Short takes on politics, culture and life.
The growing populist rage (see Eyal's post) at exorbitant corporate bonuses, especially at the $165 million AIG gave mostly to execs in its financial products division, made me think of Imelda Marcos' shoes and the 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines. For long years, the Filipino people had endured the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who in addition to ordering martial law and broad scale political repression, had plundered the country's wealth, including taking a cut of $28 billion in IMF loans. By the late 70s, in a country where 80 percent of the population subsisted on less than $2 a day, the Marcos family had accumulated over $35 billion in assets.
Tales of their profligacy were well known: the $5 million shopping trips to Rome and Copenhagen, the acquisition of vast patches of Manhattan real estate, the art collection that included works by Botticelli and Michelangelo. Imelda once reportedly dispatched a plane to Australia to pick up tons of white sand to adorn a private beach resort. But nothing quite prepared the Filipino people for what they would discover when, after a heady but peaceful four-day revolution, they stormed Malacanang Palace and sacked Imelda's closet--65 parasols, 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 888 handbags, 71 pairs of sunglasses and, most legendarily, 1,060 pairs of shoes.
What was so potent about those shoes? What did they symbolize? Gross inequality, corruption, the staggeringly brazen looting of public resources--for sure (all qualities also evident in the AIG bailout). But something else too was represented by that collection of ruby slippers, a kind of insane magic by which Imelda transformed herself into something more than human. She could never wear all those shoes. They were beyond utility or even fashion. They existed only to represent the idea of excess itself, like The Simpson's Montgomery Burns' wardrobe made from the pelts of endangered species. As Time's Lance Morrow wrote at the time:
The Russian word poshlost suggests the transcendent vulgarity at work in the Marcos spectacle. Poshlost is something preposterously overdone but without self-knowledge or irony. It is comic and sad and awful.
Of course, Imelda had her rationale; she insisted it was her "duty" to be "some kind of light, a star to give [the poor] guidelines." But even that explanation expresses a contempt for humanity, an aspiration to be above the human, like a divine queen, beyond ordinary standards of wealth or footwear.
Something like this logic underlies the corporate elite's defense of unfettered multi-million dollar bonuses. Before he was forced to grovel in front of Congress, AIG CEO Edward Liddy explained that those bonuses were necessary to "retain the best and brightest" and hinted darkly at what would happen if "their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the US Treasury."
Put aside the fact that AIG's "best and brightest" helped destroy the global economy and ask yourself this--what kind of work could merit a $6.4 million bonus (what one AIG manager received)? What could a CEO do to deserve $25.4 million (the severance package that Liddy's predecessor Martin Sullivan got when he left AIG, having lost 99 percent of the company's market value during his tenure)? Or what exactly did John Thain, CEO of the now defunct Merrill Lynch, accomplish to warrant an executive compensation package of $83.1 million in 2007? And why should such sums be exempt from regulation and fair taxation, much less plausible public justification?
[CLARIFICATION: John Thain's office called to clarify that in 2007, Thain only received roughly $50,000 in salary for one month of work and a $15 million signing bonus. The remainder of his compensation package, stock options once valued at some $68 million, is now worthless.]
These are preposterous, abstract figures that have long since lost any relation to what even the most gluttonous among us might call "quality of life." What the corporate elite seeks to preserve is not any explicable measure of work and worth, but rather the right to transcend with impunity any measure of value itself, for the right of kings to pin multi-million bonuses on princes as badges of relative privilege, for the right to hoard 1,060 pairs of shoes.
When the American people rage against the AIG bonuses and the Chrysler execs and their jet planes, I believe they are, in part, railing against this gross form of divine capitalism, a capitalism so venal that it has degenerated into aristocracy. What this populist anger accomplishes, whether it strikes the root as well as the glittering crown, will depend on a lot of things--whether or not Obama is pushed to nationalize the banks, open the books on the bailout and rein in corporate excess; whether or not workers are given the renewed right to organize.
It also depends on us. For there are many things different about this moment and the Philippines in 1986 (not least among them the democratic rights we still enjoy here), but among them is the fact that in the here and now the excesses of the elite have been exposed before the fall of the regime itself. We have yet to sack the palace. Maybe we should--who knows what else we might find there.
