Friday, August 21, 2009

Health Care, Racism, and the New American Misanthropy

A South politician preaches to the poor white man,
"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you been born with white skin," they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game

- “Only a Pawn in Their Game”

Bob Dylan

A certain segment of the population want to believe the conspiracies about Obama because it allows them an “out” for their otherwise blatant racism. They hate the concept of an African-American president. They might be able to swallow the concept of a black Republican president because they might feel that the real power is in the hands of a sensible white man like Dick Cheney. But a black Democrat is the worst of all possible worlds. Not only are they inferior to good, Christian, northern-European descended wealthy heterosexual men over thirty (did I leave an adjective out?), but as a black man, be MUST want to seek vengeance for slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, Tuskegee experiments, segregation, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Rodney King. So obviously whitey is going to be a touch jumpy, no?

But racism is bad. You learned that in school. In any case, it’s not acceptable anymore to express prejudices in public like mom, dad, and grandpa use to around the house. It will be our little secret. You still have those feelings, though, don’t you? Oooh! You want to say the word so badly!

On the other hand, being that Obama is a Democrat, he can be saddled with all manner of slander and assumptions associated with Democrats since the Reagan era. It was during that time that the otherwise innocuous descriptor “liberal” became a slur, and “government program” became “socialism.” Socialism itself is not really very well understood by either party. The brain trusts who go into politics are seldom from political science or history backgrounds. There is some vague memory of the Soviet Union and how bad those guys were and we have some idea that they were socialists because it was in their name. (Although, the Soviet puppet state of East Germany was a Democratic Republic, even if only on paper.)

Socialism means something different to the belligerent yahoos who show up at the anti-Obama rallies that are disguised as anti-tax fetes and town hall meetings. It means a kind of broader community sensibility, a distribution of franchise, and maybe some obligation to one’s fellow citizen. But many Americans hate each other. They tolerate each other, sure. Most of the time they are ok with whatever Jones is doing because Jones lives in another city or state. But if we find out that Jones is gay and wants to marry, we are extremely annoyed because they are being forced to have an opinion on a lifestyle we don’t approve of. Politicians swoop in and say “hey, guess what, yahoo, you know that fag you hate, Jones? The one who lives nowhere near you and pays his taxes? Well, he wants to get hitched. I know! Yes, the world is coming to hell in a hand-basket. But you can do something about it! On the ballot this November is a little proposition…” and so it goes.

But as easy as it is to locate homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and racism in America life, I think to label these occurrences thus misses the broader trend. Because the homophobe also hates Blacks, Mexicans, Jews (if he is aware they are Jews), hippies, women, people who attended a different college than they did, people who live on the other coast, postal workers, drive-thru cashiers, mini-mart operators, teenagers, and the elderly. In short, he simply hates. The word for this type of person is not in common use so much anymore – misanthrope. We don’t use it much because it is a funny word, faintly French, and when it is used, it is usually seen as an innocuous, even endearing term for one who is simply cantankerous. Kurt Vonnegut described himself thus. I suppose Holden Caulfield, too. Linus is famous for saying “I love humanity, it’s the people I can’t stand.” But I think some distinction needs to be made about a kind of frustration with humanity’s failings and the sort of need-down resentment that many people feel that there are so many people about.

