Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sarah, Plain and White

My British friends (two of them, at least) assure me that a character like Sarah Palin could never gain traction in English politics. Here’s my theory as to why this should be so: In the UK there is more respect for informed opinion than there is here. I think this explains a lot about American politics.

I have often heard that Americans are just plain dumb, but I don’t buy this explanation. At least not exactly. If being smart means being able to figure out your situation and responding to it appropriately, Americans do as well as anyone else. We do have certain emblems of achievement: the largest economy in the world; the best equipped and trained military in the world; the best record of achievement in Nobel Prizes; the best university system in the world -- to name a few.

So I’m not quite satisfied with the “Americans are just plain dumb” explanation. And yet choosing Sarah Palin as a leader is a festering symptom of some kind of mental lapse. So how do we explain her popularity with the Tea Partiers?

Back to the “respect for informed opinion” factor. Sarah Palin is well liked because she promotes the Tea Party narrative of America. According to this narrative, Americans have always been hard-working white individualists who don’t need the government and who give their children names like George and Jennifer -- not names like Consuelo, Enrique, Latifah or Shaquille.

According to the Tea Party version of history, America has been “taken away” by the wrong people, people who use the government to ruin the lives of hard-working white people by siphoning off unearned cash into their own pockets.

I know something about this because I received a number of angry responses to an article I wrote for the Ledger a couple weeks ago. Angry email responses provoked by my article alluded to the unfairness of government programs for poor people, and some of the responses specified the non-whiteness of those they imagined to be the main beneficiaries of these programs. When I replied to these angry writers pointing out that a lot of government programs have historically favored white people (the GI Bill as it was originally administered, the big tax breaks given to homeowners, tax-supported public universities, and so on) my critics wrote back – should I say spewed back – that these government programs only served deserving Americans.

The overt racial element in these angry emails parallels the verbal bigotry that Democratic legislators faced from the Tea Partiers during the Health Care vote. I really believe their shouts of “We want our country back!” really mean “We white people want our country back.” It is racism, not government spending per se, that motivates an awful lot of them.

As I’ve said before, if it was really government debt they were worried about, they would have denounced Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush who first plunged us into serious debt. If it were government handouts in general that they hated, they would be demanding an end to tax write-offs for homeowners, and the closing of public universities. But they aren’t. They are angry at welfare recipients and those who will benefit from the new health care bill, and, according to their distorted perceptions, these beneficiaries are mainly Black or Hispanic and may even be undocumented Hispanic.

Sarah Palin suits them because she is a relatively attractive white woman who massages their prejudices. Would it be possible for a Black woman or a Wise Latina Woman to play her role? In a word, no. First, because only people who have enjoyed the privileges of whiteness could spout the nonsense that Palin peddles, and secondly, because the racist factor means that for many Tea Partiers only white people fit the image of true Americans.

Yes, there is racism in Britain, but what seems special about Tea Party racism is its elaborate self delusion about government handouts constructed on a foundation of anti-intellectualism. And anti-intellectualism is one of those things that we Americans still do better than most.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Jig Is Up

Yes, the jig is up for me and Nergal. Glenn Beck is onto us. You will know what I mean if you take a look at the video link showing on my Facebook profile

On another note, I had a few extra minutes this morning to watch my favorite conservative on "Morning Joe" today. Yes, some of Joe Scarborough's ideas are misguided, but there are a couple of things you can say in his favor: First, he is not Rush Limbaugh, and second, he does not support the absolutely looney ideas that are prevalent among right-wingers these days(e.g., Obama is a Kenyan-born socialist Muslim and friend of terrorists). Also, let's add to these "nuttier than a Georgia fruitcake" allegations a few more conservative delusions: for instance, that Bush and Cheney were behind the 9/11 attacks and that FEMA has constructed concentration camps where right-thinking Americans will eventually be rounded up and confined. Yes, I'm not kidding, there are people out there who believe these things.

Anyway, Joe is wrong-headed in my opinion, but at least his head seems to contain an adequately functioning brain - which is why he is different from Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, or Glenn Beck (and I don't say this just because Beck blew the cover off our 3,000-year plan to enslave humanity - see note above).

I actually enjoy watching Joe, who does have a sense of humor. Plus, there is his sidekick, Mika Brzrzszvzezinski (note to self: check spelling before posting) who is Zbigniew's daughter and, besides being smart and easier on the eyes than Joe, adds a needed dimension to the program by playing the disapproving schoolmarm to Joe and the guys who are inclined to indulge in bawdy adolescent humor. This humor is funnier when a responsible adult is there to show how mature people should react to their bad behavior, and Mika fulfills this role nicely.

Today's Morning Joe was particularly good because it featured Elizabeth Warren, who has become the face of public interest in our fight against the Wall Street greedheads who got us into our current economic mess. Elizabeth Warren -- Harvard Professor, the Boston Globe's Bostonian of the Year and, according to Time Magazine, one of America's most influential people -- heads one of the few government institutions that stand between us and the voracious creeps who run Wall Street and who apparently won't be satisfied as long as any of us ordinary citizens still has a dollar or two in our wallet.

Good on ya, Professor Warren.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lleno de Caca

People are selfish. At the same time, people are generous. When an actor wins an Oscar, as Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock did last Sunday, you can see that they are thrilled about their win. Bridges in particular didn’t make the slightest effort to hide his excitement and why should he? He is a great actor and, from what I can tell, a good guy who Academy voters genuinely like.

