12 August 2007

The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics

By Matt Bai

Excerpts from a review by Jon Wiener

Matt Bai, a writer for the New York Times Magazine who covered Howard Dean in Iowa in 2003, focuses this book not on the candidates or the coming presidential election but on "an oddly heroic group of activists" who call themselves "progressives":
  • the Democracy Alliance, an assemblage of several dozen billionaires, including George Soros
  • the online community of MoveOn.org;
  • the bloggers, led by DailyKos.com;
  • the Howard Dean movement.
All seek to overthrow the Clintonian party leadership; all agree that the party needs big new ideas. "The argument" of the book's title is about what those big ideas should be.

The Clinton strategy focuses on winning the swing voters in the swing states -- independents, moderates, the undecided. Both Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton are revered by the party establishment, the professional operatives -- who are happy to remind us that Bill Clinton is the only Democrat to have been elected to the presidency since Jimmy Carter and the only Democrat to have been reelected since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But the success of Clintonism wasn't the result of any electoral strategy; it seems to have been due instead to the prosperity of Clinton's years in the White House and his awesome personal talent for politics. That's the lesson of Al Gore's defeat in 2000 and John Kerry's in 2004.

The progressives want to get more votes not by fighting the Republicans for the small number of moderates in the middle but by expanding the electorate -- bringing in some of the 50% of eligible Americans who don't vote. These are mostly poor and working-class people who ought to vote Democratic but are alienated from the party and the entire system. The reformers believe that a strong populist message, combined with a powerful turnout organization, will attract millions of new Democratic voters.

The Democrats have done something like that twice before: They won huge majorities and transformed America, first under FDR in the 1930s and then under Lyndon Johnson in the '60s. And they didn't do it with moderate ideas that appealed to swing voters but with big ideas based on big moral principles: opportunity for the poor, unions for the workers, security for the elderly, equality for the excluded. Each of these principles, Bai points out,
infuriated large numbers of reasonable and influential Americans -- but that was precisely what made them compelling and important. That was the cost of forcing people to choose between one governing path and another.
Starting with Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Republicans set out to challenge all that with their own big ideas: Government is the problem; tax cuts will liberate the economy. Their attacks on the policy achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society were so effective that Democrats came to see their task as preserving the party's legislative legacy rather than addressing the problems still facing Americans. Bai writes,
The new Democratic mission. . . was essentially to protect the old one.
The progressives want to change that, but nobody really knows whether their strategy can succeed. They claimed victory in the 2006 midterm elections, but Mario Cuomo, the liberal former governor of New York, disagreed, calling those victories "a gift." People didn't vote for the Democrats because of their powerful new ideas, he argued; instead, they voted against the Republicans because of George W. Bush and his failed war.

The billionaires of the title -- Soros and other wealthy progressive activists -- decided to pool their money to counter the $170 million spent each year by the right on think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution. Over the last 30 years, these organizations have come up with the big ideas that formed the core of the Reagan-era Republican message. And Republican big money has also provided the tools to market those ideas -- talk radio (Rush Limbaugh et al.), journals of ideas (the Weekly Standard, the National Review), cable news (Fox News Channel). The progressive billionaires were galvanized, above all, by the Iraq war, which had made plain the bankruptcy of the Washington Democratic establishment. Bai's account of the Democracy Alliance's first conference -- a secret meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., in April 2005 -- is devastating. Their big ideas sounded
like a high school project on the meaning of America. . . . . a just and peaceful world founded on truth.
MoveOn is the antithesis of the billionaires' club: ordinary people -- now more than 3 million strong -- connected by the Internet. They felt isolated and neglected, and they wanted to discuss big ideas with progressive candidates, whom they would support with small individual contributions. Their principle was democratic with a small "d": Members, not leaders, would develop the big ideas at local gatherings and then online, where MoveOn could poll the membership constantly. The result, Bai found, is an agenda with substance: "Health care for all, energy independence through clean, renewable sources; democracy restored."

The bloggers, Bai's third progressive group, are represented in the book by Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga, whose DailyKos.com, "the single most influential political blog in the country," has helped make the Internet "the single most efficient means of getting an idea across." But as Bai learned at the 2006 YearlyKos Convention of bloggers, the blogosphere is not so much about big ideas as about tactics -- how to be tougher and more aggressive than the Republicans. It is an arena of abuse rather than a forum for ideas.

Finally there's Dean, chair of the national party in the 2006 elections, who wants to build a permanent infrastructure, with "organizers on the ground in every state, a volunteer chairman in every county, and a volunteer captain in every voting precinct in America," including all the places the Democrats have not won in decades. Bai deems this "50-state strategy" an effective plan but notes that it too is all about tactics.

At the end of the book, a hero of sorts emerges: Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, the fastest-growing labor union in North America. He has a big idea -- universal healthcare -- and a strategy for achieving it: Along with John Podesta of the Center for American Progress (a new progressive think tank funded by Soros and friends), he's formed partnerships with some large American corporations, including Wal-Mart, the most hated of them all. Stern knows that Wal-Mart has a strong financial interest in getting the government to take over health coverage for its employees. Stern has been bitterly denounced as a traitor to the working class in such publications as the Nation -- but his is precisely the kind of rethinking that Bai claims the Democrats need, if they are indeed to remake their party's politics.

14 July 2007

A 3-Way Discussion on 2-Way Impeachment

Bruce Fein wrote the first article of impeachment against President Clinton. He served the Reagan administration and as general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission. Fein has been affiliated with conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation and now writes a weekly column for The Washington Times and Politico.com.

John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation and an associate editor of the Capitol Times. Among his many books is this most recent one, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: THE FOUNDERS' CURE FOR ROYALISM.