Any erstwhile liberal New Yorkers thinking of supporting Mike Bloomberg's bid for a third term should read the New York Times carefully. The city hasn't been spared the ravages of the recession. As of December, unemployment stood at 7.4 percent, and experts predict almost 300,000 more jobs will be gone by the summer of 2010. Homeless rates are at record highs; the city's overstretched shelters now take in an average of 36,000 people each night. The city's already beleagured middle-class is in full flight. According to a recent study by the Center for an Urban Future, over 150,000 middle income residents left New York City in 2006, driven away by the highest rent, food, child care and utilities bills in the country. Meanwhile, Manhattan has been thoroughly rezoned--thanks to Rudy Giuliani's quality of life campaign and plush subsidies for developers--as the almost exclusive playground of the rich.
If Mayor Mike gets reelected, it will stay this way--or get worse. As the NYT reported on February 17, Bloomberg is refusing to accept extra food stamp money from Obama's stimulus package:
"The provision overturns a 1996 rule limiting able-bodied adults who have no dependents to three months of food stamps in a three-year period. But the Bloomberg administration said on Tuesday that nothing had changed and that it was not obligated to extend benefits to anyone not enrolled in the Work Experience Program, a workfare program that provides temporary jobs, usually in city agencies."
In this climate, Bloomberg's decision is an act of cruel sadism, withholding food (food!) from thousands of hungry mouths to make an ideological point about work (at fake jobs that don't exist). It's also straight from the playbook of the most reactionary Republican governors like Sarah Palin, Mark Sanford and Bobby Jindal, who are threatening to return stimulus money to prove just how much better free markets are than government (South Carolina, check back with me in a year to see how well that plan's going, okay?).
But here's the really unbelievable part: the next day Mayor Mike announced a $45 million program that would use taxpayer money to retrain "investment bankers, traders and others who have lost jobs on Wall Street." And what will these poor bankers who can no longer afford their Frette sheets and Barney's baubles be trained to do? Sweep streets? File paperwork? Scoop poop? Teach nursery school (remember those high child care costs!)? No way! That's make work for the poor.
Instead, Bloomberg intends to set them up with "seed capital and office space" so that they can 'promote innovation' and 'capture growth.' According to Seth Pinksy, president of the city's Economic Development Corporation, the plan could target those laid-off from jobs in "capital markets" (i.e. the collateralized debt obligations and mortgage securities that got us into this mess). "We have a substantial number of very talented people coming out of Wall Street," he whined. "Where do these people go?"
I have a slighly different reaction to their plight than Pinksy, which is chiefly: F**K if I care. But there you have a succinct encapsulation of Mike Bloomberg's priorities. Poor, hungry New Yorkers will be stripped of food stamps that the federal government says is both necessary and good stimulus, while the bollocks-for-brains bankers who got us into this mess will get office space and taxpayer moolah to restart the cycle of speculation.
I love NYC. (If I knew how to make a little heart sign in the last sentence, I would.) It's been my home for most of my life, and I'm convinced it needs a new mayor for a new moment. Not someone who represents the FIRE industries (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate), throws around lavish bonuses to his supporters and buys off the city's political elite with his foundation's cash. Right now, NYC needs a mayor for all of us--for the boroughs, for the poor, for the working class and the strivers and laborers and artists, musicians and writers who have made the Big Apple the best place on earth.
UPDATE: Here's NY state senator Liz Krueger on the folly of refusing to participate in the federal food stamp extension. NB: every $1 in food stamps translates into $1.70 in immediate economic activity.
Our friends at Democracy Now! host a special five-hour Election Night broadcast from 7PM to midnight EST, with results as they come in. The program will include on-the-ground reports from across the country, reactions from across the globe, and in-depth commentary. Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzalez and Jeremy Scahill host; guests include Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, Melissa Harris Lacewell, Roberto Lovato, John Nichols, Laura Flanders, Robert Scheer, Howard Zinn, Tim Robbins, Michael Moore, Bill Perkins, Vincent Harding, Robert Scheer, Mark Crispin Miller, David Sirota and many more.
