Friday, September 18, 2009

snl on wilson

Last night NBC debuted a half-hour Thursday night version of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update. The opening sketch was a great take on last week's "You lie!" outburst by Rep. Addison Graves(yet another right-wing hero not really named "Joe") Wilson Sr. Check out the first five minutes of this clip:

Monday, September 14, 2009

on the anniversay of 9-11

[I meant to write this on Friday – the eighth anniversary of the attacks of 9-11 – but I got distracted by the whole Joe Wilson matter. And it was 87 degrees in Seattle so I didn’t really feel like sitting around writing. The glorious weather continued through the weekend, and when you live on a houseboat in Seattle you don’t take good weather for granted. So I have lost a bit of the timeliness of my theme. But better that than having it go the way of most of my thoughts – transitory and undocumented.]

It is worth recalling the anniversary of 9-11 if for no other reason than to contrast it with the national mood today.

Those attacks brought the nation together. Despite the fact that Bush didn’t do much of anything immediately in response – other than to fly around the country on Air Force One trying to evade would-be attackers – his approval rate among the American people jumped to 90%. In contrast with President Obama, who won the presidency decisively, Bush had lost the popular vote by 500,000 votes and only squeaked through with an Electoral College win thanks to a partisan 5-4 Supreme Court vote (in the worst Supreme Court decision in my lifetime). If any president deserved to be treated as illegitimate, it was Bush. But the country supported him because the attacks of 9-11 reminded us that we are all, in fact, Americans. Not just autonomous individual consumption machines – but part of a larger collective. A community. A nation. And, for better or worse (worse, as it turned out), President Bush was the country’s leader.

Flags sprouted everywhere. As if the National Anthem wasn’t enough, “God Bless America” was added to the displays of patriotism at the beginning of sporting events.

Red state Americans even embraced New York City – previously viewed by many as a den of iniquity inhabited by liberals and scary brown people – as the spiritual focus of this new national unity. The Congressional vote on the Authorization For The Use of Force in Afghanistan (
420 to 1 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate) was only one vote away from being unanimous, and the vote on the “USA PATRIOT Act” (357 to 66 in the House and 98 to 1 in the Senate) was overwhelming for such a sweeping and controversial piece of legislation. The country, to a degree unseen since World War II, was united.

Alas, Bush decided to take the power that a united country gave him and use it for narrow partisan and ideological purposes. Karl Rove even publicly articulated a strategy for the 2002 mid-term elections built on turning national security into a partisan “wedge” issue. It is not unfair to acknowledge that Bush was the first sitting president in the country’s history who actively sought to divide the country during a time of war (actually, two wars, which continue to this day). Incredible. The nation’s leader at a time of war actively seeking to divide the country for partisan gain. For that alone, Bush will almost certainly go down as the worst president in history.

Those attempts to divide the country succeeded. Many of the most ardent “patriots” in the aftermath of 9-11 are today, against all rationality, insisting that our democratically-elected leader is not even an American. They are taking guns to public meetings held by our elected officials and even by our president. They are equating our government to the worst regimes in the history of mankind. Even some governors are talking nonsense about “secession.” (I’ve been taking to quoting Gail Collins a lot lately. I loved her
line last week that, “there are some patriots who love the country so much that they would like to see their state secede from the union.”) Every day, it seems, new lows of incivility and outright craziness are reached. It is hard to attribute that to the prospect of extending health insurance to most of those Americans who currently lack it. Rather, I fear it is a new tribalism based on political party, ideology, and even race. Instead of a nation “indivisible” we are at risk of becoming a collection of warring tribes.

I attribute much of this to an anti-government ideology that has gripped the country for the past 30 years, metastasizing like a cancer. Government has its limitations and potential dangers. We need to guard against its excesses just as we need to be cognizant of the limitations and potential excesses of the market and concentrated corporate power. Neither government nor the market are inherently good or evil. They are both means not ends. Like any instrument of humanity, they can be used for either good or evil. But this notion that the government of the United States of America is our enemy is unhealthy and destructive. I fear it has increasingly undermined our ability as a society to achieve great or even basic, necessary things.