Excerpts From the Bill Moyers Journal of July 13th:

I think that the war on terror, as defined by our president, is perpetual war. And I think that he has acted precisely as Madison feared. He has taken powers unto himself that were never intended to be in the executive. And, frankly, that when an executive uses them, in the way that this president has, you actually undermine the process of uniting the country and really focusing the country on the issues that need to be dealt with.
But why is Congress supine?
They are supine for two reasons. One, they are politicians who do not-- quite know how to handle the moment. And they know that something very bad happened on September 11th, 2001, now five years ago, six years ago. And they don't know how to respond to it. Whereas Bush and Karl Rove have responded in a supremely political manner to it and, frankly, jumped around them. . . . But the other thing that's-- in play here-- and I think this is a-- much deeper problem. I think the members of our Congress have no understanding of the Constitution. And as a result, they-- don't understand their critical role in the governance of the country.
It seems to me the country is ahead of Congress on this. How do you explain all this talk about impeachment today out across the country?
People don't want to let this go. They do not accept Nancy Pelosi's argument that impeachment is, quote/unquote, off the table. Because I guess maybe they're glad she didn't take some other part of the Constitution off the table like freedom of speech. But they also don't accept the argument that, oh, well, there's a presidential campaign going on. So let's just hold our breath till Bush and Cheney get done. . . . . . When I go out across America, what I hear is something that's really very refreshing and very hopeful about this country. An awfully lot of Americans understand what Thomas Jefferson understood. And that is that the election of a president does not make him a king for four years. That if a president sins against the Constitution-- and does damage to the republic, the people have a right in an organic process to demand of their House of Representatives, the branch of government closest to the people, that it act to remove that president. And I think that sentiment is afoot in the land.
This is the first time I've heard talk of impeaching both a president and a vice-president. I mean, this-- as you saw in that poll, more people want to impeach Dick Cheney than George Bush. What's going on?
Well, this is an unusual affair of president/vice-president, where the vice-president is de facto president most of the time. And that's why most of people recognize that these decisions, especially when it comes to overreaching with executive power, are the product of Dick Cheney and his aide, David Addington, not George Bush and Alberto Gonzalez or Harriet Miers, who don't have the cerebral capacity to think of these devilish ideas. And for that reason, they equate the administration more with Dick Cheney than with George Bush.
You think Cheney should be subject to impeachment hearings?
Without a doubt. Cheney is, for all practical purposes, the foreign policy president of the United States. There are many domestic policies in which George Bush really is the dominant player. But on foreign policy Dick Cheney has been calling the shots for six years and he continues to call the shots. Remember back in 2000, in the presidential debates, George Bush said America should be a humble country in the world, shouldn't go about nation building. And Dick Cheney, in the vice-presidential debate, spent eight minutes talking about Iraq.
That struck me about your writings and your book. You say your great-- your great fear is that Bush and Cheney will hand off to their successors a toolbox that they will not avoid using.
Well, let's try a metaphor. Let's say that-- when George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, he used the wood to make a little box. And in that box the president puts his powers. We've taken things out. We've put things in over the years.

On January 20th, 2009, if George Bush and Dick Cheney are not appropriately held to account this administration will hand off a toolbox with more powers than any president has ever had, more powers than the founders could have imagined. And that box may be handed to Hillary Clinton or it may be handed to Mitt Romney or Barack Obama or someone else. But whoever gets it, one of the things we know about power is that people don't give away the tools. They don't give them up. The only way we take tools out of that box is if we sanction George Bush and Dick Cheney now and say the next president cannot govern as these men have.

Congress has abdicated its constitutional role. . . .
. . . . the founding fathers expected an executive to try to overreach and expected the executive would be hampered and curtailed by the legislative branch. And you're right. They have basically renounced-- walked away from their responsibility to oversee and check. It's not an option. It's an obligation when they take that oath to faithfully uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. And I think the reason why this is. They do not have convictions about the importance of the Constitution.
Let me mention the unspoken branch of government, which is the fourth estate: The media. The fact of the matter is the founders anticipated that presidents would overreach. And they anticipated that at times politics would cause Congress to be a weaker player or a dysfunctional player. But they always assumed that the press would alert the people, that the press would tell the people. And the fact of the matter is I think that our media in the last few years has done an absolutely miserable job of highlighting the constitutional issues that are in play.

. . . . . we're at this table because the fact of the matter is that impeachment has moved well up the list of things we can talk about because of the Scooter Libby affair. Now, should it be the-- one that tipped it? I think Bruce and I would probably both agree no. There are probably more important issues. But the Scooter Libby affair gets to the heart of what I think an awfully lot of Americans are concerned about with this administration and with the executive branch in-- general, that it is lawless, that-- it can rewrite the rules for itself, that it can protect itself.

. . . . . And, you know, the founders anticipated just such a moment. If you look at the discussions in the Federalist Papers but also at the Constitutional Convention, when they spoke about impeachment, one of the things that Madison and George Mason spoke about was the notion that you needed the power to impeach particularly as regards to pardons and commutations because a president might try to take the burden of the law off members of his administration to prevent them from cooperating with Congress in order to expose wrongdoings by the president himself. And so Madison said that is why we must have the power to impeach. Because otherwise a president might be able to use his authority and pardons and such to prevent an investigation from getting to him.

I think the bottom line is Scooter Libby was involved in conversations that, frankly, if those conversations were brought up, the American people would be very helpful to our discourse about whether we entered this war illegally and whether we've continued this war in ways which we never should have.
I think the spark against the Libby commutation is a little bit different focus. I think it's less on the idea he's covering up for Cheney or Bush than the indication that Bush is totally heedless of any honor for law and accountability. That he has special rules for him and his cabinet.
Sneering is not an impeachable sentence. But the founders who had recently fought a revolution against a king named George would tell you that monarchical behavior, the behavior of a king, acting like a king, is an impeachable offense. You need not look for specific laws or statutes. What you need to look for is a pattern of behavior that says that the presidency is superior not merely to Congress but to the laws of the land, to the rules of law. And that is why we ought to be discussing impeachment. Not because of George Bush and Dick Cheney but because we are establishing a presidency that does not respect the rule of law. And people, Americans, are rightly frightened by that. Their fear is the fear of the founders. It is appropriate. It is necessary.
. . . . here are political crimes that have been perpetrated in combination. It hasn't been one, the other being in isolation. And the hearings have to be not into this is a Republican or Democrat. This is something that needs to set a precedent, whoever occupies the White House in 2009. You do not want to have that occupant, whether it's John McCain or Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani or John Edwards to have this authority to go outside the law. . . . .
Nancy Pelosi is wrong. Nancy Pelosi is disregarding her oath of office. She should change course now. And more importantly, members of her caucus and responsible Republicans should step up.

The founders in the Constitution made no mention of corporation or political parties or conventions or primaries or caucuses. But they made six separate references to impeachment. They wanted us to know this word, and they wanted us to use it.

what Bush and Cheney have done makes a very good case that the public and the future would be well served if it did go all the way to the end. But there is absolutely a good that comes of this if the process begins, if we take it seriously. And the founders would have told you that, -- that impeachment is a dialogue. It is a discourse. And it is an educational process. If Congress were to get serious about the impeachment discussions, to hold the hearings, to begin that dialogue, they would begin to educate the American people and perhaps themselves about the system of checks and balances, about the powers of the presidency, about, you know, what we can expect and what we should expect of our government.