This isn’t to diminish the very real phenomena of specific acts against a specific group. I would only suggest that someone who hates African-Americans probably hates gays, too. A brief reminiscence: Some years ago catching an American Nazi Party “chat show” on a local cable access channel. (It was pretty vile but also fascinating because they had a potted plant in the background, just like a any other chat show.) At the end of the program an address flashed on the screen to write to the local sponsor of the broadcast. I quickly jotted down a few words of criticisms, suggesting that white supremacist could never really be truly happy because once they got their Aryan paradise in the Pacific Northwest, they soon discover reasons to hate Baptists, or Lutherans, or redheads, because what they hated was not so other races, but just other people in general. Once the specialness of the “clique” no longer gained them fellowship (there is no in-group if there is no ”other”) they would grow discontented and seek scapegoats to explain their angst or personal failures. I sent the missive off and much to my surprise, I received a very quick response. (He was probably surprised to get a reasoned critique in the mail rather than dog shit in an envelope.) He carefully explained that all white nationalists would move to the new Aryan homeland and live in confederated union, with various “clans” living independently of one another. Thus, Lutherans would get say, Seattle, while Baptists would get Salem. He explained this like it made all the sense in the world, as if he himself couldn’t see the deeper distrust at work here: white supremacist don’t like other white supremacists! It’s not that they are intolerant of other races, it’s that they are intolerant, full-stop.

This misanthrope I am describing is not, however, on a binary switch. It’s not as if between Clinton and Obama the racists and the anti-liberals were happy and carefree. I’m sure they were the same miserable, sulky, intolerant skin-sacks they always were. But even if Bush was rather a shade too liberal (believe it or not!) for these folks, there is a thought that, at least nominally, Bush (and Bush the First, and Regan, etc.) is “one of us.” When the Republicans talk about their “base,” they aren’t talking about the agents of capital, they are talking about these paranoid crypto-Birchers. Another factor playing into this is the comfort that these people find in all manner of conspiracy (it is a good substitute for education. Just make up reality.). In this case, they are comforted by the notion that although the Republicans are a part of “The Beast” known as the Federal government, they know that there are secret meetings going on to plot out some sort of End-time scenario. They know this because they can read between the lines when Regan talks about an “Evil Empire” or when W. Bush refers to America’s war in Iraq as a “Crusade.” They are speaking directly to them!

The only solace I take in all of this is knowing that the vast majority of Americans are like this. They may be annoyed, and even hateful of their neighbors. But most do not go down the road of conspiracy. The elements of paranoia and reality invention conspire to turn simple misanthropy into full-blown terrorism. What is terrifying is that the agents of capital – I am thinking of the health insurance lobby at present – have managed to organize the yahoos like a children’s crusade against Obama, ostensibly because he wants to bring socialism to the United States. But what has been organized is perhaps more than what the insurance companies had bargained for they will have to take on the liability of bringing into the debate extremely disturbed and disturbing individuals who are not above characterizing the president as a Nazi or brining assault weapons to public events.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Nausea: Bad, bad, news

Having the summer off between semesters has meant, among other things, that I have been actually keeping up with the news and news analysis. But this has not necessarily been a general good for my sense of well-being with regards our democracy.

Locally, the California budget mess has underscored how incredibly spoiled we have become in this state. We want it all, but we don’t want to pay for it. It also highlights the constitutional mess at the heart of all disquiet, specifically, the initiative process that allows citizens of the state to vote in new laws. As a kid, I always defaulted to the assumption that the imitative system was tremendously innovative, and innovation has always been the bragging right the Golden State. But these plebiscites have meant that complex laws relating to the budget have been placed in the hands of the civically illiterate populace who, by all accounts, do all their research the day before they go to vote (based largely on the loops of political ads that run incessantly the 72 hours before election day), or they vote the way their political party mailers tell them to vote.

It also means that the legislation of morality can been made a reality. Hence, proposition 8 makes millions of Californians second class citizens by banning their right to enter into a legally-recognized marriage. Other important issues in recent decades that have also been “put to the vote” have included immigration reform, medical marijuana, criminal sentencing mandates, and auto insurance laws. The result of all this direct legislating has been mixed at best and catastrophic at worst. Prop 13, passed in the 1970s, has undermined the state’s ability to balance the budget and, more tragically, has shattered the public school system. Prop 215 ostensibly opened the door to medical marijuana in the state, but subsequent Federal challenges, including DEA raids, have only underscored how poorly the law was thought out.