Watch the webcast:
It's a bright, sparkling Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, and about a thousand people of all hues and ages are flocking to the south lawn of City Hall. The majority of the crowd is Chinese, but there's a sizable group of Latinos and pockets of South Asians, Koreans, Vietnamese and Indonesians. There are only a handful of black people, but they flow with ease through the throng. There are a few conspicuous white guys in suits too, cloistered around the stage where a band plays sing-along tunes. The mood is buoyant, affectionate. There are balloons and banners everywhere; a jolly Chinese mother cuts up a cake; snapshots are taken; cars honk. People gather in family clusters; grandparents play with children--who make up about half the crowd.
It's the happiest, most diverse political event I've ever been to, and it's not for Barack Obama. It's for Proposition 8--the California ballot initiative that would eliminate the right of gays and lesbian to marry, which some 14,000 same-sex couples have exercised since the state Supreme Court ruled in their favor earlier this summer. Here and now at City Hall, where a good share of those same-sex weddings took place, there's not a single Obama or McCain button in the mix. Instead, everyone is wearing red t-shirts that proclaim in both English and Chinese--Protect Marriage. Yes on 8. The toddlers' shirts have an added touch: I Love My Mommy and Daddy.
When I ask people whom they'll vote for, a few say McCain; a few more say Obama. But the vast majority say, "Yes on 8."
But who will you vote for? You know, like, for President?
"Yes! Yes on 8!"
It's a mantra repeated like a drum beat all afternoon, and if there's a scary, drone-like quality to the response, it's by no means unique to this rainbow coalition of heterosexual marriage activists. With California in the bag for Obama and without a gubernatorial or Senate seat at stake, Prop 8 is the top of the ballot here, especially for the state's right-wing, which has staked its power, prestige and, apparently, its hope for the future of America, on the outcome. As one of the apocalyptic slogans for "The Call"--a 10,000-strong prayer vigil and fast of white evangelicals on Saturday at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium--put it, "As California goes, so goes the nation."
Right now, polls show the measure as a toss-up. The money is dead even too. When all is said and done, both sides will have raised more than $35 million each--more than $70 million in all--making it the second most expensive race of 2008, second only to the presidency. A sizable minority of this money has come from out of state: from gay activists, celebrities and business leaders on the No side; and from the holy alliance of Mormons, Catholics (the Knights of Columbus) and Christian evangelicals (Focus on the Family, American Family Association, Concerned Women for America and Elsa Prince, mother of Blackwater founder Erik Prince) for the Yes team. As California goes, so goes the nation.
But the money is only part of the picture. What this money has enabled--for both sides--could spell lasting changes in California's political landscape, and perhaps for the country as a whole. For the gay movement, Prop 8 marks the first time since the 1978 Briggs Initiative (more than a full generation ago) that they've had to run a real statewide, grassroots campaign. Prior victories for marriage equality came legislatively (through lobbying) or through litigation, and the lack of organizing chops showed in the early stages when they were simply out-fundraised, out-manned and out-hustled by the Protect Marriage crowd. But when polls suddenly showed Prop 8 forces in the lead early this fall, previously apathetic gays and lesbians suddenly came alive.
Almost every gay person I speak with sees the measure as an act of hateful discrimination for which the term homophobia is inadequate and thus rarely invoked. Instead, they use words like "apartheid" and "Jim Crow." The multi-faith No on 8 speakout I went to on Saturday began with an invocation of the Holocaust poem "First They Came For…" The ubiquitous No on 8 TV ads (countered minute-for-minute with Yes on 8 commercials) place Prop 8 alongside Japanese internment, redlining and anti-miscegenation laws as shameful episodes of American history.
If some of these analogies are a stretch--nobody is proposing queer concentration camps--the sense that one is being made a target, an object of revulsion, contempt and ridicule is palpable. This shared sense of vulnerability--and the deep well of empathy it elicits from straight allies--has been a powerfully galvanizing force for gay activists. If they win, if they defeat Prop 8, it will be because they were able to frame marriage discrimination against them, a small minority, as a salient issue for the majority. In doing so, they will have disproved the conventional wisdom that support for marriage equality must rely on "activist judges" and cannot be accomplished through more directly democratic means. If Prop 8 goes down, California will have twice approved same-sex marriage in the legislature, once in the highest court and at the polls.
