Monday, April 24, 2006

Re-Uniting the States

Hope is rising that happy days will soon be here again, as the rule of Republican right-wing ideologues and cronies wanes inexorably, yet the reality remains that the nation is divided and in need of social glue.

The fact of division can be gleaned superficially from the elections of 2000 and 2004 in which, despite a conservative judicial fiat in one instance and Republican ballot box mischief in the other, razor thin majorities voted for the Democratic candidate. Clearly, there remained a large minority of Americans willing to vote against their own best interests for a variety of reasons.

The phenomenon has been long known as "American exceptionalism."

It includes the baffling spectacle of the underpaid, overworked Southern blue-collar worker voting for the party dedicated to enriching American plutocrats further at the expense of schools, old age retirement, layoff assistance, safety and health regulatory protections, not to mention the growth of working wages on a par with inflation and prosperity.

In exchange for progressively greater impoverishment, job insecurity and a vanishing social security for the majority of Americans, this "red state" worker gets the pretense that he is somehow advancing "family values" or a crusade to abolish abortion or defending the primacy of (Protestant) Christianity. Oh, yes, somewhere unspoken, signalled discretely through winks and nods, he gets to advance white supremacy.

This swindled American isn't fazed by the facts that the family values of his political heroes have been long unmasked as false, that the anti-abortion campaign is a ruse and that active Protestantism is a minority religion in a secular society committed long ago to pluralism. If he can wear an American flag on his jacket and nurture his biases, the Exceptional American looks the other way at the mischief carried out in his name and at his expense.

Tempting as it is to make fun of the poor yokels picked clean like cotton by the Republicans with their clever demagoguery, it is now time to find compassion in one's heart and think of ways to build bridges to these fellow citizens of ours. The indignities they suffer are not the ones they imagine, but they are indignities none the less.

The numerous minority of "red state" voters see the same thing the rest of us do.

Community values that briefly bound the wealthy and the working to the same social contract are nowhere to be seen. There is a callous disregard for life in our wars, the poverty to which we acquiesce and, yes, abortion. It is also true that with the social demise of Christendom we have lost a common language in which to approach the great questions of human existence. Finally, with respect to minority rights, those who were born White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant might want to embrace them, as they are already a minority; notably, the disproportionate privilege of the group does not accrue to the majority of WASPs.

What we need is a new and unifiying language that allows the majority of Americans, of any color or political party, red state or blue state, to unite in defense of the common good.

The wealth held in common needs to include education for careers, jobs paid at living wages, with the security that allows families to plan and grow; it also needs to include help for those who can't care for themselves, those whom society can't or won't employ gainfully. A commonwealth devoted to the well-being of all would include, of course, care to avoid wasting our most precious human resource, our youth, in wars that serve the very limited interests of a few. Similarly, a caring society will enable means to support the choice of bringing new life and prevent abortion.

As to our common understanding and language, I would point to the U.S. Constitution. By design the Constitution prevents the establishment of a religion. Yet in the constitutional values, which are not taught as widely and deeply as they should be, there are values that should unite us as Americans. They are, uniquely, the values that historically have held the nation together as the oldest self-governing people on Earth.

The true new patriotism must be a dogged advocacy for the return to the democratic experiment begun in 1787 and for its expansion to all dimensions of human living.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Real Plame Leak

Now that we know that George W. Bush is the Plame affair's leaker-in-chief, he can drop his homespun village dunce act right now and start talking like the scheming New England Brahmin WASP Yalie he really is.

The news that Bush de-classified the information that Valerie Plame was a covert CIA operative so he could legally order the release of that fact in the guise of a leak, all to deflect criticism that he lied about not knowing that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, has put to rest any claim that Bush was been misled or misinformed in any policy of any importance. This applies to the war in Iraq, what he knew before 9/11 and anything else for which Bush has been claiming simply not to be in the know.

One certainly wonders, of course, how the CIA will ever be able to recruit anyone for hazardous work again. Think about it: you join covert action, go overseas and do exciting cloak-and-dagger stuff, then -- wham! -- your cover is blown by a U.S. president who wants to evade political responsibility for the war disaster du jour. That bummer is merely collateral damage.

The main show is that Bush is no Ronald Reagan, a man we all know by now was unquestionably senile during a large part of his presidency and "disengaged" during the remainder. Quite the contrary, Bush is devious enough to lie, to know how to scare and smear his opposition and to create the legal pretext so that what appears to be a leak is not a leak at all in case anyone gets caught.

We knew this, of course, about Bush's father. George Herbert Waker Bush, former CIA director, made a career out attempting to hide who he was: a pinched-nose scion of a New England Brahmin family pretending to be a macho Texas oil man. We also know that Bush's values -- if one cares to demean the word by calling them that -- come from his mother, Barbara "rhymes with witch" Pierce Bush, an acid-tongued elitist and racist, and lately alleged money-launderer.

