Sunday, September 30, 2012

When Liberals and Conservatives Debate...

One of my proudest moments in recent years was seeing my name in David Horowitz's book, "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America."

However, I was disappointed and resentful that Horowitz didn't include me as one of his "Most Dangerous Professors."  In fact, he barely mentioned me, merely misrepresenting a conversation we had in such a way as to fit his conservative narrative about liberal professors.  I know, I know, I should have gotten over this by now.

I mention this incident because last week I again engaged in a mini-debate with a conservative, but this time not with a well-financed blowhard whose scheme is to bully scholars, but with young Tracy, who is both very bright and very dear to me.  Our discussion (which also included other participants) started with my expressing disgust at the Republican Party's hostility to democracy as shown in its efforts to suppress the votes of minorities and poor people.  Tracy's objections included the idea that poor people aren't really so poor that a small registration fee should pose a problem for them, since a survey she cited had shown that over 60% of poor households in America had 2 to 4 televisions.

Leaving the GOP-suppression-of-democracy issue aside for the moment, I'd like to consider the way perceptions of "what's going on with poor people" starkly divide liberals from conservatives.  The conservative image is somewhat reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's old claim (the one whose significance he totally made up) about a welfare queen who "...has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000." Reagan's implied message: "This typical welfare case shows why we have to end our current system."

OK, this was a bald, conservative lie designed to reinforce voters' prejudices against poor people, especially African-American poor people.  Shame on you, Ronald Reagan, for grubbing after votes by promoting bigotry with this outrageous misinformation.

But the television-rich-households-of-poor-people story is not so easily dismissed as is the welfare queen myth, being based, as it is, on real and responsible research.  The question for me then comes down to, "What do these televisions mean?"

As a liberal, my instinctive reaction to Tracy's data was to come up with possible explanations: "How many of these households comprise families foreclosed on, who bought their TVs in better days?  Or, how many are single-parent households, where a recently divorced or abandoned mother with a couple of kids still has the household detritus from better times?"  And so on.  The point is, my liberal instincts told me I had to hold on to my image of poor people: these fellow citizens are desperate and in need of support despite their television inventory.

Tracy's conservative instincts, I'm pretty sure, told her to hold onto the conservative narrative of "poor" people as essentially gaming the system by looking for good times at the taxpayers' expense while enjoying a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

One reason these debates go on year after year is that each side clings to a justifying narrative.  Evidence that contradicts each narrative, even when presented by respectable sources, as was the "television-and-poor-people" study, needs to be somehow "tamed" so that it doesn't threaten the preconceived, politically appropriate narrative.

And yet, I still see poor people, despite their access to Honey Boo Boo and other glories of American TV culture, as hard-pressed.  I have a number of reasons for this.  One is my recognition that television has become, not exactly a necessity, but a near necessity in contemporary life.  I first took note of this while doing fieldwork among Maya Indians in the Yucatan about 40 years ago.  My Maya friends in the village of Pustunich were poor, no doubt about that.  Buying a soft drink for most of them was kind of a luxury.  And yet I was astonished one evening as I strolled down a village path, to come across a thatched hut through whose open door I could clearly see and hear a television - and looking up, sure enough, I saw an antenna poking through the thatching of the hut's roof.  That's an image I'll never forget, a loud and lively television program blaring out of an otherwise darkened Maya thatched hut.  (The other thing I'll never forget was my Maya friends telling me, "Beware the Ides of 2012!" but I don't know what was up with that.)

I drew a specific conclusion about television at that time: "As soon as people can scrape together a few dollars in this twentieth-century world, the first thing they want - even before a refrigerator or a motor scooter - is a television."  This impression has stayed with me ever since, and even been reinforced.  In Hong Kong in the 1970s, I noticed that virtually all of the Chinese families I visited owned televisions, even though many of these families were desperately poor.  One night I was astonished to notice a Chinese squatter family that did not even own a house, but who had thrown together a kind of hodgepodge roof-shelter for themselves in a Kowloon alleyway, watching television in the open air of their dark-alley home.