This is no small feat. In fact, it has never been accomplished before. In Arizona, the only other state to vote down an anti-gay marriage initiative in 2006, concern that the overly broad measure would take away rights for unmarried straights proved the tipping point. The California measure is much more narrowly drawn. Indeed, for all the expense, there are almost no rights beyond marriage itself at stake for California queers much less anyone else. That's because the state's domestic partnership law already provides all the partnership rights a state can give absent federal marriage laws (a point that pro-Prop 8 spokesmen trumpet and that anti-Prop 8 forces discuss with reluctance). Most legal experts agree that even the thousands of hurry-up nuptials performed since June would not be invalidated should Prop 8 prevail.
So what is at stake? A lot. First, there is the simple matter of simply debunking the manipulative lies told by the Yes on 8 campaign. Days before I arrived in California, they circulated a flyer to black households depicting a smiling Barack Obama saying "I'm not in favor of gay marriage…" The implication was that Obama has endorsed Prop 8; he has done the opposite. Then there are the other lies that tap into the entrenched notion that homosexuality is somehow a threat to families, to heterosexuality, to children and to "religious freedom." These constitute the right-wing's main talking points: without Prop 8 first graders would be forced to attend lesbian weddings, churches would be required to perform same-sex marriages and those that refused would be stripped of their tax-exempt status. Speaker after speaker at the City Hall rally hammered home these fallacies to wild applause, but each has been debunked.
Behind the scrim of "religious persecution" (another phrase Yes on 8 folks like to use), however, lies theocratic monopoly power. Every faith can decide on its own whether or not to conduct same-sex marriages, and in a secular democracy, civil marriage would accommodate the broad spectrum of beliefs, but not require any one in particular. This is not what Mormon, Catholic and evangelical Yes on 8 advocates want. Like on the matter of abortion, it's their own brand of religion they wish to enforce upon the state and the people.
Finally, there is the matter of religiously-inspired homophobia itself. Oddly, this is somewhat difficult to get at because Yes on 8 people rarely mention homosexuality (their campaign protects and celebrates heterosexuality; "we made the right choice" is another one of their slogans), and when they do it is in the language of love--love of family, the love between one man and one woman, love of children, and yes, when pushed love of the sinner.
As the City Hall rally comes to a close, a couple hundred gay activists have marched over from Pershing Square, and there's a standoff on the corner of Spring and 1st Street. Cops are nervously keeping the factions on opposite corners, and the mood is tense. Wendy, a Chinese Yes on 8 activist I talked to earlier, grabs the bullhorn and screams to the gays across the corner: "We love you! First, we are here because we love you. We love you so much!"
Behind her lies a 12-foot banner that reads: Homosexuals and Lesbians are Anti-Species. I ask Wendy later what species are gays against?
"The human species, of course!" she says.
In tonight's interview with Charlie Gibson on ABC, Sarah Palin seemed alarmingly ignorant of what the Bush doctrine is, much less capable of defending it. Gibson asks her: "Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?"
After an uncomfortably long moment of silence, which should have viewers conjuring Dan Quayle's potatoe, Palin asks, "In what respect Charlie?"
Gibson responds, "The Bush--well, what do you interpret it to be?"
Palin answers, "His world view."
Gibson presses the point, "No, the Bush Doctrine, enunciated in September 2002, before the Iraq war," after which Palin talks about Bush's quest to rid the world of Islamic extremism before pivoting to the virtues of democracy and the need for change.
Sensing a weak moment, Gibson proceeds to describe the Bush doctrine as "that we have the right to anticipatory self-defense; that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?"
Palin's response: "I agree that a President's job, when they swear in their oath to uphold the Constitution, their top priority is to defend the United States of America..."
Gibson keeps at it: "Do we have a right to anticipatory self defense? Do we have a right to make a preemptive strike against another country if we feel that country might strike us?"
Palin: "Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country."
Palin's response has much of the liberal blogosphere and even the mainstream media on high alert, and perhaps rightly so. It certainly demonstrates her non-existent command of national security lingo, and indeed, as blogger Hilzoydocuments, Palin confused preventive and preemptive war, stating in fact the doctrine of preemptive war (which is not the neo-con doctrine that prevents war through preemption; confusing I know!)