And so I think that when Jefferson spoke about this wonderful notion of his that said the tree of liberty must be watered every 20 years with the blood of patriots, I don't know that he was necessarily talked about warfare. I think he was saying that at a pretty regular basis we ought to seek to hold our-- highest officials to account and that process, the seeking to hold them to account, wherever it holds up, is-- a necessary function of the republic. If we don't do it, we move further and further toward an imperial presidency.
The great genius of the founding fathers, their revolutionary idea, with the chief mission of the state is to make you and them free to pursue their ambitions and faculties. Not to build empires, not to aggrandize government. That's the mission of the state, to make them free, to think, to chart their own destiny. And the burden is on government to give really good explanations as to why they're taking these extraordinary measures. And on that score, Bush has flunked on every single occasion. And we need to get the American people to think. Every time that there's an incursion on freedom, they have to demand why. What is the explanation? Give me a good reason before I give up my freedom.

. . . . And Cheney and Bush have shown that these measures are optical. . . . . They're doing these for optical purposes. . . . . They're trying to create the appearance that they're tougher than all of their opponents 'cause they're willing to violate the law, even though the violations have nothing to do with actually defeating the terrorism. . . He's never explained it. He's never explained why this act stopped gathering of all the intelligence that was needed to fight the terrorists.

. . . . . I think that politics has become debased so that it's a matter of one party against another and jockeying and maneuvering. There is no longer any statesmanship.

. . . . . I go back to the real vulnerability and weakness of Congress, that they don't have anybody who can, as a chairman or even asking a question like John or me say, "Mr. Attorney General, you answer that question. This is the United States of America. Transparency is the rule here. We don't have secret government. That's what Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote about in the Gulag. That's not the United States of America. We pay your salary. We have a right to know 'cause it's our duty to decide whether what you're doing is legal and wise, not yours. Answer that question or you're held in contempt right now." And that's-- and all you need is that tone of voice. But what happens up there? "Well, would you please answer?" Well, are you sure? When-- could you get John Ashcroft? I mean, it's just staggering.

All you would need a lecture like that and they'd answer. They'd be embarrassed--And you have to have a certain vision, Bill. You have-- you have to have a certain depth of conviction about philosophy and what the Constitution means, why those people died. They reached that last full measure of devotion, Cemetery Hill, Guatel Canal, Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge, because there was something higher. You have to feel that in your body and your stomach cause you've mastered all those people who have sacrificed in the past and you know the danger of unchecked power 'cause you read history. You're not a novice. There isn't anybody in the Congress who's able to do that because they don't have that background. But they don't have that temperament.

. . . . . it's hard to know how to just make it happen by spontaneous combustion, Bill. And that's the frustrating element here. Because without that those intellectual and temperamental ingredients, it just isn't going to happen. You do need a leadership element in there. And I don't see it either in the House or the Senate now.

. . . . . we cannot entrust the reins of power, unchecked power, with these people. They're untrustworthy. They're asserting theories of governments that are monarchical. We don't want them to exercise it. We don't want Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani or anyone in the future to exercise that.
You are seeing impeachment as a constitutional crisis. Impeachment is the cure for a constitutional crisis. Don't mistake the medicine for the disease. When you have a constitutional crisis, the founders are very clear. They said there is a way to deal with this. We don't have to have a war. We don't have to raise an army and go to Washington. We have procedures in place where we can sanction a president appropriately, do what needs to be done up to the point of removing him from office and continue the republic. So we're not talking here about taking an ax to government. Quite the opposite. We are talking about applying some necessary strong medicine that may cure not merely the crisis of the moment but, done right, might actually cure. . . .
. . . . it's saying no, it's the Constitution that's more important than your aggrandizing of power. And not just for you because the precedent that would be set would bind every successor in the presidency as well, no matter Republican, Democrat, Independent, or otherwise.
. . . . If we know these things and we do not hold them to account, then we are saying, as a people and as a Congress, we are saying that we can find out that you have violated the rule of law. We can find out that you have disregarded the Constitution. You-- we can find out that you've done harm to the republic. But there will still be no penalty for that. If that's the standard that we've set, it will hold. It will not be erased in the future.
One of the lessons we should have learned from the Nixon impeachment is that it didn't quite fulfill its purpose because Nixon was never compelled to renounce what he'd done.

. . . And after which he boasted that what the president does it it's legal. He wasn't repentant at all. If we had insisted maybe as a condition of the pardon or otherwise, you need to repent. We are a government of laws, not of men. And it's wrong for anyone to assert unchecked power. That would have had such a pedagogical effect that would have deterred anything in the future. We've got to make certain this time around we get that proper acknowledgement. . . .
. . . . .this is the problem. Our leaders treat us as children. They think that we cannot handle a serious dialogue about the future of our republic, about what it will be and how it will operate. And so, you know, to an extent, we begin to act like children. . . . . that's the point at where the fall comes. It doesn't come because of a bad leader. It doesn't come because of a dysfunctional Congress. It comes when the people accept that-- role of the child or of the subject and are no longer citizens. And so I think this moment becomes so very, very important because we know the high crimes and misdemeanors. . . . .

The people themselves have said, if the polls are correct, that, you know, something ought to be done. If nothing is done, if we do not step forward at this point, if we do not step up to this point, then we have, frankly, told the people, you know, you can even recognize that the king has no clothes, but we're not gonna put any clothes on him. And at that point, the country is in very, very dire circumstances.

09 July 2007

Archie? He's The (Therapy) Dog Star

The 165-pound Newfoundland works his magic daily with abused and neglected children at Camarillo's Casa Pacifica. Only his drool is 'yucky!'

GOING TO THE DOG: Children hug and pet Archie at Casa Pacifica in Camarillo. Vicki Murphy, the facility’s director of operations and development, chose Archie after learning about Newfoundlands’ reputation for being natural baby-sitters.
(Ken Hively / LAT)

Read the story in the L.A. Times!

05 July 2007

For one fan, Dodger Stadium is where dreams come blue

Maurice Gardner, who has worshipped the Dodgers from afar for his 46 years, finally makes the trip to L.A. and the stadium from his Virginia home, knowing his time might be short as his cancer progresses.