A Republican friend recently sent me a collection of anti-government quotations from Ronald Reagan with the subject line of the email, “Do you miss this guy?” (with the implication being that we should). There was a time (maybe while reading Ayn Rand as a college sophomore) when those quotations might have seemed wise or at least amusing. Now I find them … well, sophomoric.

And, then, there was the definitive anti-government quote from Reagan:
‘Government is not the solution to our problems; it is the problem.’
Well, Reagan may have thought that government was the problem, but a year ago when the global financial system was melting down, it was the only solution. Ignoring the lessons learned during the Great Depression and dismantling financial regulation to free the “animal spirits” of Wall Street didn’t work out too well.

Eight years ago, we were all proud to be Americans. Our neighbors were our fellow country men and women. Today, right-wingers profess their hatred of our government. But it was that government that won World War II and the Cold War. It was our government that built the interstate highway system and the Internet. It was our government that harnessed the power of the atom and put a man on the moon. It was our government that brought about rural electrification and built the Western water projects that made it possible for millions of people to live in deserts like Southern California, Nevada and Arizona. It was our government that created the first national parks (the subject of a
new 12-hour Ken Burn series), setting aside special places like Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon for future generations to enjoy (and those were controversial decisions at the time, as “conservatives” thought the government had no business putting such places off limits to exploitation – the Seattle Times recently had a good column on the bitter fight to create Mount Rainier National Park).

It was the GI Bill after World War II that sent a generation to college and allowed them to own their own homes and laid the foundation for the post-War prosperity and the creation of a broad middle class.

And, yes, our government enacted revolutionary social policies like universal public education, the 40 hour work week, repeal of child labor, the minimum wage, Social Security, and Medicare (the latter two allowing Americans to grow old without fear of living in abject poverty with no health care). We also gave women the vote and passed laws making it illegal to discriminate against minority groups and women. The Civil Rights laws had to be enforced by the Federal Government against states that had institutionalized racial discrimination. (The result, as we know, is that the Southern states went from being solidly Democratic to being solidly Republican because many citizens of those states resented – and to this day still resent – the federal government forcing them to stop their apartheid policies.) We also passed laws to clean up our air and water – something “free markets” left to themselves can’t do because individual and corporate polluters don’t bear most of the costs of their polluting activities. (Yesterday’s New York Times had an
epic piece of journalism on the degradation of our nation’s drinking water and the lack of enforcement of our clean water laws over recent years.) All these things were opposed by anti-government “conservatives” at the time. Yet most Americans couldn’t imagine going back to the way it was before these government-led social reforms. (Indeed, much of the focus of anti-government protests this summer was to “keep the government’s hands off our Medicare.” Only in America could the defense of a major government program against any changes become integrated into anti-government ideology.)

I am proud of all these things (I’m sure you could think of a lot more). The “government” of the United States of America is not my enemy. The anti-government ideology that has taken root over the past 30 years is the source of much of the cynicism and hostility toward our government that has made it almost impossible for us to collectively tackle big problems – like extending health insurance to the tens of millions of Americans who currently lack it. Imagine someone proposing the interstate highway system today. (A comparable contemporary equivalent might be a massive effort to wean ourselves from carbon-based fuels in favor of renewable sources of energy. Or even something more modest like a national system of high-speed rail. This is hardly cutting-edge stuff. Japan built the first “bullet trains” in the 1960’s. Even Spain now has
trains that can run at over 220 miles per hour as part of what will become a network of 10,000 miles of high-speed rail lines. But we have our anti-government ideology and a lot of worthless mortgage-backed securities.)

This anti-government ideology may have reached its most extreme manifestation four years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Those images of New Orleans are what it looks like to be “on your own” with an anti-government crony in charge of disaster relief.

Imagine proposing universal public education today (one of the best bits of
President Obama’s speech on health care last week was his defense of a “public option” for health insurance by citing the fact that “public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities”). There is no way you could enact Social Security or Medicare in today’s ideological environment.