I think that for people in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, television is the equivalent of a window on the world.  To not have access to TV feels like living in a windowless room cut off from any knowledge of the world outside.

All of this is connected to my sense (as a liberal) that poor people are bad off, even when they have televisions.  To really settle the question of what the meaning of two or more televisions in a poor household means might require an ethnographic study.  But short of that, I'm going with the narrative that my liberal instincts tell me makes sense, though, I'm guessing, a conservative's instincts will tell her or him to be leery of television-owning people claiming that their lives are dominated by a desperate struggle for money.

I've lived among poor people in Asia and Latin America, but I've never lived in a truly poor neighborhood in the U.S.  I do know someone, however, who suffered from poverty in their youth to such an extent that the single parent in charge of the household would routinely hide when police came to the door because of the debts owed by that parent.  Life was a struggle in a dozen different ways for this family - a family that was suddenly plunged into poverty because their insurance company declined to cover an expensive and debilitating illness suffered by one of the parents.  But they did have television.  I feel for the children of this family, but should I begrudge them their television entertainment?  Should I tell them they don't deserve food stamps until they sell their television(s) to buy food?  My instincts tell me no, this is not reasonable, but then, my instincts are liberal.  People with different political philosophies may think differently.

           Rural Chinese  Hut with Satellite Dish
                             (from Travellerspoint)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Who Hates Democracy?

Some truths really are self-evident.  Like, for example, that the Fonz was cool, that Kate Middleton is a cutie, and that Republicans hate democracy.

Well, to be fair, not all of these are equally self-evident to everyone.  So let me rephrase my premise: some truths are self-evident to everyone except to those people who watch Fox News instead of keeping up with current events.

For those who do keep up with current events, the truth about Republican hostility to democracy is as self-evident as the Fonz’s coolness and Kate’s cuteness. 

Let’s set aside Governor Romney’s expressed contempt for 47% of the voters that he revealed last week, and focus for the moment on GOP attempts to strip Americans of their right to vote.

The claim promoted by GOP leaders - but dismissed by every honest observer as bogus - is that they are worried about voter fraud.  Actually “Voter Fraud” is so rare and inconsequential as to be no more worrisome than boa constrictors in the bedroom, yet this is the battle cry the Republicans are raising as they fight to keep voters, particularly Democratic-leaning Black and Hispanic voters, from voting.

In Florida, the GOP has succeeded in cutting short the early voting period and has specifically eliminated voting on the Sunday before Election Day.  This is their way of sticking it to African-American voters, who in the past have gathered at their churches on Sunday to be bussed to their polling places to vote.

More well-known are Republican efforts to require voters to have picture IDs, the very kind of identification that has not been required in the past, but that will prevent thousands of poor voters who lack drivers’ licenses to exercise their rights.  As Republican Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania’s House Majority, announced last June, the voter ID law in that state “… is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.

Of course, some may argue that Republicans define democracy differently from the way the rest of us do.  To Mitch McConnell, for example, democracy apparently means “ensuring that the president doesn’t get re-elected.”

And in 2000, Governor Jeb Bush believed that it was his duty, as the elected representative of the people of Florida, to get his brother George into the White House.  Or, as he petulantly put it, not let Al Gore make him (Jeb) forget who his brother was.

Thanks, Jeb.

No doubt it was their success in getting George W. Bush into the White House over the objections of the voters that inspires current GOP efforts to subvert democracy.  In swing states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, one law after another is being pushed forward by Republicans, all aimed at making it harder for those voters they don’t like to vote.