02 June 2007

Rhetoric in the GWOT

Words in a Time of War
Taking the Measure of the First Rhetoric-Major President
By Mark Danner

[Note: This commencement address was given to graduates of the Department of Rhetoric at Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, on May 10, 2007]

When my assistant greeted me, a number of weeks ago, with the news that I had been invited to deliver the commencement address to the Department of Rhetoric, I thought it was a bad joke. There is a sense, I'm afraid, that being invited to deliver The Speech to students of Rhetoric is akin to being asked out for a romantic evening by a porn star: Whatever prospect you might have of pleasure is inevitably dampened by performance anxiety -- the suspicion that your efforts, however enthusiastic, will inevitably be judged according to stern professional standards. A daunting prospect.

The only course, in both cases, is surely to plunge boldly ahead. And that means, first of all, saluting the family members gathered here, and in particular you, the parents.

Dear parents, I welcome you today to your moment of triumph. For if a higher education is about acquiring the skills and knowledge that allow one to comprehend and thereby get on in the world -- and I use "get on in the world" in the very broadest sense -- well then, oh esteemed parents, it is your children, not those boringly practical business majors and pre-meds your sanctimonious friends have sired, who have chosen with unerring grace and wisdom the course of study that will best guide them in this very strange polity of ours. For our age, ladies and gentlemen, is truly the Age of Rhetoric.

Now I turn to you, my proper audience, the graduating students of the Department of Rhetoric of 2007, and I salute you most heartily. In making the choice you have, you confirmed that you understand something intrinsic, something indeed…. intimate about this age we live in. Perhaps that should not surprise us. After all, you have spent your entire undergraduate years during time of war -- and what a very strange wartime it has been.

When most of you arrived on this campus, in September 2003, the rhetorical construction known as the War on Terror was already two years old and that very real war to which it gave painful birth, the war in Iraq, was just hitting its half-year mark. Indeed, the Iraq War had already ended once, in that great victory scene on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, where the President, clad jauntily in a flight suit, had swaggered across the flight deck and, beneath a banner famously marked "Mission Accomplished," had declared: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

Of the great body of rich material encompassed by my theme today -- "Words in a Time of War" -- surely those words of George W. Bush must stand as among the era's most famous, and most rhetorically unstable. For whatever they may have meant when the President uttered them on that sunny afternoon of May 1, 2003, they mean something quite different today, almost exactly four years later. The President has lost control of those words, as of so much else.

At first glance, the grand spectacle of May 1, 2003 fits handily into the history of the pageantries of power. Indeed, with its banners and ranks of cheering, uniformed extras gathered on the stage of that vast aircraft carrier -- a stage, by the way, that had to be turned in a complicated maneuver so that the skyline of San Diego, a few miles off, would not be glimpsed by the television audience -- the event and its staging would have been quite familiar to, and no doubt envied by, the late Leni Riefenstahl (who, as filmmaker to the Nazis, had no giant aircraft carriers to play with). Though vast and impressive, the May 1 extravaganza was a propaganda event of a traditional sort, intended to bind the country together in a second precise image of victory -- the first being the pulling down of Saddam's statue in Baghdad, also staged -- an image that would fit neatly into campaign ads for the 2004 election. The President was the star, the sailors and airmen and their enormous dreadnought props in his extravaganza.

However ambitiously conceived, these were all very traditional techniques, familiar to any fan of Riefenstahl's famous film spectacular of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, Triumph of the Will. As trained rhetoricians, however, you may well have noticed something different here, a slightly familiar flavor just beneath the surface. If ever there was a need for a "disciplined grasp" of the "symbolic and institutional dimensions of discourse" -- as your Rhetoric Department's website puts it -- surely it is now. For we have today an administration that not only is radical -- unprecedentedly so -- in its attitudes toward rhetoric and reality, toward words and things, but is willing, to our great benefit, to state this attitude clearly.

I give you my favorite quotation from the Bush administration, put forward by the proverbial "unnamed Administration official" and published in the New York Times Magazine by the fine journalist Ron Suskind in October 2004. Here, in Suskind's recounting, is what that "unnamed Administration official" told him:
The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors.... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'
I must admit to you that I love that quotation; indeed, with your permission, I would like hereby to nominate it for inscription over the door of the Rhetoric Department, akin to Dante's welcome above the gates of Hell, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

Both admonitions have an admirable bluntness. These words from "Bush's Brain" -- for the unnamed official speaking to Suskind seems to have been none other than the selfsame architect of the aircraft-carrier moment, Karl Rove, who bears that pungent nickname -- these words sketch out with breathtaking frankness a radical view in which power frankly determines reality, and rhetoric, the science of flounces and folderols, follows meekly and subserviently in its train. Those in the "reality-based community" -- those such as we -- are figures a mite pathetic, for we have failed to realize the singular new principle of the new age: Power has made reality its bitch.

Given such sweeping claims for power, it is hard to expect much respect for truth; or perhaps it should be "truth" -- in quotation marks -- for, when you can alter reality at will, why pay much attention to the idea of fidelity in describing it? What faith, after all, is owed to the bitch that is wholly in your power, a creature of your own creation?

Of course I should not say "those such as we" here, for you, dear graduates of the Rhetoric Department of 2007, you are somewhere else altogether. This is, after all, old hat to you; the line of thinking you imbibe with your daily study, for it is present in striking fashion in Foucault and many other intellectual titans of these last decades -- though even they might have been nonplussed to find it so crisply expressed by a finely tailored man sitting in the White House. Though we in the "reality-based community" may just now be discovering it, you have known for years the presiding truth of our age, which is that the object has become subject and we have a fanatical follower of Foucault in the Oval Office. Graduates, let me say it plainly and incontrovertibly: George W. Bush is the first Rhetoric-Major President.

The Dirtied Face of Power

I overstate perhaps, but only for a bit of -- I hope -- permitted rhetorical pleasure. Let us gaze a moment at the signposts of the history of the present age. In January 2001, the Rhetoric Major President came to power after a savage and unprecedented electoral battle that was decided not by the ballots of American voters -- for of these he had 540,000 fewer than his Democrat rival -- but by the votes of Supreme Court Justices, where Republicans prevailed 5 to 4, making George W. Bush the first president in more than a century to come to the White House with fewer votes than those of his opponent.

In this singular condition, and with a Senate precisely divided between parties, President Bush proceeded to behave as if he had won an overwhelming electoral victory, demanding tax cuts greater and more regressive than those he had outlined in the campaign. And despite what would seem to have been debilitating political weakness, the President shortly achieved this first success in "creating his own reality." To act as if he had overwhelming political power would mean he had overwhelming political power.