I recently saw a Vietnam vet wearing a t-shirt with an eagle and a flag that said, “Freedom Isn’t Free.” I thought that would make a great bumper sticker with the addition of the phrase, “That’s why we have to pay taxes.” Whenever I receive an email urging us to honor the sacrifices of our service men and women I’m tempted to reply, “That’s why not whining about paying your taxes is, literally, the least you can do.”

On the anniversary of 9-11 it is worth recalling that the firefighters and police officers we celebrated as heroes as were government workers (and unionized government workers at that). The victims of the Pentagon attack we mourned were “federal government bureaucrats”. And when we pledged allegiance to the flag it was to “the Republic for which it stands.”

There are a lot of important things that we can’t accomplish solely by us all acting on our own as autonomous, selfish little consumers. President Obama has inherited huge problems. Not everything he does will work out well. But that is true of all human endeavor. Growth and change are what makes a person, an organization or a country strong. The government of the United States of America is our government. It is a means for accomplishing a lot of things that couldn’t be accomplished any other way. If we are blinded by ideology to its potential, we sacrifice much of our potential as a community and, yes, even as individuals.

Friday, September 11, 2009

lies (and the lying liars who tell them)

President Obama gave a brilliant speech Wednesday night. If you didn’t watch it, do so (you can watch the video here). And it appears to have had a significant impact on public support for health care reform. According to a CBS poll released today, support for President Obama’s approach to health care reform has gone from a net -7 (40/47) to a net + 14 (52/38). That’s an impressive move in the numbers. And it was deserved.

I suspect a big part of the reason for the move in the poll numbers was President Obama’s forceful refutation of some of the more spectacular right-wing lies about what he is, in fact, proposing. It is not a “government takeover of health care.” It would not mandate end-of-life counseling or create “death panels” that would pull the plug on granny. And it would not extent government subsidized health care to illegal immigrants.

As everyone in the world now knows, it was while President Obama was making the latter point that one particularly boorish Republican member of Congress heckled the president like some teabagger at a Town Hall freak show. As Gail Collins
noted, “Let me go out on a limb and say that it is not a good plan to heckle the president of the United States when he’s making a speech about replacing acrimony with civility.”

Joe Wilson’s antics were only the most egregious display of disrespect toward the President of the United States Wednesday night. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor typed away on his Blackberry while the Commander-in-Chief spoke to Congress. Other Republicans held up hand-lettered signs or waved copies of something or other. All-in-all, you would be hard-pressed to find a more dyspeptic group of old white men. The school children listening to President Obama’s
education speech on Tuesday were infinitely better behaved.

(Andy Borowitz has a
good take on the Wilson incident.)

But Wilson broke new ground for rudeness during a joint session of Congress. At least that’s the official word from
Deputy House Historian Fred Beuttler who said that while it is not uncommon for members of Congress to cheer or jeer during a presidential speech, an individual outburst from a member of Congress is unprecedented. And in calling the president a liar, Wilson also broke House rules. (Defenders of Wilson are pointing with approval to the rowdy behavior often displayed in Britain’s House of Commons. But the one thing you can’t shout at an opponent in the House of Commons is that he or she is a liar.)

This is all part of the current Republican effort to de-legitimize President Obama. As Richard Cohen
notes in the New York Times:

[President Obama’s] illegitimacy continues to be questioned by the “birthers,” who insist he is not a native-born American, who demand to see the president’s birth certificate, and then, when they see it, insist it cannot be genuine. Neither evidence nor facts will dissuade them because they are the throes of an irrationality based on bigotry. An American president must be -- ought to be -- white.

Some of the same ugly feeling was present in the House chamber Wednesday night. … The Party of Rudeness had outdone itself.

Is it really too much to suggest that Wilson’s outburst was, at its heart, part of this racist denial of President Obama’s legitimacy? Look at the messenger. Wilson started his political career as an aide to Senator Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 as the segregationist party candidate. Wilson later
attacked Thurmond’s illegitimate African-American daughter when it was revealed that she was fathered when Thurmond raped her mother, the Thurmond family’s 16-year old maid. “Sometimes these things just go on,” Wilson said, and it was “unseemly” for Thurmond’s daughter to publicly reveal that fact. Wilson said that Thurmond was his “hero” and it was wrong to “diminish” his legacy. (Wilson was forced to offer up a faux “apology” for that incident, too.)

