reality.

And I agree with TPM's Josh Marshall, who answered his Palin-boycotting readers by writing:

This is actually a real blind spot for liberals in general—the idea that things that are crazy or tawdry or just outrageous are really best ignored.... On so many levels this represents an alienation from the popular political culture which is not only troubling in itself but actually damages progressive and center-left politics in general…. It's another one of the examples where liberals—or a certain strain of liberalism—focuses way too much on the libretto of our political life and far too little on the score. It's like you're at a Wagner opera reading the libretto with your ear plugs in and think you've got the whole thing covered.

Or, as Colbert admonished journalists like Mika, "That's the gig."

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Did Obama Defend Sarah Palin in Tucson?

Immediately after President Obama's inspiring speech at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson mass murder last week, the right wing finally figured out how to respond to the outrage over the gun-toting rhetoric it's been ramping up since the 2008 election: They claimed that Obama had absolved them.

Charles Krauthammer, Chris Wallace, and Brit Hume, in a joint sigh of relief at Obama's call to stop "assigning blame" for the tragedy, all praised the speech, with only a few initial quibbles. Even Glenn Beck deemed it "probably the best speech he has ever given," and found fault only that Obama's exonerating words came "late" (although Beck was mum on the timing of Palin's "blood libel" video, which shipped on the morning the same day). But it was Pat Buchanan who spelled out exactly why Obama's "outstanding speech" was music to conservative ears: It sent, he said, "a fairly stern admonition, especially to the far left in this country, which has been quite frankly conducting something of a lynch mob against Glenn Beck, against Sarah Palin, against Rush Limbaugh."

Or as a commenter on Conservatives4Palin.com wrote:"So his followers (libs, the media etc.) now look like complete idiots. REALLY big idiots. HA! Sarah won again my friends."

Here's the quote from Obama's address that most conservative pundits have interpreted as their own private presidential pardon: "But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. That we cannot do. That we cannot do. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together."

There's that scary bit about "empathy" and the implied collectivism of "together" at the end, but asking people to stop blaming each other is like the balm of Gilead for Republicans just now. Most know (despite Glenn Beck) their American history: political assassinations have often ushered in eras of progressive legislative action as popular opinion reels away from political violence. Abe Lincoln's murder led to a Reconstruction that elected black governors, congressmen and legislatures; William McKinley's assassination led to Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era; JFK's killing helped Lyndon Johnson pass not only the 1964 Civil Rights Act but Medicare, too. Even the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life led to the Brady bill. The flood of empathy that a public killing unleashes can unblock log jams carefully tended for years, even decades, and conservatives absolutely have to get the national conversation off the subject of who's to blame for encouraging violence.

And the conservatives' claim that Obama has given them a pass on their rhetoric sends shivers through Democratic ranks because, in the wake of the tax deal with Mitch McConnell for the super-rich and all the pre-emptive compromises of the past two years, liberals worry that Pat Buchanan might be right.

We'll know on January 25, when Obama delivers his third State of the Union address. If he does not call for some form of meaningful gun control—at the very least announce his support for New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's call to reinstate the ban on outsized magazines for semi-automatic weapons—we'll know this is another crisis he's willing to let go to waste.

The sounds coming from Beltway larynxes this week were not reassuring. Asking for more gun control after a crazy man shot twenty people and killed six in a Safeway parking lot? Now that's crazy! Ain't gonna happen, pols and pundits have declared. On Friday's Bill Maher show, James Carville said, sure, we could talk about gun control, but "the NRA is not going to let it happen." (Rachel Maddow took on this sort of pre-emptive pessimism last week by breaking down just how gun-control measures became law in the past despite insiders' nay-saying.)

For the sake of argument, though, let's say that the conventional wisdom is right, that even the near-assassination of a member of Congress won't open a window for gun-control legislation. If discussing violent rhetoric is off-limits and gun control is a nonstarter, what's that leave us to "blame"? Oh yeah, mental illness. Blaming the mentally ill and cracking down on them (even though they're unlikely to be more violent than the general population, unless, as some studies show, they go untreated), fits only too well with the old law-and-order sentiment for locking 'em up and throwing away the key.  