This, however, was only the overture of the vast symphonic work to come, a work heralded by the huge, clanging, echoing cacophony of 9/11. We are so embedded in its age that it is easy to forget the stark, overwhelming shock of it: Nineteen young men with box cutters seized enormous transcontinental airliners and brought those towers down. In an age in which we have become accustomed to two, three, four, five suicide attacks in a single day -- often these multiple attacks from Baghdad don't even make the front pages of our papers -- it is easy to forget the blunt, scathing shock of it, the impossible image of the second airliner disappearing into the great office tower, almost weirdly absorbed by it, and emerging, transformed into a great yellow and red blossom of flame, on the other side; and then, half an hour later, the astonishing flowering collapse of the hundred-story structure, transforming itself, in a dozen seconds, from mighty tower to great plume of heaven-reaching white smoke.

The image remains, will always remain, with us; for truly the weapon that day was not box cutters in the hands of nineteen young men, nor airliners at their command. The weapon that day was the television set. It was the television set that made the image possible, and inextinguishable. If terror is first of all a way of talking -- the propaganda of the deed, indeed -- then that day the television was the indispensable conveyer of the conversation: the recruitment poster for fundamentalism, the only symbolic arena in which America's weakness and vulnerability could be dramatized on an adequate scale. Terror -- as Menachem Begin, the late Israeli prime minister and the successful terrorist who drove the British from Mandate Palestine, remarked in his memoirs -- terror is about destroying the prestige of the imperial regime; terror is about "dirtying the face of power."

President Bush and his lieutenants surely realized this and it is in that knowledge, I believe, that we can find the beginning of the answer to one of the more intriguing puzzles of these last few years: What exactly lay at the root of the almost fanatical determination of administration officials to attack and occupy Iraq? It was, obviously, the classic "over-determined" decision, a tangle of fear, in the form of those infamous weapons of mass destruction; of imperial ambition, in the form of the neoconservative project to "remake the Middle East"; and of realpolitik, in the form of the "vital interest" of securing the industrial world's oil supplies.

In the beginning, though, was the felt need on the part of our nation's leaders, men and women so worshipful of the idea of power and its ability to remake reality itself, to restore the nation's prestige, to wipe clean that dirtied face. Henry Kissinger, a confidant of the President, when asked by Bush's speechwriter why he had supported the Iraq War, responded: "Because Afghanistan was not enough." The radical Islamists, he said, want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them." In other words, the presiding image of The War on Terror -- the burning towers collapsing on the television screen -- had to be supplanted by another, the image of American tanks rumbling proudly through a vanquished Arab capital. It is no accident that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at the first "war cabinet" meeting at Camp David the Saturday after the 9/11 attacks, fretted over the "lack of targets" in Afghanistan and wondered whether we "shouldn't do Iraq first." He wanted to see those advancing tanks marching across our television screens, and soon.

In the end, of course, the enemy preferred not to fight with tanks, though they were perfectly happy to have us do so, the better to destroy these multi-million dollar anachronisms with so-called IEDs, improvised explosive devices, worth a few hundred bucks apiece. This is called asymmetrical warfare and one should note here with some astonishment how successful it has been these last half dozen years. In the post-Cold War world, after all, as one neo-conservative theorist explained shortly after 9/11, the United States was enjoying a rare "uni-polar moment." It deployed the greatest military and economic power the world has ever seen. It spent more on its weapons, its Army, Navy, and Air Force, than the rest of the world combined.

It was the assumption of this so-called preponderance that lay behind the philosophy of power enunciated by Bush's Brain and that led to an attitude toward international law and alliances that is, in my view, quite unprecedented in American history. That radical attitude is brilliantly encapsulated in a single sentence drawn from the National Security Strategy of the United States of 2003: "Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism." Let me repeat that little troika of "weapons of the weak": international fora (meaning the United Nations and like institutions), judicial processes (meaning courts, domestic and international), and.... terrorism. This strange gathering, put forward by the government of the United States, stems from the idea that power is, in fact, everything. In such a world, courts -- indeed, law itself -- can only limit the power of the most powerful state. Wielding preponderant power, what need has it for law? The latter must be, by definition, a weapon of the weak. The most powerful state, after all, makes reality.

Asymmetric Warfare and Dumb Luck.

Now, here's an astonishing fact: Fewer than half a dozen years into this "uni-polar moment," the greatest military power in the history of the world stands on the brink of defeat in Iraq. Its vastly expensive and all-powerful military has been humbled by a congeries of secret organizations fighting mainly by means of suicide vests, car bombs and improvised explosive devices -- all of them cheap, simple, and effective, indeed so effective that these techniques now comprise a kind of ready-made insurgency kit freely available on the Internet and spreading in popularity around the world, most obviously to Afghanistan, that land of few targets.

As I stand here, one of our two major political parties advocates the withdrawal -- gradual, or otherwise -- of American combat forces from Iraq and many in the other party are feeling the increasing urge to go along. As for the Bush administration's broader War on Terror, as the State Department detailed recently in its annual report on the subject, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has never been higher, nor more effective. True, al-Qaeda has not attacked again within the United States. They do not need to. They are alive and flourishing. Indeed, it might even be said that they are winning. For their goal, despite the rhetoric of the Bush administration, was not simply to kill Americans but, by challenging the United States in this spectacular fashion, to recruit great numbers to their cause and to move their insurgency into the heart of the Middle East. And all these things they have done.

How could such a thing have happened? In their choice of enemy, one might say that the terrorists of al-Qaeda had a great deal of dumb luck, for they attacked a country run by an administration that had a radical conception of the potency of power. At the heart of the principle of asymmetric warfare -- al-Qaeda's kind of warfare -- is the notion of using your opponents' power against him. How does a small group of insurgents without an army, or even heavy weapons, defeat the greatest conventional military force the world has ever known? How do you defeat such an army if you don't have an army? Well, you borrow your enemy's. And this is precisely what al-Qaeda did. Using the classic strategy of provocation, the group tried to tempt the superpower into its adopted homeland. The original strategy behind the 9/11 attacks -- apart from humbling the superpower and creating the greatest recruiting poster the world had ever seen -- was to lure the United States into a ground war in Afghanistan, where the one remaining superpower (like the Soviet Union before it) was to be trapped, stranded, and destroyed. It was to prepare for this war that Osama bin Laden arranged for the assassination, two days before 9/11 -- via bombs secreted in the video cameras of two terrorists posing as reporters -- of the Afghan Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Massood, who would have been the United States' most powerful ally.