That said, I worry the peanut gallery is misreading the Bush doctrine and Palin'signorant response to Gibson. The central fact is that coherence,clarity and rationality were not, in fact, what sold the Bush doctrinein the first place. I don't mean to the PNAC crowd or the national securityestablishment that included Condi, Colin and most of Congress. I meanto the press and public. They were won by lies, dissemblance and theentirely emotional appeal to USA FIRST at all costs--that and thecosts of treading against it.
So, even if Palin looked like a moose in headlights, even if sheeventually confused preventive and preemptive war--itmight not matter. Palin ultimately hit the right emotional notes--thesame rah-rah points that secured the Bush doctrine in the first place.1) Islam=evil; 2) Defend the country at all costs. Duty before actual security; 3)the President is right and has to be trusted and supported.
I'm not suggesting that Palin's blinking response was some kind ofcanny, planned strategery--but on a gut level, when pressed andvulnerable, she intuitively echoed the Bush doctrine's originalappeal--even if she could not articulate it's rationale much lessdefend it. Put another way, I'm not sure Bush could have succinctly definedthe Bush doctrine--it didn't matter; that's not what was crucial toits success.
Whether Palin's response matters NOW is not dependent on her ignorance ofit, her ability to state or defend it, but rather if enough of thecountry has moved past the enabling myths it told. I am just not surewe are there yet, or if Obama has enough of a compelling story to getus there.
Barack Obama took audacity to new heights tonight and if thecrowd's reaction to his acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium is any indicator--he knocked it out of the park, touchdown, homerun and every other tired sports metaphor thisblogger can't think of. What impressed me most is the sheer chutzpah ofthe moment--the daring of attempting to fill a football stadium (done),the daunting logistical challenge of coordinating the event (ding), theintelligence and grassroots organizing that went into the programming(yeah, they did) and, above all, how much rhetorical work Obama pulledoff in a speech that had the highest of expectations.
He hit hard on John McCain, tougher than was expected, inverting the normalconvention convention whereby surrogates attack the rival candidate butthe nominee is all sweetness-and-light. Pointing out that McCain voted90 percent of the time with Bush, Obama said, "I don't know about you,but I'm not ready to take a ten percent chance on change," to thunderousand sustained applause. From the economy to the war--Obama linked McCain to the Bush administration's record, and he was helped, perhaps crucially,by six citizens who testified to their very ordinary, very movingordeals--including an autoworker, a teacher, a nurse, a pet store ownerand a guy named Barney Smith, who gave the most memorable line of thenight when he said, in the most adorable dorky way, "We need a Presidentwho fights for Barney Smith, not Smith Barney!"
If, to my mind, there were some political sour notes, especially thesuggestion that Iraq was enjoying a surplus while Americans suffered adeficit, the sheer constraints on a Barack Obama candidacy were alsorevealed--the burden of proving one's patriotism, discrediting ignoblesmears against one's faith (not that there's anything wrong with being aMuslim) and countering the McCain talking point that politicalpopularity is the equivalent of cult worship. Perhaps, because of theseburdens--many unique to Obama, most unfair--some of the necessary,crucial themes seemed, to this blogger, buried too deep within. Theeconomic crisis that most Americans struggle with was movinglyhighlighted, but the solutions--or even the chief culprits--remainedvague. The foreign policy dilemmas remained too wrapped in the languageof American exceptionalism. The culture war was assuaged, but only withsignificant cheats--the idea, for example, that gun control is about"keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals" or that same-sex marriagewas about visiting one's loved one in the hospital.
It's impossible to address--to the satisfaction of the left AND theelectorate--all of these issues in one speech, but this one, this greatone came close--closer than we Americans have any right to expect,perhaps, more than we deserve.
Remember 2004, when many a Democrat (and many more religious right demagogues) blamed gay marriage for John Kerry's defeat? Remember San Francisco, where Senator Dianne Feinstein publicly scolded Mayor Gavin Newsom the morning after for arranging those awful queer unions just in time to get Bush re-elected? No? Well, don't worry. Nobody at the DNC is very much eager to pull out that particular wedding album either. Since those days, California's Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage (prompting Newsom to claim "vindication"), and one--yes, just one--anti-gay marriage initiative was beat back at the polls (in Arizona in 2006) while several others have passed. Meanwhile, a federal marriage amendment--which Bush backs but McCain opposes--hangs over not the Democrats, but the Republicans--a nuclear option that not even Karl Rove seems particularly keen to use.