Need more? Wilson is (or was) also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans,
an organization that has been “taken over in the past decade by radical neo-Confederates who favor secession and defend slavery as a benign institution.” And as a state legislator he was one of only seven Republicans to go against his own party and vote to keep the Dixie Rebel flag flying over the state capitol:
The flag came down that year after Republicans in both houses went for a compromise that would put it on Statehouse grounds at the Confederate Soldier’s monument. The “Magnificent Seven” of Senators who voted to keep the flag up included current Congressman Joe Wilson
It’s not like Wilson is some sort of aberration in his party. Incredibly, the previously little-known member of Congress that Republicans chose to deliver their response to President Obama Wednesday night, Rep. Charles Boustany of Louisiana, is himself a “Birther” who has asserted that “
there are questions” about President Obama’s country of birth. (Ironically, Boustany was also a co-sponsor of the “Life Sustaining Treatment Preferences Act of 2009” which would mandate that Medicare reimburse the cost of end-of-life counseling -- the so-called "death panels.") But Boustany’s “Birther” views are probably pretty mainstream in Louisiana where, as I noted before (“serious bad craziness”), only 14% of whites voted for President Obama. (The New York Times has an article today about how the unpopularity of President Obama among whites in Louisiana has revived the re-election prospects of “family-values” Republican Senator “Diaper Dave” Vitter, who was identified as a client of a Washington prostitution ring with a fetish for … shall we say, “being Pampered.”) Boustany, a doctor, was also sued for malpractice eight times and, in a bizarre twist, attempted to buy a “Lordship Title” from British scam artists. Is Boustany really the best representative of the party Republicans could come up with?

In all the media frenzy over Wilson’s boorish behavior, there has been almost no commentary on the substance of his accusation. As is typical with the mainstream media, the coverage was almost entirely about the “controversy” over Wilson’s antics with the underlying substance of the matter ignored as irrelevant (or treated in a “he said/she said” manner as if there was legitimately “two sides” to the matter). But as, Politifact, Media Matters, and others have noted, it was Wilson himself who was lying when he accused President Obama of lying on the subject of whether health care reform would extend government subsidized health care to illegal immigrants. While there is, as yet, no final health care reform bill, the bill that has passed the House Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is the one that everyone seems to be treating as “the” health care plan (at least for purposes of demonizing it). It specifically states (in Section 246 on page 143) that no subsidies may go to any immigrant in the country illegally. And there are decent enforcement mechanisms for that (the subsidies take the form of a tax credit which requires the filing of a tax return with a valid Social Security number which is not available to an illegal immigrant).

When not talking to their crazy base but actually pressed by the mainstream media, Republicans spouting the illegal immigrants lie resort to defending their claim by saying that there is nothing in current bills that would prevent illegal immigrants from using their own money to buy unsubsidized health insurance on the proposed “exchanges.” Well, uh, OK. So? That is not “providing government health care to illegal immigrants” or any of the other nonsense that is being propagated by Republicans. According to the
nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center, half of all illegal immigrants currently have private health insurance. It’s a good thing that they are buying health insurance with their own money. Is it better that they end up in emergency rooms as public wards? The claim that this consists of government health care is like saying the auto bailout amounts to the government giving cars to illegal immigrants because nothing in the bailout outlaws illegal immigrants buying cars. (Come to think of it, the auto claim would have more validity than the health care claim because autos made by GM and Chrysler are arguably subsidized, unlike health insurance that an illegal immigrant might purchase on an exchange. And anyone in the world is free to by an auto made GM or Chrysler. Therefore it is a subsidy to illegal immigrants.)

This lie about health reform extending subsidized coverage to illegal immigrants is official Republican party-line doctrine, being repeated even by supposed “moderates” like Chuck Grassley, who is part of the “Gang of Six” on the Senate Finance Committee that has kept legislation bottled up for months.
Grassley said, “The bill passed by the House committees is so poorly cobbled together that it will have all kinds of unintended consequences, including making taxpayers fund health care subsidies for illegal immigrants.” (The “moderate” Grassley also piled on to the “Obama is going to kill granny” lie, saying, “You have every right to fear. You shouldn't have counseling at the end of life, you should have done that 20 years before. You should not have a government run plan to decide when to pull the plug on grandma.” But, like Boustany, Grassley previously voted to extend Medicare funding to “counseling … with respect to end-of-life issues and care options, and … advanced care planning.” In other words, Grassley was “for Death Panels before he was against them.”)