Well aware of the Soviets' Afghanistan debacle -- after all, the U.S. had supplied most of the weapons that defeated the Soviets there -- the Bush administration tried to avoid a quagmire by sending plenty of air support, lots of cash, and, most important, very few troops, relying instead on its Afghan allies. But if bin Laden was disappointed in this, he would soon have a far more valuable gift: the invasion of Iraq, a country that, unlike Afghanistan, was at the heart of the Middle East and central to Arab concerns, and, what's more, a nation that sat squarely on the critical Sunni-Shia divide, a potential ignition switch for al-Qaeda's great dream of a regional civil war. It is on that precipice that we find ourselves teetering today.

Critical to this strange and unlikely history were the administration's peculiar ideas about power and its relation to reality -- and beneath that a familiar imperial attitude, if put forward in a strikingly crude and harsh form: "We're an empire now and when we act we create our own reality." Power, untrammeled by law or custom; power, unlimited by the so-called weapons of the weak, be they international institutions, courts, or terrorism -- power can remake reality. It is no accident that one of Karl Rove's heroes is President William McKinley, who stood at the apex of America's first imperial moment, and led the country into a glorious colonial adventure in the Philippines that was also meant to be the military equivalent of a stroll in the park and that, in the event, led to several years of bloody insurgency -- an insurgency, it bears noticing, that was only finally put down with the help of the extensive use of torture, most notably water-boarding, which has made its reappearance in the imperial battles of our own times.

If we are an empire now, as Mr. Rove says, perhaps we should add, as he might not, that we are also a democracy, and therein, Rhetoric graduates of 2007, lies the rub. A democratic empire, as even the Athenians discovered, is an odd beast, like one of those mythological creatures born equally of lion and bird, or man and horse. If one longs to invade Iraq to restore the empire's prestige, one must convince the democracy's people of the necessity of such a step. Herein lies the pathos of the famous weapons-of-mass-destruction issue, which has become a kind of synecdoche for the entire lying mess of the past few years. The center stage of our public life is now dominated by a simple melodrama: Bush wanted to invade Iraq; Bush told Americans that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; Iraq did not have such weapons. Therefore Bush lied, and the war was born of lies and deception.

I hesitate to use that most overused of rhetorical terms -- irony -- to describe the emergence of this narrative at the center of our national life, but nonetheless, and with apologies: It is ironic. The fact is that officials of the Bush administration did believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, though they vastly exaggerated the evidence they had to prove it and, even more, the threat that those weapons might have posed, had they been there. In doing this, the officials believed themselves to be "framing a guilty man"; that is, like cops planting a bit of evidence in the murderer's car, they believed their underlying case was true; they just needed to dramatize it a bit to make it clear and convincing to the public. What matter, once the tanks were rumbling through Baghdad and the war was won? Weapons would be found, surely; and if only a few were found, who would care? By then, the United States military would have created a new reality.

I have often had a daydream about this. I see a solitary Army private -- a cook perhaps, or a quartermaster -- breaking the padlock on some forgotten warehouse on an Iraqi military base, poking about and finding a few hundred, even a few thousand, old artillery shells, leaking chemicals. These shells -- forgotten, unusable -- might have dated from the time of the first Gulf War, when Iraq unquestionably possessed chemical munitions. (Indeed, in the 1980s, the United States had supplied targeting intelligence that helped the Iraqis use them effectively against the Iranians.) And though now they had been forgotten, leaking, unusable, still they would indeed be weapons of mass destruction -- to use the misleading and absurd construction that has headlined our age -- and my solitary cook or quartermaster would be a hero, for he would have, all unwittingly, "proved" the case.

My daydream could easily have come to pass. Why not? It is nigh unto miraculous that the Iraqi regime, even with the help of the United Nations, managed so thoroughly to destroy or remove its once existing stockpile. And if my private had found those leaky old shells what would have been changed thereby? Yes, the administration could have pointed to them in triumph and trumpeted the proven character of Saddam's threat. So much less embarrassing than the "weapons of mass destruction program related activities" that the administration still doggedly asserts were "discovered." But, in fact, the underlying calculus would have remained: that, in the months leading up to the war, the administration relentlessly exaggerated the threat Saddam posed to the United States and relentlessly understated the risk the United States would run in invading and occupying Iraq. And it would have remained true and incontestable that -- as the quaintly fact-bound British Foreign Secretary put it eight months before the war, in a secret British cabinet meeting made famous by the so-called Downing Street Memo -- "the case [for attacking Iraq] was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

Which is to say, the weapons were a rhetorical prop and, satisfying as it has been to see the administration beaten about the head with that prop, we forget this underlying fact at our peril. The issue was never whether the weapons were there or not; indeed, had the weapons really been the issue, why could the administration not let the UN inspectors take the time to find them (as, of course, they never would have)? The administration needed, wanted, had to have, the Iraq war. The weapons were but a symbol, the necessary casus belli, what Hitchcock called the Maguffin -- that glowing mysterious object in the suitcase in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction: that is, a satisfyingly concrete object on which to fasten a rhetorical or narrative end, in this case a war to restore American prestige, project its power, remake the Middle East.

The famous weapons were chosen to play this leading role for "bureaucratic reasons," as Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Secretary of Defense and until quite recently the unhappy president of the World Bank, once remarked to a lucky journalist. Had a handful of those weapons been found, the underlying truth would have remained: Saddam posed nowhere remotely near the threat to the United States that would have justified running the enormous metaphysical risk that a war of choice with Iraq posed. Of course, when you are focused on magical phrases like "preponderant power" and "the uni-polar moment," matters like numbers of troops at your disposal -- and the simple fact that the United States had too few to sustain a long-term occupation of a country the size of Iraq -- must seem mundane indeed.

Imperial Words and the Reality-Based Universe

I must apologize to you, Rhetoric Class of 2007. Ineluctably, uncontrollably, I find myself slipping back into the dull and unimaginative language of the reality-based community. It must grate a bit on your ears. After all, we live in a world in which the presumption that we were misled into war, that the Bush officials knew there were no weapons and touted them anyway, has supplanted the glowing, magical image of the weapons themselves. It is a presumption of great use to those regretful souls who once backed the war so fervently, not least a number of Democratic politicians we all could name, as well as many of my friends in the so-called liberal punditocracy who now need a suitable excuse for their own rashness, gullibility, and stupidity. For this, Bush's mendacity seems perfectly sized and ready to hand.