But, while I see nothing wrong in being overtly thrilled at winning an Oscar, I don’t think there’s any way to deny that being thrilled is selfish. Having won means you are well regarded (narcissistic high!), you will be more famous than ever for a little while (ditto!), your name will be inscribed in Hollywood history (ditto again), and you can charge more for your future roles (cf. the Bible on “the root of all evil”).

But while selfishness is a design feature of human nature, so is generosity. Or maybe a better way to put this is to say mutual dependence is so basic to us that it is like the air we breathe. We could not survive were we all simply selfish. Without this mutual dependence we would be facing the “war of all against all” imagined by Thomas Hobbes, and our lives truly would be, as he predicted, “nasty, brutish and short.” There are people who can themselves be described as “nasty, brutish and short,” but since I myself am not at all tall, I will have little more to say about this. Anyway, Hobbes was referring to our lives, not our former vice president or any other specific individuals, when he conjured up that famous phrase.

What I’m getting at is that our lives are so completely bound up with each other that a Hobbesian war of “all against all” is simply an impossibility. Yes, we do often and in some ways compete against each other, but we cooperate with each other much more routinely.

Even the Oscars are a ritual of cooperation. The organization of the Academy Awards ceremony depends on thousands of cooperating participants. Even when the “all against all” aspect is emphasized – as when the competing candidates are listed just before the winner is announced – group-oriented rituals are followed. I suppose it would add to the drama if, just before the envelope was opened, a fiercely competitive candidate were to bolt for the stage, grab the envelope and declare himself winner. But nobody has ever done this, not even Harvey Weinstein.

I’m just saying that our lives are completely enveloped in cooperativeness, and yet we talk as though America is an arena of endless competition.

Part of the reason for all this “competition” talk is political. Conservatives often preach that competition (sometimes described as “the magic of the marketplace”) can solve all our problems. So competition is talked up in the corporate-controlled press. And in America virtually all of our news is corporate-controlled, so it is talked up a lot.

The right wing has its reasons for making us think life is all about competition. One reason is that those who control wealth can claim that since, in competitive arenas, the strong and smart get rich, it would be wrong to ask people with wealth to pay a relatively large proportion of their income to support society – hence Steve Forbes’ touting of “the flat tax” and George W. Bush claiming (dishonestly) that rich people are rich because “they earned” their wealth.

Any introductory sociology course worth its tuition will reveal that most of the wealth held by the super-rich in the U.S. is not earned but inherited. Bush’s certainly was. Steve Forbes was also born to wealth. Neither of them got rich by “earning” wealth, and neither did the great majority of those who are rich.

What conservatives like Bush and Forbes seem to imagine is that had they been born the children of, say, impoverished Mexican-American migrant workers, they would nevertheless, because of their outstanding personal qualities, have undoubtedly grown up to be multimillionaires. They are, in other words, full of caca.

Actually they may not be that stupid. They may simply be monstrously greedy. But I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt here by judging them to be idiots.

The Tea Partiers are (consciously or unconsciously) in league with these guys. The big message that the TPers keep promoting (other than that Obama is a socialist) is that our government is accumulating too much debt and we citizens shouldn’t have to pay the taxes we pay.

OK, just as an aside, I would have a lot more confidence in the TPers had they taken to the streets in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan began piling up unprecedented and shockingly humongous debts. Also, they might have taken to the streets to cheer Bill Clinton for undoing the deficit damage Reagan had done and balancing the budget in the 1990s. And, again, they might have raised a ruckus when George W. Bush, with his reckless, pro-rich-people tax cuts ran up the debt again in the past decade. But they didn’t. Only now, when Barack Obama, for absolutely necessary reasons, increases the debt, do the TPers decide to protest the red ink. It obviously isn’t the debt that concerns them, so I have to wonder what they are really up to.

Anyway, the “lower our taxes” part of their protest is exactly what Forbes, Bush and other born millionaires like to see. If the government has its hands tied this will help the super-rich (who are mainly corporate fat cats) get richer. This is because there are really only two major sources of power in America today: One is the political power that depends on the voting process (aka democracy or “government”) and the other is corporate power that serves the interests of people like Bush and Forbes. If the government’s power is reduced (i.e., if democracy is somewhat weakened), then corporations can have their way with us more freely than ever.

There is no third way. We can depend on the power of elected officials (hoping that those officials have not been totally bought off by corporate money), or we can put our fates in the hands of Wall Street bankers and companies like A.I.G., Halliburton, ExxonMobil, etc.

The conservatives and their Tea Party supporters are fighting to increase corporate power. And part of the justification for this goal is the idea (the dream, really) that says open competition will bring everything into balance, ensuring that only deserving souls will be rewarded. So deregulate everything, cut everyone’s taxes and just let all that competitive energy loose. But what would happen if we did this? In fact we actually did this once before – in the 1920s when conservative Republican president Calvin Coolidge said “the business of America is business.” To find out what happens when government regulations are whittled away and competition goes wild, just take a look at the 1930s that followed directly from Coolidge’s policies. Or, don’t go that far back; just take a look at what happened on Wall Street in 2008 as a consequence of banking deregulation.

I agree that competition has its place, but only after a basic system of social cooperation has been tended to. Right now this means sticking it to those Wall Street bankers who keep rewarding themselves with billions because they are sure (like Bush and Forbes are) that their superior natures entitle them to all that loot. Let’s hope that our representatives in Congress have not been so completely bought off by Wall Street money that they are capable of doing the necessary sticking. If they aren’t, it’s time to rewrite our campaign financing laws so that at least some of our elected officials can find a way to do right by us voters instead of always catering to that noxious swarm of greedy, self-deluded financial backers.