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Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Well, if I’ve learned one thing in this life (and that’s a stretch), it’s that writing is a habit. That’s just as true of blogging. The requirements of the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences knocked me off my blogging game for awhile and into my much more comfortable game of being lazy.

"Much like the tides, much like the seasons, much like the Robin in spring, I have returned."--Dr. Dre (loosely paraphrased)

But, much like every single rapper who has ever released a second album–I would like to inform you that I am back. Y’all thought Dre fell off? I mean, y’all thought Dhar fell off? Naw, I just tripped and broke my face on the ground and twisted an ankle. Hardcore.

Some updates:
* I finished my thesis. I never want to see it again.
* I can now read for fun–which, ironically, entails reading pretty much the same sort of stuff I was reading for my thesis, but with less note taking. Inasmuch, I am currently reading Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. Classic Rushdie–which means, awesome. And it’s a revenge story. Fun.
* You are now reading words written by someone with a MASTER’S DEGREE! IN ENGLISH! This means my blog will now be 75% more coherent. When I’m sober.
* The NBA playoffs are in full dribble, which means I have transitioned into sports nerd. It happens every year about this time. Strangely, this does not succeed in making me any cooler.
* Go Celtics.

God bless the Tea Partiers!

Monday, January 25th, 2010

If you turn on your desk lamp and squint at it real hard, it can almost look like the sun shining through a bank of threatening clouds. Right now I see some light, but I can’t be sure if it’s real starshine or just burning filaments, fueled by coal plants that are devouring the planet.

Either way, I’m going toward it. At least it’s probably a compact fluorescent.

Ironically, thanks to increased wind resistance and lower mileage, this car is not very green.

If you haven’t noticed, I like my metaphors strained. But my point is this: from the darkness of the last few weeks, some semblance of a glimmering of a spark has emerged. Perhaps we can regrow the grassroots that withered after the ’08 election. The activists that turned Obama’s campaign into a movement got complacent. Many of them did, anyway. They remembered that campaigning for Obama made them miss a lot of football games. But now, much like Brett Favre the morning after announcing another retirement, they have awoken to see the terror of staying home. Angered, they want to go back to work. They will put on their cleats again and throw interception passes if that’s what it comes to, so long as they return to the field. They will make football metaphors in an effort to inspire, because nothing inspires quite like large grunting men in colorful tights. Nothing.

On Sunday I attended a community forum in Brooklyn with two congress members (Yvette Clarke and Anthony Weiner–whose name, I will continue to pretend, is not remotely humorous). A lot of policy nerds talked nerdy policy. A lone conservative attended (this is Park Slope, after all) who was either doing his best interpretation of a three-year-old with a full bladder or really desperately wanted to be called on to ask a question. (His question was, and I paraphrase, “Hello. I am completely loony. Everyone be impressed.” Really, he was clearly not all there. I know intelligent and reasonable conservatives live in this country, but they appear not to attend town halls.)

But I won’t get into the policy stuff too much right now. The take home message for me came from Yvette Clarke: If people want Congress to get things done, they’ve got to keep campaigning. “Remember,” Clarke said. “This is war.” You can’t just campaign for president and then go take a four-year dump. Because the opposition won’t. The tea partiers swept Scott Brown into power and continue to intimidate Congressmen from supporting health reform. Teabaggers travel to DC. They shout. They make angry phonecalls. They crowd the sidewalks. They lodge incoherent complaints against socialism while simultaneously bitching about the inadequacy of public transportation to take them to their protests. Congresspeople see this sound and fury and their balls fall off. They just fall right off. This is a basic physiological response of the common Congressus Democratus Americanus. Crowds make their balls drop. It’s the damnedest thing. Scientists liken it to an opossum playing dead: no one fights putrefied roadkill, and, the Congressional Democrat thinking goes, no one’s going to kick my balls if I have none.

But I digress (as usual, immaturely). Clarke’s point was this: Congress people need to see, need to hear from, their constituents. They will–they HAVE–responded to the teabagger mobs and shouts. Counter mobs, and counter shouts, can play a role, too. So, paradoxically, I think the rise of the tea party movement could re-inspire the movement that swept Obama to power. We actually have a role. We have a vital role–and not just during elections. The tea-partiers have proved that. Should I blame Obama for why we dropped off the screen after the election? I think, in part, I should. He has pursued policy in a way that implied the only important actors were Harry Reid, Olympia Snowe–and above all, Emperor Joe Lieberman. He offered no “Now make me do it” advice a la FDR. (Or, at least, the administration did not emphasize this.) But now, thanks to his, and Coakley’s, and congress’ failures, Obama’s voters see that we do indeed have to make him, and them, do it. And we can. Well, we’ve got a chance. That’s empowering. If the tea partier’s can shout them down, perhaps a counter wail can stiffen their spines.