There is, however, full enough of that mendacity, without artificially adding to the stockpile. Indeed, all around us we've been hearing these last many months the sound of ice breaking, as the accumulated frozen scandals of this administration slowly crack open to reveal their queasy secrets. And yet the problem, of course, is that they are not secrets at all: One of the most painful principles of our age is that scandals are doomed to be revealed -- and to remain stinking there before us, unexcised, unpunished, unfinished.

If this Age of Rhetoric has a tragic symbol, then surely this is it: the frozen scandal, doomed to be revealed, and revealed, and revealed, in a never-ending torture familiar to the rock-bound Prometheus and his poor half-eaten liver. A full three years ago, the photographs from Abu Ghraib were broadcast by CBS on Sixty Minutes II and published by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker; nearly as far back I wrote a book entitled Torture and Truth, made up largely of Bush administration documents that detailed the decision to use "extreme interrogation techniques" or -- in the First President of Rhetoric's phrase -- "an alternative set of procedures" on prisoners in the War on Terror.

He used this phrase last September in a White House speech kicking off the 2006 midterm election campaign, at a time when accusing the Democrats of evidencing a continued softness on terror -- and a lamentable unwillingness to show the needed harshness in "interrogating terrorists" -- seemed a winning electoral strategy. And indeed Democrats seemed fully to agree, for they warily elected not to filibuster the Military Commissions Act of last October, which arguably made many of these "alternative sets of procedures" explicitly legal. And Democrats did win both houses of Congress, a victory perhaps owed in part to their refusal to block Bush's interrogation law. Who can say? What we can say is that if torture today remains a "scandal," a "crisis," it is a crisis in that same peculiar way that crime or AIDS or global warming are crises: that is, they are all things we have learned to live with.

Perhaps the commencement address to the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley is not the worst of places to call for a halt to this spinning merry-go-round. I know it will brand me forever a member of the reality-based community if I suggest that the one invaluable service the new Democratic Congress can provide all Americans is a clear accounting of how we came to find ourselves in this present time of war: an authorized version, as it were, which is, I know, the most pathetically retrograde of ideas.

This would require that people like Mr. Wolfowitz, Mr. Rumsfeld, and many others be called before a select, bipartisan committee of Congress to tell us what, in their view, really happened. I squirm with embarrassment putting forward such a pathetically unsophisticated notion, but failing at least the minimally authorized version that Congress could provide, we will find ourselves forever striving -- by chasing down byways like the revelation of the identity of Valerie Plame, or the question of whether or not George Tenet bolstered his slam dunk exclamation in the Oval Office with an accompanying Michael Jordan-like leap -- to understand how precisely decisions were made between September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq eighteen months later.

Don't worry, though, Rhetoric graduates: such a proposal has about it the dusty feel of past decades; it is as "reality-based" as can be and we are unlikely to see it in our time. What we are likely to see is the ongoing collapse of our first Rhetoric-Major President, who, with fewer than one American in three now willing to say they approve of the job he is doing, is seeing his power ebb by the day. Tempting as it is, I will urge you not to draw too many overarching conclusions from his fate. He has had, after all, a very long run -- and I say this with the wonder that perhaps can only come from having covered both the 2000 and 2004 election campaigns, from Florida, and the Iraq War.

I last visited that war in December, when Baghdad was cold and grey and I spent a good deal of time drawing black X's through the sources listed in my address book, finding them, one after another, either departed or dead. Baghdad seemed a sad and empty place, with even its customary traffic jams gone, and the periodic, resonating explosions attracting barely glances from those few Iraqis to be found on the streets.

How, in these "words in a time of war," can I convey to you the reality of that place at this time? Let me read to you a bit of an account from a young Iraqi woman of how that war has touched her and her family, drawn from a newsroom blog. The words may be terrible and hard to bear, but -- for those of you who have made such a determined effort to learn to read and understand -- this is the most reality I could find to tell you. This is what lies behind the headlines and the news reports and it is as it is.

"We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over...

"So we went, his mum, his other aunt and I...

"When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. ‘We identified him by the cell phone in his pants' pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We don't know what he looks like.'

"…We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side; complete bodies; on that side halves; and everywhere body parts.

"We were asked what we were looking for; ‘upper half' replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. ‘Over there.' We looked for our boy's broken body between tens of other boys' remains; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.

"Millennia later we found him, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony."

The foregoing were words from an Iraqi family, who find themselves as far as they can possibly be from the idea that, when they act, they create their own reality -- that they are, as Bush's Brain put it, "history's actors." The voices you heard come from history's objects and we must ponder who the subjects are, who exactly is acting upon them.

The car bomb that so changed their lives was not set by Americans; indeed, young Americans even now are dying to prevent such things. I have known a few of these young Americans. Perhaps you have as well, perhaps they are in the circles of your family or of your friends. I remember one of them, a young lieutenant, a beautiful young man with a puffy, sleepy face, looking at me when I asked whether or not he was scared when he went out on patrol -- this was October 2003, as the insurgency was exploding. I remember him smiling a moment and then saying with evident pity for a reporter's lack of understanding. "This is war. We shoot, they shoot. We shoot, they shoot. Some days they shoot better than we do." He was patient in his answer, smiling sleepily in his young beauty, and I could tell he regarded me as from another world, a man who could never understand the world in which he lived. Three days after our interview, an explosion near Fallujah killed him.

Contingency, accidents, the metaphysical ironies that seem to stitch history together like a lopsided quilt -- all these have no place in the imperial vision. A perception of one's self as "history's actor" leaves no place for them. But they exist and it is invariably others, closer to the ground, who see them, know them, and suffer their consequences.

You have chosen a path that will let you look beyond the rhetoric that you have studied and into the heart of those consequences. Of all people you have chosen to learn how to see the gaps and the loose stitches and the remnant threads. Ours is a grim age, this Age of Rhetoric, still infused with the remnant perfume of imperial dreams. You have made your study in a propitious time, oh graduates, and that bold choice may well bring you pain, for you have devoted yourselves to seeing what it is that stands before you. If clear sight were not so painful, many more would elect to have it. Today, you do not conclude but begin: today you commence. My blessings upon you, and my gratitude to you for training yourself to see. Reality, it seems, has caught up with you.