[There seems to be some kind of crazy contest going on within the Republican Party today. Senator Inhofe today
joined the ranks of the Birthers. And “moderate” Minnesota Governor Pawlenty seems to be embracing the old Confederate concept of “nullification” whereby a state can choose to defy federal law. This was, of course, in the context of health care reform. In fairness, Pawlenty didn’t go as far as Texas Governor Rick Perry who suggested he might support his state seceding from the Union. But he is prepared to fight for the right to deny health care to uninsured Americans.]

And you wonder why “bipartisanship” is going nowhere. It’s pretty hard to “compromise” when it comes to outright lies. Does anyone really believe President Obama will garner Republican support by meeting them half way and going just “half crazy”?

Even giving an inspirational talk to America’s school children is seen by the right as evidence of Obama’s totalitarian aspirations. The “fair and balanced”
FOX News talking heads called President Obama’s speech to school children “indoctrination” (host Sean Hannity) and the “type of thing [they do] in North Korea and the former Soviet Union ... very cultish” (regular commentator Andrea Tantaros) and compared him to “Chairman Mao” (regular commentator Monica Crowley) and Mussolini (host Glenn Beck). According to Laura Ingraham (substituting for Bill O’Reilly) this is something “no other president has done.”

Never mind that Reagan gave a nationally broadcast speech to schoolchildren where he spewed his anti-government ideology (you can
see a video clip here), including this ideological nonsense about lower tax rates resulting in higher revenue:

Because you see, the taxes can be such a penalty on people that there's no incentive for them to prosper and to earn more and so forth because they have to give so much to the government. And what we have found is that at the lower rates the government gets more revenue, there are more people paying taxes because there are more people with jobs and there are more people willing to earn more money because they get to keep a bigger share of it, so today, we're getting more revenue at the lower rates than we were at the higher.
(In fact, between the time Reagan cut taxes and Clinton raised them again in 1993, the federal debt more than quadrupled from less than a trillion dollars to four trillion dollars. Quadrupled. By the time Reagan was preaching this anti-government propaganda to schoolchildren in 1988 he had already almost tripled the national debt.)

Give President Obama credit for another first: The first black man to be attacked for urging children to work hard and stay in school. It
didn’t take long for Republicans to go from, “If you criticize the president you are a traitor,” to “School children shouldn’t be allowed to listen to the President of the United States of America.” Wasn’t it just last year Republicans were taking the position that the President could unilaterally disregard laws against torture and the right of Habeas Corpus enshrined in the Constitution as long as he claimed to be doing so in his capacity as commander in chief?

Not surprisingly, Wilson has become a hero of the right. Republican ideological overlord Rush Limbaugh has said
he wished Wilson had not apologized. But it’s OK – apparently Wilson didn’t really mean it. He is out today with an unrepentant fundraising appeal, saying “I will not be muzzled. I will speak up loudly against this risky plan. … The supporters of the government takeover of health care and the liberals who want to give health care to illegals are using my opposition as an excuse to distract from the critical questions being raised about this poorly conceived plan. They want to silence anyone who speaks out against it. They made it clear they want to defeat me and pass the plan.”

I have joined over 25,000 fellow Americans who have in the past 36 hours
donated a total of over $1,000,000 to Wilson’s Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, a retired Marine and Iraq war veteran. That’s more than the $600,000 Miller raised in the entire 2008 campaign cycle when he lost to Wilson 54 to 46 despite being outspent by 2 to 1. And there is a PPP poll out today taken in the aftermath of Wilson’s outburst Wednesday night that shows Miller leading him 44 to 43. (You, too, can donate to Rob Miller here. Go ahead – even if it is only ten bucks.)

Fight crazy. Support the President.