But focus on the mentally ill raises conundrums for the right. Logically it should mean more thorough background checks and longer waiting times for everybody who wants to buy a gun, which are anathema to the NRA. And it makes repealing the healthcare law, which extends coverage for mental health treatment, look like an even dumber symbolic gesture than it already does. (Support for repeal in fact has dropped from 46 percent the day before Tucson shooting to only 25 percent afterwards, according to an Associated Press/GfK poll.)  

Anyway, contrary to the truism that alleged Tucson gunman Jared Loughner is insane and therefore couldn't possibly have been influenced by the charged political atmosphere, emotionally unstable people often have political leanings. On Saturday, one of the victims wounded in the attack, Eric Fuller, a liberal 63-year-old, was arrested and involuntarily committed after seeming to threaten a local Tea Party leader during a town hall moderated by ABC's Christiane Amanpour in Tucson. As the Tea Partier, Trent Humphries, was explaining that no one should talk about gun control until all the dead were buried, Fuller yelled, "You're dead." (He has since apologized.) And on Sunday, an unsuccessful Republican Congressional candidate in Indiana, Cheryl Allen, who says she had previously been committed, was arrested on charges that she made threats against judges and other officials via Facebook. Arrests and involuntary commitments on both sides of the political debate will no doubt increase, as nervous cops try to protect public officials pro-actively.

If nothing happens out of this tragedy—no more funding for mental health, no more gun control, no more of an understanding that it's not cool to demonize your opponents—then the right-wing spin that Obama's speech let them off the hook will be fulfilled.

Let's hope the president does better than that.  

 

 
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Killing the 'Killing' Words

This story was going to be about the Republicans' almost unprecedented step of injecting inflammatory, up-yours language right smack into the official title of a Congressional bill, as they did last week with the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." And it will be about that. But it's hard to write about their new "job-killing" meme after the real killings in Tucson, which left Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life, six people dead and twelve others wounded.

No, I'm not jumping to the conclusion that the alleged shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, was influenced by right-wing rhetoric. We don't know enough yet. Whatever was in his mind—and from his YouTube videos, it appears to have been a mess of paranoid antigovernment conspiracy theories—it's unlikely that this particular "job-killing" catchphrase contributed one iota to his crimes. Apparently, he had long been planning to assassinate Giffords.

But, here's the but: the Tea Party and its more fervent Republican enablers have been marketing death rhetoric for quite a while now. It's not just the obvious gun-happy talk, like Sharron Angle saying if Washington doesn't change we might need "Second Amendment remedies," or Sarah "Reload" Palin placing Giffords and other Democratic reps who voted for healthcare reform in the crosshairs on a US map, or talk radio host Joyce Kaufman saying, "If ballots don't work, bullets will." Or even Giffords's Tea Party opponent inviting folks to "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

The sorry truth is Republicans know that talk about death and killing works. Saying the Democrats represent a modern, science-based bureaucracy that can roll over in its sleep and crush the life out of you is their stock-in-trade. It began with the anti-abortion cries of "Baby killer!" which fringers used to justify the murder of abortion doctors like George Tiller, whom Bill O'Reilly called "Tiller the Baby Killer" for years. Just last week the term "death panel" rose from its crypt to scare Obama away—again—from recommending end-of-life consultations in the new health care rules.

Nasty nicknames began to really pop up in legislative language with the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 and one of its star phrases: "death tax," a k a the estate tax. Once relabeled by Republicans, "death tax" went on to appear in bill titles and text. The phrase chalked up a major victory just last month, when the Obama-McConnell tax deal cut the rate from 45 to 35 percent while allowing estates worth less than $5 million to skip paying taxes altogether.