14 April 2007

Friday Night Lights

NBC flop could be a hit -- on HBO
Football drama 'Friday Night Lights' suffered partly because its Texas didn't sit well with viewers. (LA Times) April 14, 2007

Meghan Daum:
Wednesday marked the season finale of the television series "Friday Night Lights." For those of us who care about the show, which recently won a Peabody Award for excellence, the cliffhanger is whether the network will bring it back. Critics love it, but ratings have been wobbly. NBC reportedly has ordered six new scripts, but there's no guarantee that the series won't be stopped at its own 20-yard line.

It has battled merciless time slots — it was up against "Dancing With the Stars," then "American Idol" — and there's no getting around the fact that "Friday Night Lights" transports you into a milieu that many would-be viewers can't get excited about: high school football in small-town Texas.

Never mind that it's based on the acclaimed movie (directed by Peter Berg, who also created the show) that was based on a book by H.G. Bissinger that asked trenchant questions about the all-consuming role of football in many Texas high schools. And never mind that it handles the complexities of things like marriage and adolescence with more honesty and intelligence than old bourgie favorites like "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life." A lot of relatively liberal, urban people don't seem to understand that a show about relatively conservative, rural people can be just as sophisticated as a show in which people drive Priuses and live in Restoration Hardware homes.

The Texas thing is, evidently, a big problem. Last month in the online magazine Salon, critic Heather Havrilesky wrote about the striking originality of "Friday Night Lights" and deemed it "a rare and beautiful thing." Impassioned letter writers shared her enthusiasm, but among the dissenters, a notable portion dismissed the show simply because of geography.

"The less we celebrate the so-called values of Texas, even in fictional TV shows … the better off America will be," said one writer. Another intoned that "those of us living in America since 2000 have had more than enough of a fantasy land that focuses on Texans …. I don't care if this stuff is the return of William [expletive] Shakespeare."

I doubt that antipathy toward the Bush administration is the reason the fate of "Friday Night Lights" is hanging in the balance. It's more likely that it's the show's refusal to pander to common assumptions about the rural, working class. Yes, it's set on the barren, boarded-up plains and, yes, there are plenty of pregame prayer sessions, but the issues it tackles off the football field — race, class, addiction, mental illness — have just as much relevance to those who scoff at the cult of small-town sports as those in its clutches.

"Friday Night Lights" is really about living in an America whose "opportunities" are narrower than conventional patriotic wisdom would have us believe. In fictional Dillon, Texas (the movie and book were set in real-life Odessa), high school football is not just the center of community life, it's the only ticket out of town.

You won't find a lot of SAT prep courses or Kurt Cobain wannabes here. Instead, boys and their parents pin their hopes on capricious college recruiters, girls try to attach themselves to star players on the chance they can marry their way to better lives, and the coach copes with the fact that the morale of an entire town rests on his shoulders.

I'm not suggesting that gritty, realistic shows about economically and culturally disadvantaged communities can't find an audience. The success of series such as HBO's "The Wire" proves they can. But the urban underclasses, with their trappings of rap-influenced glamour and gangster bravado, have always made for hipper entertainment than stories about the rural working class. For all its edginess (and even though it's shot in ultra-cool Austin), "Friday Night Lights" isn't exactly hip. It doesn't feature cameo appearances by pop stars, and no one's haircut is going to set off a national craze.

This is just a guess, but if "Friday Night Lights" were on HBO or Showtime rather than NBC, I suspect the cachet of premium cable (and a dose of nudity and swearing) would cancel out the Texas jock stigma, and we'd be looking at a major cultural touchstone and probably even a hit. But to dismiss an extraordinary show just because it's on an ordinary network is as much a cop-out as refusing to watch it out of blue- state piety or on account of hating football. To its viewers, what's important is the nuance with which the show captures the universal experience of struggling to keep your act together.

You can say that about other TV shows, but in Dillon, the struggle doesn't come with an affluent sheen. Kids work menial after-school jobs, siblings dance in strip clubs and parents get deployed to Iraq. Is that "a fantasy land that focuses on Texans"? Only if you're living in another fantasy land altogether.
Well said!

12 March 2007

Beyond the Gonzales 8

Excerpts from Paul Kruman's Department of Injustice:

. . . . it’s becoming clear that the politicization of the Justice Department was a key component of the Bush administration’s attempt to create a permanent Republican lock on power.

. . . . For now, the nation’s focus is on the eight federal prosecutors fired by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In January, Mr. Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee, under oath, that he “would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney for political reasons.” But it’s already clear that he did indeed dismiss all eight prosecutors for political reasons — some because they wouldn’t use their offices to provide electoral help to the G.O.P., and the others probably because they refused to soft-pedal investigations of corrupt Republicans.

In the last few days we’ve also learned that Republican members of Congress called prosecutors to pressure them on politically charged cases, even though doing so seems unethical and possibly illegal.

The bigger scandal, however, almost surely involves prosecutors still in office. . . . But statistical evidence suggests that many other prosecutors decided to protect their jobs or further their careers by doing what the administration wanted them to do: harass Democrats while turning a blind eye to Republican malfeasance.

Donald Shields and John Cragan, two professors of communication, have compiled a database of investigations and/or indictments of candidates and elected officials by U.S. attorneys since the Bush administration came to power. Of the 375 cases they identified, 10 involved independents, 67 involved Republicans, and 298 involved Democrats. The main source of this partisan tilt was a huge disparity in investigations of local politicians, in which Democrats were seven times as likely as Republicans to face Justice Department scrutiny.

How can this have been happening without a national uproar? The authors explain:
We believe that this tremendous disparity is politically motivated and it occurs because the local (non-statewide and non-Congressional) investigations occur under the radar of a diligent national press. Each instance is treated by a local beat reporter as an isolated case that is only of local interest.
And let’s not forget that Karl Rove’s candidates have a history of benefiting from conveniently timed federal investigations. Last year Molly Ivins reminded her readers of a curious pattern during Mr. Rove’s time in Texas:
In election years, there always seemed to be an F.B.I. investigation of some sitting Democrat either announced or leaked to the press. After the election was over, the allegations often vanished.
. . . . Before the midterm election, I wrote that what the election was really about could be summed up in two words: subpoena power. Well, the Democrats now have that power, and the hearings on the prosecutor purge look like the shape of things to come.

In the months ahead, we’ll hear a lot about what’s really been going on these past six years. And I predict that we’ll learn about abuses of power that would have made Richard Nixon green with envy.