In general, it is a good idea to leave specialized work to the experts. Despite how we in the state feel about lawyers in general and legislators in particular, they understand how to craft law . Most citizens, even those who may actually work in the legal field, do not have the time or inclination to research the implications of a law. The citizen, pressed for time, and frankly uninterested in the nuances of state law, will vote with his heart rather than his head. If you doubt this assertion, watch any TV ad for or against a proposition. They appeals are always emotional rather than logical. Sadly, what this usually means is that the better funded campaign wins.

This is why the Founding wigs opted to have a representative, rather than a direct, democracy. The agreement is that I will vote for you because you are the expert. It’s why I pay a doctor to diagnosis my stomach pain, because left to my own judgment, I could very well kill myself. Just because we can vote on-line for who’s hot and who’s not, doesn’t mean we should leave potentially life-altering legislation up to caprice.


The other issue, and one that I had hoped would have gone far, far away ages ago, is the so-called “birther” contingent congregating along the right-wing fringe. Despite patent, Flat-Earth-variety absurdity of the claims that President Obama was not born in the United States, and despite easily accessible data confirming his Hawaiian birth, and despite even the very conservative WorldNetDaily affirming said American birth, the lunatics in the denier camp continue to make noise. But what is worse than this, is that the noise receives airplay. CNN, MSNBC, and of course, FoxNews have spent hours on air talking about the fact that these people exist, giving over time to footage of a hysterical woman at a Republican event waving her own birth certificate and, far from demanding the president pony up his proof, flatly stated that Obama is in fact Kenyan.

This is not newsworthy. Just because someone in a lunatic asylum thinks they are Napoleon, does not mean Anderson Cooper needs to get his thoughts on the state of French politics, nor does it mean that Keith Olbermann has to spend a ten minute segment “debunking” the lunatic’s story. It is a freak-show story, fit for the Weekly World News, (or perhaps a blog!).

And, of course, it is not only the “birthers,” it’s the socialist-takeover conspiracists, it’s the “Tea Party” dimwits, and the all the other simmering, borderline hate groups that simply want to stir the shit because it provides them with an identity and a way of shielding racists sentiments. But we don’t need to afford them the veneer of legitimacy that comes with national exposure on major news programs. For example, the 9/11 “truthers” are still “out there” looking for the holographic projector that made it look like planes hit the Pentagon, but they receive no mainstream coverage. They, along with the moon landing hoaxers have to make do with shoddy youtube videos and occasional conclaves at the Ramada Inn conference room. There is no real purpose to discussing easily debunked conspiracies. The only people who need to be shown the point-by-point debunking are those on the fence. Who, at this point, “isn’t sure” if Apollo 11 landed on the moon? Those Republican congresspersons who were trailed by a reporter the other day asking if they believed Obama was in fact an American and who then said “I don’t know” or that they “still had questions” don’t really need more information. They are pitching woo with their fringe base. Perhaps segregation era politicians in the South had to cop a similar line, despite their liberal education. George W. Bush probably does not believe in Intelligent Design over Darwinian Evolution, but when asked, he felt he had to say that he “hadn’t made up my mind yet” about Evolution. Why? So he can go back to Texas and glad-hand the yokels at the next BBQ. It’s pure pandering. Which is their problem, but the public discourse should not be dictated by the least educated, least informed, and the least sane. Because, for them, there is not enough evidence on the planet to get them to believe that the African-American President of the United States was born on American soil. Every certificate is a forgery. Every expert is a dupe. Plus, they need to keep believing these nutty things because doing so gives them an identity, a fellowship of like-addle-minded morons. Which, again, is fine for them. I have better things to do, and so should news organizations.

Sufficed to say, Uncle Walter wouldn’t have touched them with a 10 foot boom mic.


Then, of course, there’s Sarah Palin. She was the former governor of the lightly populated state of Alaska for a few months before she decided it was too much a hassle and quit a year and some change before the end of her term. Presumably, she wasn’t doing too much governing while she was on the road with McCain, and, let’s face it, how much work does anyone do when they come back from a long vacation?