In fact, Republican efforts at voter suppression are so ruthless that Abraham Lincoln would surely be shocked and disgusted by the party that he helped establish.  Of course, if he were alive today, Mr. Lincoln would be angrily rejected by the anti-Black, anti-democratic and anti-government right-wingers that dominate the GOP anyway.  As I’ve said before, the Republican Party has so thoroughly abandoned the compassion, wisdom and virtue that Lincoln embodied, that it has no longer has any right to call itself the “Party of Lincoln.”  A much more appropriate title today is “The Party of Nixon.”

Now some readers might object that they actually know Republicans who are reject their party's voter suppression campaign, and I don’t doubt that there are some, though I’d like sure to hear from them.  Still, even self-evident truths have their exceptions.  After all, Fonzi wasn’t always cool; he did once literally “jump the shark.”  And Kate Middleton probably isn’t always cute.  I can imagine that if she were to wear a Mitch McConnell mask, she wouldn’t be cute at all.  

                        Kate Middleton in Disguise

 So the fact that some Republicans are embarrassed by their party’s voter suppression doesn’t take away from my original point: Republicans hate democracy.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Grover World

Polls indicate that President Obama is likely to win in November.  Naturally we don’t want to be overconfident about this, but, just for fun, let’s consider what the Republican Party has come to look like as it faces its probable loss under Mitt Romney's banner.  Such a loss, by the way, would be the fifth out of the last six elections, if we think strictly in terms of how people voted, and not in terms of who managed to bamboozle their way into the White House in the face of voter opposition.

The GOP has gradually become the party of rich, white guys and those foolish enough to identify with them.  The prototypical Republican is Grover Norquist, a fanatically anti-tax white guy who grew up in cushy privilege and who has dedicated his life to making sure that people in desperate poverty have no opportunity to escape this fate.  I’m not sure why Grover holds poor people in such contempt, and, of course, he doesn’t actually say, “I want to stick it to poor people,” at least not in so many words.  What he says are things like “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.

But what does this bathtub murder scenario imply?  Its primary message is that those people who live on the brink of starvation and despair would be absolutely on their own in Grover World. People whose homes have been lost as a consequence of Bush era deregulations and pro-business policies would be told, “Hard cheese on you, losers.  Hope you and your kids like living in your Corolla, because you’re gonna be staying there for quite a while.”

People who do the back-breaking work of vegetable harvesting, (so that the rest of us won’t starve), who get paid minimum wage for this, and whose children are trapped in a migratory world where adequate schooling is impossible without government assistance, will be told in Grover World, “Thanks for the food amigos, but screw you and screw your niños también.” 

Grover’s main device for sticking it to poor people is his anti-tax pledge.  This pledge depends on a lot of Republicans - who lack the guts to tell Grover to shove it - kowtowing to him by promising not to support any legislation that includes tax increases no matter how reasonable they may be.  I think it’s fair to say that this pledge is the main reason for America losing its top credit rating last year.  It is also one of the reasons that our government is in danger of going “over the fiscal cliff” in December if a new budget has not yet been agreed to by then.

This “over the fiscal cliff” scenario would entail a worldwide depression that would likely last for many years.  But at least poor people wouldn’t be getting any help from the government!
Score one for Grover.

The good news is that the GOP has continued to identify itself as the party of rich white guys to such an extent that its base is steadily shrinking as the population grows diverse.  At this rate it may eventually shrink to such a size that even a poor migrant worker’s child could drown it in a bathtub.  But, of course, this idle talk is beside the point because the migrant workers I’ve known have large and generous hearts. Such cruel and ghastly imagery doesn’t seem to come naturally to them.

                              Grover Norquist      

I was born rich and privileged.  The rest of you can just suck on it.”*

* Editor's insightful interpretation of Grover's thinking.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mitt Romney: An Honest Guy Like Me Can Be Trusted to Keep His Tax Records Secret

In his acceptance speech last Thursday, Mitt Romney made an effort to convince us he was just like any other ordinary American who happened to have inherited millions of dollars from his Dad and who doesn’t want anyone to know about how what he has done with all that money and the taxes he was supposed to pay on it.