Yet until now we had some ground to give Bush the occasional benefit of the doubt by concluding that the man in the Oval Office was merely a worthless knave of noble sire.

Seemingly, Dubya cannot pronounce the word "nuclear," nor maintain subject-verb agreement within a sentence of any length, nor even end sentences sometimes. Allegedly a former alcoholic, he chokes on killer pretzels. Purporting to be a successful businessman, he got set up by his Daddy, who even had to buy him partners. All this screams: failure, failure, failure.

Even the Internet knows it: go to Google, type "miserable failure," then click on the "I'm feeling lucky" button. You'll see what I mean ...

But the real story is that Bush is a Machiavellian dissembler. He pretends to be stupid, he even goes to the Gridiron dinners to poke fun at his own alleged gaffes. All the while the last laugh is his. He is laughing at us: ha, ha, I ginned up WMDs to get into Iraq and I even took care of all the details of the political fallout ...

Remember when he said that those who outed the CIA spy would be "taken care of"? We thought that "taken care of" meant "punished." We didn't see his crossed fingers, when he really meant they would be taken care of by avoiding jail through an alibi prefabricated by none other than the prez himself.

So, Mr. Bush, if we didn't go to war because of WMDs, and we certainly didn't go to lower oil prices, and we certainly couldn't have gone to bring democracy to a country invented by the British Foreign Office (1931, check that out) that only a dictator could rule, why did we go to Iraq?

Don't lie, Mr. President, we're on to you.

Friday, April 07, 2006

No News Is Bad News

In a world without news there would be no common knowledge and no possibility of real democratic debate, yet that seems to be the Orwellian direction in which 21st century economics are taking all of us.

Indeed, one of the rarely sung stories of the Soviet Union's Glasnost is the rise of Argumenty i Facty, a Moscow-based weekly newspaper put together by activists to provide a source of facts that were then hard to find (read: hidden). This was, of course, in a society in which even a telephone directory was available only to those in the Party nomenklatura.

Today in the West, however, little political censorship is needed. I know: I have worked in the business for three decades. All the powers that be need to do is to lure masses to "infotainment" and "infomercials" and away from reading and critical thinking, then sit back and watch the marketplace do the rest. Since 2001, according to conservative estimates, as many as 75,000 jobs in journalism have disappeared in the United States alone.

Consider the following:
  • The New York Times has lost 60 reporting jobs.
  • The Washington Post is cutting 80 reporting positions.
  • On March 14, the McClatchy Company, which owns The Sacramento Bee, bought out for $4 billion the Knight-Ridder newspapers, a chain of 32 newspapers including The Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury. The company plans to close 12.
The reason is easy to find. In the fateful year 2001, for the first time since 1954 circulation declined for publications in every single category except financial advisories. Newspapers have never recovered; the only publications that have come back modestly are niche magazines providing entertainment.

"Will we call this the year journalism in print began to die?" asks's The State of the New Media 2006 (read the full report here).

You will be forgiven if you seize on the word "print" and say that you get your news online, or on TV. In fact, however, whatever hard news there is originates in print.

As the report I have just cited shows, the different in the kind of news you get from print and other sources, is not merely a matter of format, but of substance. Television, we all know, only conveys headlines. The Internet originates little or no hard fact, but masses and masses of rumor, innuendo and opinion (you're reading one).

The difference isn't merely the length of the material. It's the reliability and facticity. Newspapers usually get three or more sources for a story; other news outlets rely on considerably less, often second hand and unidentified, without much fact-checking.

There's also a difference is what is covered. Newspapers cover elections and government less than I would like, but TV hardly covers it substantively at all, concentrating instead on crime. And where is there critical and incisive coverage of big business, which influences our lives much more than crime or politics? Hardly anywhere at all.

If you wonder why all this is happening, think two words: the public. People don't read, therefore know less and less about the world around us. The consequences are dire.

Is it any wonder that the collapse of publications began in the first of the George W. Bush presidency, itself ushered in by voters who, inexplicably, could not make up their minds between Bush and Al Gore? Four years later the same thing repeated itself between Bush and Kerry.

To any of us armed with the facts, there was no question what the difference was -- and it was wide -- no matter which one we preferred. A squeaker between the erstwhile center-right Democratic senator Scoop Jackson and the liberal Republican New York governor Nelson Rockefeller might have made some sense: there would have been little choice.

Give Bush credit for hiding just how conservative he was in 2000 with codewords, nods and winks minted by Reaganite neocons. But by 2004, what American could rightfully claim that there was no information about Bush's desire to gut and bankrupt social programs to fund the Pentagon and its ancillary agencies, now fully owned subsidiaries of Halliburton, and prosecute clumsily the struggle against Al Qaeda and manufacturing a war out of whole cloth?

Only those Americans, the increasing majority, who don't read the news. That's why no news is bad news.