A lot of energy crackles now in places that had gone dark. The Pass the damn bill movement seems to be growing. At least half the crowd at Sunday’s event voiced their enthusiastic support for the House immediately passing the Senate’s bill. Most of the others wanted some combination of that and additional changes through reconciliation. I don’t think many wanted to give up or start over. And they desperately wanted to heed Clarke’s call for engagement. “Get us on the buses!” they said (meaning, the buses to DC). Perhaps all these activists needed a rest after the election. Understandably. Now, I think, a mighty second wind is filling their lungs.

I realize, of course, that the tea party movement had some pretty shallow roots. Fox News and the RNC sponsored it, basically created it. So what. Real people went to those rallies, carried those signs, and took over that movement. Getting things done takes the cooperation of compromised institutions and actual citizens. For the tea partiers, that institution was Fox. For progressives, it’s the Democratic party. It may feel dirty, but that’s where grass grows.

And, in case you’re wondering, I expect the last bits of my idealism to be completely shit-kicked out of me by, oh, age 50. Until then…

Ideological Shorthand

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

This is somewhat yesterweek’s news, but I wasn’t keeping a blog then, so suck on it topicality! So…health care reform and the public option. (Right? We all want to hear about that some more, right?) The “Kill the Bill” noise sure has quieted down. Perhaps that’s because the liberals who wanted more progressive legislation have given up—after all, the Senate passed their bill and all that remains is conference between those two groups of mostly white men who talk to the lobbyists. It’s a done deal, so why bother?

Well, for one thing, if they really thought the bill sans-public option was a net negative for the country, then wouldn’t they still be protesting (i.e., angrily blogging)? Once congressmen begin the messy process of merging the two bills (hint, first get the House bill drunk then make sure the Senate bill pays for dinner), FireDogLake and suchlike may well reemerge with voices raised in all-caps righteousness.

I get the impression, though, from the liberal rags I read, that the bill-killing passion has largely waned. Perhaps proponents have realized the shallowness of the position—that it was in large part a political/rhetorical tactic, not a belief they truly held deeply. (Or perhaps I’m just projecting my own shallowness.)

My take is that the public option came to be largely a form of ideological shorthand—it meant “progressive.” With a ridiculously complicated bill with something like five gajabillion pages (rounded up), its “meaning,” to the general public, even to relatively engaged citizens, is kind of fuzzy. I’m guessing not many passionate progressives read the whole thing. For them, “public option” meant “close to single payer” which meant “FDR-style social programs.” It meant progressive. “Public option” is a lot easier to read (you just did it!) than a labyrinthine tangle of clauses, sub-clauses, and dick jokes snuck in by Chris Dodd.

What I noticed was that, for all the sound and fury on Daily Kos and Huffingtonpost about the bill’s failings, those progressives most likely to be policy wonks, i.e. most likely to have read more than the “public option” twitter version of the bill, saw a lot of good things worth passing: I’m talking about dudes like Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, Matt Yglesias, and that little ball of sunshine, Paul Krugman.

Not all of us can muster the sheer nerditude to wade through all that legislative muck, as much as we would like to be engaged, so “public option” became a short hand for the kind of thing we wanted our government to do. Granted, this is not to say that the public option was meaningless—but it somehow came to “mean” everything, which was, at the very least, a distortion.

Lest I become a pot criticizing kettle hues—of course “public option” isn’t the only such shorthand we lazy idealists rely upon. There’re also such things as, I don’t know, “Democratic politician” or “not-George-W-Bush-politician,” or even the term “progressive” itself, and I’m as guilty as anyone of such intellectual laziness. And sometimes it’s not really even laziness—it’s just a consequence of an astonishingly complicated world—ideological shorthand is often necessary to take any position whatsoever. A little awareness, though, is a good thing. Otherwise, you can get attached to a name—or a policy—with little real meaning outside of your emotions.