If gay rights (or opposition to it) is not quite yet a problem for the GOP, it has certainly shifted--rapidly and decisively--to a non-issue in the Democratic party. Indeed, it's become a point of pride for the party as a whole: Melissa Etheridge sang primetime at the DNC, Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin hosted a packed luncheon for LGBT delegates (at which Michelle Obama spoke) and speaker after speaker (including Hillary Clinton) has mentioned gays and lesbians at the podium.
That's not to say the party embraces everything many gay advocates would like ("full marriage equality," for example). But the Democratic platform this year is the most pro-gay it has ever been, calling for a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, employment non-discrimination legislation that includes trans folks, increased money to fight AIDS and opposition to the federal marriage amendment. There was some worry earlier this month by gay activists who noticed that the words "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" appear nowhere in the platform (unlike 2004), but that reflects a move toward using the terms "sexual orientation," "same-sex couple" and "gender identity"--expressions that have some legal teeth. As for marriage, not a single gay delegate I spoke with said it was a make or break issue for them. Most seemed content with the new détente--that the marriage battle is going to be fought out in numerous state referenda and, one day, the Supreme Court--a contentious issue still, but not the so-called determinative national culture war of '04 and nothing to risk a McCain administration over.
Indeed, gay leaders here seemed uncommonly focused on small-bore policy issues, the "gets" immediately possible under a Democratic president and Congress. Jon Hoadley of Stonewall Democrats pointed to getting domestic partnership rights for federal employees, legislation for which is "ready to go," he told me. Rhea Carey of NGLTF emphasized the Bush administration's quiet but thorough gutting of LGBT issues from federal grant guidelines, particularly at HHS, CDC and NIH, which a president Obama could reverse by mere executive order.
And then I met Amanda Simpson, a male-to-female transgender Obama delegate from Arizona who (and I don't think she'd mind me saying) has had about as much work done as Cindy McCain, but looks 100 times better. Simpson was introduced to me as a "rocket scientist," and indeed, she works in the aerospace industry but can't tell me exactly what she does without clearance. She breakfasts here in Denver with a retired one-star general and his wife, also delegates from Arizona, who according to Simpson think, like many military officers, that DADT is silly and outrageous. The specter of 1993, when Clinton pushed gay inclusion in the military too soon and too unilaterally, seems vanquished for the moment, in part at least by the soldier shortage in the war, an odd alliance of sexual politics and imperial necessity. But also, something has softened in the masculine anxiety of the Democrats and the culture at large. I see gays at the Blue Dog caucus, at faith-based events, at national security meetings of lobbyists. Something too, I suppose, has been lost in what being a political gay once meant.
Indeed, the sharpest moment I've encountered in my tour of Democratic homos is the Clinton-Obama divide. For some reason, gays (men in particular) just LOVE Hillary. Cougars may be well represented in the PUMA crowd, but so are twinks, daddies and bears. One delegate, a cute as a button 22 year old from New Mexico, spoke to me conspiratorialy about how none of the Clinton backers in his contingent applauded when Michelle Obama spoke. This seemed, well, bitchy to me. And then, as if on cue, Barney Frank addressed the Clinton die-hards.
"Will everyone else please stop bitching about trivia!" he exclaimed--a rather inopportune verb choice that had some gay PUMAs licking their fur off. Fortunately, Barney talks like he has marbles in his mouth, so his plea came out more like this: "Veel jevvryone else reees rop wristing arout Riviera!"
I thought, for a moment, he was talking about some fabulous drag-queen delegate who had found her name on a map of France. I wouldn't be surprised, here in Denver, if Riviera really were in attendance. And had voted for Hillary.
Standing in line outside the Pepsi Center last night, sandwiched in between a group of rowdy lobbyists from Tennessee and what appeared to be the boys choir of Minnesota, the thought occurred to me: I could really use a valium, maybe a tazer. And then, I had one of those galvanizing chance encounters that remind me why I went into this profession. I struck up a conversation with a Japanese journalist named Shigenori Kanehira who, it turns out, is the Director General of the US office of TBS News. No, not Ted Turner! That's Tokyo Broadcasting System, the largest commercial network in Japan.