So it made sense that when the Republican leadership needed to re-demonize health care reform in order to repeal it, they'd come up with a variation on the tried and true. Besides, they couldn't very well call their bill the "Repealing the Government Takeover of Health Care Law Act." The fact-checking site Politifact recently deemed that catchy bit of propaganda the "Lie of the Year."

And so, whether by luck or by Luntz, the John Boehner–led House lit upon "job-killing," and they've been tearing up the House floor with it ever since:

What's distinctive about the modifier "job-killing" isn't its robotic repetition, its false claim (more on that later) or its Lego-like ability to snap onto any noun ("tax increases," "regulations" or the 9/11 first responders health bill, which, back in July, Republicans called a "massive job-killing new entitlement program"). All of that is standard GOP rhetorical fare. What's different here is that Republicans have thrown the juvenile job-killing charge into the middle of the official title of what they want to be their signature legislation, as if they're thrusting a middle finger up in the face of the Big Government.  

And they knew the media would eat it up. As TV reporters repeated the title last week, they often did so with a chuckle or an arched brow, the impropriety of the statute's name effortlessly cutting through the blah-blah of the news. It's made for TV, a show-bizzy, tabloid tag for a show-bizzy, purely symbolic vote (it will pass the House but not the Senate or Obama's veto pen).  

In fact, I found it hard not to laugh every time I said the title out loud when asking researchers just how unusual these sorts of names are. 

It's not that all bill names are written in neutralese. We have the euphemisms, like the Patriot Act, and the clever acronyms, like CAN-SPAM (for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act).

But as Chris Sagers, a law professor at Cleveland State University, who researches statute names, e-mailed me, "I can think of no other statute title quite like this one," nothing "that quite so directly criticizes a sitting President or the immediately preceding congressional leadership as this one does." (He added, "There just weren't flippant or politicizing formal short names until the past 30-40 years, and they have proliferated...")

"This one strikes me as really extreme," agrees Mary Whisner, a University of Washington law librarian who wrote "What's In a Statute Name?" for the Legal Information & Technology eJournal. Whisner tracked down a few instances when "job-killing" was used in the text of bills, including, in 1992, before the words " 'luxury' excise taxes" and last year as a prefix for "Federal Employer Mandate." But only once, in the current "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act," has the phrase appeared in the formal "short title," or popular name, of a bill.

That boldness itself takes your eye off the lie, that HCR will kill jobs, which it won't. Harvard economist David Cutler argues in a new paper that "repealing the health law would reverse [job gains created in the expanded healthcare sector] and could destroy 250,000 to 400,000 jobs annually over the next decade." And most important, the "GOP canard," as Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein writes, takes our eyes off real deaths. "What's particularly noteworthy about this fixation with ‘job killing' is that it stands in such contrast to the complete lack of concern about policies that kill people rather than jobs. Repealing health-care reform, for instance, would inevitably lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths each year because of an inability to get medical care."  

After the Giffords shooting, House majority leader Eric Cantor announced that the House will postpone all legislative activity, including the repeal vote, which was originally scheduled for later this week. I admit I briefly held out the hope that the House majority would see the light about its over-the-top rhetoric and at least change the name, if only to avoid railing about faux "killing" after real violence against one of their members.

That's unlikely. But I'm not the only one to hope so. On Sunday, Fox's Shep Smith interviewed Patricia Maisch, the woman described as a hero for snatching a second magazine out of Loughner's hands as he tried to reload. She told Smith that she's not a hero, that she grabbed the clip only after two men had already tackled the suspect and were holding him on the ground. Toward the end of the interview, Smith asked, because media needs its uplift, "Is there anything you can leave us with that will make us all feel better?"

"I don't think so," Maisch said, then surprised him by adding, "[Pima County] Sheriff Dubnik said it best, that the extreme right reporters and radio and TV have added to this problem, and I'm just hoping that will change because of this. That's my hope, that the Republicans will stop naming bills in very hateful [ways], like the job-killing—whatever the rest of that bill is."

 
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