Archive for January, 2010

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…

Old blog

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Just migrated my posts from my old blog which was begun during the Democratic primary in ’08.

It was: rancidbutter.blogspot.com.

(Note: I have no idea why I chose that title, nor did I ever really like it, nor can I explain the dairy theme of my two blog names. I promise it’s a coincidence. I am very lactose tolerant.)

Anyway, it’s all in one place now. But that old stuff’s mainly here for archival purposes. It wasn’t a very regularly kept blog.

Gallows Humor

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Do not listen to this man's music.

At times like these, the best thing to do is laugh hard and avoid being in the same room as  an Elliott Smith album and a razor blade. Yes, it’s been a dark few days lately. Let’s catalogue (shove it! I like that spelling) the misery, shall we (my second favorite form of catalogue after the Victoria’s Secret that my roommate gets and I swear I hardly look at):

First, of course, Haiti received divine retribution and/or suffered from the results of a completely scientifically explainable natural disaster. Either way, no walking of the cakes was this. Now, let me confirm my status as a superficial American by juxtaposing with that the public shafting of a likable celebrity. Clearly these things don’t belong in the same paragraph (note to self: re-edit this into two paragraphs), but the whole Conan thing was still depressing in its own right–just more evidence of corporate douchebaggery toward the people you like.

Then, the Democrats imploded. More wrath of God? Or something as scientifically explainable as an earthquake–and much easier to have predicted? I’ll go with the latter. I remember, just after the Democrats’ virtual shutout of the Republicans in the 2008 elections (when we voted for, I don’t know if you remember this, a surprisingly non-white guy as president), Jon Stewart’s commented with something along the lines of, “Great. Now, how are Democrats going to screw this up?”

The answer? Well, they got there partly by nominating a complete turd for Ted Kennedy’s senate seat. That sure helped. The other, prior way was to move at a glacial pace through the healthcare legislating process. For a party so hated by the NRA, the Democrats sure can shoot straight when aiming at their own feet.

But that was not the worst part of it. It was unfortunate for healthcare reform that Teddy died (in addition, of course, to the sad loss of any human life). It was unfortunate that Martha Coakley phoned in her campaign. But those things happen. Not every candidate can be a superstar–and Coakley’s opponent, Scott Brown, might just be one of those rare, gifted few with raw political talent. Those happenings broke the hearts of many liberals–but what really hurts is the, for lack of a goofier phrase, “empty testicle syndrome” displayed by so many Democrats after the loss. Others have critiqued this better and earlier than I–but, essentially, the Democrats lost one seat, falling off their precarious supermajority perch. And some (Jim Webb, Evan Bayh, Barney Frank, even the president) seemed to immediately give up on healthcare reform. Apparently a drop from a 20- to an 18-seat majority is enough to scare them off of possibly offending some swing voter somewhere.

Here’s my response: You, as a party, have promised this reform for decades, for generations even. If you give up that easily, after finally coming so far, just to try to keep your seat, then you stand for nothing. If you won’t risk losing your seat over this, then you have no reason keeping your seat–you have a job with which you are willing to do nothing whatsoever. The Democrats, if they prove this ball-less and empty, are very close to losing my support–and this is a guy who never contemplated jumping ship to Nader and who voted Gore back when he was a boring sellout. I’m older and wiser now, partly. But also…I can’t support a party that stands for nothing. (The only problem, as always, is that there’s not much of an alternative.)

Then this: the Supreme Court sells democracy. Okay, that’s perhaps overstating it. But perhaps not. I may write more of my thoughts on this later, but it seems to me that the court made a technically defensible interpretation of free speech in order to enact a precedent that could lead to a deadening of free speech in practice–the ability of corporations to silence alternative voices. That’s pretty terrifying. That’s terrifying enough to make you want to switch off CNN and put in Poultergeist just to calm your nerves.

It all sucks, man. It sucks real hard. But I’m not going to wallow (for too long, anyway). There are two choices, as I see it: gallows humor or the gallows. Laugh or give up. On his last show, Conan made an impassioned plea against cynicism. I was happy to see it. I tend to have a cynical bent, but I also think comedians like Conan have it right–don’t sink into the depths–instead, find the comedy. (Or, at least, find the comedy long enough to make some money off your suffering before you overdose.) That’s not to say these problems aren’t serious (aside from the Conan thing–because, let’s be honest, he’s a millionaire and he’ll be fine). The healthcare debacle, for one, is pretty damn life-or-death for many people. It’s important to remember the human side of the political debates. A high school friend of mine recently blogged about his father’s health and health insurance troubles. These things are very dispiriting and very sad. So, I don’t laugh to make fun of them, but to keep up spirits. (I do laugh about Pat Robertson to make fun of him, because he’s just ridiculous.)