Shigenori is here in Denver with 14 colleagues to cover the DNC for Japanese viewers. For the next hour (yes, it really does take that long to get past security), we had a fascinating conversation about how the election is perceived in Japan, US foreign policy, race, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith (he's a big fan) and a host of other issues. I was surprised to learn, for example, that Shigenori is studying evolving public opinion on the death penalty in the US because capital punishment is not only legal and practiced in Japan, but enjoys a 70 percent approval rating. The idea that someone could look at American attitudes to the death penalty with something approaching progressive political envy was staggering to me.
Less surprising, but gratifying nonetheless, was Shigenori's confirmation that George Bush is "the most hated American in Japan." Even Japanese conservatives loathe Bush, who Shigenori says is perceived of as "worse than Nixon." (Here I must say, it really helps to imagine Shigenori's quotes as uttered in the most charming Japanese accent). Barack Obama is wildly popular there, due in large part to the belief that he will change US foreign policy in "Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East and Russia," says Shigenori.
Shigenori's job is to explain the arcane US political system to his viewers, but one big question interests him more than any other. "Is America ready to elect a black man as leader?" Shigenori has been asking delegates this question all week, and he observes that most answer YES with wild enthusiasm. But "you can not just make believe it true," he says. I nod, and Shigenori goes on to tell me that some delegates have refused to touch the question, walking away when asked. I imagine being queried by a Japanese man followed by a Japanese camera crew might having something to do with that reaction, but Shigenori is also right to point out the tenderness of race here at the DNC.
I turn the tables and ask him--As a keen and long-time observer of US politics and culture, what do you think? Is America ready to elect a black man as president? Shigenori looks up, down, then grimaces and slowly shakes his head NO. This response depresses both of us, and we fall into silence and stare at the sky for a while.
During our conversation, Shigenori asks me where I work, and when I say I'm an editor at The Nation magazine, his eyes bug out. "The Nation!" he exclaims, clearly excited, "I am subscriber! The Nation my most favorite magazine! Most fortunate to meet you!" Shigenori peppers me with questions about The Nation, which I have to confess I found marvelously fun. For example, he asks about David Corn, and when I explain to him that David has moved on to Mother Jones but that we have a great new Washington editor named Chris Hayes, Shigenori treats this bit of news like a matter of high state gossip. "The Nation publish Open Letter to Barack Obama!?" he asks, even though he clearly knows the answer. "I agree with Nation policy," Shigenori says.
So folks at home in the office, please set aside some Nation t-shirts--probably size medium--for my new friend and our old fan.
I spent today with LGBT Democrats--it's very important here to say L/G/B/T or else someone will make a point, later on in conversation and not so subtly, of reminding you about a very important issue for the Bs or Ts (and sometimes Ls) that flies under the gaydar. I'll blog about those later tonight, but right now I'm heading off to the Pepsi Center for the second night and so, as mental armor, share my thoughts about the first.
The Pepsi Center is quite simply the biggest echo chamber I've ever encountered, not so much groupthink, but GroupFeel--an attunement of emotion that would seem overly choreographed (picture: Beijing Olympic ceremonies) if it weren't also visibly earnest. I watched Michelle Obama's speech next to a group of older women delegates, and by the end, all were openly weeping. Afterwards, the one question everyone got asked by everyone was--whaddya think of Michelle's speech?--by which they really meant--how much did you LOVE Michelle's speech? A lot or a lot?
For the record, I thought it was fine, as far as the odd genre of first-lady-in-waiting speeches go. But it's hard to discern, inside the bubble, just how it played to the outside. Wishing I had watched from a red-neck bar on the outskirts of the city, I made due and asked some friends at home who watched on TV like most Americans what the going read was. "Off-Broadway monologue," quipped one. "She seemed really black. I worry about racist backlash more than before," said another. These are not conceivable ideas inside Pepsi where the only other possible answer to--whaddya think of Michelle's speech?--is the kind of pundit neologisms that pervade electoral politics and in which, thanks to cable news, everyone is well versed. "She humanized Barack. Home Run!" and "She successfully beat back her negatives." Before these were heard on CNN, this blogger heard them on the floor.