She is like Bush in that she is not intellectually curious or particularly bright. She is inarticulate, but her inarticulateness is differently expressed from W’s. Whereas Walker Bush suffered from chronic malapropisms, semantical gaffs, and transient aphasia (e.g. his famous “… you can’t get fooled again” avowal ), Palin’s speech patterns related to the construction of compound and complex sentences, exhibit a strange, and frankly disturbing tendency to begin on a particular topic and end elsewhere. I say disturbing because it happens enough to lead me to suspect that she thinks she is quite clever. She thinks she is doing the usual bait-and-switch routine that all politicians do when they are asked a tough question. Essentially, if you can’t answer the question in a straightforward manner, then just respond with something in the ballpark of the topic, but leave out the questioners pesky inquiry.

(Why does this strategy seem to work in the American media? The Brits won’t stand for it. At least not Paxman. My thought is that politicians learned a long time ago that news programs don’t want to spend a lot of time on a particular question, and they don’t necessarily want to annoy their guests. So, any answer will do, because probing is just not done. Katie Couric, perhaps because she is Katie Couric, got a chance to “pull a Paxman” on Palin, thus exposing the veep candidate as a fraud and intellectual non-entity. And Jon Stewart had done yeoman’s work in this regard, but why should he have to? He hosts a comedy program!)

So, Palin is, at best, a political lightweight who is well-suited to governing a small, isolated population of anti-government fanatics. The thing is, her newsworthiness ended when her final day in office ended. She no longer has executive power. She can no longer threaten wildlife or spend Federal money on local programs and take credit for it. She should be a non-entity now. A citizen. But, if anything, she is more a draw than ever before. Her not doing stuff was a segment on Olbermann last week. Her bizarre utterances were lampooned on Conan O’Brien, which is fine, but then the news replays Captain Kirk reciting Palin’s garbled verbiage as poetry. It is bad enough that The Daily Show, Leno, and Letterman have become primary news sources for citizens, but what does it mean when supposedly legitimate news programs replay and dissect these ephemeral comedy bits as though the bits were actual news?

Particularly galling is the way progressives salivate over the prospect of Palin continuing on in public life. They want her around to lampoon, to mock, and to make themselves feel better about their intellectual superiority. But this is highly dangerous because it underestimates the power of the fringe and the utility of good marketing. We just finished eight years of a presidency that should never have happened. A dimwitted, C-minus drunkard got into the office because Americans wanted someone they could feel superior to. Americans are inherently anti-intellectual and distrustful of brainpower. They like “folksy” and they like simple. They like Southern accents, even when they are faked (as W’s assuredly was).

(An accent never hurt. Why would someone governing Alaska need to cop a Minnesotan accent? Why would Barak Obama need to drop his “g”s when talking at a Town Hall meeting? )

For the same reason we in California will vote with our emotions when it comes to complex legislative issues, Americans in general will go with the empty smile, the knowing wink, and the insincere lip-bite when they vote for their ruler. The head never enters into it.

For these reasons, it is highly undesirable (if you consider yourself a progressive) to continue to give Palin exposure. Because any exposure is good exposure in a cultural milieu where emotion, marketing, and money are game changers. Success in the Obama years may not assure continued Democratic control in 2012. By all accounts, the Clinton years were wildly (if superficially) successful. That Gore lost may has as much to do with boredom and apathy as it did the machinations of the Florida Secretary of State. The more celebrity status Palin has going into 2012, the more appealing she may be to the same moronic masses who call for Obama’s birth-certificate or for Texas secession.


These three stories - not to mention the “beer summit” and the endless speculation about the contents of corpus Jacksonia - are, of course, mere symptoms of a profound sickness in our culture. In our race to be egalitarian, we have allowed the crass, vulgar, and boorish to become the taste makers and the discussion facilitators. It is as if at a restaurant the child in his high-chair is made to order for the adults. Well, perhaps we have come to develop a taste for ice cream, cake, and French Fries . But no one is sustained on such a diet.