But the other part of it is to keep working. Laugh so you don’t just curl up into a despairing, unwashed mass on the couch. Take a shower so you can leave the house and keep fighting. Tomorrow I plan to go to a healthcare policy meeting of a local group in Brooklyn, to keep having a say, however small. I promise I will try to be only as pretentious as everyone else there.

Finally, here’s another place to donate to help out in Haiti–Housing Works, a cool nonprofit in NY.

"taking" "responsibility"

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Just wanted to make a brief comment on an aspect of the the whole nut-bomber terrorism thing that I haven’t seen elsewhere. I want to talk about something fun, something exciting, something all the kids are raving about these days–yes, I’m referring to responsibility.

Obama, in his review of what happened, outlined “the intelligence and other government failures leading up to the botched December 25 terror bombing” (as summarized by CNN). He also said, “the buck stops with me.”

That was him being the leader accepting responsibility. It’s what he had to do, what most would insist is proper. And I agree, it is. But, let’s be honest, he’s not really accepting responsibility. He’s dancing a little dance we all agree to ignore. He’s simultaneously blaming others, blaming a system, and then playing the martyr in a way he knows no one but his most determined opponents will believe (and they would blame him no matter what he said). He’s saying, “Here are the people and structures that caused this, people and structures that are not me or of my making–but I will allow you to blame me, wink-wink.” We all know he doesn’t mean, “this is my fault,” we all know, at some level, he doesn’t really expect us to believe it’s his fault–and yet we all demand that he says it’s his fault.

Just another little game of politics that we don’t acknowledge but that we play. I’m not saying Obama should really accept all the blame–after all, the systems that were in place were in place when he took office. And I grant that some of his meaning was that he accepts responsibility for fixing the problems. Still…I think the whole thing is funny. It’s a mass self-delusion–probably part of the mass self-delusion that we have that the president can really control many things. Perhaps the “buck stops here” thing is less about appearing a mature leader and more about maintaining the fiction of presidential omnipotence.

Best man for another job

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Ezra Klein has an interesting aside today about elections and the skills of politicians. He tosses it off, probably because he considers it obvious, but I think, like a fibrous grass, it’s worth some rumination. Boiled down, he says that we elect people for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the job they’re going to do. He takes the example of Chris Dodd, a career politician whose eyebrows never agreed with his hair that he had gotten older. Klein quotes Nick Baumann, who praised potential Dodd replacement Sidney Blumenthal for lacking Dodd’s, for Baumann, troubling coziness with obese felines (the banking system). Klein points out that what Dodd did have going for him was a familiarity with Senate procedure and a talent, or at least learned ability, to get things done within that system.

But when do we ever elect people for reasons like that–you know, reasons like they might be good at the job? It’s certainly not something that comes up much in campaigns–”Vote Dodd! He Understands Procedural Votes!” More importantly, we–meaning party activists and party officials–don’t nominate people for those reasons. They don’t sell. We nominate people who connect with voters, who arouse passion. Partly, as Klein says, we nominate ideology. More importantly, though, we nominate charisma. Again, maybe it’s an obvious point, but it does seem strange that we don’t approach the people that we as a people hire collectively the same way that we approach people that we hire in our jobs.

Then again, as nerds across the world eventually find out, popularity does not cease to matter after high school. Job-specific competence matters in job interviews, but how many times does the more charismatic person get the hire, regardless? Charisma matters in any interpersonal setting–from the job interview to the promotion decision. And charisma matters in job functions, too. In some way, the reasons we elect people–passion and charisma–are actually relevant to the job they will eventually do: a leader who can illicit passionate and positive responses from voters will likely be able to do so from other legislators, a key function in actually doing the job. Obama, for example, dripped charisma like Patrick Ewing dripped sweat, and, conceivably (though not necessarily so far in practice) he can also aim his overactive charisma glands at legislators, to help get things done. But what about organizing a bureaucracy? Delegating authority? Wading through massive amounts of information to extract the meaningful bits necessary for a decision? Choosing the right drapes for the Oval Office? Do we vote on those things? Certainly not directly. Obama did show, in organizing his campaign, many of those skills, but I doubt such considerations were on most people’s minds when they voted for him. I think sometimes that we vote for qualified politicians almost in spite of ourselves–which is a scary thought.

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.

First post

Monday, January 4th, 2010

This is my first post at my new blog. Give me your money.