I say this all because the power of group affect seems really key at this convention in particular. It's not like Boston and 2004, when Democrats were almost unanimous in their dispassion about Kerry. Without treading into the cult of personality meme about Obama, there is a very powerful pull to manifest belief here, to radiate, like everyone else, hope, cheer--Yes, we can. But there are a lot of people here who, quietly and almost secretively, can't go along for the emotional ride. Eve Fairbanks at TNR reported yesterday on a quasi-secret "safe space" for Hillary die-hards, a suite where PUMAs can go to vent about Obama-maniacs and watch Fox News. Her dispatch, and my talk today with some gays for Hillary (more about that later) made clear to me that whatever role the media has played in inflating the PUMA storyline, there is a legitimate kernel of interest in the matter. People need a "safe space" at a convention to discuss their political opinions? A roll call vote is going to destroy the party?
I thought I was at a political convention--you know, about politics and stuff. That Hillary Clinton's candidacy is the vehicle to remind us about the actual democratic function of democratic parties is, well, both ironic and imperfect. But there you go.
Jesse Helms' death on July 4 was read by many as the last gasp of a no longer breed of conservatism--the explicit defense of Jim Crow, the escalation of homophobic rhetoric to murderous levels, the hard-edge of red-baiting imperialism. But Helms was in many ways the epitome of the New Right, and his significance should not be dismissed as merely colorful commentary. I asked my friend, Lisa Duggan, professor of American Studies at NYU, how she'd characterize Helms' legacy. She's at work on a political biography of Helms. Here are her thoughts:
Jesse Helms, American Bigot
by Lisa Duggan
Did he plan it? Did he struggle on life support until after the midnight hour, timing his last breath? Or had he been dead for days, his associates keeping the body on ice for the holiday announcement? Jesse Helms, dead on the 4th of July.
Helms would have appreciated the symbolism, confirming the his own mythic identity as a Proud American, but Helms' other legacy as A Big Fat Bigot is well established. From his racist tirades on the radio and television in North Carolina during the 1950s and 60s, to his vicious homophobic rants of the 1980s and 90s, he left a highly quotable record of hate.
On the civil rights movement:"'Candy' is hardly the word for either the topless swimsuit or the Civil Rights Bill. In our judgment, neither has a place in America--unless we have completely lost our sense of morality."
"The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that's thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men's rights."
On sexual politics and public health:"The government should spend less money on people with AIDS because they got sick as a result of deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct."
In death it's easy to dismiss Jesse Helms as a colorful buffoon or a relic of the bad old days of segregation and sexism, but that doesn't do Helms' bigotry justice.
Jesse Helms was an important bigot. He didn't just fume and huff. He used the language of cultural politics--called "morality" or "values" or just "freedom"--to shrink the state, reduce the social wage, enhance the interests of ruthless corporate profit mongering, and promote US military interventions around the world. He's the poster boy for how cultural politics works, not as an arena separated from the "real" political economy, but as the site of the language and emotion through which people live politics and economics everyday.
Helms began his political career in North Carolina as a reporter, with ties to the banking and tobacco industries. As a "newsman" on WRAL radio and television in Raleigh, North Carolina, he didn't just hammer opponents with red baiting accusations like every other demagogue, he laced his commentaries on radio and television with the kind of creative rhetorical jihads against the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement that later gave the Rovian Republican Party its bad name. But he didn't rest on his laurels as a rhetorician. He ran for Congress, built a record breaking Senate campaign war chest, and went on to become a central architect of the New Right network of corporations, foundations and committees.
Malicious rhetorician and image maker, major fundraiser and creator of the modern big money electoral campaign, networked right wing institution and movement builder–Jesse Helms was so much more than just another bigot. He was a stalwart supporter of anti-union policies, and active in US foreign policy debates. In his career on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he pursued US imperial policies both overt and covert. He supported inequality at home and violence abroad and gave it all the name Morality. He wasn't just that annoying Senator No, tying up the Congress and stalling judicial nominations and all that. He both reflected and shaped, and helped legitimate and enshrine, a metastasizing array of virulent anti-democratic forces in American politics in the post World War II period.
To paraphrase Gore Vidal's obituary for William F.Buckley, RIP JH–in hell.