To an extent he succeeded.  As a number of commentators have said, this was “as good a speech as Mitt Romney can deliver.”  I think I can agree with that, though I would have to modify the meaning of “good speech,” to include those speeches that may have their desired effect even though they are chock full of lies.

I feel a bit naïve calling out a politician for lying since, truth be told, all politicians avoid the truth to some extent, and if they didn’t they couldn’t be successful politicians (cf. Cultureworld21c,  Sept. 4, 2010).  But there are lies, there are damn lies and there are lies of such stunning audacity that one wonders whether to condemn the one who utters them or admire him for his boldness.  Mitt’s speech – and Paul Ryan’s before him – fall into this third category.

To illustrate, I will hereby present Mitt’s speech but leave out the dishonest parts lest I be accused of lamely propagating falsehoods as the media so often does in its effort to appear unbiased.

              Mitt’s Speech (with the overt lies sanitized out)

Mr. Chairman, delegates. I accept your nomination for President of the United States of America. I do so with ________________.
Tonight I am asking you to___________________________________________.  In the days ahead, you will get to know Paul and Janna better.  __________________________________________________________________________________________. But Paul, I still like the playlist on my iPod better than yours.

Four years ago, I know that many Americans felt______________________________________
_____________________We are a nation of immigrants___________-____________________
But today, four years from the excitement of the last election ____________________________

If I am elected President of these United States, _______________________________________
________________________________________________________________together tonight.

OK, never mind.  That didn’t work out as well as I had hoped.  Let me try a different tack.  I’ll focus on some of the more egregious lies in the speech, like some of those worthy of a Four Pinnochios or Pants on Fire designation from and Politifact.

1.  “I have a plan to create 12 million jobs.”

Well, what is it, Mitt?  The only “plan” you’ve presented is a batch of boilerplate right-wing platitudes along the lines of less government, lower taxes, reducing the debt, etc.  Furthermore, a number of nonpartisan analysts have projected job growth of around 10 to 12 million jobs over the next four years no matter who is president.  What the hell, Mitt?
2. “I will begin my presidency with a jobs tour. President Obama began with an apology tour.”

It is amazing that Romney would resort to the sort of lie that portrays Obama as a cringing coward given that the latter was responsible for 
          ordering the high-risk operation that eliminated Osama bin Laden

   increasing the drone strikes on terrorist leaders to a point that has infuriated the Pakistani government, among others, 
          increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan, and 
          backing the Libyan rebels with enough air power to allow them to overthrow Gaddafi

I can’t say I approve of all of the more militant aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, but I gotta ask, doesn’t the Mormon Church teach its people anything about lying?  I mean, I’m sure making up slanderous falsehoods is not considered acceptable in Mormon theology.  Furthermore, common sense would tell you that if you’re going to make stuff up, shouldn’t it at least have some connection to the truth so that people don’t see right away that it’s patent bullshit? 

3. “Unlike President Obama, I will not raise taxes on the middle class.”

Come again?  Does Mitt mean that Obama will “raise taxes” (that is, terminate the “temporary” tax cuts initiated by Bush) on people who earn more than $250,000 per year?  To be fair on this one, Mitt may actually believe that multi-millionaires are the middle class. 

4. “His $716 billion cut to Medicare to finance Obamacare will both hurt today’s seniors, and depress innovation — and jobs — in medicine.”

This is one big, fat, stinking pile of something other than the truth.  But, I guess there’s no need to go on.  You get the idea.

What Romney seems to be doing is telling so many lies that the Obama camp will be overwhelmed by the incoming swarm.  In a sense, the Romney strategy combines Goebbels’ belief in the effectiveness of the big lie with current military doctrine on the effectiveness of the swarming attack.  If there are enough lies out there, maybe the Obama people won’t have the wherewithal to swat them all down.

And yet, Governor Romney wants us to “trust him” on his tax returns.


                                Man vs. Swarm